blogging by Andrew Wickliffe

Dick Tracy (1937, Ray Taylor and Alan James), Chapter 1: The Spider Strikes

The Spider Strikes opens the Dick Tracy serial with an awesome sequence–a group of crime bosses meeting up on a train to meet with the big boss (The Spider). One of them tries to stand up to the unseen Spider, only to have his plans foiled… supernaturally it seems. The Spider then hunts the man down.

It’s an excellent sequence, from the train terminal to the train itself to the streets where the Spider hunts his prey. Photography, editing, direction, acting. All outstanding.

Unfortunately, the rest of the chapter never even hints at being able to get close to that quality height again. There’s a solid murder solution–someone has knocked off a rich guy throwing a charity circus for orphans–and the cliffhanger’s good and the special effects are solid, but the execution is far from graceful.

First big problem is lead Ralph Byrd. He smiles a lot. Directors James and Taylor frequently have one shots where Byrd’s just smiling. Not sure what he’s so happy about, given his brother has disappeared–but the audience knows the Spider has turned him, through plastic and brain surgeries, into a villain–and he’s supposed to be protecting an adorable orphan witness (Lee Van Atta) from the gang.

Byrd’s fine acting opposite the other cast members. It’s just those one shots. Doesn’t help the editing goes out the window after that opening sequence. Oddly, the cuts going from Byrd in two shot to one shot to two shot are technically right on–the editors often do it mid-sentence–but James and Taylor’s direction of the one shots is so bad the good cut doesn’t help. The rest is mostly bad cutting. It’s rarely mediocre.

The supporting cast, at least off Spider, is going to be problematic. Sole female cast member Kay Hughes can’t get her lines out without tripping over the exposition. Smiley Burnette’s lovable dimwit G man sidekick is annoying. Van Atta is cloying. John Picorri is good as the evil surgeon while Carleton Young makes little impression as the evil brother.

The production values make up for a lot–it’s not like Hughes has anything to do in the thirty minute chapter except be a girl in the boys club of the serial–and the cliffhanger’s strong. So the serial itself isn’t off to a rocky start, it’s just got a lot of pebbles in its shoes. Some (much) bigger than others.


Directed by Ray Taylor and Alan James; screenplay by Barry Shipman and Winston Miller, based on a story by Morgan Cox and George Morgan and the comic strip by Chester Gould; directors of photography, Edgar Lyons and William Nobles; edited by Edward Todd, Helene Turner, and William Witney; produced by Nat Levine; released by Republic Pictures.

Starring Ralph Byrd (Dick Tracy), Kay Hughes (Gwen Andrews), Smiley Burnette (Mike McGurk), Lee Van Atta (Junior), John Picorri (Moloch), Carleton Young (Gordon), Fred Hamilton (Steve Lockwood), Francis X. Bushman (Chief Clive Anderson), Wedgwood Nowell (H.T. Clayton), Louis Morrell (Walter Potter), Edwin Stanley (Walter Odette), Ann Ainslee (Betty Clayton), and Milburn Morante (Death Valley Johnny).


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