All Strip, No Blushing

Well, I may be two decades too late, but I shall enter it anyway. The hue and cry about Dick Tracy, or, rather, the outcry about his hue. Should a comic strip, once adapted for the screen, be flickering in shades of gray or flash before you in spanking Technicolor? Are strips quintessentially monochrome, or is their melodrama best played out in red, yellow, and blue? The latter approach was taken by Warren Beatty and the creators of the 1990 Tracy picture, which did fair business at the box office, but had a production design that proved disastrous for merchandizing. Disney stocks fell, as I recall; and I don’t think Madonna was to blame. Was it a mistake to put rouge on the old squarejaw? Was there much darkness in Chester Gould’s creation to begin with?

Sixty years earlier, on this day, 21 November, in 1947, radio listeners tuned in to follow Tracy on the “Case of the Deadly Tip-Off,” a mystery involving the disappearance of Slim Chance, America’s most famous radio commentator. Apart from its intriguing premise, the requisite cliffhanger (the 21st being a Friday), and a punoply of cartoonish names), the radio serial has little comic strip appeal; its voice talents and effects artists seemed particularly listless that day.

Rather than being stultified by such dross, I clapt my eyes on the more promising sounding Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome (1947), which stars Boris Karloff opposite 1930s movie serial Tracy Ralph Byrd. It is a follow-up to the 1945 return of Dick Tracy, a somewhat anticlimactic adventure whose cast was headed by the colorless Morgan Conway. It is comic strip week here at broadcastellan, you know. Besides, I am pretty much scraping the bottom of my “100 Movie Pack” of “Mystery Classics,” a DVD set I snatched up on a trip to Gotham earlier this year.

What struck me upon screening this otherwise undistinguished 1945 thriller was its noir lighting and the occasional noirish camera angle. However carelessly inked the script, the thrills were augmented by a chiaroscuro I did not expect from a comic feature. The shadows looked particularly intriguing when cast like doubt upon the face of the ever-suspect Milton Parsons, a ghoul of a supporting player I enjoy reencountering in the darker alleys of popular culture.

Meanwhile, as I am preparing for my next escape to Manhattan, anticipating to have my entertainments curtailed by the current stagehand strike, I noticed that the earlier Dick Tracy serials are now being shown at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, where, on my previous visit (in June 2007) I took in an episode of Spiderman.

I wonder whether the producers of The Shadow are going to follow in the footsteps of Beatty’s Tracy or model their version on the glossy treatment of the failed 1994 resuscitation of Lamont Cranston (a glimpse of whom, as impersonate by Alec Baldwin, I caught last night on ITV 3). Being no expert in the field, I always considered comic strips to be bright (and was pleased to meet Blondie in such splendid color); but, emerging from the shadow of the darksome Deathridge and the sinister Splitface, it is . . . back to the drawing board.

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