Hollywood has been on my mind a lot the past few weeks.
It started while assembling the week’s worth of puzzles that ran in this space a short time ago; each installment contained one Hollywood connection, and it was great fun sifting through images of wonderful old stars such as Eve Arden and Spencer Tracy.
Over the past couple days days there has been some discussion amongst my oldest friends regarding the new Doctor Strange motion picture from Marvel Studios. When you grew up reading Marvel Comics as we did, and when you dealt with the sneering of the adult population (I remember one bookstore clerk racking up the sale for a fresh stack of comics I was buying and snidely asking, “Are you going to read them all tonight?”), regardless what you think of the finished movie product it’s more than slightly amazing that John & Jane Q. Public now know who Stephen Strange is (and Tony Stark, and Steve Rogers, and Peter Parker, and …). Even more amazing to realize how many members of that public-at-large are shelling out hard-earned coin to see their big-screen adventures.
In the course of that discussion, it hit me that that while audiences watching theatrical versions of Marvel Comics characters is a relatively new phenomenon, the practice of audiences filling movie palaces to see cartoon characters move and talk and generally come to life is anything but new — and yes, it was the comic strips that got there first. That led me to put together this two-part look back at Those Thrilling Days of Yesteryear, focusing this time on the “crown jewels” of the Chicago Tribune New York News Syndicate.
Milton Caniff’s 1934-1946 run on Terry and the Pirates remains as feisty and entertaining today as it was when it was appearing in daily newspapers across the country. The Columbia Pictures serial version of Terry is less successful than its source material, but back in 1940 comics were considered cheap, throwaway entertainment and chapterplays were simply warm-ups for the featured film, so there were less-discerning filters being applied in those days. Certainly many of the kids attending the Saturday matinee were probably content to see Terry, Pat, Normandie, Connie, and Big Stoop walking, talking, and come to life before their eyes.
As discussed in Volume 5 of our Little Orphan Annie series, 1932 brought RKO’s version of America’s Spunkiest Kid into the cinemas. It fared little better with critics than would Terry, despite featuring one of the premier child stars of the day, Mitzi Green.
Arguably the best and certainly the the longest-lived of the celluloid versions of the CTNYN “Big Three” is Dick Tracy. America’s Top Manhunter first hit the movie screen in 1937 as a fifteen-chapter Republic Pictures serial, the first in a series of five from that studio.
RKO followed Republic in 1945 with a series of four Dick Tracy full-length films. Morgan Conway played Tracy in the first two before Ralph Byrd resumed the part for Dick Tracy’s Dilemma and Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome. In this still with June Clayworth from the latter production (1947), it’s clear Byrd still looks great as Tess Trueheart’s one-and-only.
CTNYN wasn’t the only major comic strip syndicator to have its characters entertain movie-goers. We’ll be back soon with a look at a trio of strips from the King Features stable that lived parallel lives in the flicker-pictures.