Tuesday, February 13, 2018

The Dick Tracy Show (1961)

As mentioned in our post on the 1960 episodes for The Mr. Magoo Show, the UPA animation studio was in dire financial straits after its failed Mr. Magoo feature film 1001 Arabian Nights in 1959. The Magoo disaster prompted then UPA owner Steve Bosustow to sell the enterprise to producer Henry G. Saperstein, who attempted to reverse the studio's financial fortunes by focusing on television, first with The Mr. Magoo Show and the following year with a series based on comic-strip hero Dick Tracy. But what UPA wound up producing bears little resemblance to the comic strip on which it was supposedly based because the Tracy character (voiced by respected character Everett Sloane in a complete waste of his talents) basically serves as a dispatcher and clean-up man who delegates each case to one of his four subordinates--a British bulldog named Hemlock Holmes who sounds like Cary Grant, the cartoon equivalent of Mickey Rooney's Mr. Yunioshi named Joe Jitsu, an overweight policeman named Heap O'Calorie who sounds like Andy Devine, and a low-budget version of Speedy Gonzales named Go Go Gomez. Tracy has no role in bringing the criminals, all but one taken from the original Tracy comic strip, to justice, as if he has been kicked upstairs to a desk job after decades on the street.

The savage reviews the series has received on imdb.com are well-deserved: the episodes, like those for The Mr. Magoo Show, appear as if written by the 5-year-old audience for which they are intended and are based on the premise that repetition and slapstick are the foundations of humor. Thankfully each episode is just under 5 minutes in length, but UPA churned out a staggering 130 episodes for the 1961-62 season. As a syndicated series, these episodes could be aired at the station's discretion, presumably collated with cartoons from other sources on a single children's program with a local host. Each of the four crime-fighters has a signature gag that is repeated in every episode. Hemlock Holmes is "assisted" by a group of bumbling policemen dubbed The Retouchables (an obvious dig at the popular Untouchables) who behave like the Keystone Kops, always dashing off on their assignment without Holmes who has to run after them pleading with them to stop, grab on to the back of the car or helicopter they are using, and then crashing through the window of said vehicle when they finally do heed his call to stop. Joe Jitsu's gag is to use his jujitsu skills to slam villains on the ground while saying "Excuse please" and "So sorry." Heap O'Calorie constantly tries to steal fruit from Tony's market before consulting nonverbal beatnik Nick for the location of the criminals he is after, and then subdues the crooks by bouncing them with his large belly. Go Go Gomez, who did not appear until the 62nd episode in the series, simply runs fast.

As has been documented elsewhere, not only does the Hemlock Holmes character mimic Cary Grant, but several of the villains also impersonate well-known Hollywood voices: Flat Top resembles Peter Lorre, B.B. Eyes imitates Edward G. Robinson, and The Brow is a vague James Cagney. But the spoofs on popular culture on The Dick Tracy Show seem rote compared to other programs like The Flintstones and Rocky and His Friends--they provide little entertainment for adults other than a glint of recognition and lose their punch by being repeated in every episode. Even one-time gags such as a jewelry store named Tiphoney's instead of Tiffany's seem to be throwaways.

Trying to make a comedy out of the comic-strip Dick Tracy is an odd choice. Though Tracy would grow to be a favorite with young readers, the original Chester Gould strip could be graphic and somewhat realistic in its depiction of violent criminals. In Gould's prototype for the strip, Plainclothes Tracy, the mob boss uses a blow-torch to burn the feet of a double-crosser in order to get him to talk, and in the initial story that debuted in 1931 Tracy and his fiance Tess Trueheart witness her father murdered by a pair of robbers who invade the Trueheart delicatessen. But in the UPA cartoon, no one ever dies despite being blown up repeatedly, tossed off high buildings, or involved in head-on collisions. Bullets never penetrate flesh. Like any other children's cartoon of the era, violence has no permanent consequences, suggesting to impressionable minds that violence is only a gag in which no one ever gets hurt. Tracy and comedy also failed to gel in Batman creator William Dozier's unused 1966 live-action pilot, though Dozier insisted the series would not have the camp factor that made the Caped Crusader so popular.

The other element working against the animated Dick Tracy is the brevity of each episode, which prevents any real plot development and constricts the episode to a series of slapstick gags. While series such as The Flintstones had its share of gags, its 30-minute format allowed for some semblance of story development, and Rocky and His Friends, later renamed The Bullwinkle Show, used a serial format that broke a longer story into bite-size installments that were sequenced through multiple 30-minute episodes that included shorts with their other rotating cast of characters Dudley Do-Right, Sherman and Peabody, and Fractured Fairytales. In short The Dick Tracy failed to take advantage of any of the original comic strip's strengths and settled for cheap laughs that became cheaper through constant repetition. Gould's upright crime-fighting hero deserved better.

The opening and closing theme for The Dick Tracy Show was composed by Carl E. Brandt, who was profiled in our 1960 post on The Mr.Magoo Show.

The entire series has been released on DVD by Sony/Classic Media.

