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Building Entertainment: The Animated Films of the Walt Disney Studio. Touchstone Edition. Dick Tracy


Welcome to my weekly discussion of the animated films of the Walt Disney Studio. I’m proceeding mostly chronologically. The title comes from a quote from Walt, “I never called my work an ‘art’ It’s part of show business, the business of building entertainment.”

Title: Dick Tracy

Year: 1990

Source materials : The comic strip created in 1931 by Chester Gould


Budget: $46 million

Box office: $162.7 million

Plot: At an illegal card game, a young street urchin witnesses the massacre of a group of mobsters at the hands of Flattop and Itchy, two of the hoods on the payroll of Alphonse “Big Boy” Caprice. Big Boy’s crime syndicate is aggressively taking over small businesses in the city. Detective Dick Tracy catches the Kid in an act of petty theft. After rescuing him from a ruthless host, Tracy temporarily adopts him with the help of his girlfriend, Tess Trueheart.


Meanwhile, Big Boy coerces club owner Lips Manlis into signing over the deed to Club Ritz. He then kills Lips with a cement overcoat (referred to onscreen as “The Bath”) and steals his girlfriend, the seductive and sultry singer Breathless Mahoney. After Lips is reported missing, Tracy interrogates his three hired guns Flattop, Itchy, and Mumbles, then goes to the club to arrest Big Boy for Lips’ murder. Breathless is the only witness. Instead of providing testimony, she unsuccessfully attempts to seduce Tracy. Big Boy cannot be indicted, and he is released from jail.


Big Boy’s next move is to try to bring other criminals, including Spud Spaldoni, Pruneface, Influence, Texie Garcia, Ribs Mocca, and Numbers together under his leadership. Spaldoni refuses and is killed with a carbomb, leaving Dick Tracy, who discovered the meeting and was attempting to spy on it, wondering what is going on. The next day, Big Boy and his henchmen kidnap Tracy and attempt to bribe him; Tracy rebuffs them, prompting the criminals to attempt to kill him. However, Tracy is saved by Kid, who is then bestowed by the police with an honorary detective certificate, which will remain temporary until he decides on a legitimate name for himself.


Breathless shows up at Tracy’s apartment, once again in an attempt to seduce him. Tracy shows he is only human by allowing her to kiss him. Tess witnesses this scene and eventually leaves town. Tracy leads a seemingly unsuccessful raid on Club Ritz, but it is actually a diversion so that Officer “Bug” Bailey can enter the building to operate a secretly installed listening device so the police can listen in on Big Boy’s criminal activities. The resultant raids all but wipe out Big Boy’s criminal empire. However, Big Boy discovers Bug, and captures him for a trap planned by Influence and Pruneface to kill Tracy in the warehouse.


In the resulting gun battle, a stranger with no face called “The Blank” steps out of the shadows to save Tracy after he is cornered, and kills Pruneface. Influence escapes as Tracy rescues Bug from the fate that befell Lips Manlis, and Big Boy is enraged to hear that The Blank foiled the hit. Tracy again attempts to extract the testimony from Breathless that he needs to put Big Boy away. She agrees to testify only if Tracy agrees to give in to her advances.

Tess eventually has a change of heart, but before she can tell Tracy, she is kidnapped by The Blank, with the help of Big Boy’s club piano player, 88 Keys. Tracy is drugged and rendered unconscious by The Blank, then framed for murdering the corrupt District Attorney John Fletcher, whereupon he is detained by the police. The Kid, meanwhile, adopts the name “Dick Tracy, Jr.”


Big Boy’s business thrives until The Blank frames him for Tess’ kidnapping. Released by his colleagues on New Year’s Eve, Tracy interrogates Mumbles, and arrives at a gun battle outside the Club Ritz where Big Boy’s men are killed or captured by Tracy and the police. Abandoning his crew, Big Boy flees to a drawbridge and ties Tess to its gears before he is confronted by Tracy.


