Category: Golden Age Article

Book Review: Dick Tracy: Dailies and Sundays: 1931-33

Dick Tracy is the legendary detective created by Chester Gould whose comic strip adventures continue until this day. Dick Tracy first hit newspapers in 1931 and this book collects his first strips from October 1931 to May 1933.

This collection is notable for what you won’t find: any of Tracy’s garish rogues gallery. No Flattop, Mumbles, or Pruneface. The most prominent villain is Big Boy, but in here he’s a regular mob boss. The colorful villains would come much later for Tracy. This book features Tracy taking on thieves, kidnappers, and racketeers that were typical 1930s villains.

The book opens with the father of Tracy’s fiancée being murdered. Tracy joins the police force in order to catch the killer. The most unrealistic part of this entire collection is when Tracy is so quickly graduated and placed in a leadership position on the force with no explanation. Three months later, he slacks off because of personal problems with Tess and is demoted to uniform duty and complains about how he was demoted despite all he’d done in the three months on the force. 

Once you get past that silliness, the book is good. The crimes aren’t outlandish and Tracy’s methods are pretty solid for a 1930s newspaper strip, featuring some real detective work. The book also did go for some “ripped from the headlines” cases. For example just after the Lindbergh kidnapping, Tracy had to solve a similar baby kidnapping case.

Other than introducing Tracy and Tess Trueheart, the book’s important contribution is introducing Junior, the homeless, seeming orphan who Tracy adopts, or perhaps it may be he adopts Tracy.  He becomes part of the action on several occasions and you can see why he’s often viewed as a precursor of teenage sidekicks like Robin, the Boy Wonder and Captain America’s sidekick Bucky Barnes.

The art in the book starts off looking a bit primitive but as Gould continues to draw, it becomes a lot more polished. The book is mostly in black and white with the exception of the earliest Sunday strips. These strips didn’t follow the daily strip plot, opting instead for a separate mystery or  sometimes just a one-off gag strip. They continued until May 1932.

The book also includes an interview with Gould by his successor on the Tracy comic strip, Max Allan Collins. 

Overall, while the book doesn’t capture Tracy at the peak, it does manage to capture Tracy’s beginnings and also help readers understand how Tracy became so popular in the first place with fun and exciting stories, detective work, and a broad-based appeal to multiple members of the family with character drama and a kid sidekick. Worth a read for both Tracy diehards and those who are curious about the beginnings of this iconic character.

Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0

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DVD Review: The Complete PRC Michael Shayne Mystery Collection


Most of the Michael Shayne films from the first half of the 1940s starring Lloyd Nolan have been on DVD for years. This DVD features five films released in 1946 and ’47 starring future Ward Cleaver actor Hugh Beaumont as Michael Shayne.

The earlier films were B pictures for Fox, however the Hugh Beaumont films were poverty row pictures, with low budgets and generally dodgy acting with no-name casts.

The restoration is phenomenal. While the typical poverty row picture from original prints looks grainy and even unwatchable, these films look superb, given the source material. The production team on the release went to a lot of work to make these look as good as possible. Given I watch so many DVDs of older material where it looks like a straight transfer was done to get them out and start taking money, I was really impressed.

Hugh Beaumont elevates the quality of these films. The ordained minister who would go on to play Beaver’s dad is miscast. But Beaumont’s an actor and pulls this off. An annoying lead can wreck one of these films. (See George Montgomery in the Philip Marlowe “B” film The Brasher Doubloon.

The films are helped by having good underlying stories. The Fox Shayne films adapted one of Britt Halliday’s Shayne novels. All five of the PRC films were adapted  from Shayne novels. Halliday was great at constructing mystery plots and these transfer over well when the producers don’t tinker with them too much.

