If you look at it objectively, these cartoons aren't as clever as the Road Runner shorts, nor are they as imaginative.

James Plath's picture

Not all heroes wear tights.

That's the come-on banner on the publicity materials for "The Dick Tracy Show: The Complete Animated Series." Though this crime-buster takes on criminals with names like The Joker and The Mole, same as Batman, he's just a tough plain-clothes detective from the G-man era, invented by cartoonist Chester Gould. No mask, no logo, no tights. Just a fedora and topcoat, a pair of squinty eyes, and a "heater."

Dick Tracy debuted as a comic strip character in the Detroit Mirror in 1931 before he was picked up by the New York Daily News and finally found a home in the Chicago Tribune. Though he was a strong-jawed flatfoot who often only made it through the funnies two panels at a time, Dick Tracy became a phenomenon, and in 1959 and 1977 the strip was honored with a Reuben Award from the National Cartoonists Socity. In 2006, Dick Tracy celebrates his 75th anniversary, which is amazing when you think about the contemporaries that he's outlasted. Tracy's two-way wrist radio became as famous as Little Orphan Annie's secret decoder ring, and while Annie may have inspired a musical, Dick Tracy was the basis for five feature films, a live television show, and this animated series which was produced in 1961. He's even on a U.S. postal stamp—part of the Comic Strip Classics series issued in 1995.

Despite his longevity in the funny papers, Dick Tracy never made it more than a few years on television. The first foray was live-action. From September 1950 through February 1951 Ralph Byrd starred as the crimebuster on network prime-time TV, but the series ended when Byrd died. The animated series was just as short-lived. UPI produced 130 five-minute cartoons which went into syndication in 1961, and a decade later were part of "Archie's TV Funnies" that ran on CBS. And Dick Tracy fans had to have been disappointed that the steel-jawed copper was relegated to nothing more than dispatcher in the cartoons.

Needless to say, those five-minute shorts seem even shorter when you watch them as an adult. I remember thinking, as a kid, that the best part about these cartoons were the goofy bad guys. As an adult, you see that all of the effort went into the drawing, and that there's really very little time for narrative development, much less character development, in such a short span. In a way, they're the narrative equivalent to the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote cartoons—predictably formulaic, and with a simplified storyline.

In a typical episode, Dick Tracy (voiced by Everett Sloane) sits at his desk and gets a call that reports, for example, Pruneface and his henchman, Itchy, have stolen a cache of diamonds. Then it's talk into the two-way wrist radio to call Joe Jitsu (Benny Rubin), GoGo Gomez (Mel Blanc), Heap O'Callory (Johnny Coons), or Hemlock Holmes (Jerry Hausner) and the Retouchables. Once dispatched, the cop(s) instantly confront the crooks, who just as quickly throw the kitchen sink at him/them. Just about the time when they're going to be hit by a flying object or thrown off a cliff, the cop will say, "Hold everything," and the action will freeze. Then they get on the wrist radio and tell Tracy that they've got everything in hand. When the action picks up again, the cop's counterpunch (usually a lucky one) ends up resulting in the bad guys getting nabbed just about the time that Tracy pulls up in his sedan. Then, from time to time, Tracy gave one of his Crimestoppers Tips to help YOU beat the bad guys.

Most kids thought that Joe Jitsu was the coolest. No one picked up on the fact that he was a racial stereotype who, as a parody of Charlie Chan, was also incredibly offensive. All we knew was that this little guy who talked funny and was excessively polite ("So sorry") as he used judo to bonk the bad guys was fun to watch—more fun than Heap O'Callory, a fat uniformed copy with red hair who sounded suspiciously like Andy Devine, whose voice every kid knew because he was Jingles, the sputtering and hapless sidekick of Wild Bill Hickok. GoGo Gomez we recognized as the human equivalent to Speedy Gonzales, the "fastest mouse in all Mehico," but we didn't realize that the same fellow who gave Gonzales voice was the voice of Gomez. Like Speedy, this guy was hepped up on espresso, or else naturally caffeinated. And once again, kids didn't really notice the racially offensive stereotype. The last of the heroes was a British bulldog who inexplicably wore a bobby's hat and talked with a British accent that sounded like a parody of Cary Grant. He was the only hero who didn't work alone. A mob of uniformed cops called the Retouchables (who basically just waved their arms a lot and moved in synch, as if they were a single, many-appendaged creature) acted like a kind of Keystone Cops Greek chorus.

But no one watched for the heroes. We watched for the villains, and every kid had his or her favorite. Make that his, because I can't remember any girls watching this show. There was The Brow, who looked like a human version of those wrinkled Shar-Pei dogs, and whose sidekick was Oodles. Then there was Stooge Viller and Mumbles (a blond-headed guy who you could never understand), Sketch Peree and The Mole (the latter a character who was prominent in the comic strip), B.B. Eyes and Flattop, a villain named Gunsmoke, and my favorites, Pruneface and Itchy. Yep, they're just as their names imply. What's interesting, though, years later, is how none of the traits were really incorporated into the five-minute sketches. The villains seemed interchangeable, and so did the heroes, and that's exactly what happened for 130 episodes. It was mix and match.

Clyde Geronimi ("Spider-Man," "One Hundred and One Dalmatians") handled some of the directing chores, while voice men Benny Rubin and Paul Prees did all of the villains. Like "Mr. Magoo," these UPI cartoons were crudely drawn in minimalist style and roughly animated. But kids didn't care. Those villains were fun, no matter what.

Video: The colors seem more washed-out than I recall, and while this might be age playing tricks on my memory, I'm suspecting instead that it's the film stock that's faded over time. There are also flickers of dirt here and there, but not enough to become a distraction.

Audio: The audio is a Dolby Digital Mono, and given the low-budget nature of the cartoons, there's a flatness that you'd expect, and some minor hiss, but except for a rough title sequence the sound quality isn't bad.

Extras: There are no extras, but the packaging deserves special mention. The bright-yellow book-style case houses four discs, and it's really sharp-looking.

Bottom Line: How you respond to "The Dick Tracy Show: The Complete Animated Series" will depend on whether you appreciate the partial animation from the crank-'em-out era of TV cartoons or have fond memories of the show. If you look at it objectively, these cartoons aren't as clever as the Road Runner shorts, nor are they as imaginative. What they mostly have going for them is a kind of criminal shorthand, with that wonderful revolving door of bad guys. These were G-men and Batman-style fables about good triumphing over evil, again and again. They were predictable, and they reinforced the notion that crime doesn't pay. In that respect, especially when you consider those Crimestoppers tips, they were educational programming.


Film Value