Movie Review: Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome

Posted: May 5, 2011 in Uncategorized

1947 RKO Radio Pictures

Directed by John Rawlins

Starring: Boris Karloff, Skelton Knaggs, Ralph Byrd, Anne Gwynne

One of the things I’ve decided to do to liven up this site, taking a cue from my friend and colleague Mr. Jordan Krall, is to review films that connect to the genre of Bizarro I write. In this case, I’ll be reviewing Pulp, Poverty Row, Slasher, Splatstick, Noir and Silent horror cinema. But where to start? A lot of people come to this site looking for chainsaw related things (justifiably), so maybe it would have been best to start with a slasher movie. I’ll review one of those soon, but today I decided to review a film that was a big influence on my upcoming book Jimmy Plush, Teddy Bear Detective from Eraserhead Press. And it fits pretty well into three of the categories above: it’s a pulpy and sort of noirish poverty row mystery and for you Bizarro fans, it’s weird, too.

The Dick Tracy comic strips might seem banal or poorly drawn to a contemporary audience, but if you know your pulp and comics history, you know that with Dick Tracy cartoonist Chester Gould changed comics forever. His colorful villains and lunatic deathtraps added much needed madness to the Sunday Funnies and were clearly an inspiration for Batman’s rogue’s gallery, arguably the greatest rogue’s gallery in comics, and if it isn’t, Batman and Dick Tracy’s foes also helped mold pretty much every other rogue’s gallery in comics. Without characters like Flattop and Pruneface, villainy as we know it simply would not be.

The very reason Dick Tracy comics were so appealing was one of the biggest challenges in adapting them. Dick Tracy’s villains show their wickedness on the outside, confirming through physical deformities their absence of regular upright (and uptight) morals. For a studio like Universal, this would have presented an exciting challenge that makeup man Jack Pierce would have tackled with gusto. But Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome, an RKO Radio production approached its villain differently. This was the studio that Cat People and Isle of the Dead came out of. RKO was a proponent of more subtle malice. The uncanny Karloff, who Pierce had turned into Frankenstein’s Monster, made more subtle transformations for RKO, becoming the menacing Cabman Grey in the Bodysnatcher for example. One of these transformations was a new addition to Tracy’s rogue’s gallery, marginally ugly gangster Gruesome, whose makeup consisted of greasy hair, a scar and Karloff’s talent.

With the help of crooked pianoman 88 Keys and sinister bespectacled criminal X Ray (portrayed by Val Lewton regular and generally great character actor Skelton Knaggs), Gruesome uses an experimental paralysis gas to stun a whole bank full of people and rob it. The one witness is Tracy’s dull girlfriend Tess Trueheart, portrayed by Anne Gwynne, who you might recognize from her dull turn as a dull young woman seduced by Carradine’s Dracula in House of Frankenstein. The equally dull Tracy (Ralph Byrd) is called in to catch the bankrobbers. This all has the feeling of a somewhat grittier episode of the Adam West Batman, given credibility by the threat presented by Karloff.

As the movie goes on, it sorta loses gas, but its combination of noir gravity and comic strip crazy has an appeal that can’t be denied and the inherent strangeness of Dick Tracy taking on Boris Karloff and a crooked physicist in a world where almost everybody’s name is a stupid pun can allow one to forgive the film its trespasses, such as Ralph Byrd’s utter lack of charisma. Ralph Byrd makes Robert Stack look like Rip Taylor. Maybe his squarejawed lack of nuance is something that makes him an ideal embodiment of Dick Tracy. Maybe. But every second Karloff and Knaggs aren’t on screen is tedious and trying. Still strange, still a cultural artifact that must be experienced and still one of my favorite Karloff roles and something that presents a possibility for bending, breaking and subverting genre that makes it truly special.

Rating 7/10

  1. Lee Widener says:

    I’ve always been a big fan of Dick Tracy- mainly the comic strip. It was indeed innovative, as you state. The weird villians, the violence… and in the 60s it turned into a modern sci-fi epic complete with futuristic gadgetry, creatures from the moon and space centered storylines. There was also a comic strip within the comic strip.

    I never felt he was effectively brought to the screen. You rightly point out that it’s the supporting cast that makes the series watchable. Ralph Byrd is just not very interesting. Still, they’re watchable films if you enjoy the genre.

    • garrettcook says:

      However, dull as Ralph Byrd is, he’s less of a cardboard cutout than Morgan Conway from Dick Tracy, Detective and Dick Tracy Meets Cueball, which are both surprisingly gritty. I’ve never read 60s Dick Tracy, mostly just the 40’s stuff.

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