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75th Anniversary Edition DVD: Republic’s DICK TRACY (1937)

Posted in Serials on December 26, 2012 @ 3:25 pm

One of the downsides to being a lover of obscure movies is that, with so many of them either commercially unavailable or lost altogether, you have to settle for whatever you can get: scratchy and splicy 16mm prints, maybe, or bootleg VHS and DVD copies several generations away from the original elements. So it’s almost inevitable that, if you’re seeing a rare motion picture for the first time under these less-than-optimal circumstances, your opinion of it will be adversely affected, if only subconsciously. The die-hard film buff eventually learns to look past, or through, the degraded print; he cultivates the ability to see, in his mind’s eye, the original source material. But this is a subjective and imperfect exercise that yields variable results according to the spectator’s visualization skill.

I mention this because, for many years, I had a rather poor opinion of Republic’s episodic epic Dick Tracy (1937), first of the company’s four chapter plays featuring the comic-strip gumshoe created by Chester Gould. This particular serial, while not uncommon, had never been available in an optically appealing form; the film prints tended to be soft of focus and lacking in contrast, with occasionally watery sound. While I’ve seen much worse prints and video copies, Dick Tracy especially seemed to suffer from lackluster presentation.

 

The fifth of 66 serials marketed by Republic Pictures in a 20-year period, Tracy was a phenomenal success that made the young studio’s chapter plays competitive with those of Universal, which dominated the sound-serial market up to that point. Nat Levine’s Mascot Pictures had made inroads up to 1935, when it was absorbed into Republic. Levine, who was nothing if not thrifty, didn’t believe in licensing pre-existing properties around which to build his chaptered product; indeed, of Mascot’s 30 silent and sound serials only one—1932’s The Last of the Mohicans—was based on a previously published story, that one having long been in the public domain.

As supervisor of Republic’s chapter-play output Levine was, in a titular sense, the producer of Dick Tracy, although the serial’s day-to-day production fell to his associate Larry Wickland. Based on Universal’s success with episodic adaptations of popular comic strips (two Tailspin Tommy serials, Flash Gordon, and Ace Drummond, up to that point), Republic gambled that it too could strike box-office gold with such a serial. The company paid a handsome fee for screen rights to the Tracy strip and allotted to the chapter play a more generous budget than Levine had ever countenanced for one of his Mascots.

 

Although the end result was, as I mentioned, enormously popular and profitable, Dick Tracy never enjoyed the approbation that latter-day serial fans accorded its three sequels: Dick Tracy Returns (1938), Dick Tracy’s G-Men (1939), and Dick Tracy vs. Crime Inc (1941). It has been a perennial also-ran. Admittedly, it’s cruder than the sequels, and one prominent fan’s long-ago appraisal of it as “just a Mascot with background music” was not entirely unwarranted.

But now Dick Tracy is available from Oklahoma-based VCI Entertainment as a spiffy new DVD remastered in high definition from original 35mm film elements. Many years ago VCI’s predecessor, United Films, licensed non-theatrical rights to the Tracy serials (which Republic surrendered long ago per contractual obligation) and made them available legitimately in various home-video formats: Beta, VHS, laserdisc, and DVD. But United’s source materials always left something to be desired, with the 1937 Dick Tracy suffering most of all.

 

I bought the serial—newly remastered and repackaged for its 75th anniversary—last month during VCI’s Black Friday sale. Although a quick preview of Chapter One’s first five minutes left me salivating to see the rest ASAP, I wisely restrained myself, viewing one episode every other day. Last night, following Christmas dinner, I polished off Chapter Fifteen. And I’m here to tell you that I now think better of Dick Tracy than was previously the case. It still trails behind the three more polished sequels but would definitely move up a few notches in my ordinal ranking of the 231 sound serials (assuming I actually had one, that is). And I credit VCI’s presentation with that jump in rank.

The new transfer, seen on a high-def TV, reveals Dick Tracy to be much better photographed than I previously thought it. The extra resolution and improved tonal range makes a big difference, especially in such atmospheric sequences as the first episode’s confrontation between “The Lame One” (the serial’s main villain, also called “The Spider”) and his terrified henchmen. The sound, also, is crisper than it’s ever been; the track has obviously been processed at least a little to remove the hiss and crackling that was audible on 16mm prints of the serial I’ve seen over the years.

 

I’m tempted to describe other outstanding sequences at length and specify how VCI’s sparkling new transfer enhances them, but I don’t want to spoil anything for those who have never seen this serial. To those who have seen the serial and think it second-rate, I recommend giving it another try via VCI’s 75th Anniversary makeover. Kudos to the guys and gals in Tulsa. This is first-rate work. I’d sure like to see the other Tracy serials remastered from similarly pristine film elements.

32 thoughts on “75th Anniversary Edition DVD: Republic’s DICK TRACY (1937)

  1. I’ve gotta get me some of this. Time to start upgrading all the UFO-evidence-looking serials I have. This was one of them.

  2. Great write-up Ed. I just received this one in the mail, but haven’t had a chance to open the package yet. Now I need to ASAP!

  3. Big ED, great call! Just received this new VCI edition and screened the first 6 episodes. Outstanding, thanks for the heads-up. I dug out my recent DVD capture of the TCM airing from a few months ago, which I thought was passable, but this new VCI transfer is far superior! You should get a kick-back from VCI for this great review.

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