Dick Tracy's case history -- Spry as ever, the square-jawed copper in the fedora is turning 60

The blood spilled in Chicago’s St. Valentine’s Day Massacre was still fresh in people’s minds. Al Capone ruled the Windy City. And Bonnie and Clyde would soon lay claim to the Great Plains. Clearly, Dick Tracy was a man for his times. Inspired by dashing federal agent Eliot Ness and his real-life G-men, Tracy was drawn to life by 30-year-old Chicago cartoonist Chester Gould. He first appeared in the Detroit Daily Mirror on Oct. 4, 1931. And within weeks the jut-jawed crime fighter had solved his first murder. ”I decided that if the police couldn’t catch the gangsters, I’d create a fellow who would,” said Gould.

For the last 60 years, the guy in the fedora has done away with some of the ugliest crooks in some of the toughest ways imaginable. There was the Brow, a Shar-Pei look-alike who jumped out a window and became flagpole shish kebab in 1944. And who could forget treacherous Tonsils, gobbled up by a barracuda in 1952? At height in the late ’50s, Tracy was carried by nearly 1,000 papers to 65 million readers. Before Warren Beatty got his mitts on the material for his 1990 extravaganza, the strip had inspired a 15-chapter movie serial in 1937, several film features, and a 1950 TV series starring Ralph Byrd.

At times, not everyone was amused. A batch of 1960 villains with flies swarming around their heads proved too vile for the Atlanta Constitution, which dropped the strip. And Tracy’s controversial statement in 1968 that ”violence is golden when it’s used to put down evil” sounded out of tune for the times. Gould shrugged off criticism and tended his Illinois farm, which had a rogues’ cemetery representing all the villains Tracy had done in. The strip gradually lost steam, and in 1977 Gould passed his drawing board on to Max Allan Collins and Rick Fletcher; he died in 1985 at age 84. But Tracy is still on the case in nearly 200 papers. And just as sure as there’s evil in the world, Tess Trueheart is waiting for him to come home.

Oct. 4, 1931

Kate Smith sang ”When the Moon Comes Over the Mountain,” and the Marx Brothers did Monkey Business in movies. Bookish types were reading Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth, while Rudy Vallee’s radio show ruled the airwaves.

Dick Tracy
  • Movie
  • 103 minutes