Dick Tracy and the Spider Gang
For decades, Chester Gould's cartoon hero Dick Tracy has survived airplane acrobatics, lethal boat rides, cataclysmic car chases and more, all in the pursuit of capital-J Justice. In the 15-part serial, "Dick Tracy and the Spider Gang" (1939), actor Ralph Byrd battles The Spider Gang and its leader, The Lame One, a villain who marks his enemies for death by projecting a spooky spider shape on their heads.
The "Dick Tracey" serials are but one of Republic Picture's classic contributions to celluloid entertainment. Formed in 1935, Republic Pictures consolidated several Poverty Row studios (including Monogram) to develop "Zorro Rides Again", "The Lone Ranger", "Adventures of Captain Marvel" and "Jungle Girl". Additionally, the company was behind several westerns featuring John Wayne, Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. Despite their relatively low budgets, many critics praise these productions for outstanding writing, directing and acting.
Case in point: despite the fact that a jutting jawline and a fedora were about the only physical traits shared by actor Ralph Byrd and Gould's supremely macho, rough-and-ready Tracy, Byrd so thoroughly defined Dick Tracy for the viewing public that they rejected another studio's attempt to sell them a different actor in the role. All in all, Byrd's success earned him 60 appearances as Tracy. (As is often the case with such success, however, it may have made it difficult for the talented actor to get other parts.)
Aside from the hero's appearance, the film version of "Dick Tracy" deviates from the comic strip in a number of other ways as well. "The Lame One" introduces audiences to an entirely new villain and leaves out Tracy's sweetheart, Tess Trueheart. It also invents a brother for Dick (Gordon Tracy) whom the Lame One kidnaps and bends to his evil designs. If these innovations to the Dick Tracy storyline are for hard for purists to swallow, they may be comforted to know that the originator Gould had insisted on a contract that gave him power of script approval. Since we can enjoy the results of the scriptwriters' inventions, we can suppose Gould gave "The Spider Gang" the nod.
Brent HornWeber State University professors Brent Horn (above) and Russ Dean (not shown) discuss the fiction of Dick Tracey vs. the reality crime scene investigations and lab work.
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