October 27th, 2012 at 7:19 am

Dick Tracy Returns: 12 & 13

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(While I’m climbing the last few feet out of deadline hell, I’ll spend a few days here reprinting a serialized feature that originally appeared on another blog. Though it’s movie-related – B movie, in fact – it also has a comics angle. So enjoy, if you’re of a mind to. Original blogging will continue as soon as I come up for air.)

Dude Stark and his flunkies have kidnapped an injured gang member to keep him from squealing! Dick Tracy and Steve Lockwood are in hot pursuit of the Starks’ stolen ambulance! Tracy leaps into the Stark vehicle and struggles with an armed flunky! The flunky’s gun goes off, killing Dude at the wheel! The now-driverless ambulance shoots down an embankment in a sickening crash! Is this finally the end of Dick Tracy?

Well, it would be if Tracy hadn’t bugged out of the ambulance right before it took the dive. After rolling down yet another so-smooth-you’d-swear-it-had-been-raked-by-a-film-crew sandy incline, he brushes himself off and watches grimly as the ambulance bursts into flames. Steve rushes up, asking, “Were they killed?” “Yes, all of them,” our hero replies – and he would know; as far as the Starks are concerned, Dick Tracy is the friggin’ Angel of Death.

Unlike the chapters that followed the deaths of Kid and Trigger, this episode doesn’t spend any time on the Starks’ grieving process (i.e., Pa snarling while the boys look bummed out). Apparently, Pa Stark’s gotten pretty blasé about burying his worthless offspring by now. But that doesn’t mean we can’t say goodbye to Jack Roberts, who played the ill-fated Dude.

Roberts, left above, was a Canadian actor whose Hollywood career began just two years before his turn as the Stark gang’s nattiest (and whiniest) member. The bulk of his movie work took place during the 1940s, in small featured roles and bit parts. He appeared in two other Republic serials – SOS Coast Guard and Dick Tracy’s G-Men, playing support to Ralph Byrd in each. Though he landed tiny roles in Sorrowful Jones, The Great Gatsby, Ace in the Hole and other well-regarded films, he never managed to log any truly memorable performances. In fact, due to the continued cult interest in serials, Dude Stark is almost certainly the one role for which he’s likely to be remembered. So let’s all tip our jauntily-angled fedoras to Jack’s memory.

Back at the office, Gwen reminds Tracy that he’s promised one Commander Mason to attend a demonstration of the Navy’s new torpedo speedboat. Tracy’s a little reluctant to step away from his current investigation – not yet having succeeded in massacring the entire Stark family, and all – but he says he “owes” the commander (we don’t know why, and maybe we don’t want to), so the whole gang decides to make a party of it and they head for the docks.

At said docks, Pa Stark and a gentleman named Kruger are watching one of the torpedo speedboats zipping through the waves.

“They’re the fastest Naval craft afloat,” says Kruger, “and my government is willing to spend plenty to secure one.” Yes, Pa and the boys have scored another sweet gig betraying their country for fast cash. Kruger continues: “I can’t understand how you’re going to manage it.”

“Listen, Kruger,” snarls Pa, “my sons and I have handled bigger jobs than this.” Sure, just ask our satisfied customers like Zarkoff. Or Baron Kruger. Or Carston. Or…just take my word for it, okay?

Though Kruger doesn’t have much to do in this chapter, he’s definitely worth a moment of our time. Kruger is played by this guy, standing to the right of Edgar Rice Burroughs:

J.P. McGowan, an actor whose resume stretches back to 1910. An Australian native who fought in the Boer War, McGowan parlayed his good looks and horsemanship into a mountain of two-fisted roles throughout the silent era, including three separate outings as Western hero “Whispering Smith”:

He moved into supporting parts during the 1930s, logging an estimated total of over 200 movie roles – a figure rivaled by the number of movies he directed simultaneous with his acting career. He was married for a time to silent serial queen Helen Holmes, with whom he appeared in her legendary 1914 series The Hazards of Helen. And from his retirement from the screen in the late ‘30s until 1951 (he died in ’52), he served as executive secretary of the Screen Directors Guild. A real film pioneer, and one hell of an interesting guy.

Meanwhile, Tracy and his posse are enjoying the boat show courtesy of a wide-screen picture tube mounted on the side of the Dayton Television Corporation’s remote truck, as seen in the latest installment of our Crappy Screengrab Theater, above. (It isn’t true TV, Mr. Dayton tells the young wonks in the audience, more of a telescope image thrown up on a television screen so it doesn’t require anyzzzzzzzz. Oh. Sorry. Anyway, it lets them see the action four miles away without using a camera, got it?) On the screen they see the high-powered torpedo boat take out a target vessel with one shot, and all the grownups figure it’s Miller Time.

What they didn’t see was Champ and Slasher Stark in a third boat, sporting cute little Popeye hats and monkeying around with prop fishing poles. They also miss Slasher hauling out a big-ass gas gun and firing a shell into the torpedo boat. The Starks climb into the torpedo boat, toss the limp forms of the sailors into the water and take off across the waves. Being the fastest Naval craft afloat and all that, they make a quick and effective getaway.

