Saturday, November 17, 2012

The Films of Warren Beatty-"Dick Tracy TV Special" (2009)

Warren Beatty as Dick Tracy, 1990.

Warren Beatty’s most recent theatrical movie was 2001’s dreadful “Town & Country,” (reviewed here) but since then his only released project has been a little-seen half-hour TV movie about Dick Tracy. It aired in 2009, and it’s unimaginatively titled “Dick Tracy TV Special,” according to IMDB. The special was produced, written, and directed by Warren Beatty and Chris Merrill. I caught a repeat screening of it on TCM in my quest to watch everything Beatty-related. It’s a very strange little piece, featuring Beatty, fully in character as Dick Tracy, answering questions from Leonard Maltin, who plays himself. Beatty takes the odd step of making Dick Tracy a “real” person whom Chester Gould made a comic strip of. Rather than play Dick Tracy as he is in the comic strips, Beatty chooses to play him as a character who lives in the real world outside of the comic strips. So Beatty, as Tracy, says things like, “Well, Chester Gould made these comics about me and my life as a detective, and later on people made movies about me.” It’s just an odd way to think of the character, so we have Warren Beatty playing Dick Tracy, who is talking about being played in a movie by Warren Beatty. Meta! 

Part of the reason this TV special was made was because Beatty sued the Tribune Company over the film rights to the Dick Tracy character. Tribune Company is a giant corporation that owns the Chicago Tribune, among other newspapers. The Dick Tracy comic strip was syndicated by the Chicago Tribune. Beatty bought the film rights to the Dick Tracy character in the mid-1980’s, as he was prepping his Dick Tracy movie, which was released in 1990. Beatty contends that he still owns the film rights to the Dick Tracy character, but the Tribune Company was protesting this. Beatty also contends that he is working on a sequel to Dick Tracy. But since Beatty proceeds at such a glacial pace, Tribune Company wanted to get the rights back, presumably so they could produce a dark, gritty re-boot of the Dick Tracy brand. Beatty made the “Dick Tracy TV Special” in part to prove that he was actually serious about using the film rights to Dick Tracy. Beatty won the lawsuit when it was finally settled in 2011, and thus he still owns the film rights to Dick Tracy. 

The special itself is a decidedly low-budget affair, and it opens with much anticipation for Tracy’s appearance at his interview with Leonard Maltin. When he does arrive, people ooo and ahhh over him, and say how great he looks for his age. (He’s more than 100 years old, according to Tracy/Beatty.) Tracy insists that he doesn’t need any make up for the interview, and Maltin fawns over how young he looks. Which begs the question, is this how Warren Beatty really sees himself? Or is he poking fun at himself? I’m not really sure. When asked how he keeps himself looking so young, Tracy/Beatty responds enigmatically “Pomegranates, pomegranates.” Okay, sure, whatever. 

The special features quite a few clips from the various movie versions of Dick Tracy that have been made over the years. The comic strip began its newspaper run in 1931, and the first movie featuring Dick Tracy was a Republic serial in 1937, starring Ralph Byrd as Tracy. Bizarrely, the film made Tracy into an FBI agent, or “G-Man,” when any dedicated follower of the strip knew that he was a plainclothes police detective who worked in an unnamed U.S. metropolis. Four Tracy serials were made, and in the mid 1940’s four more B-grade Tracy features appeared, with Byrd reprising his role as Tracy in the last two. (Morgan Conway replaced Byrd in the first two 1940’s Tracy films.) Byrd also appeared as Tracy in a short-lived TV series from 1950-52. Byrd died of a heart attack in 1952, putting an end to the TV series. 

As a kid who read tons of Dick Tracy collections of comic strips when I was young-most of them released around the time Beatty’s movie came out in 1990, one of my beefs with all the film adaptations of Dick Tracy, from the Republic serials to Beatty’s own movie, is that they never followed the exact storylines of Chester Gould’s comic strips. I think someone could have made very entertaining movies just filming the strips as they were written. Obviously, you might need to flesh the stories out to bring them up to feature length, or you could simply make shorter movies. I can understand Beatty’s creative decision, if you’ve only got one shot to make a Dick Tracy movie, you can’t just focus on one colorful villain, you really need to include as many of them as possible. But I would say that the pages of the Dick Tracy comic strip were much more exciting than the rather dull Tracy adaptations of the 1940’s, which didn’t feature any of Gould’s colorful villains. 

The only amusing moments of the special are when Beatty, as Tracy, comments about the Warren Beatty film version of Dick Tracy. Tracy/Beatty heaps praise on Ralph Byrd and Morgan Conway’s portrayals of “himself” on screen. When Maltin presses him about Beatty, he says: “Beatty was, he was, uh, fine.  He was no Ralph Byrd!” When asked specifically about the Warren Beatty Dick Tracy movie, Tracy/Beatty says, “The Warren Beatty movie, to tell you the truth I think that the scenery’s a little phony. Whether that was intentional or not, I really couldn’t say. I don’t know why he wouldn’t have wanted it to look real.” This is just a weird thing for Tracy/Beatty to say. Obviously Warren Beatty himself knows whether or not he intended the scenery to look “phony” in “Dick Tracy,” as he directed it! Maybe this is Beatty’s backhanded way of saying that as a director he intended the scenery to look phony, but that point seems rather obvious to anyone who’s seen the movie. Beatty’s “Dick Tracy” is purely a comic strip come to life, full of rich, vibrant colors and over the top acting from Al Pacino. Beatty, as Tracy, goes on to say that the movie “Gave you a feeling that you were in some sort of musical comedy.” Well, fair enough, the movie did feature several original songs by Stephen Sondheim. About the best that Tracy/Beatty can say is that “The picture that Beatty made had a lot of uh, a lot of color.” Again, very true. 

As a dedicated Beatty fan, the funniest moment for me was when Tracy/Beatty comments on Warren Beatty’s personality. After Maltin points out that Beatty produced, directed, and wrote “Dick Tracy,” as well as starring in it, Tracy/Beatty responds, “He certainly doesn’t seem to have a low opinion of himself, if you know what I mean.” This is exactly what a lot of people might say about Warren Beatty! And here’s Warren Beatty sort-of, saying it about himself. Tracy/Beatty goes on to say about Warren Beatty, “As you know, he’s kinda public about running around being what I would call a knee-jerk liberal, and that’s something I don’t have a tremendous amount of patience for, I’m a conservative. I’ve never gotten to know the man, so I don’t want to seem judgmental.” Funny, ridiculous, and totally meta. No one can accuse Beatty of not being true to the character of Dick Tracy, as later on in the strip, particularly in the 1970’s, Chester Gould had Tracy go on occasional rants about how criminals were being coddled by too many civil rights that were hampering the police in doing their job. More than one villain in the strip temporarily goes free on a legal technicality; while Tracy, and the reader, knows that they are really guilty. It’s also funny to see and hear Beatty poke a little fun at his public image. The whole special begs the question: is Beatty more comfortable giving an interview as Dick Tracy than as himself?

The “Dick Tracy TV Special” is a very slight offering in the filmography of Warren Beatty. It’s really just a footnote in his career, and not a very good or entertaining footnote at that. I can only hope that it will spur Beatty on to make another full-length movie, which will hopefully resurrect his seemingly moribund film career.

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