everyone knows that times change, but it can be still be pretty mind-blowing to witness just where and how they choose to change. for instance: for the last couple of decades, a given film franchise has been considered to be worth maybe three installments IF IT'S LUCKY, and just playing itself out if it dares to spawn a fourth. in the '40s, such a film series of which there were "ONLY four" episodes could be construed as a box-office failure.
like most anomalies, though, it can be explained. in the early decades of cinema the films for which there were sequels were generally "B" movies. technically speaking, "B" movies are deliberately formulaic productions of lesser budget, and usually lesser running time, intended as the bottom half of a double feature. it was the appetizer, if you will, to the main attraction and/or "prestige" project. the double feature was created during The Great Depression, only the studios didn't want to put two masterpieces on the same bill, and that's how the assembly-line B-movie process came into being. today sequels aren't approved lightly (even if more and more films are being left open-ended with the potential sequel in mind), because they're awaiting the world's response to the one item on the bill. but back then, sequels to main attractions were somewhat rare, and the films that had consistent sequel potential were frankly considered lesser works. consequently the stereotype about how sequels always suck (assuming it existed yet) had less power.
as you knew i was building up to, such was the unfortunate fate of the four films herein, showcasing the hardest-boiled crusader against crime and tyranny the "funny papers" have ever seen. this series may well be the CITIZEN KANE of it's own particular art form. it's only serious competitor for that title is the Universal series in which Basil Rathbone protrayed Sherlock Holmes.
first up we have DICK TRACY, or so it's called on-screen. (curiously, the film would be officially rechristened DICK TRACY: DETECTIVE to distinguish it from a tv series about Tracy - and possibly the first of the four Republic serials as well - but the title card was never updated.) the film concerns a brutal serial killer targeting, it turns out, the jury who sent him up. then comes DICK TRACY VS. CUEBALL, which finds our hero looking into a jewel smuggling ring.
these films star one Morgan Conway, and he's a pretty good Dick Tracy. he's no Ralph Byrd, mind you, but he still holds the screen and gets the job done. he's certainly not as terrible as you might assume upon learning that he was displaced by Byrd for the latter half of the series. speculation abounds to this day that this was done in a desperate attempt to kick-start the series when the first two episodes didn't make the expected splash.
the first of Byrd's appearances in the series, DICK TRACY'S DILEMMA, finds a crippled but still potent "baddie" calling himself The Claw stealing furs and commiting insurance fraud. (with a little help from the obligatory behind-the-scenes "boss," of course.)
then comes what would turn out to be the curtain call, DICK TRACY MEETS GRUESOME. this little film, featuring Boris Karloff and a plot on the cusp of science-fiction, is the line drawn in the sand. it's easily the most famous and popular installment, but people tend to either love it or hate it. i don't necessarily favor it, mind you, but i do enjoy it and think it enables the series to go out with a bang. nonetheless, it has been called cheesy and, of the four films, the one least "in line" with what Dick Tracy is supposed to be. the purist afficianados acknowledge that it is indeed the best known, but they argue - and there is indeed room for the possibility - that this standing was enabled not by Tracy, but Karloff.
these four films have what will inevitably be seen as limits today. by current standards, they feel more like episodes of a tv show that movies. but they do what they do well. there is, on the whole, a wonderful film noir feel, on more than par with THE MALTESE FALCON. (some might not see that as much of an achievement, as it's frequently said that the miracle of the film noir genre is that there are no bad ones, but i don't intend to argue the point.) but, as with Chester Gould's comic strip, what could be seen as rather dark subject matter is tempered with a wonderful sense of whimsy. (this is one of the frequent criticisms of the GRUESOME film, but it's a thread running through all four, really.) this comes out most obviously in the character of Vitamin Flintheart, a retired "ham" actor (a caricature of John Barrymore) in his two appearances. and Tracy's partner, Pat Patton, as played by Lyle Lattel, is as skillful a comic-relief sidekick as i've ever seen. Lattel must've done something right, because he's the only actor featured in all four movies.
the villains could be a mistake, though. the Powers That Be decided to create their own Gould-esque villains, rather than use the Gould-created Flattop, Shaky, Pruneface, etc. not that their own aren't foreboding, but the purists have still declared it a bummer. i confess i don't know enough about the strip to say for sure, but it does seem like a shame on some level.
the special features don't disappoint, either. take the radio episodes. the all-star "Armed Forces" radio musical "Dick Tracy In G-Flat" is a delightful burlesue. the cast, which includes Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Judy Garland, Jimmy Durante, and The Andrews Sisters (just to name the proverbial few) are clearly having the time of their lives with this treat specially designed for "our boys overseas." you'll also get to hear a few episodes of a Dick Tracy radio series. they're a certain amount of fun, but alas, the series was "serialized," and it's a bummer that we don't get a complete story.
then there's the commentaries by former Dick Tracy comic strip scribe Max Allan Collins. a lifelong Tracy nut, Collins gives us an engrossing overview of the history of his grand obsession, and his years as a participant therein, as well as the obligatory remarks on the films themselves. as cool as i remembered the films being when i saw them as a lad (aired to captialize Warren Beatty's DICK TRACY film), and as firmly as they confirmed my memories, i think that, in the two or three years since i purchased this set, i may well of done Collins' commentaries more often than i've watched the movies!!
in short, you don't have to be a Dick Tracy afficianado to enjoy these delightful yarns. i'm not, after all. all you need is an appreciation of movie escapism. and if you're a fan of more recent such action mysteries, maybe you'll get a kick out of seeing how it was done once upon a long ago.