Saturday, June 26, 2010

'Calling Dick Tracy' 20 Years Later

If my childhood were categorized into anthropological stages, defining each stage would require no more effort than simply looking at the toys, TV shows and movies that I happened to be obsessed with during a particular segment of my youth. There was the He-Man era, the Batman period, the Ninja Turtles phase, the X-Men years and (briefly) the Power Rangers months.

But none of these obsessions came remotely close to the level of passionate interest I reserved for an old-time, crime-fighting comic book detective dressed in yellow. Warren Beatty's cinematic revival of Dick Tracy fascinated me in a way that few things ever have before or since.

A recent Slate article brought a startling fact to my attention: The movie that spawned my obsession came out exactly 20 years ago. Twenty years ago? How is that possible? Where has the time gone?
As the article aptly points out, the movie never lived up to the hype that Disney manufactured for it. In the summer of 1990,  the film's iconic logo of red letters outlined in yellow was ubiquitous ((I still get a momentary jolt of nostalgic excitement whenever I see it) and was plastered on any item that could possibly be sold. Many of these items were soon in my possession.

I obviously had the yellow trench coat and yellow fedora, as well as the trademark two-way radio wristwatch (both the clunky walkie-talkie version and the functioning digital watch variety). I also had action figures, trading cards, coffee mugs, pins, magnets, books and even Dick Tracy Converse shoes. Jealous yet? If it was Dick Tracy-related, I was interested. I'm pretty sure that every gift I received for Christmas 1990 was somehow tied Dick Tracy.

But why did I like it so much? The Slate article claims that the movie was a misguided Warren Beatty vanity project and not worth anyone's time. Well, first of all, the Slate critic is flat out wrong. I recently watched the movie again, fearing that the removal of the rose-colored glasses of my childhood would reveal the film to be a horrible mess (as other childhood delights have become upon adult reflection), but I was pleasantly surprised.

Twenty years later, the movie still manages to take me back to the engaging, bygone 1920s world that I longed to inhabit when I first watched the movie. There are ugly gangsters brought to life with phenomenal makeup and no CGI, a conflicted hero who must choose between duty and power, a hilarious and Oscar-worthy performance by Al Pacino, Madonna (even as an 8-year-old, this movie made me develop a huge crush), brilliant old-time-sounding-but-newly-composed songs by Stephen Sondheim, machine gun shootouts, antique cars and a vibrant color palette that brings a comic book to life on the big screen. If none of that does anything for you, the unending parade of celebrity cameos will definitely hold your interest. Dick Van Dyke as a villain? Yes. What's not to like?

In my adult years, I've found it frustratingly difficult to recapture the ability to get lost in my imagination--a skill that came naturally at every "phase" of my childhood, regardless of which toys I was currently obsessing over. It was so easy to don the yellow trench coat, strap on the wristwatch and chase Pruneface around my backyard with a Tommy gun. Watching this movie lets me peer through that youthful window one more time, and--20 years later--the view is still a ton of fun.

Dick Tracy Fun Facts
  • After seeing the movie, I tried my best to get into the comic strip, but it was just too dang boring. I've looked at it every once in a while over the years and I stand by my initial claim that nothing ever happens in that strip. All they do is talk. I have yet to see a single bullet fired.
  • During the summer of 1990, I forced my family to drive to Woodstock, IL for the grand opening of the Chester Gould Dick Tracy Museum, honoring the creator and author of the strip. Much like the comic itself, I found the museum to be somewhat of a snooze. I do have vivid memories of the grand opening parade, however, concluding with a shootout in which Dick Tracy shot a bunch of gangsters to death with a machine gun firing blanks. That was not boring.
  • The museum closed in 2008.
  • My first trip to Disney World occurred in the wake of this movie's release and the parks were crawling with merchandise and movie tie-ins. This might have played a subconscious role in my fondness for the place as a vacation destination...
  • I just conducted a search for "Dick Tracy" on Amazon and realized that I once owned the majority of the 24 items on the first page of search results. Thanks to Disney's tremendous marketing and the film's failure to become a classic, it's reassuring to know that I could fairly easily reassemble my collection of Dick Tracy paraphernalia.
  •  I had every Dick Tracy movie action figure, except for the one that no store seemed to carry--The Blank. I had no idea until looking it up just now that the figure was only sold in Canada and pulled because the Blank's mask was removable and gave away the movie's twist ending. Where was eBay when I needed it?
  • This commercial (and others like it for all kinds of toys) really annoyed me because I couldn't buy all the cool backgrounds and accessories that the kids in the commercials had at their disposal. Where was I supposed to find an action figure-sized coffee cup to furnish Dick Tracy's office?
  • The Dick Tracy Nintendo game was impossible.
  • This is all more than you ever wanted to know about me or Dick Tracy.

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