In the course of five films, Beaumont was paired with three different actresses as Phyllis Hamilton. Hamilton was a composite of Shayne’s wife Phyllis in the novel and Lucy Hamilton, who became Shayne’s secretary after his wife died. Cheryl Walker played the role in three films, Kathryn Adams in Blonde for a Day, and Trudy Marshall in Too Many Winners.  Walker and Adams did fine in the role, but I found Marshall irritating, though it’s hard to tell whether it was the screenwriting or her acting, but she was a negative on that film.

The rest of the supporting actors range from competent to awful, reflecting the sort of variety seen on these hour-plus-long poverty row films.

As to individual films, Murder is My Business, Three on Ticket, and Too Many Winners were decent to good films with Murder is My Business being the best. Larceny in Her Heart was based on the novel Bodies are Where You Find Them which was going to be a difficult novel to adapt in this format due to its complex political subplot, which does get reduced to confusing nonsense. In addition, in the novel, Shayne’s wife Phyllis heads to New York and isn’t heard from again. In this movie, Phyllis returns in the middle of the movie and adds a plot complication that the film didn’t have time for.

Blonde for a Day is undermined by weak acting apart from the leads and once again is too complicated for the limited run-time of the film, though I did find it more visually pleasing than when I first rented a non-restored version off Amazon a few years back.

While Too Many Winners was not my favorite, it’s the most noteworthy. As part of the plot, Mike and Phyllis are planning a duck-hunting vacation which is disrupted by the mystery and the movie is obsessed with this point, even using drawings of Mike and Phyllis duck-hunting in the opening credits. This film also featured the most recognizable actors to appear outside of Beaumont in the entire series. John Hamilton (aka Perry White from The Adventures of Superman) and also veteran TV and film character actor Ben Weldon who has 249 acting credits on his IMDB profile.

Given two of the movies aren’t good, it’s hard for me to recommend the set for everyone. However, if you love Michael Shayne books, are a fan of Hugh Beaumont, or if you like poverty row, B-movie mysteries and would like to see a well-restored production, this could be worth checking out.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

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Audio Drama Review: The Twilight Zone Radio Dramas, Volume 7

The seventh volume of the Twilight Zone Audio Dramas adapts six more stories as audio dramas:

“Hocus-Pocus and Frisby” is the story of a small-town braggart and teller of tall tales who garners the attention of aliens from outer space who think his whoppers are true. This is a fun story, with a nice dish of the absurd.

“Cavendar is Coming:” An angel with a problematic track record is given one last chance if he can help an awkward young woman. This is just bad. The premise is stupid (and depressing), the story is nonsensical and the dialogue is unimaginative. The TV version had the benefit of featuring a young Carol Burnett as the young woman Cavendar “helps.” The TV episode was released in 1962 and was a backdoor pilot for an unrelated series. It does not hold up.

“The Little People:” Two members of a spaceship crew land on a planet that’s seemingly uninhabited and work on repairing their ship. However, one of them sneaks away and discovers there is life: tiny people with their own society, who he decides to oppress by pretending to be their god. This is a somewhat typical Twilight Zone story, with some nice details and even a computer that plays a role, as well as a solid twist.

“One More Pallbearer:” A wealthy man invites three people over for dinner who he blames for embarrassments earlier in his life. He has a scheme to make all of them apologize and beg him for shelter. This is  the best story in the release. While actor Chelcie Ross isn’t a household name, he’s great in the lead and manages to embody the pettiness and the damaged mind of the wealthy man. The story has not only a twist ending, but a double twist.

“The Big Tall Wish:” A washed-up boxer boards with a single mom and is beloved by her son. He decides to make a comeback and a hopeful boy makes a wish, the biggest wish (a big tall wish) but will it be enough for the boxer to win. This is a simple, wistful tale, with a downbeat conclusion.

“The Living Doll:” A tyrant of a father is infuriated that his wife spent money to buy his stepdaughter a doll at the department store. The father doesn’t like the Talking Tina doll and is shocked when Tina lets him know the feeling is mutual. He hears the doll speaking, but only when no one else is around. Probably of all the stories I’ve listened to in the first seven volumes, this is the one that fits most easily into the horror genre, though it’s definitely a more psychological horror.

