VHS Review: DICK TRACY MEETS GRUESOME (1947; Trans-Atlantic Video, 1990)

Sometimes, these posts take months to actually make happen. Case in point: today’s subject is something I referenced in the intro of this post; yes indeed, I originally wanted to write about this one this past November! Obviously that didn’t happen. But hey, better late than never, especially with this subject, cause it’s a legit goody. Brace yourselves gang, cause we’re taking another trip into the world of public domain Dick Tracy entertainment!

No jive, this one’s been on my writin’-radar for awhile now. This ultimately stems from nostalgia related to the big time 1990 Warren Beatty film adaptation, which as I’ve related more than once, hit me hard upon release, but even disregarding that, the Dick Tracy films of the 1940s are just right up my alley nowadays. These RKO productions were strictly “B” movies, but ones that went down the film noir route, while also, needless to say, taking inspiration from the Chester Gould comic strips this all originally springs from. In other words, they’re irresistible.

‘Course, the last time we looked at one of these, it was ostensibly considered one of the worst films ever – in some circles, anyway. (My conclusion? It wasn’t, not by a longshot.) But today, we’re looking at what I presume is generally considered one of the better entries, based solely on one big, big factor: Boris Karloff!

That’s right, it’s 1947’s Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome, by way of budget video manufacturer of yesteryear, Trans-Atlantic Video. And even better, it’s dated 1990, which means it was a release quite likely piggybacking on the hype of the aforementioned Milton Armitage Warren Beatty movie! Neato!

A coupla things before we look at the movie proper:

First, obviously, this is our cover here, and I love it! The “movie favorites” banner is not only a sure sign of Trans-Atlantic Video, but also of the kind of ballyhoo that was commonly seen on budget videos of the time. Hey, back then, you did what you could to sell this stuff to a public hungry to add to their burgeoning video libraries. (Remember, home video as something the general public could partake in was still relatively new, and the idea that tapes could be affordable enough to own outright, rather than simply renting, was even newer.) But even better than that is the usage of the original poster art, because man, that artwork is just fantastic! It’s 1940s in all the best ways, with the horrific visage of Karloff looming over top of it all nothing short of fantastic.

Secondly, and speaking of Karloff, take note that he receives top billing over Ralph Byrd’s Dick Tracy. You want another, admittedly more tenuous connection to 1990’s Dick Tracy? Here you go: that 1990 flick was intended to ape the hype and subsequent summertime success surrounding 1989’s Batman, in which Jack Nicholson’s Joker was famously (infamously?) billed over Michael Keaton’s titular character. Am I grasping at straws with this line of thinking? Well sure I am!

Third, but perhaps but most importantly, this is the 40s Tracy flick I go back furthest with. Y’see, a few years after that 1990 Dick Tracy came and went (I’m estimating 1993 or thereabouts), mom took my brother and I to Toys-R-Us, and on a clearance table were some budget VHS tapes of these RKO Tracy films. Not from this label, but nevertheless, there they were. In hindsight, I’d hypothesize they were leftovers from that 1990 push, but that could be all sorts of wrong. At any rate, my brother got Dick Tracy’s Dilemma and I got Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome. Being little kids, and in my case one who hadn’t quite fostered a true love of classic cinema just yet, these were more for a fondness of the character than things we’d endlessly watch (we didn’t), though as the years went by this turned out to be a wise purchase on ma’s part. (I still have both of those tapes to this day.) Come to think of it, this was my first true exposure to Boris Karloff, too!

Finally, I’m not going to bother posting a pic of the back of the VHS sleeve, mainly because I have little to say about it, but before we head into the movie, I just want to point out that officially, the manufacturer of this tape is listed as “ATI Mark V Productions Inc./TAV.” The TAV is clearly Trans-Atlantic Video, but I’m not familiar with the rest of that. Unlike earlier TAV vids, there’s an actual synopsis on the back (as opposed to a one-line summary with promotions for other TAV products filling out most of the space), so maybe Mark V was responsible for that, I don’t now. Anyway, for the sake of (relative) brevity, I’m just going to keep calling this a TAV release.

