Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Diiiiiick Tracy! Part 1

Television, that medium which is seldom well done, has often turned to comics for fodder, whether sitcoms or adventures shows or Saturday morning cartoons. With live action shows in particular, however, the path has been thorny through no fault of our own. For every Dennis the Menace, there's literally three failed Archie pilots. Not to mention the passel of often very odd variety shows in the 1970s and early 80s with a "comics come to life" theme (more on those later). Anyway, so many of these projects arose in response to the success of a similar property, but failed to catch on. The blame can usually be blamed on quality, but every now and then, it was just bad timing (too late or too soon).

A prime example is the 1967 Dick Tracy pilot, conceived and produced by William Dozier following the success of his campy take on Batman and the more straightlaced Green Hornet. The title role was played by Ray McDonnell, who looked the part well enough. This was only his second TV project, following a stint on the soap opera Edge of Night a few years prior. In 1971, he joined the cast of another sudser, All My Children, which has provided a comfortable berth for over 30 years now as Joe Martin. This seldom seen project is actually quite entertaining (and intentionally, for the most part), even building up some genuine suspense.

Dick Tracy had already been on television, in a 1950 series starring Ralph Byrd (who played the square-jawed crimefighter in movie serials and B features). This early series was hamstrung by low budgets, especially when it came to the rogue's gallery (thus, Flattop is merely some jerk wearing a weird flat beret). Then came the UPA series The Dick Tracy Show, with Tracy kept to a minimum while his passel of stereotyped helpers did the actual work. The less said about that, the better, but apparently producer Henry G. Saperstein retained an option on the property: the closing credits include a title card which says the pilot is based on characters "and an idea" created by Chester Gould.... and Saperstein! Had a series resulted, does this imply that Jo Jitsu or Speedy Gonzales ripoff Go-Go Gomez would have appeared? (More likely, it's just acknowledging that Saperstein currently controlled the TV rights). Still, the mind boggles!

By the way, as you can see, Dozier was laying his bat credentials on the line, by having a "Tracy signal" beam out from the car headlights. Anyway, on to the pilot's actual content.

As far as I've been able to determine, this never actually aired *anywhere*. The half hour program takes a middle ground between Dozier's two series. It's not as outlandish, comedic, and campy as Batman, but rooted in at least some semblance of reality, ala Green Hornet. But the tongue was not completely outside the cheek, as indicated by the theme song, which repeatedly reminds us that Dick Tracy is "a good cop." This groovy ditty was composed and performed by the Ventures (note the dramatic use of surf-style guitar), while the episode's underscore was by Dozier staple and longtime Stan Freberg collaborator Billy May (who composed the Batgirl theme for later Batseasons and did yeoman's work on the Hornet).

This opening has some interesting aspects. It's fast paced and the comic book/cartoon look certainly reminds one of the Batman open. However, the dissolve from the comic strip character to the live actor is fairly clever. This opening also features two cast members who aren't even in the pilot (and as far as I can tell, this was the only footage they shot for it). Davey Davison was cast as Tess Trueheart. Yes that's a woman, and a glance at her IMDb entry shows that she too was a citizen of soapland, plus an array of guest spots (including one on Hazel, based on the late Ted Key's comic creation).

The more interesting absentee actress is Eve Plumb as Bonnie Braids. Eve, then 8 or 9years old, had done a handful of guest spots but would go on to greater fame as the troubled middle child Jan on that searing study of families in turmoil, The Brady Bunch. Jay Blood, cast as Junior, has a great name and the appropriate thatch of red hair, but seems to have vanished entirely. Minor character actors Monroe Arnold and Ken Mayer, as Sam Catchem and Chief Pat Patton respectively, play their parts straight, perhaps a little too straight, and so fail to make much of an impression (in contrast to their counterparts on Batman, Neil Hamilton's stiff upper lip Commissioner Gordon and Stafford Repp's incompetent, Blarney spouting O'Hara, both fondly recalled to this day).

Finally, there's our Special Guest Villain. This is in keeping with the Bat tradition over Green Hornet, whose baddies were fairly run of the mill and very seldom played by name actors (and even Batman owed a lot to The Wild Wild West, which used the same approach and even some of the same actors). Filling the slot is Victor Buono as a newly minted character, Mr. Memory. The portly, imposing, often hammy Buono was a perfect choice, having previously played the wild King Tut in Gotham and two different Wild Wild West baddies, and he would remain a favorite guest villain on genre series (The Man from Atlantis). Buono had a happy talent for comedy *and* genuine menace, but the former is kept to a minimum here, in contrast to the hilarious Tut, or his movie work. Who's Minding the Mint, one of the many all-star 1960s caper/greed comedies, gives him a fine showcase as "The Captain," a sea dog who has to construct a boat to fit in a sewer and, in one classic scene, goes down with his ship.

Mr. Memory is a genius with an exhaustive memory who uses "mental telepathy" to transmit his knowledge to a computer, which then chucks out the answers (or so he thinks). Buono plays him with restraint and a certain lethargic penache, a hired gun in a suit who has goons to do the dirty work (and a tank of pet pirahnas) and thinks everything through carefully. It was probably wise of Dozier to avoid using members of Tracy's comic strip Rogue's Gallery (though several are name checked early on), since it erases the problems of make-up, plus they had too much history to properly present in a half hour (the 1990 Tracy movie had a similar failing, chucking in as many villains as possible but making them all generic gangsters, a composite rather than an ensemble, of whom very few stood out).

And what is Mr. Memory's fiendish plan? Well, the title card spells it out: "The Plot to Kill NATO!" More on this in our next installment (and some theories on why this failed to sell). Maybe you can get the theme song out of your head by then.

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