Barely longer than an episode of a modern drama, but the time commitment is longer; you’ll want to seek out similar thrills of yesteryear.
While this column regularly highlights the worst you can stream, this week we present some hope for free content with one of the most celebrated crime franchises: Dick Tracy. Created by cartoonist Chester Gould and still in syndication today, the square-jawed detective battled miscreants with names like Flattop and Splitface and with brutal mugs to match, which made him a natural for serials and B-movies. After Warren Beatty’s 1990 reboot of the character, the gritty, cartoonish films enjoyed a briefly revived interest but have since returned to the dustbins of outdated and forgotten product. Fortunately, you can stream three ‘40s Dick Tracy features on YouTube.
The studio may be RKO, home to King Kong and Fred and Ginger, but for the most part these films lack big stars, which is part of what makes them so endearing. Each runs about an hour long and is full of the kind of character actors they don’t make anymore, from Dick Wessel’s sympathetic bald killer in Dick Tracy vs. Cueball to the feral Jack Lambert as The Claw in Dick Tracy’s Dilemma. If you see one, you’ll want to see them all, and the most accomplished and inspired may be the 1947 crime drama Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome.
Unlike its fellow B-movies, this one boasts a marquee name: Boris Karloff, who inspires a cheap self-reflective joke about his appearance. His presence is felt, but he’s not what makes the movie so entertaining. And neither, exactly, is Ralph Byrd, who played the detective in a 1937 serial but was passed over for a 1945 feature and here reprises his role as the hard-boiled crime fighter.
An inventive plot goes a long way to making this case stick. Released from jail thanks to good behavior, Gruesome (Karloff) seems out his old pal Melody (Tony Barrett), a piano player (get it?) at local watering hole called Hangman’s Knot. Rifling around in a back room, Gruesome gets a whiff of a gas that seems to kill him, and he’s whisked way to the morgue in case that baffles Dick Tracy’s sidekick Pat Patton (Lyle Latell). The thing is, Gruesome wakes up while in the morgue—the gas he stumbled onto only temporarily paralyzed him. The star monster hatches a plan of evil ingenuity: why not use this gas to pull off a bank robbery?
The scheme turns into a brilliantly comic heist scene. After he sets off a gas bomb in the bank lobby, staff and customers all freeze; even the deputy who’s chasing a cat around the offices suddenly stops in his tracks—as does the cat. Immune to the shenanigans is the detective’s loyal girlfriend Tess Trueheart (Anne Gwynne), who was making a call in an enclosed phone booth at the time (younger generations may not understand how common this once was) and didn’t inhale the fumes; but she pretends to be frozen when Gruesome and Melody come to collect their dough.
Such tricks alone make Gruesome stand out, but its 65 minutes is full of amusing little details that keep it moving. Character names seem to have been devised by a Borscht-belt comedian; Gruesome has the most reasonable name here, but he’s surrounded by figures like Dr. A. Tomic, the assistant I. M. Learned (we learn later that the I stands for Irma) and in a throwaway gag, a furious car chase ends up in the offices of a taxidermist named Y. Stuffum. (Dick Tracy vs. Cueball may feature even better names, with Filthy Flora the proprietor of a café called The Dripping Dagger.)
This all may sound groan-worthy, but director John Rawlins, who began his career as a stunt man in the ‘20s, makes it all work, and you can see his career physicality in the way he stages his villains’ deaths. He later became a property developer, a line of work which likely put him in contact with a completely different set of colorful villains. Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome is barely longer than an episode of a modern drama, but the time commitment is longer; you’ll want to seek out similar thrills of yesteryear.