Alright then, 1947’s Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome. This was actually the fourth and final RKO Tracy film. Because of the Karloff konnection, it’s also probably the most famous, or at least the biggest chaser for classic movie lovers. Is it the best of the series? I’ll leave that up to your individual tastes, but I’m gonna tell you up front: I think this movie is terrific! The low budget film noir elements coupled with the comic strip roots and even some science fiction aspects, not to mention a breezy 65 minute runtime, it all combines to make this one a lot of fun.

Karloff is Gruesome, who as the story opens is fresh outta prison and immediately ready to dive back into a life of crime. Thanks to a connection with an old crony named Melody, Gruesome quickly gets in league with some baddies who are in possession of gas bombs that temporarily paralyze anyone who inhales their contents. This leads to a daylight bank robbery where everyone inside said bank are frozen (except Tracy’s girlfriend Tess Truehart; she was in a phone booth) and money is taken with ease. Nevertheless, during their escape, a cop is shot dead outside. Needless to say, super sleuth Tracy is now on the case.

Karloff lends a legitimate horror film presence to the proceedings, though the film, in addition to being a noirish crime thriller, is more science fiction than horror, mainly when the people in the bank are frozen in place. Granted, it’s light sci-fi, but the elements are still there. (The frozen people thing comes off a little goofy, but harmless enough, and still less goofy than the space age Dick Tracy comic strips sound. I haven’t read any of those, but I’m not sure I want to!)

And, it’s easy to see why Karloff received top billing; besides being (I imagine) a bigger name draw, he dominates this film in a way that Byrd’s Tracy just doesn’t. It goes without saying Boris is excellent in the role, and I was impressed with the way his character progresses during such a short running time; as I watched, I was first prepared to say Karloff’s Gruesome was, in comparison, a more sympathetic character than Cueball, who we/I saw last time around. Certainly Gruesome is tough and violent and no-nonsense, but earlier in the film at least, he seems more greedy than anything, even decrying the shooting of the police officer, which he deems unnecessary. But then, as the film goes on, he becomes more ruthless, displaying traits that really live up to his moniker. Some of this is in the writing, but I dare say it’s Karloff’s performance that truly makes this progression work.

With such a brief running time and low budget, it’s naturally not a perfect film; Byrd’s Tracy receives plenty of screentime but still never seems like the main focus, as you would expect of a, you know, Dick Tracy film. (Maybe that Nicholson/Keaton comparison earlier was apt after all?) Furthermore, a plot point involving Dr. A. Tomic is never fleshed out as much as I would have liked, with his assistant I.M. Learned (gotta love those names!) becoming more of a focus as the film goes on.

Those are small complaints though, because this movie is just, so, so entertaining as it is. It’s got that late-40s, post war matinee movie sheen that you just can’t not love. High art? Well, no, but something tells me it was never intended to be. Much of the movie is bathed in shadows, as you would expect of a b-noir, but with enough comic strip origin elements to keep it from becoming too dark (more figuratively than literally, I mean.)

Funny self-referential moment: earlier in the film, a character declares that if he didn’t know better, he’d think they were dealing with Boris Karloff! Nicely played, RKO!

(TAV utilized a fairly decent print of the movie for this tape. It’s by no means pristine, but consistently watchable throughout.)

Oh hey, at the very end of the movie, the ending card was faded out just early enough for TAV to fade into this screen as the closing music was still playing: a little advertisement for their other [general] offerings! Usually I’d prefer that a company do that once the movie has finished in its entirety, but I don’t know, it just didn’t bother me that much this time around. Probably because it’s such a simple-but-fun reminder of the era this tape originally hails from.

So anyway, Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome, this isn’t a hard movie to seek out in the slightest; it has long been delightfully public domain, which means it’s readily available in any number of formats. DVDs? Absolutely. VHS? If that’s your preference, there’s numerous choices out there (this TAV issue was but one of many), and hey, you could even watch it free an’ legal online if that’s your thing. No joshin’, this one gets a big recommendation from yours truly.

‘Course, if you’re like me and grew up with all the hype surrounding the 1990 Dick Tracy, there’s something kinda neat about watching a release that was in all likelihood attempting to capture some of said hype (and I lived through it; it wasn’t a small push by any means). But even without that aspect, it’s fun to just go back and watch it the way our home video ancestors did. (Wait, if I lived through the era, can I really say “our ancestors” here? Doesn’t that make me my own ancestor? Aw now I’m confusing myself…)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s