SUSPENDED ANIMATION #242
In 1971, after the completion of the X-rated animated feature Fritz The Cat, Ralph Bakshi and Steve Krantz announced that they were in the process of developing Dick Tracy: Frozen, Fried and Buried Alive. The animated feature was to be set in Chicago during the Depression with Tracy in almost non-stop jeopardy from his colorful rogue’s gallery of villains.
At the time, newspapers reported that creator Gould would be paid more than a $100,000 dollars for the animation rights. Unfortunately, the Bakshi-Krantz partnership broke up soon after the announcement.
Dick Tracy (the word “Dick” being a slang term at the time for “detective”) first came to life in comic strip form from cartoonist Chester Gould in the pages of newspapers in October 1931. His violent adventures working for the police department later appeared in movie serials, “B” movies, a radio show and his own short-lived television show.
In Tex Avery’s Dumb Hounded (MGM, 1942), Droopy is seen reading a Dick Tracy comic book to pick up the tricks of the trade. Another fervent reader of Dick Tracy comic books was Daffy Duck whose reading of the latest issue sparked his dream of being Duck Twacy in Bob Clampett’s Great Piggy Bank Robbery (1946) to find his missing piggy bank.
Warner storyman Warren Foster who wrote the cartoon revived the character in a story he wrote for a Capitol Record storyteller album from 1949 entitled Bugs Bunny in Storyland. Mel Blanc re-created Daffy Duck portraying the famous “de-teck-it-tive” and children could follow along with the story illustrations done by legendary animation director Robert McKimson.
UPA owner Steve Bosustow sold the UPA studio in 1959 to producer Henry G. Saperstein, who felt he could revive the studio by concentrating on television which he saw as the future of animation.
In 1960, he decided to leverage UPA’s most valuable asset, the character Mr. Magoo, in a syndicated television series of five minute formulaic cartoons that could be combined in a half hour block to 150 different stations. He repeated the format for the 130 episodes of The Adventures of Dick Tracy (later just called The Dick Tracy Show) that originally aired in 1961-1962. Radio and stage performer Everett Sloane provided the voice for Tracy.
Stories were provided by Homer Brightman, Al Bertino, Dick Kinney, Ralph Wright, Bob Ogle, Dick Shaw and Ed Nofzinger. Supervising director was Abe Levitow who oversaw the work of Brad Case, Clyde Geronimi, Ray Patterson and others.
The opening and closing theme with a speeding police car careening down crowded streets was composed by Carl E. Brandt who had done similar duties on the Mr. Magoo television series. Besides composing for feature films and television, he had worked on Gumshoe Magoo (1958) that led to additional work for UPA. He later contributed music for series such as The Andy Griffith Show, Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C., I Spy, That Girl, The Mod Squad, and Eight Is Enough.
The complaint was that while the show was called The Dick Tracy Show, the famous detective only appeared very briefly at the beginning and end of each episode sitting at his desk to assign his stereotypical subordinates to track down the famous Tracy comic strip crooks. Tracy often had his wrist radio in front of his mouth so that his lips didn’t need to be animated.
Joe Jitsu (voice by Benny Rubin) was a parody on two Asian crime fighters Charlie Chan who was Chinese and Mr Moto who was Japanese with his name being based on the Japanese martial art known as jujitsu.
Hemlock Holmes a cockney accented English Bulldog that sounded like Cary Grant and named in honor of Sherlock Holmes was voiced by Jerry Hausner. He was accompanied by The Retouchables whose name was a parody on The Untouchables but they acted more like the Keystone Cops.
Heap O’Calorie a parody of actor Andy Devine and based on the local Irish “Cop on the Beat” who had a bad habit of filching apples from a fruit stand was voiced by “Uncle” Johnny Coons. His informant was Nick the Beatnik who didn’t speak but communicated by beating on his bongos.
Manuel Tijuana Guadalajara Tampico Gomez Jr. aka “GoGo” Gomez voiced by Paul Frees was based on Warner Brothers character Speedy Gonzalez.
The show was popular enough to spark some merchandising including a series of three hand puppets (Tracy, Hemlock and Jo Jitsu) from Ideal Toy Company, a Kenner Sparkle Paint set and a Little Golden Book with Tracy and Jo Jitsu.
In the July 16,1990 edition of the Los Angeles Times, president of UPA Henry G. Saperstein weighed in on the controversy over the local rerunning of the Dick Tracy cartoon series featuring racial stereotypes: “The ‘Tracy’ cartoons portray (Joe Jitsu and Go Go Gomez) as good, clean cops who don’t take bribes or get indicted and consistently bring criminals to justice.
“How about focusing on these attributes as ‘role models’ instead of exaggerating a nothing controversy from a self-appointed tiny do-gooder protest group? C’mon, guys, these are only old cartoons. Sit back and enjoy them.”
The National Hispanic Media Coalition and the Asian Pacific American Coalition among other organizations had protested the showing of the cartoons that had been re-released into syndication to coincide with the release of the 1990 Warren Beatty Dick Tracy movie as inherently racist.
Regarding the cartoons themselves, creator Gould told the press that “I didn’t like that. That was made on a format I came up with and supervised the initial episode. But we were catering to very small fry and I think we would have been smarter to have taken a more serious view of the thing and played it more or less straight like the strip.”Saperstein must still have had the rights to use Tracy because the character appeared in an episode of The Famous Adventures of Mr. Magoo (1964) entitled “Dick Tracy and the Mob”. It featured the villains Flattop, Itchy, Pruneface, The Mole, Mumbles and The Brow.
They have made arrangements with a top hit man named Squinty Eyes to kill Tracy to stop him from interfering with their criminal activities. That hit man looks exactly like Mr. Magoo, the famous actor appearing in a one man stage show. Tracy recruits Magoo to impersonate the hit man and infiltrate the mob. Tracy has already captured the real hit man.
Magoo has to fake the death of Tracy but at the same time the real Squinty Eyes has escaped custody and heads for Pruneface’s mansion. Tracy has to rush to the rescue as Magoo is bound and gagged and left in the room with sticks of dynamite ready to explode.
The episode was written by Sloan Nibley. Abe Levitow was supervising director with Ray Patterson the sequence director and Grant Simmons the animation director. Everett Sloane once again voiced Tracy and Jim Backus was Magoo. Other voices included Marvin Miller, Howard Morris, Dennis King Jr. and Shep Menkin.
Dick Tracy returned to the animated world briefly in 1971 as a segment of Archie’s TV Funnies from Filmation. Each half hour had a framing story involving the Archie characters but was primarily composed of short, individual cartoon segments based on comic strips like Nancy & Sluggo, Moon Mullins, The Captain and the Kids, Alley Oop, Broom Hilda and others.
The Tracy segments were played straight this time and included characters from the comic strip including Tess Trueheart, Junior Tracy, Moonmaid and Sam Catchem. Stories were written by Jim Ryan, Bill Danch and Ken Sobol with voice work by Howard Morris, John Erwin, Dallas McKennon and Jane Webb.
It seems to me that Dick Tracy could inspire a truly memorable animated series or feature film but perhaps the current culture that abhors gun violence and also the actions of some policemen might make it more problematic in producing something that was true to Gould’s original comic strip.