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By Phil Hall | July 24, 2009

BOOTLEG FILES 293: “Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome” (1947 feature starring Boris Karloff and Ralph Byrd)

LAST SEEN: The film can be found on YouTube.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: On public domain labels.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: A lapsed copyright.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Too late – it is in PD hell for eternity!

One doesn’t come to a film called “Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome” expecting fine art. But the real surprise is that the film is actually an entertaining B-level romp that played the cop film genre for good-natured laughs.

During the 1930s and 1940s, Chester Gould’s “Dick Tracy” was among the most popular comic strips to appear in American newspapers. Republic Pictures, a Hollywood studio specializing in low-budget fare, ponied up the money to obtain the rights to Gould’s creation. Ralph Byrd, a little-known actor, was cast as the square-jawed detective in the serials “Dick Tracy” (1937), “Dick Tracy Returns” (1938), “Dick Tracy’s G-Men” (1939) and “Dick Tracy vs. Crime Inc.” (1941). None of the films are considered classics – and “Dick Tracy’s G-Men” is primarily recalled today for offering an early screen role to Phyllis Isley, who later became Oscar-winning actress Jennifer Jones. But during that period, the films offered enough distraction to keep audiences happy and Republic Pictures profitable.

With the coming of World War II, Republic focused its cameras elsewhere, and the “Dick Tracy” series was dropped. In 1945, RKO Radio Pictures picked up the rights to Gould’s characters for a series of B-grade movies designed to play as the second feature on movie double-bills. The 1945 “Dick Tracy” brought in Morgan Conway as the detective. “Dick Tracy vs. Cueball” followed in 1946. Neither film was considered to be special, and fans of Dick Tracy complained about the absence of Ralph Byrd from the role. RKO decided to drop Conway and bring back Byrd, even though Byrd’s career had stalled since “Dick Tracy vs. Crime Inc.” and there was no reason to think he would be box office gold. “Dick Tracy’s Dilemma” was produced in 1947, which was then followed up with “Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome.”

So, who is Gruesome? He’s a stern-faced, cold-blooded villain played by Boris Karloff, who was going through the same career dilemma faced by his reel-life rival, Bela Lugosi: typecasting in a light self-parody of his horror/thriller screen persona. Indeed, Karloff’s presence as the film’s bogeyman was so apparent that one of the characters observes Gruesome’s fierce demeanor and wise-cracks: “If I didn’t know any better, I’d swear we were doing business with Boris Karloff.”

Now you will be wondering how and why Dick Tracy meets Gruesome. Well, Gruesome is a career criminal who is fresh from jail – whether he left following the completion of his sentence or whether he opted for an early (and unofficial) departure isn’t quite clear. Gruesome arrives in town and heads to the Hangman’s Knot, a bar that features a real noose as its advertising gimmick. Gruesome connects with Melody, the bar’s pianist – although Karloff’s pronunciation makes the name sound like “Malady” – and soon they hook up with X-Ray, a creepy guy who is coordinating a bank heist that will take advantage of a new gas that temporarily immobilizes people. In this scheme, the miscreants set off their gas in the bank and freeze everyone for a few minutes while they clean out the safe.

The robbers put their scheme into practice and everyone (including a cat) gets immobilized by the gas. Alas, there is a catch: beautiful Tess Trueheart is in a phone booth and doesn’t inhale the gas – apparently the bank had an airtight phone booth. She calls her boyfriend, the sturdy detective Dick Tracy, and he arrives with his fellow cops as the bandits are getting away. In typical movie fashion, Tracy pulls out his gun and starts shooting wildly out into the street – never mind that the robbers are far beyond the bullet range. Once the mayhem is over, everyone in the bank is unfrozen and returns to life, unaware of what transpired.

Tracy wants to find out more about this mysterious gas. An obvious source for information is Dr. A. Tomic, a jittery scientist who had previously requested police protection due to complaints he was being followed by strange men. Alas, the cops didn’t take him seriously, and the good doctor has vanished by the time Tracy interview his female colleague, Professor I.M. Learned. (Yes, someone ran amok with the puns.) She is the girlfriend of the slippery L.E. Thal, who is actually the leader of the gang featuring Gruesome, Melody, and X-Ray.

A chance encounter on the street between Tracy and Gruesome and Melody results in a chase and shoot out. Gruesome escapes, but Melody is severely injured. Tracy suspects that Gruesome will try to rub out the hospitalized Melody, so he bandages himself up and masquerades as Melody. He doesn’t have to wait long, because Gruesome and X-Ray dress up as paramedics and sneak into the hospital to kidnap their injured comrade. Needless to say, Tracy triumphs and Gruesome gets a one-way ticket back to the slammer.

“Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome” makes no sense whatsoever, but it compensates for its lack of logic with plenty of buoyant personality. Karloff is clearly enjoying his screen time, oozing comic malevolence while barking his lines with a toothpick clenched between his jaws. Byrd is genuinely likeable as Tracy, while blonde Anne Gwynne and slovenly Lyle Latell offer jolly support as the perky Tess and the befuddled detective Pat Patton. A minor surprise is the unbilled presence of a young, pre-Tarzan Lex Barker as a paramedic who gets knocked out by Karloff.

“Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome” was the end of the RKO line for films based on the Gould comic strips. Byrd would be tapped to play Dick Tracy again in a 1950-51 series on ABC-TV, but the show was not successful. Byrd died in 1952, and the same year Republic Pictures theatrically re-released its 1930s Dick Tracy serials.

RKO did not renew the copyright to “Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome,” and the film has lapsed into the public domain. It is available on a number of labels specializing in public domain titles – I just picked up a $1.00 DVD featuring that title and “Dick Tracy’s Dilemma” on the same disc. The film can also be found on YouTube, albeit in an episodic breakdown.

Honestly, this 1947 B-movie is a lot more fun than Warren Beatty’s elephantine 1990 “Dick Tracy.” If you have 66 minutes to kill and want to enjoy a delightfully silly flick, dig up “Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome” and enjoy yourself!

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free s***s and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg videos and DVDs, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg videos is perfectly legal. Go figure!

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