The following is an entry in this year’s TRN Essay Contest. Get the details on how YOU can enter here! Thanks to Jeff Sheldon for entering! If you want to talk old Dick Tracy toys with him, you can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org
On October 14, 1931, the crime fighter Dick Tracy made his comic strip debut in the Detroit Mirror. Dick Tracy would entertain children and adults alike throughout the years and appear in comic strips and several shorts, serials, and long-form films throughout the 30’s, the ’40s, and ’50s. By the ’60s and ’70s however, the Dick Tracy character had begun to lose his appeal and mostly disappeared.
In the early 1980s, Universal Pictures began development of a Dick Tracy feature length film. Universal courted actor and lifelong Dick Tracy fan Warren Beatty for the titular role. It’s fun to consider the possibilities knowing that Clint Eastwood, Tom Selleck, and Harrison Ford were also under consideration. The film was shelved by Universal for several reasons, chief among them producer Walter Hill wanted to create a dark and violent version while Beatty wanted to present a colorful real-life version of the 1930’s comic he remembered from childhood. Once the movie was called off, Beatty himself acquired the rights to the character from Tribune Media Services for $3 million in hopes to bring the beloved good guy to the big screen with his vision of a real-life comic book movie.
Beatty was successful in getting the movie launched and along with The Walt Disney Studios released the most widely recognized and celebrated Dick Tracy film on June 15, 1990. The film starred many major Hollywood celebrities in starring roles, such as Beatty, Madonna, and Al Pacino. Other familiar names make appearances throughout the movie in supporting roles such as Dick Van Dyke, James Caan, Paul Sorvino, Kathy Bates, and Dustin Hoffman. Beatty succeeded in creating a real-life comic book with vibrant colors, larger than life characters and camera angles reminiscent of those found in the panels of graphic novels. To achieve his desired look, Beatty insisted on using just 7 colors throughout the whole movie to feel similar to the original comic strip.
Set in the 1930s, the story follows Dick Tracy’s efforts to eliminate the organized crime gang led by Al “Big Boy” Caprice (Al Pacino) and other wild cartoonish gangsters such as “The Brow,” “Mumbles,” and “Flat Top.” Also featured in the film is Tracy’s romantic run-in with his girlfriend Tess and nightclub singer Breathless Mahoney (Madonna).
I was 6 years old when all of this occurred in 1990. While I’m sure Disney’s target audience was a few years older than 6 year old me, I’ve always been an old soul at heart. My father got me interested in older TV shows at a very early age, especially with Nickelodeon’s new “Nick-at-Nite.” Some of my fondest memories were watching old black and white classic shows on Nick at Nite’s “Block Party” summer evening programming. I can still hear my Dad laughing that signature laugh of his well into the night. While not found on Nick-at-Nite, two of my all-time favorites things as a kid was the 1960’s Adam West version of Batman and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. These bright, colorful, comic-book style crime fighters were right up my alley and I was primed to love Dick Tracy.
The Ninja Turtles were my absolute favorite though, and I consumed everything I could Ninja Turtles. I collected videos, magazines or posters, but most importantly for me at the time, I was enamored with the TMNT toys from Playmates Toys company. I took those toys everywhere and I looked forward to every birthday or holiday so that I may get a few new ones to add to my collection.
It’s in playing with these TMNT toys by Playmates that I discovered Dick Tracy. Before the days of the internet, if you didn’t catch a certain advertisement live on TV, you often were left in the dark regarding future movies, tv shows, or pretty much anything. It was one day at the local Toys R Us that in the action figure aisle while searching for TMNT toys that I stumbled upon the Dick Tracy figures. These brightly painted figures with the colorful artwork of Dick Tracy himself on the cardboard backing immediately grabbed my attention. I grabbed one off the rack and devoured the information on the back!
Even more artwork of Tracy’s office at the Police Station awaited on the back with some sample comic strips and other artwork. Also included was a little biography on the specific character along with photos of the entire 14 figure lineup. Who were these guys? Flat Top? Pruneface? Rodent? This was awesome!
The set of toys included 14 characters from the movie, although only 13 were ever mass released. The elusive member of the set, “The Blank” was very hard if not impossible to find. From what I can tell through research and word of mouth, the toy revealed the pivotal ending plot point of the movie that The Blank was indeed (30-year-old spoiler) Breathless Mahoney. Since the toys were released before the film, Playmates and Disney did not want the toys to ruin the ending so they delayed The Blank’s release but it seems that it was so delayed that when it finally hit store shelves nowhere near as many were ever made available to the public. I’ve also read on a few blogs in recent years that it may have been hard to come by because it was only made available in Canada, yet I’ve been unable to confirm that. The Blank was included in the lineup on the back of the card for each toy to tantalize children everywhere though and can be included in your own set today for a very hefty price tag of around $1,000 and up (based on current prices online.)
Another interesting tidbit about this collection of figures was that a handful of the bad guys, such as The Brow, The Rodent, and Shoulders are literally killed off in the opening scene of the movie. Other characters, such as The Tramp and Lips Manlis are only in the film for a minute or two.
I absolutely loved the Playmates Toys figures from this era. Just like the Ninja Turtles line, these Dick Tracy toys were sturdy, well detailed, and painted with vibrant colors. The packaging (or card in toy parlance) had colorful images kids would love and loads of details about the character that I’d read over and over. These toys aren’t as articulated (moveable joints) as modern toys but they had plenty of detail and accessories that made for great playtime. I just love the cartoonish yet somehow realistic look. Each figure came with their own firearm, either a Tommy gun style machine gun or a handgun, along with a unique accessory such as moneybags, cement shoes, or a garbage can lid.
If I had to give a criticism of the toy line it’d have to be my disappointment that Dick Tracy himself, while donning his signature yellow fedora, does not come with the even more iconic yellow raincoat. I’d also have liked to have had other figures like Breathless Mahoney, the Kid, or a few of the other great gangsters included in the line. Perhaps maybe another good guy like Bug Bailey to help out Tracy and Sam Ketchum as the lone 2 good guys against the 12 villains.
The Police Car and a villain’s Getaway Car were also available for purchase as part of the line but I never had either of them. Also from Playmates, a pretend Transmitter Wristwatch styled just like Tracy’s was among the other items shopped to eager children. I distinctly remember my Mom buying me the watch at a Caldor’s to shut me up when I kept complaining about how much I wanted to go home. The watch face would light up when you pressed the side button to simulate giving and receiving messages and if I remember right it made some static noise as well. The watch broke pretty early on in my childhood but I kept it until very recently when it did not make it through a purge of items during a spring cleaning.
Today, the figures are found plentiful in varying conditions online both loose (opened) or on-card for pretty affordable prices. Certain figures such as The Tramp are found in Mint-On-Card (MOC) condition in abundance at pretty low prices. Others, such as The Blank, not so much. My personal hunt for The Blank is on but as mentioned earlier, it’s out there, but the prices need to come down a little!
If you have a love of Dick Tracy, and especially the Dick Tracy figures by Playmates, or if you have a Blank figure you’d like to get rid of, let me know!