Junior sees the gas wafting around and calls the G-mens’ attention to it. They, ahem, commandeer a nearby motorboat and race out to the Starks’ abandoned fishing boat. There’s nothing left but a couple of unlucky sailors floating face-down and a used gas gun – which Tracy takes back to the lab as evidence.

A little wave of the Tracy laboratory wand later, he discovers that the gas used on the sailors was provided by the Draper Gas Company. And one phone call to the Dayton Television Corporation later, Tracy and Steve have Mr. Dayton’s telescope-boob tube hybrid focused on the window of the Draper offices. On their silent screen they see Kruger and Mr. Draper pointing to a map of the M Street Dock, which isn’t nearly as neatly drawn as Pa Stark’s anal little crime diagrams:

The TV image is silent, but thanks to the miracle of talking pictures, we can hear Kruger instructing Draper to have more gas delivered to the dock.

Tracy recognizes Kruger as an “international spy” and he and Steve lay rubber getting to the Draper office, but by the time they arrive Kruger has already left. Mr. Draper tries to stall, but once Tracy mentions “M Street Dock,” Draper folds like an overcooked noodle. He confesses that he’s been ordered to bring more poison gas shells to the Dock – and Tracy and Steve are on the move.

At the dock, Tracy and Steve get the drop on Slasher and a pair of flunkies. While Tracy stands around snapping out orders and looking butch –

.

Champ is creeping out through a trap door in the dock and tippy toeing around behind the Feds. (That’s Champ in mid-tippy, above right.) Champ climbs onto a towering pile of lumber atop which a handy crate is perched and drops said box on Tracy’s head. And off we go into another bone-crunching brawl. While Tracy manages to hold his own with Champ – and actually knocks the big guy on his keister, for a change – Slasher manages to disarm Steve. Before you know it, Steve’s out cold on the dock and all four thugs have piled on our favorite G-man.

Tracy and one of the flunkies take a header off the dock and into the harbor. There’s a brief and frantic slapfight in the water that appears to have been choreographed by Joe Besser – and then Tracy spoils the atmosphere of seaside frolic by shoving his opponent under and drowning the son of a bitch. In no mood to be murdered next, the Starks grab a big weighted fishing net and heave it down at the water-treading Fed…

And down he goes, enveloped in its hempen mesh, struggling helplessly as he sinks to a watery grave…

Except he doesn’t. Proving that tough guys are too secure to be embarrassed by lame cliffhanger resolutions, Tracy just slips the net off his head and swims back to the surface. Duh. By this time, the Starks have vanished in the torpedo speedboat again, so there’s nothing left to do but wake Steve up from his knuckle-induced coma and head back to the office.

And we’re just in time for a visit from FBI Chief Clive Anderson, who’s come out from Washington to shoot the breeze and politely hint that maybe it’s time to wrap up the Stark case before we run out of chapters. You youngsters who ponied up your nickels to watch the first Tracy serial the year before may remember Anderson as played by distinguished former silent matinee idol Francis X. Bushman:

But here Anderson’s played by actor James Blaine –

a burly no-nonsense actor who worked his way up from stage roles in the ‘20s to a decade-long string of uncredited featured roles in serials, Westerns and mysteries. He landed the occasional bit part in more prestigious movies like After the Thin Man, Parnell and High Sierra, but most of his career was spent as a uniformed cop, prison guard or plainclothes policeman in support of Charlie Chan, Mr. Moto, the Lone Wolf, Boston Blackie, and other popular series detectives.

Besides prodding Tracy to hurry up and knock off/bring to justice the rest of the Starks, Anderson is also there to ask for a little background on the case…which means that we’ve been lulled into sitting down for another recap chapter. This one’s devoted to the wasted life of young agent Ron Merton, as detailed in our coverage of Chapter One, and it’s just as depressing the second time around. Just as Anderson and the audience are ready to open a vein, Gwen takes a phone call and tells Tracy that one Dr. Strobach at Receiving Hospital has an injured man with information about the torpedo boat.

The patient is Kruger, who tells Tracy that his government had decided to cancel the deal with the Starks after they’d already stolen the torpedo boat. Given the choice of leaving town or telling the Starks that he wouldn’t be able to deliver the 50 grand they’d expected, Kruger should have made a beeline to the Greyhound station. Instead, he tried to come clean and Pa and the boys filled the reneging bastard full of lead. With his last breath he manages to tell Tracy that the torpedo boat’s being held at a derelict vessel in Red Hook Channel.

Tracy and Steve board the derelict and decide to split up and look around. “You check the forward deck,” says Tracy, “I’ll go aft.” Being a government employee, Steve has plenty of experience with his superiors going aft, and wanders off. And wouldn’t you know it, aft is exactly where Champ and Slasher – still wearing their snappy little sailor caps – are readying the torpedo boat and its explosive cargo for a little cruise. As they head out into the channel, Tracy’s stunt man makes an impressive leap aboard, and the fight is on.

Champ is knocked overboard and Slasher pulls one of his pet knives. As he and Tracy struggle, the boat runs wild and heads straight for the pier. The torpedos explode on contact, transforming the boat and everything aboard into flying shards of flotsam…

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