'Dick Tracy vs. Cueball' in Classic Cool Context

This Saturday at 9:00 p.m., KCET brings you the second of the RKO-produced Dick Tracy crime thrillers with 1946's, "Dick Tracy vs. Cueball." Theater-veteran Morgan Conway reprises his starring turn as the famous yellow-coated gangland detective, and Anne Jeffreys also returns as his ever-faithful love, Tess Trueheart as the duo become embroiled in another caper, this time featuring a string of diamond thefts. 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 vs. Cueball" on December 18, 1946.

Diamond heists are common plot points throughout film history. From Hitchcock's 1955 classic, "To Catch a Thief," to Guy Ritchie's more stylized 1996 London-set, "Snatch," and Ed Zwick's politically tinged, 2006 actioner "Blood Diamond," Hollywood screenwriters have conjured up stories revolving around the world's most famous gemstone for decades.

Here's a scene from "To Catch a Thief" starring Cary Grant and Grace Kelly:

But perhaps the most memorable example of diamonds' place as a symbol of upper-crust opulence in America came in 1949 with the release of the Broadway musical "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes," in which Carol Channing belted out her famous ode to bling, "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend."

Watch Channing perform the crowd favorite at a concert in 1989:

Take a Closer Look Back

In 1946, Morgan Conway's Dick Tracy was hot on the trail of his own diamond thief, a newly released convict named "Cueball," with a bald head and a penchant for strangulation. As usual, Tracy's girlfriend, Tess, portrayed by Anne Jeffreys, gets caught up in the investigation and is kidnapped by Cueball at the end of the film.

But "Dick Tracy vs. Cueball" wasn't the only movie starring Jeffreys and Conway in 1946. In fact, it wasn't the even only film with those two actors released in mid-December of that year. That's right, only a week before "Tracy" opened on December 18th, audiences could catch Anne Jeffreys and Morgan Conway in the RKO comedy, "Vacation in Reno," which also features a series of heists. Only this time, Conway is the thief -- part of a bumbling trio of bank robbers who unwittingly bury their loot at the same dude ranch where the characters played by Jeffreys and Jack Haley are staying. Haley, of course, is most well-known for his iconic role as the "Tin Man" in 1939's "The Wizard of Oz."

Here's a still from "Vacation in Reno." Jeffreys is the blonde woman in the center, and Conway is the man holding the gun next to her.

Unfortunately, "Dick Tracy vs. Cueball" and "Vacation in Reno" were the last films Morgan Conway ever made, though he lived until the age of 78.

As detailed in last week's Classic Cool Context, the characteristically dark Tracy movies are typified by violence and murder. Only a month after the release of the second RKO "Tracy" film, Los Angeles and the entire country were rocked by the murder of aspiring actress Elizabeth Short, better known as the "Black Dahlia," which remains one of the most notorious unsolved murders in American history.

This is a mug shot of Short after she was arrested for underage drinking in 1943:

After Short's body was found severed in half at a vacant Leimert Park lot, newspapers such as the morning Los Angeles Examiner and the afternoon Los Angeles Herald-Express, both published by William Randolph Hearst, reported that Short's famous nickname had a Hollywood connection. Stories appeared claiming Short was nicknamed "The Black Dahlia" by a Long Beach drug-store owner after a popular 1956 movie called "the Blue Dahlia," that later earned screenwriter Raymond Chandler an Academy Award. The L.A. County District Attorney's office later said Herald Express reporter Bevo Means invented it himself.
Check out the trailer of the 1946 film noir starring Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake and directed by George Marshall:

Hearst's tabloid papers thrived off of building up public hysteria with sensationalistic coverage of crime and murder. When Short's body was discovered, the Herald-Express splashed graphic photos of her mutilated body across its front page. The papers became an even bigger part of the story when the self-proclaimed killer began sending letters to the editor of the Examiner, along with personal items belonging to Short, under the moniker "Black Dahlia Avenger."

Modern boundaries between the police and press didn't exist back then, and reporters were known to trample evidence in order to get a scoop. Gerry Remlow, a Daily News reporter who covered the case, reportedly said years later, "If the murder was never solved, it was because of the reporters."

With the public lathered up over lurid tales of bloody homicides, America was primed for all the crime stories Dick Tracy creator Chester Gould was ready to churn out.

"Dick Tracy vs. Cueball" also features Dick Wessel as the villainous "Cueball," with Ian Keith and Lyle Latell appearing as Tracy's sidekicks "Vitamin Flintheart" and "Pat Patton."


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