'Dick Tracy, Detective,' in Classic Cool Context

This Saturday at 9:00 p.m., KCET brings you the 1945 crime thriller, "Dick Tracy, Detective," starring Broadway veteran Morgan Conway as the famous yellow-coated gangland detective and Anne Jeffreys as his ever-faithful love, Tess Trueheart. It's the latest entry in KCET's "Classic, Cool Theater" series, which aims to give you not only a great film but also a vintage cartoon, two newsreels and an of-the-era musical number. All those extras add up to what makes "Classic, Cool Theater" so special: context. In the spirit of this unique package, we're offering you a peek at the America -- and the Los Angeles -- that received "Dick Tracy, Detective," on December 1, 1945.

America loves a hero, and nowhere is this more evident than in the country's love affair with comics. Superman may have ushered in the medium's "Golden Age" in 1938, but Chester Gould's wildly popular "Dick Tracy" tapped into America's hero envy seven-years earlier when the author first published the strip in the Detroit Mirror newspaper. "Dick Tracy, Detective," is the first feature-film iteration of the Tracy character, but Republic Pictures also released four Dick Tracy serials between 1937-1941.You can watch all four of the Republic serials here.)

While the dastardly villains Dick Tracy fought every week were the stuff of fantasy, the gruesome crimes they committed and the deadly retribution doled out by Tracy and his trusted sidekick, Pat Patton, certainly weren't. Through his storylines, Gould sought to provide readers with a taste of the gang violence plaguing 1930s Chicago perpetrated by crime bosses such as Al Capone.

Here's an original newsreel documenting the trial of the infamous Prohibition-era criminal:

In order to track down these vicious killer, Tracy used crime-solving techniques made famous in later years on television by "police procedurals" such as NBC's "Law and Order" series. Gould's comic strip was one of the first examples of the format in American popular culture.



Take a Closer Look Back

The city of Los Angeles was no stranger to organized crime either. Jack Dragna, dubbed the "Capone of Los Angeles," led the L.A. branch of the Italian-American mob, La Cosa Nostra, from 1931 until his death in 1956. Among his many criminal enterprises, Dragna operated gambling ships off the coast of California until they were shut down in 1939.Here's an early mugshot of Dragna taken in 1915 when he was 24-years-old and went by the alias "Ignazio Rizzoto":

Dragna was arrested in 1915 for the extortion of a Long Beach man and booked into San Quentin State Prison, where he served three years. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Dragna was fierce rivals with another famous West Coast gangster, Bugsy Siegel. After Siegel's murder in 1947 at the hands of the East Coast mob for the poor handling of the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas, Siegel's role in the rivalry was taken up by his former bodyguard, Mickey Cohen.

Cohen and other Los Angeles crime celebrities were immortalized in the 2011 video game, "L.A. Noire," published by Rockstar Games.

Coincidentally, the actor who made Bugsy Siegel famous on the big screen, Warren Beatty, is also responsible for the most well-known portrayal of Dick Tracy. Beatty directed and starred as the titular character in the 1990 Touchstone Pictures release.

Here's the trailer:



Of course, the Hollywood film industry dealt with its fair share of corruption in the 1930s and 1940s too. Have a look at this news photo of William Bioff, a labor leader and mafia figure who was convicted in 1939 for extorting millions of dollars from movie studios under the threat of crippling work stoppages.

The dark tone characteristic in Gould's comics is reminiscent of one of the era's primary artistic contributions: film noir. Arguably the most iconic film of the genre, 1941's, "The Maltese Falcon," boasts another trenchoat-wearing lead, Sam Spade, portrayed by Humphrey Bogart. The Dick Tracy series was known for its eccentric villains such as Flattop Jones, and Peter Lorre's famous Joel Cairo character certainly falls into a similar category.

Check out a famous scene between Bogart and Lorre:

"Dick Tracy, Detective," also stars Lyle Latell as Pat Patton, and Mike Mazurki as the villain, "Splitface," whose brutal murders Detective Tracy must solve. (BTW, Anne Jeffreys, who plays Tess, has a special connection to KCET personality Huell Howser. Read about that here.) The film was the first of four RKO-produced Tracy movies, which culminated in 1951 with "Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome." According to the New York Times, RKO purchased the screen rights to the Tracy character from Gould for $10,000.


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