Overall, this box set is a mixed set. “One More Pallbearer” and “The Living Doll” are superb, “Cavendar is Coming” is awful. The other three are between okay to good.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

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Book Review: Deathgame

In the Hardy Boys casefile Deathgame, the Hardy’s friend Biff Hooper is big into survival games and decides to go to an exciting survival camp. Biff tells Joe the truth, but tells his parents he’s visiting his cousin.

When Biff doesn’t return as scheduled, the Hardy Boys and his parents go to Florida to look for him, but the camp claims never to have seen him. Biff’s parents insist he must be there as he doesn’t lie (apparently forgetting about the whole cousin visit thing.) The Hardy Boys set out to find their lost friend and face off against dangerous foes.

We get to see a little of the Hardy’s sleuthing but this is most a set up for them and some other teens to get involved in a take on The Most Dangerous Game. It deals a bit more heavily in the adventure/suspense elements than the typical mystery elements.

For what is, the book is fine. It’s a light, breezy 152-page read that has great pacing, featuring short chapters that end on generally solid cliffhangers.

The book is not for everyone. Deathgame was released in 1987 and it shows as the villains and the plot feel very 1980s. The main villain (the aptly named Colonel Hammerlock) reminds me of Karate Kid villain Sensei John Krese. If the A-Team van had rolled in, it would not have been out of place.

In addition, there’s a certain conceit about the entire Case Files series that you have to acknowledge. The books were released as pocket paperbacks (as opposed to the 6″ x 9″ size of many kids books) and had action packed pictures on the front and occasionally dealt with topics like terrorism that made them seem more grown up. At their core though, they were still written for 10-year-olds.

So this is the type of book, you’ll like if you grew up with the Hardy Boys case files, enjoy 1980s mystery adventures, or if you’re a child who likes to read mystery and adventure stories and don’t mind that they were written before they had a cell phone.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Telefilm Review: Cannon/Barnaby Jones: The Deadly Conspiracy

A young woman who works at an oil company calls a congressional staffer promising to blow the whistle on her employer. This is overheard by the head of public relations who plots her death. A wine delivery man with a record is set up at the patsy for raping and killing the woman.

Frank Cannon (William Conrad) is hired by the an attorney for the accused, while the Congressional staffer hires Barnaby Jones (Buddy Ebsen), thus setting up a rare crossover between two TV detectives. Cannon had appeared in Barnaby Jones’s first episode.  Both programs were produced by Quinn Martin who used Cannon’s presence to jumpstart Barnaby Jones. Here the two detectives have both been on multiple seasons and would in effect be sharing star billing and solving the case together. 

This is a good story. Like many Quinn Martin detective shows, it was not a whodunit. Who is pretty clear from the start. However, there are all kinds of mysteries to solve along the way such as why, and what the goal of the titular “Deadly Conspiracy” is.

I liked a lot about the conspiracy. Their goal is complex, but it makes sense and also seems realistic and believable. While the conspirators are willing to kill for their goals, unlike other villains, they don’t just kill. They’re able to throw roadblocks in front of our heroes in ways that don’t involve homicide, which I think makes for a more interesting plot.

Both Conrad and Ebsen are given a chance to shine, and overall the team is very well-balanced with both playing nearly equal parts in the action and detective work. The guest cast is a notch above the typical guest cast with a lot of recognizable  actors including Diana Douglas and Francis De Sales.  Barry Sullivan shines as the chief villain.

There are two versions of the story available. The Season 5 DVD of Cannon contains a modified version of the story that’s trimmed down to a single episode of Cannon with an alternate (and in my opinion inferior) ending. The Season 4 DVD of Barnaby Jones collects both episodes and I recommend that version. While several episodes of existing programs were backdoor pilots for possible detective programs, this was the only crossover episode for two established 1970s Detective programs. It does its job well and deserves to be seen in its complete form.

Rating 4.5 out of 5

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