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Dick Tracy's Dilemma

Dick Tracy's Dilemma(1947)

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teaser Dick Tracy's Dilemma (1947)

RKO Pictures had considerable success in the late 1930s and early 1940s with its series of B-movies featuring British detectives The Saint (1938-1941) and The Falcon (1941-1946). To expand its roster of detectives (and perhaps to highlight an American gumshoe for a change), RKO acquired the film rights to that illustrious comic strip crime-buster, Dick Tracy. The strip, created by Chester Gould and first syndicated by the Chicago Tribune in 1931, was one of the most popular and long-running on the comics page. Dick Tracy featured wild exaggerations of criminal types, with underworld-style nicknames explaining their obvious physical deformities: Flattop, Littleface Finney, B.B. Eyes, Pruneface, Gruesome, among many others. Although grotesquely exaggerated, Gould's strip played for keeps; it was realistic in depicting police procedure and could be brutally violent - characters bled real blood and once killed, they stayed dead. The strip had a wide adult readership and was soon adapted to both radio and film. By the time RKO acquired the rights, the lantern-jawed detective had already appeared in four Republic serials, all of them starring Ralph Byrd in the lead: Dick Tracy (1937), Dick Tracy Returns (1938), Dick Tracy's G-Men (1939), and Dick Tracy vs. Crime, Inc. (1941).

RKO assigned producer Herman Schlom to the Dick Tracy films a logical choice, as Schlom had experience in producing the Gildersleeve series (1942-1944) based on Harold Peary's hit radio character, as well as serving as associate producer on a previous film based on a popular comic strip character: Li'l Abner (1940).

The first two movies in the RKO series, Dick Tracy (1945) and Dick Tracy vs. Cueball (1946) both starred contract player Morgan Conway. Conway received some glowing notices (and approval from Gould), but RKO did not renew the actor's contract after these outings. Ralph Byrd had been sidelined by an auto accident, but was fully recovered when RKO recruited him for the third film in the series. Dick Tracy's Dilemma features a plot and characters worthy of the Gould strip. Steve Michel (Jack Lambert) and a couple of other thugs hijack a valuable shipment of furs, but botch the job by killing a night watchman. Michel is more commonly known as The Claw because of the sharp appendage he wears in place of his missing hand. Because of the murder, police detective Dick Tracy (Ralph Byrd) is called to the scene. Tracy investigates the higher-ups who may have ordered the robbery. He is helped by his assistant Pat Patton (Lyle Latell) and by colorful characters like the flamboyant Vitamin Flintheart (Ian Keith) and "Sightless" (Jimmy Conlin), a police informant who hangs out in front of the seedy club, the Blinking Skull. The Claw dispatches more victims in a gruesome manner before Tracy can unravel the bigger picture and the larger forces at work. The finale, in which The Claw's weapon of choice provides his own undoing, is both horrific and comic in the best tradition of Gould's unconventional strip.

Writing in Variety, "Brog" said that "Thrills are backed up with good budget production values by Herman Schlom and it's all aimed at satisfying demands of the Tracy fans as well as filling support bookings." Perhaps not quite aware of actor Byrd's pedigree as the character, this reviewer terms him only "okay... with enough resemblance to the fictional character to carry off the role." He also writes that "Jack Lambert gives expert study in his role as The Claw, [a] grotesque character right out of a Chester Gould strip."

The follow-up to Dick Tracy's Dilemma was Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome (1947), the fourth and last entry in the RKO series. It had the considerable advantage of star power over its predecessors; Boris Karloff was cast as Gruesome. With the RKO Tracy films wrapped up, producer Schlom proceeded to turn out dozens of B-Westerns for the studio, most often featuring Tim Holt as star. As for Dick Tracy, the character next made the move to television, and Ralph Byrd essayed the role a final time on ABC's Dick Tracy. The program ran for 39 episodes in the 1950-1951 season. Byrd may well have played Dick Tracy in further adventures had he not died unexpectedly, of a heart attack, on August 18, 1952 at age forty-three.

Producer: Herman Schlom
Director: John Rawlins
Screenplay: Robert Stephen Brode, based on the comic strip by Chester Gould
Cinematography: Frank Redman
Film Editing: Marvin Coil
Art Direction: Lucius O. Croxton, Albert S. D'Agostino
Set Decoration: Darrell Silvera
Music: Paul Sawtell
Makeup: Gordon Bau
Cast: Ralph Byrd (Dick Tracy), Lyle Latell (Pat Patton), Kay Christopher (Tess Trueheart), Jack Lambert (Steve Michel, aka The Claw), Ian Keith (Vitamin Flintheart), Bernadene Hayes (Longshot Lillie), Jimmy Conlin (Sightless), Wade Crosby (Jigger).

by John M. Miller

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