Cliffhanger Serials

 Between 1937 and 1941 four Dick Tracy serials were produced by Republic Pictures.  Sometimes called cliffhanger serials, all four Dick Tracy Serials consisted of 15 episodes that would each end with a cliffhanger.  These serials featured Dick Tracy as a FBI agent instead of a detective with a non-canon cast of characters.


Dick Tracy (1937 Serial)

    Dick Tracy’s foe is the mysterious crime boss The Spider and his Spider Ring.  In the process of various crimes, (including using his Flying Wing airplane and sound weapon to destroy the San Francisco Bay Bridge and stealing an experimental Speed Plane), the Spider captures Dick Tracy’s brother Gordon.  The Spider’s minion, Dr. Moloch performs a brain operation on Gordon Tracy to turn him evil, making him secretly part of the Spider Ring.   A film created by editing these serials together was created and released in December of 1937.

Watchable Chapter List


Dick Tracy Returns (1938 Serial)

Dick Tracy Returns
    Ralph Byrd reprised his role as G-Man Dick Tracy in this fifteen episode 1938 serial which saw Tracy trying to capture the Stark Gang led by mastermind Pa Stark played by Charles Middleton.  Action starts quick and furious when Stark and his five sons rob an armored car and murder Tracy’s pal Ron Merton (David Sharpe). One by one, the Starks are killed off by Tracy and the good guys until at last only Pa and eldest son Champ (John Merton) are left. Gathering together a massive supply of dynamite and nitroglycerin, the surviving gang members draw up plans to blow Tracy up, but of course the hero prevails.


Dick Tracy’s G-Men (1939 Serial)

    The third serial starring Ralph Byrd saw Dick Tracy facing off with notorious international spy Zarnoff played by Irving Pichel.  Zarnoff was employed by the Three Powers (alluding to the Axis powers) and is captured early in the serial and sentenced.  Escaping the gas chamber through the use of a rare drug that made him appear dead, Zarnoff continued by targeting American defense systems while attempting to exact his revenge on Tracy.  Tracy eventually catches up to Zarnoff in the middle of a desert for a final showdown.


Dick Tracy vs. Crime Inc. (1941 Serial)

    The last of four Republic Pictures serials, Dick Tracy (Ralph Byrd) battles with the shadows of an underworld organization, facing off against “The Ghost”, a villain who can turn himself invisible.  Tracy must try and protect the Council of Eight, a secret group of high powered businessmen targetted by the Underworld, but the Ghost may be a member and Dick works relentlessly to stop criminal plots, uncover the Ghost’s identity and time after time, stay alive in harrowing deadly cliffhangers! This film was re-released as Dick Tracy vs. Phantom Empire in 1952.

6 Responses to Cliffhanger Serials

  1. Pingback: Happy Birthday Ned Wever - Dick Tracy Depot

  2. General says:

    Were the cliffhanger serials originally made for tv?

    • admin says:

      Nope, they pre-date TV. They were seen in theaters, with new episodes coming to the theater each week. For this reason most serials have a movie style poster associated to it. As they aren’t that long, I imagine movie goers got to watch a couple different serial episodes on a visit. – Jeremy @ the Depot

      • General says:

        Thanks. Were the serials played before a feature film, or did people go just for the serial?

        • admin says:

          They had a feature film as a draw as well for evening showings, remembering that films back then usually only ran a bit more than an hour. They would also do Saturday matinees that kids liked to go to that would be the serial (or two different ones) with animated cartoons (black and white) and newsreels.

  3. Mike Newton says:

    The serial chapter was the dessert after the main meal of the double feature on Saturday afternoon. It usually was the last item on the bill because it was used to bring the kids back to the theater. If another theater was running a better serial or western, it became a real competitive battle. Republic Pictures made the best serials, followed by Universal which did the Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers and then Columbia which made assembly line products with occasional winners like the Superman serials.

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