November 18th, 2012 at 10:19 pm

Dick Tracy Returns: Ep. 15

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(While climbing the last few feet out of deadline hell, I’ve been 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. Deadline time is over now, so original blogging will commence right away.)

Pa Stark has kidnapped Tracy and Junior and tricked the other G-men into charging a house that’s been rigged with a time bomb! As the house explodes, Tracy wheels on Pa, who’s pointing a gun at him! A shot rings out, and our hero’s as dead as an ex-parrot!

Oh, wait: That wasn’t the sound of Pa shooting Tracy, after all. We obviously weren’t paying attention in the last chapter. Let’s take a look at what we missed, now made clear through the miracle of cheating editing:

It turns out that Junior managed to reach the other G-men just in time to stop them from entering the doomed house. Attaboy, Junior! Useful at last, and after only 14 chapters! And that gunshot? It wasn’t Tracy getting shot at all. Remember that sling he’s been wearing since he was winged in the previous chapter? He’s had a pistol hidden in there all this time, and he’s the one doing the shooting, blowing Pa’s gun right out of his hand. You gotta get up pretty early to put one over on the old Dickster.

Unfortunately, Champ Stark has already switched back from Daylight Saving Time, and he steps into the room and knocks Tracy cold just as Dick’s about to haul Pa to the calaboose. A quick glance out the window reveals Junior and a heavily armed posse of G-men hauling ass in their direction, so the Starks grab Tracy’s limp carcass and zoom the hell out of there in their convertible Mobmobile after Pa leaves a hastily-scrawled note for the Feds.

Back at the FBI office, we get a look at Pa’s note: “If you want Tracy back alive – lay off for twenty-four hours.” That doesn’t faze FBI Chief Anderson, who makes a little speech about how Tracy would understand getting thrown under the bus for the greater good, and then orders Steve Lockwood to broadcast a description of the Starks’ car to all radio stations. Lockwood replies that he never saw the car, and for a moment it looks as though Tracy’s going to be spared getting turned into a martyr to Anderson’s fanatical devotion to duty. But then Junior pipes up with not only the make and model of the car, but the license plate number as well. Tracy is surely doomed now, so attaboy again, Junior.

And while the G-men are busy transmitting Dick Tracy’s death warrant across the airwaves, let’s pause for a moment to acknowledge the man behind Pa Stark’s last surviving son, Champ, actor John Merton:

Merton, above right, was born Myrtland LaVarre in 1901 to a family of overachievers who declared him the black sheep when he decided to go into acting. Taking roles with different stock troupes, he worked on East Coast stages during the early ‘20s, finally making his way to Long Island’s Astoria Pictures studio – where he landed his first small film roles in a pair of comedies at the very end of the silent era. Getting a taste for the camera, he moved his family to California, and by 1933 he was landing bit parts here and there, including a blink-or-you’ll-miss-it part in Laurel & Hardy’s Sons of the Desert and a brief appearance in the Buck Jones serial The Red Rider.  By the mid-‘30s he was working steady. With his powerful frame and square-jawed mug, he was a natural for cops, bad guys and soldiers, and he spent the next 25 years slinging lead and talking tough with a who’s who of cowboy heroes.

Though frequently cast as a thug, Merton rarely played a brainless one. Clearly a complex man, he was described by those who knew him as both a hard-partying rounder and a thoughtful gentleman. While working constantly in the movies, he continued to perform with a local theater company, and even those decades of playing hardcases in the B’s were dotted with small parts for such A directors as W.S. Van Dyke, Raoul Walsh, James Whale, Edward Dmytryk, William Dieterle and Fritz Lang. He was a favorite of Cecil B. Demille, who cast him in small but noticeable parts in five major films from 1934 to 1956. He died in 1959, working right up to the end and looking tougher than hell every step of the way.

Anyway, despite the FBI’s best efforts, Tracy is still alive. And, luckily for him, Pa’s too busy making his getaway to tune in to his favorite daytime soap The Romance of Helen Trent (“who, when life mocks her, breaks her hopes, dashes her against the rocks of despair…”) Otherwise, he might hear the detailed description of the getaway car that’s blanketing the airwaves. One person who does hear it is a hayseed filling station owner who takes time away from improving his mind with the latest issue of Master Detective to make note of the license number…

and, when the car itself passes by shortly after, said hayseed wastes no time calling in the tip to G-man HQ. Chief Anderson takes time out from staring down Gwen’s blouse to send Lockwood and the boys to check it out. Told that the road the Starks were on leads to either Bonnyville or an old rock quarry, Steve makes a judgment call (“If I were a Republic villain, what’s the most picturesque location I’d choose for the final episode?”) and the FBI caravan hits the road.

At the rock quarry (attaboy, Steve!), Pa’s whipping what’s left of his gang into action. He sends one thug off to keep watch…another to get the plane ready – yes, Pa apparently has an endless supply of planes and cars at his disposal; it must be the insurance payments that turned him to crime…he sets Champ to piling up bags of loot…and sends another pair of henchmen to truss Tracy up like a Christmas turkey.

