Dick Tracy Special
As the classic Top 40 hit "Dick Tracy" by The Chants (Verve Records, 1961) plays in the background, Maltin details the history of Chester Gould's comic strip (1931-1977) and the many adaptations, parodies, and pop culture spin-offs that emerged in later decades. Particular attention is paid to the film adaptations, of course, including the Republic serials starring Ralph Byrd and the later RKO features with Byrd and Morgan Conway. Generous helpings of clips are shown from the serials Dick Tracy (1937) and Dick Tracy Returns (1938), as well as the features Dick Tracy: Detective (1945) (starring Conway) and Dick Tracy's Dilemma (1947). Maltin goes on to describe the little-known Dick Tracy cartoon series for TV by UPA Productions, and even shows clips from an unaired live-action TV pilot made in 1967 (following the success of the 1966 Batman series).
Maltin's history of the character is a buildup to a series of clips from Warren Beatty's big-budget film Dick Tracy and the main feature of the special, a one-on-one interview with Tracy himself (as played by Beatty). Beatty is cannily self-deprecating in the interview; when Maltin asks "Tracy" to pick his favorite among the actors who have played him in these "biopics," the response is measured: "Beatty was, uh... he was fine. He was no Ralph Byrd, I mean, or Morgan Conway for that matter, but I will say that the man... he looked surprisingly like me." Amusingly, "Tracy" also remarks that the Beatty movie suffered because "the scenery is a little phony. Now whether that was intentional or not I really couldn't say..." (Supporters as well as detractors of the 1990 adaptation gave high marks to the production design of the movie, which emphasized bright, primary colors and stylized sets). Maltin even brings up a radio performance from 1945 called "Dick Tracy in B-Flat." This special show for The Armed Forces Radio Service featured an all-star cast which included Judy Garland, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope and Jimmy Durante, and audio clips from the show are featured.
The yellow-clad flatfoot also discusses with Maltin his relationships, his crime-fighting inventions, and even his amusement at Al Capp's 1942 "Fearless Fosdick" lampoon in the comic strip Li'l Abner -- talk about obscure references! Beatty reveals a prime motivation for the Dick Tracy Special when Tracy tells Maltin, "If he (Beatty) did another movie about me, I would take off my hat to him. Or tip it at least." Beatty has never made a secret of the fact that he'd like to return to the character in another feature, but (as of 2012) it has not yet happened. As widely reported in the mainstream press, Beatty returned to the Tracy role in this special in part to keep the rights to the character. On March 25, 2011, the Los Angeles Times reported that the "Tribune Co. argued that Beatty was required to produce another Tracy television or movie project to retain the rights before a use-it-or-lose-it deadline that Tribune Media Services had established two years earlier. Beatty countered that after his request to extend the rights to 2013 was denied, he began work on a Tracy special before the deadline." A federal judge in L.A. ruled that the actor still owns the rights.
No matter that the Dick Tracy Special was produced in part for legal reasons. In an era when major studios and rights holders often prefer to ignore the original creators and pop culture histories of long-running fictional heroes (such as Disney's narrow-minded marketing of John Carter  and Marvel Studios' intermittent amnesia when it comes to Jack Kirby, the co-creator of the comic book empire that resulted in movies like The Avengers ), it is refreshing to see the glorification of the history and pop culture minutiae of a character like Dick Tracy.
Producer: Chris Merrill, Warren Beatty
Director: Warren Beatty
Screenplay: Warren Beatty
Cinematography: Emmanuel Lubeski, Stephanie Martin
Music: Robert Partridge
Film Editing: Thomas Mitchell
Cast: Tim Bagley (Security Guard), Kevin Berntson (Driver), Austin Ellis (Studio Personnel), Dennis Emslie (Security Guard), Leonard Maltin (Himself), Wendi McLendon-Covey (Lillian), Steve Monroe (Security Guard), Mindy Sterling (Bernice)
BW & C-30m. Closed Captioning.
by John M. Miller