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Both Dick Tracy and Boris Karloff ended their associations with RKO Studios with the fast-paced B-movie, Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome (1947). Their leave-taking was hardly a sign of failure -- the movie was widely considered the best film to feature the famed comic-strip detective until Warren Beatty shot his big-budget version in 1990. But RKO was finding their detective film series increasingly less profitable and had ended the Falcon films starring Tom Conway the year before. And horror was fading, too -- until it came back with the UFO and atomic war scares of the '50s.
Dick Tracy made his debut in 1931 when, after a decade of rejection letters, commercial artist Chester Gould finally sold a comic strip idea to the Chicago Tribune syndicate. He originally called the character "Plainclothes Tracy," until the syndicate's head, Captain Joseph Medill Patterson, suggested giving him a real first name derived from the slang word for "detective." Dick Tracy was one of the first comic strips to deal with the war against organized crime and arrived at a time when it seemed that the criminals were winning. In addition, it was the first comic strip to feature brutal, realistic violence. It caught on quickly, eventually being picked up by 800 newspapers and reaching an estimated 100 million readers.
With numbers like that, Tracy was a natural for the movies. But given the low regard in which comics were held, he only appeared in low-budget productions starting with four serials at Republic Pictures from 1936-41. For the lead, the studio cast Ralph Byrd, a young actor just starting out in films whose strong features and jet-black hair gave him an uncanny resemblance to the character. Tracy was then off the screen until 1946, when RKO picked up the rights for a series of four low-budget features. Byrd had been building a solid reputation as a character actor since first playing Tracy, when a car accident sidelined his career for a few years. Instead, RKO cast Morgan Conway, a young contract player, in their first two Tracy films, Dick Tracy (1945) and Dick Tracy vs. Cueball (1946). In an effort to improve the series, the studio dropped Conway and convinced Byrd, now fully recovered, to return to his most famous role. He would only make two more Tracy films, Dick Tracy's Dilemma and Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome (both 1947), before the studio pulled the plug.
RKO's Dick Tracy films kept many ideas from the original comics, including Tracy's romance with Tess Truehart and his fast-talking sidekick (In the film the character was named Pat Patton, Tracy's boss in the comic strip, rather than his traditional partner, Sam Catchem). As often happens in low-budget films, the series provided a starting point for actors just starting their careers (Jennifer Jones had made her second screen appearance in Republic's third Tracy serial, Dick Tracy's G-Men, in 1939). In the first three films, Tess was played by Anne Jeffreys, who would achieve stardom on Broadway and in the television series Topper. Future film noir stars Mike Mazurki and Jane Greer were in RKO's first Tracy film. The final entry featured Lex Barker, just two years before he took over the role of Tarzan from Johnny Weissmuller, and Robert Clarke, who would go on to cult fame as the star of such low-budget horror films as The Man From Planet X (1951) and The Astounding She-Monster (1957).
But even though Byrd played the hero, the film's real star was Boris Karloff. Karloff had done outstanding work at RKO, where he starred in The Body Snatcher (1945), Isle of the Dead (1945) and Bedlam (1946) for producer Val Lewton, whose low-key, moody horror films are now considered classics. Lewton had moved on from horror films, however, and Karloff still owed the studio one film. So they used him to bolster their B-movie detective series. Although it may have seemed a come down, Karloff gave his all to the role, developing a strong characterization as the toothpick chewing, low-class crook who uses sleeping gas to pull off a series of bank heists. The writers even inserted a joke about their recognizable star when Patton quips, "If I didn't know better, I'd think he was Boris Karloff."
At least Karloff could draw comfort from the chance to work with some old friends. Stage star Jason Robards, Sr. (the father of Jason Robards, Jr.) had worked with him on Isle of the Dead, while beautiful Anne Gwynne, who took over the role of Tess Truehart in this film, had been the leading lady in Black Friday (1940) and House of Frankenstein (1944). In addition, he proved his continuing star status when he was singled out in all of the reviews and even given top billing over Byrd for the film's British release (where the film was re-titled Dick Tracy's Amazing Adventure).
Although Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome marked the end of the road for the detective at RKO, it was hardly his end in the entertainment media. Byrd would reclaim the role for a short-lived television series in 1950. Unfortunately, he died of a heart attack a few weeks after completing production on the show's first season. Since then, Tracy has returned as the star of two television cartoon series and Warren Beatty's big-budget 1990 version.
Producer: Herman Schlom
Director: John Rawlins
Screenplay: Robertson White, Eric Taylor
Based on a story by William H. Graffis and Robert E. Kent, from the comic strip by Chester Gould
Cinematography: Frank Redman
Art Direction: Albert S. D'Agostino, Walter E. Keller
Music: Paul Sawtell
Cast: Boris Karloff (Gruesome), Ralph Byrd (Dick Tracy), Anne Gwynne (Tess Truehart), Lyle Latell (Pat Patton), Skelton Knaggs (X-Ray), Joseph Crehan (Chief Brandon), Jason Robards, Sr. (Mr. Fax), Lex Barker (City Hospital Driver), Robert Clarke (Fred).
by Frank Miller