In Dick Tracy’s introductory serial film, the famous detective battles a mystery crime boss, The Spider (also called the Lame One) and his Spider Ring. In this (and all other) serials, Tracy is portrayed as a member of the FBI instead of a city detective. The producers no doubt tried to take advantage of the fame of the FBI, having been in headlines for bringing John Dillinger and other thirties gangsters to justice.
The Serial opens with the abduction of Dick’s brother Gordon Tracy, who is subjected to a brainwashing surgery (a “gland-change operation”). The operation prevents Gordon from distinguishing right from wrong, but in practice he appears to be under mind control. To accentuate the transformation, two different actors were cast as Gordon, Richard Beach before the surgery and Carleton Young after. Poor Gordon becomes a tool of the Spider and is put in charge of a futuristic Flying Wing aircraft and armed with a deadly sonic weapon. The bad guys attempt to destroy the newly completed Bay Bridge in San Francisco and what follows is fifteen chapters of investigation, chase and near death cliffhangers. A film created by editing these serials together was created and released in December of 1937.
Dick Tracy is portrayed by Ralph Byrd, who would continue to play the role through three more serials, two movies and a television series. Tracy’s secretary and lab assistant Gwen was played by a young Kay Hughes in a less romantic Tess Trueheart like roll and Smiley Burnette played bumbling Mike McGurk, acting much like Pat Patton in the comic strips of the time. Tracy’s primary assistant in the serial is Steve Lockwood, played by Fred Hamilton. The role of Junior, the only Chester Gould character other than Tracy to make the transition to the serial is played by Lee Van Atta.
Chapters (click Images to watch the chapter)
In the opening chapter we are introduced to the Lame One (the Spider) and Dick Tracy’s team as he investigates one of the mastermind’s murders. Dick’s brother Gordon is captured and brainwashed by The Dr. Moloch and Gordon then attacks the new San Francisco Bay Bridge with a sonic weapon mounted on a flying wing aircraft. Tracy races to save the bridge and may be crushed by an eminent collapse.
Saving the Bay Bridge, Tracy tracks the Flying Wing to a Steam Power Plant which he investigates with partner Steve. During a chase and shootout through the plant, Tracy destroys the sonic weapon before he and Steve escape on a Biplane. Gunfire from below cripples the plane, which crashes into a railroad bridge and tumbles to the ground on fire.
Surviving the plane crash and watching the Flying Wing escape, Tracy stumbles upon a second Spider plot involving fur smuggling on the arriving S.S. Morovania. An adventure in the harbor leads to a motorboat chase after Gordon (who Tracy does not yet recognize) in which Tracy’s boat is crushed between two large ships.
Surviving near death in the harbour, Tracy and Steve Lockwood fly a biplane to the Pacific Queen, a dirigible flying to America with the famous Mogra necklace on board. One of the Spider’s agents has stolen the necklace and bails out with a parachute to escape capture. Tracy uses a ruse that the necklace was a fake to get the Spider to make another theft attempt, but Junior ends up in the robot plane that is the bait!
Tracy and Junior parachute to safety from their plane, after which Tracy plants the false Mogra necklace for the Spiders men to pick up. He follows them to their Beachwood hotel hideout and infiltrates the building. After he is captured by Gordon (whom he does not recognize), a fight breaks out and Tracy makes a break for it with the real necklace, crawling around on the roof before Gordon shoots and Dick plummets over the edge.
Escaping the shootout from Beachwood, a clue leads Dick to a scientist named Randolph who has created a valuable formula for Nickolanium. The Spider’s men steal the formula and Tracy’s team follows a footprint clue to the new hideout on the waterfront and get into a large fist fight. Gordon tries to sell the formula to a foreign agent who has arrived via submarine, but Tracy breaks up the purchase and the agent’s submarine submerges to escape. Tracy’s foot is caught on a rope and he’s pulled under water.
After the raid at the dock, Tracy’s team finds a clue that the Spider is interested in Death Valley Johnny, a prospector with a hidden gold mine. Gordon steals the location of the mine and shoots Johnny, and Tracy uses detective work to find the mine and the ghost town nearby where he and Steve Lockwood engage the Spiders men. Tracy falls down a mine shaft during the fracas and is sitting duck for the Spider’s men.
Saved by Steve and Mike and foiling the Spider’s ghost town plot, Tracy meet Betty Clayton who is a test pilot on a top-secret speed plane her father H.D. developed. Dick takes a test ride and stops a hijack attempt of the plane by one of the Spiders minions. When H.D. is kidnapped by Gordon Tracy for his plans, Dick rescues the scientist and they escape in the speed plane until Gordon and his flying wing shoot the two down.
Dick Tracy parachutes to safety from his shot down plane and sneaks aboard the Flying Wing as a helmeted aviator when it lands to pick up the speed plane engine parts. He moves with the engine parts to a foreign agent’s zeppelin and takes control of it, returning it to America but before he can arrive the dirigible is shot down by a unknowing Steve Lockwood.
Escaping a crashing zeppelin, Tracy has foiled the Spider’s speed plane plot and moves on to the next, investigating missing gold aboard the oceanic steamer, the Atlantis. The Spider’s men are on board the vessel and Tracy battles the foreman Clancy, the two falling dockside when a hull plate falls from far above towards Dick.
Tracy arrests the Spiders men on the Atlantis and finds the stolen gold in the ship’s hull. Mike McGurk makes a goofy radio broadcast and while recording it, Junior records a secret broadcast made by Gordon Tracy who’s counterfeit ring has captured engraver Henry Coulter. Tracy and Steve track the signal source to the harbour where Tracy rescues Coulter and escapes on a boat. While chased and under fire, Tracy’s boat heads straight for the hull of a large ship.
In this recap chapter, Dick and his team meet with witnesses and determine that a lame man (the Lame One) leads the Spider Ring and that Gordon Tracy was captured alive by the ring. At the end of the episode, lights go out and the Lame One marks Dick Tracy with a spider mark and fires a revolver at him.
Tracy searches for the Lame One in headquarters but can’t find him, although Junior snaps a picture. A man named Kraft is sent to destroy the film negative, which he does but Tracy tracks him back to the Spider’s hideout in the harbor, briefly capturing the leaders and demanding whereabouts of his brother Gordon. Dick is overtaken and tied up as the ship begins to burn around him.
Tracy survives the burning ship and looks for more clues, and wraps himself in bandages like the engraver Mr. Coulter in the hospital. The Spiders men take Tracy as planned and G-Men trail the vehicle until a car switch. Tracy is captured in the Spider’s hideout and finally meets his brother Gordon. Dr. Moloch prepares to perform the same mind altering operation on Dick Tracy.
Steve and Mike track down the Spider’s hideout and call a huge raid down on the hideout. Evil Dr. Moloch is killed when the hideout is destroyed by a bomb and Gordon and the Lame One escape out a secret tunnel and race away in a car, chased by Tracy. Junior and Gwen are on the road, having landed their bi-plane nearby and Gordon swerves at the last-minute to avoid running them down. Both he and the Spider are killed.
If you prefer not watch each serial above individually, you can also watch all 15 episodes combined into a single movie below.