Yes, it’s an efficiency expert’s dream at the old rock quarry, all the yeggs and goons and assorted cutthroats beavering happily away like Santa’s elves – and then three cars bulging at the seams with heavily armed G-men pull up and spoil Pa’s little control-freak idyll. Before you know it, hot lead is flying everywhere. And Tracy, realizing that there’s still a chance to put the rest of the Stark family six feet under and make pee-pee on their graves, does a Houdini on his ropes and joins the battle. He piles into them like the Tasmanian Devil: grabbing Champ from behind and plugging a thug with Champ’s gun, pounding hell out of Champ and rolling him down a flight of stairs, knocking Pa on his ass, and then swinging like Tarzan on the world’s longest rope to the ground, where he joins his fellow Feds.

What a man.

The crooks have the high ground on the quarry’s big wooden tower, but Tracy isn’t about to give up when there are Starks to slaughter. He directs the G-men to pile into three dump trucks, raise the beds as shields, and reverse toward the tower with guns blazing. It’s a damn good plan, and Pa and his son stare down at the trucks with WTF expressions until Champ comes up with a plan of his own: blow the G-men out of their improvised tanks with hand grenades. That would be a damn good plan, too, except for the part where Tracy wounds Champ just as he pulls the pin on the first pineapple

and, seconds after Champ drops the armed grenade,

Champ go boom.

Butterfingers. (Also, jelly brains and puree everything else.)

And, with his entire gang either shot full of holes or blown to pieces, Pa makes his last move. Waving the white flag (okay, it’s a handkerchief, and considering that it’s Pa’s, it’s probably not all that white either), he descends from the tower and begins to raise his hands as Tracy and his crew and his crew look on smugly.

Imagine their surprise when it turns out that Pa was actually Spider-Man all along:

Wait, those aren’t web shooters – they’re vials of nitro! And Pa’s desperate enough to blow the lot of them up unless the FBI agents drop their guns and let him go. And for good measure, he’s taking Tracy along with him. So it’s off to that getaway plane he’d ordered up earlier, with Tracy reluctantly at the controls…

But what Pa hasn’t noticed is the parachute that’s been left in the pilot’s seat. As they soar through the clouds, Tracy surreptitiously slips into the ‘chute and, with a trademark Ralph Byrd smirk, dips one wing just enough for him to roll out into space and hit the silk. As it dawns on Pa that he’s not only about to crash into a hillside but about to crash into a hillside WITH NITROGLYCERINE STRAPPED TO HIS BODY,  he pauses to contemplate just how differently his life might have gone had he stuck with that Bible salesman gig back in 1913:

And then, Boom.

Attaboy, Dick.

So, with the entire Stark clan wiped off the face of the earth, it’s Miller Time for Tracy and his gang. Chilling at a backyard soiree, Tracy and Gwen are watching Junior and McGurk playing a bizarre game involving kites that drop food with parachutes. Steve enters wearing natty white flannels and bearing hot news from Chief Anderson: Thanks to his good work bringing the gang to justice (the wrecked cars, smashed planes, crashed train, exploded dam and blasted pier and blighted landscape and shattered lives notwithstanding), Tracy has been promoted to Inspector of the Entire West Coast. Huzzah!

And McGurk gets a creamy slice of pie parachuted right into his kisser, giving everybody one last cruel laugh at the lamebrain – so all’s right with the world. Thanks for sharing your Saturday afternoons with us, kids!

Republic would make two more Tracy serials and all of them would be ripsnorting hits, but Dick Tracy Returns was the best of the lot. For all the fun we’ve had with it, its crime procedural plot was remarkably straightforward and admirably short on the preposterous, its gimmick of whittling down the Stark family a clever means of raising its crime-of-the-week format above the typical serial template. Thanks to its colorful cast of B movie workhorses, ambitious use of location shooting and the sharp and inventive direction by William Witney and John English, it zips along like a pulp time capsule on steroids.

But more than anyone else, it’s these two guys who keep the whole thing humming. The serials, for all their low-budget ways, had their share of powerhouse performers; but none of them – no Buster Crabbe or Warren Hull, no Roy Barcroft or Eduardo Ciannelli, could have bettered what Byrd and Middleton put on the screen. Ralph Byrd’s Tracy was the ultimate ‘30s good guy: alternately amiable as a scout master and deadly as a snake, he does the best slow burn this side of Edgar Kennedy and registers a wide-eyed combo of fear and alarm like no other actor in the business; even seated behind a desk he always looks spring-loaded and ready for action. As Stark, Middleton is superb. His foul-tempered white-trash gangster prowls through every scene like a walking cancer, intimidating everyone around him with his pickax features and a voice that rides your nerves like a rusty gate. Each is dynamic in his own way, and their scenes together throw sparks off the screen.

A couple of acknowledgments are in order before we put away this final chapter. – I dug up a good supply of studio stills, posters and lobby cards to keep readers’ eyes from bleeding from non-stop exposure to my own stock of crappy screengrabs, and it wasn’t until almost the end of this series that I realized that some of the shots I’d used weren’t stock stills; they were screengrabs by one “Stony Brooke” who, it turns out, did his own chapter-by-chapter takedown of Dick Tracy Returns on the In the Balcony site back in 2009. My thanks and apologies to “Stony” for the pix, and I recommend his entertaining version to anyone interested in snarking the cliffhangers.

Finally, a tip of the Tracy fedora to Ivan G. Shreve, whose first-class classic movie blog Thrilling Days of Yesteryear inspired this project in the first place. Ivan’s a talented and funny writer, and he does this kind of thing better than any of us. Thanks, Ivan!

This has been fun, and don’t be surprised if we join the matinee boys and girls for another walk down chapterplay lane someday soon. Until then, you kids keep your powder dry.

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