The Actors

Everett Sloane

Born in Manhattan, the son of an insurance broker and cotton merchant, Everett H. Sloane caught the acting bug at age 7 after playing Puck in a school production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. After completing high school, he attended the University of Pennsylvania for two years before dropping out to join the Hedgerow Theatre repertory company led by Jasper Deeter until unfavorable review notices comparing his acting to Harpo Marx led him to leave the theater and take a job as a runner for a Wall Street stockbroker. He worked his way up to the position of assistant to the managing partner at a salary of $140 per week until the stock market crash of 1929 resulted in his salary being cut in half, so he returned to acting, this time on radio. As a voice actor Sloane progressed from playing villains on The Shadow and Buck Rogers to having regular roles on The Goldbergs and Bulldog Drummond. But his future would forever be altered when he joined the stalwart cast of the historical-based series The March of Time on which he played a variety of characters, including Adolph Hitler. Working on this series was where Sloane met Orson Welles and would later join his Mercury Theatre on the Air and appear in the famous War of the Worlds broadcast of 1938. But before that his success in radio allowed him to resume acting on the stage as well, making his Broadway debut in Boy Meets Girl in 1935. Sloane's association with Welles led to his being cast in the latter's first feature film Citizen Kane in 1941, portraying the title character's right-hand man Mr. Bernstein. Immediately after filming Kane, Sloane appeared in Welles' landmark Broadway production of Richard Wright's Native Son. Sloane would appear in three more Welles features--Journey Into Fear, Lady From Shanghai, and Prince of Foxes--but he reportedly quit Welles' production of Othello, in which he was to play Iago, because the filming was taking too long, and the two never worked together again, with Welles making disparaging remarks about Sloane on several occasions thereafter, even after Sloane's death. During the 1940s he also continued to appear on radio programs such as Inner Sanctum Mysteries and The Mysterious Traveler as well as more Broadway theatrical productions such as A Bell for Adano. Despite his break with Welles, Sloane was never at a loss for work. In the 1950s he added television to his repertoire, portraying the painter Vincent Van Gogh in an episode of The Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse as well as appearing on a number of other drama anthology series. He received an Emmy nomination for his appearance in Rod Serling's drama Patterns, which was presented on Kraft Television Theatre in 1956. He also began making guest appearances on a number of shows, including Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Joseph Cotten Show, and Climax! In 1957-58 he had a recurring role as an investigator on Official Detective and appeared as Andres Felipe Basilio in four 1959 episodes of Zorro. He reunited with Serling in the Season 1 episode of The Twilight Zone titled "The Fever" and also appeared in episodes of Thriller, Route 66, and The Loretta Young Show in 1960. That same year he tried out his skills as a lyricist by writing the words to The Andy Griffith Show theme "The Fishin' Hole"; though they were not used on the TV show itself, Andy Griffith sang them on the soundtrack LP that was released in conjunction with the program. Given his extensive experience as a radio actor, it is no surprise that he was chosen to voice iconic detective Dick Tracy on the 1961 animated program. He would reprise the role in an episode of the 1965 Mr. Magoo reboot The Famous Adventures of Mister Magoo.

In the years after The Dick Tracy Show, Sloane continued making guest appearances on TV shows such as Perry Mason, Dr. Kildare, Rawhide, Gunsmoke, and Bonanza. He did some voicework for Jonny Quest in 1964 and appeared in a pair of Jerry Lewis features The Patsy and The Disorderly Orderly in 1964. However, in 1965 he feared that he was going blind and took his own life by overdosing on barbiturates at the age of 55 on August 6, 1965. He had just completed filming an episode of Honey West which was aired posthumously.

Benny Rubin

Born in Boston on February 2, 1899, Rubin attended a reform school in Shirley, Massachusetts and by 1914 was performing at an amateur night where he knew legendary comedian Fred Allen. He had learned to tap dance by watching children performing on the streets while growing up. He was part of a touring group for a year, worked on a showboat, and also worked in burlesque before teaming up with Charlie Hall for a vaudeville act. In 1923 he began performing solo at the Alhambra with a routine that included tap dancing, a trombone solo, and a stand-up shtick that was a broad Jewish stereotype that some found offensive but nevertheless proved very popular. However, he was apparently difficult to work with, getting fired from a 1925 Ziegfeld revue. His first film appearances came in 1928 in the short Daisies Won't Yell and the feature Naughty Baby, and in 1929 he moved to Hollywood, though he still performed in New York, serving as M.C. at The Palace and performing in a duo with Jack Haley. In 1932 he was afflicted with appendicitis and had to skip a performance with Haley at the last minute. A young comic named Milton Berle was nabbed to fill his place, and the rest is history. From 1928-32 he appeared in dozens of shorts and features but reportedly missed the chance for a lucrative contract with Fox when he refused to get a nose job. By 1938 with the Nazis rising in Europe he was pressured to abandon his Jewish stereotype routine, but he continued to find work playing ethnic characters on film, though over the years his parts declined to playing unnamed cab drivers, waiters, and the like. 

His first television appearance came in 1949 on the Oboler Comedy Theatre but his best-remembered role was as an annoyed help-desk employee on The Jack Benny Program whose catch-phrase was "I dunno!" He was also a regular comic foil on The Red Skelton Hour and had bit parts in dozens of TV comedies from The Bob Cummings Show to The Joey Bishop Show to I Dream of Jeannie. Likewise he showed up in several silly feature films such as The Patsy, The Disorderly Orderly, The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini, and How to Frame a Figg. On The Dick Tracy Show he provided voices for Joe Jitsu, Pruneface, and Sketch Paree. His last feature film was the 1979 sex comedy A Pleasure Doing Business which also included comedians such as John Byner, Tommy Smothers, and Phyllis Diller. He died of a heart attack on July 15, 1986 at the age of 87.

Jerry Hausner

Hausner provided the voice for Hemlock Holmes and for villains Stooge Viller, Itchy, The Mole, and The Brow. See the biography section of the 1960 post for The Mr. Magoo Show.

Mel Blanc

Blanc provided the voice for villains Flat Top and B.B. Eyes. See the biography section of the 1960 post for The Flintstones.




Paul Frees

Frees provided the voice for Heap O'Calorie and Go Go Gomez. See the biography section of the 1960 post for Rocky and His Friends.