Sunday, March 18, 2018

Total Dick - The Dick Tracy Show!

The Dick Tracy Show is an absolute riot! Marred in the modern day by some pretty outrageous ethnic stereotypes (what cartoon of early eras was not really) this show gets hammered out of all perspective in my opinion. For one thing, these little vignettes are often pretty funny, wild absurdist variations on classic crime tropes armed with a brisk pace and some sterling voice acting. Many object to Dick Tracy's cursory role in the show, often being only seen in the office issuing tasks to a team of subbordinates and then getting reports. Later episodes do show Tracy in the field but it's true he's never the focus of any single episode, save perhaps the one in which he's kidnapped.

A gaggle of classic Dick Tracy baddies are on display. Flattop, Stooge Viller, The Brow, Pruneface, Mumbles, Oodles, Sketch Paree, and the Mole among the lot. Usually the villains team up to create some hair-brained scheme which is often as stupid as it is outrageous and just as swiftly they are brought to justice when Tracy's selected agent lands on the job. The crimes range from classics like jewel heists and bank robberies, to more bizarre things like crooked chicken fights and toupee thefts.

The agents on call are where folks begin to have issues with the show. Of little complaint is Hemlock Holmes, a British Bulldog who leads a gang of inept human cops called "The Retouchables", a Keystone Cops gang who are fast but stupid. Hemlock himself sounds like Cary Grant but is the oddity in the show, a talking animal in a show which almost exclusively features human beings, albeit odd ones.

Less annoying to critics is Heap O'Calorie, an Irish cop stereotype who steals apples and other fruits from local vendors and consults a beatnik named "Nick" (perfect) who never talks but uses only bongo drums to send Heap crucial data. Heap sounds like Andy Devine.

And then there's Go-Go Gomez. His full name is Manuel Tijiuana Guadalajara Tampico Gomez Jr. but Tracy calls him "Go-Go" because he's super-fast. He is often compared to another problematic Hispanic character by the name of Speedy Gonzalez. Go-Go is a stereotype of the apparently lazy Mexican who is actually quite effective, though he keeps his skills hidden until needed. He lounges in a hammock a lot and appears unusually interested in lovely ladies.  Go-Go shows up half-way in the series, pretty much taking the place of Heap O'Calorie who falls into obscurity.

Likewise with an eye for a beautiful dame is my favorite of the agents -- Joe Jitsu. Joe is a a Mr. Moto type, a painful buck-toothed Japanese stereotype so common in popular entertainment. He's smart and skilled in martial arts when needed and also has some special mental powers on occasion. His banter is among the funniest of the agents and that's why he's my fave, despite the problems with is look and manner.

The cartoons have a rigid structure in the early days, the call comes in from the Chief to Tracy to calls an agent who enters the fray and quickly gets into trouble. On the edge of danger, the agent then calls a halt and time stops as he calls Tracy to report. Then time restarts and eventually the tables are turned and the crooks are captured with a final report to Tracy to wrap it up. The utter predictability of these might annoy some, but I found it nifty as the writers kept finding small ways to reinvent and re-imagine the strict storytelling frames. Later the stories become a little looser.

I found the cartoons like potato chips, breezy and entertaining in their own way but so briskly paced that even the weaker ones ended before any real sense of boredom could set in. It's the pacing and wonderful voice work that makes these really click, though I personally found the designs and limited animation generally effective too. Telling a tale on the cheap takes no small skill and the makers of these cartoons were well able to make the most of the meager cartooning they had.

I recommend these, but not to those who have a low threshold for insult. There is not doubt these cartoons would not be made today and that's for the better I guess, but for a fan of funny cartoons, I'm personally glad they were made a long time ago.

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  1. Mention ought to be made of the opening and closing titles - they really lull the viewer into a false sense of what to expect - quite dramatic music, unusual art (love the bird's-eye view looking down on that intersection)...then we get Hemlock Holmes!

    Heap O'Calorie must have fallen into disuse fairly quickly, I had no idea he existed, and I used to watch a lotta cartoons back in the day (much as I suspect you and those who frequent this site probably did)

    1. Heap gets replaced by Go-Go Gomez it appeared as when Go-Go showed up Heap faded out. So a stereotypical Irish cop was replaced by an Hispanic one. Sigh.

      You're right about the opening. It's weirdly suspenseful given the light nature of the cartoons themselves.

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