Their fight is halted when The Blank appears and holds both men at gunpoint, offering to share the city with Tracy after Big Boy is dead. When Junior arrives, Big Boy takes advantage of the distraction and opens fire before Tracy sends him falling to his death in the bridge’s gears, while Junior rescues Tess. Mortally wounded, The Blank is revealed to be Breathless Mahoney, who kisses Tracy before dying. All charges against Tracy are dropped.d


Later, Tracy proposes to Tess, but is interrupted by the report of a robbery in progress. He leaves her with the ring before he and Dick Tracy, Jr. depart to respond to the robbery, whereupon Junior remarks, “You know, Tracy, I kinda like that dame.”

Background: Warren Beatty had a concept for a Dick Tracy film in 1975. An earlier attempt was made with Tom Mankiewicz writing the script. Then Paramount Pictures, became involved and offered Steven Spielberg the director’s position, and brought in Universal Pictures to co-finance. Beatty was cast, but tensions arose between Beatty and production. The film rights eventually reverted to Tribune Media Services in 1985. However, Beatty decided to option the Dick Tracy rights himself for $3 million. When Jeffrey Katzenberg moved from Paramount to the Walt Disney Studios, 1 Dick Tracy resurfaced with Beatty as director, producer and leading man.

The financing for Dick Tracy came from Disney and Silver Screen Partners IV, as well as Beatty’s own production company, Mulholland Productions. Disney was originally going to release the film under the traditional Walt Disney Pictures banner, but chose instead to release and market the film under the adult-oriented Touchstone Pictures label leading up to the film’s theatrical debut, because the studio felt it had too many mature themes for a Disney-branded film.


Changes from the Source Material: All the characters are from the comic strip, but most of the villains worked independently rather than under Big Boy. This was lampshaded in the comic strip at the time where Tracy was hired as a consultant to a film about his life


Design: Early in the development of Dick Tracy, Beatty decided to make the film using a palette limited to just seven colors, primarily red, green, blue and yellow—to evoke the film’s comic strip origins; furthermore each of the colors was to be exactly the same shade. Beatty’s design team included production designer Richard Sylbert, set decorator Rick Simpson, cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, visual effects supervisors Michael Lloyd and Harrison Ellenshaw, prosthetic makeup designers John Caglione, Jr. and Doug Drexler, and costume designer Milena Canonero. Their main intention was to stay close to Chester Gould’s original drawings from the 1930s.


For the matte paintings, Ellenshaw and Lloyd executed over 57 paintings on glass, which were then optically combined with the live action. Caglione and Drexler were recommended for the prosthetic makeup designs by Canonero. The rogues gallery makeup designs were taken directly from Gould’s drawings, with the exception of Pacino, who improvised his own design.

Music The score was composed by Danny Elfman after his success with Batman


Songs: The songs were written by legendary musical theatre composer Stephen Sondheim. 2

  • “Sooner or Later (I Always Get My Man),” sung by Madonna
  • “More,” sung by Madonna
  • “Live Alone and Like It,” sung by Mel Tormé
  • “Back in Business,” sung by Janis Siegel, Cheryl Bentyne, and Lorraine Feather
  • “What Can You Lose?” sung by Madonna and Mandy Patinkin.

Cast: Dick Van Dyke returns as District Attorney John Fletcher, Charles Fleisher has a cameo as a reporter, and Catherine O’Hara has a cameo as Texie Garcia

Warren Beatty as Dick Tracy. He has been nominated for fourteen Academy Awards – four for Best Actor, four for Best Picture, two for Best Director, three for Original Screenplay, and one for Adapted Screenplay – winning Best Director for Reds. He made his film debut in Splendor in the Grass. Fulm roles that followed (some of which he produced and directed): The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, All Fall Down, Lilith, Promise Her Anything, Mickey One, Kaleidoscope, Bonnie and Clyde, The Only Game in Town, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Dollars, The Parallax View, The Fortune, Shampoo, Heaven Can Wait, Ishtar, Bugsy, Love Affair, and Bulworth. Al Pacino as Alphonse “Big Boy” Caprice. Pacino’s film debut was a minor role in Me, Natalie. He gained favorable notice for his first lead role as a heroin addict in The Panic in Needle Park. His breakthrough role wasas Michael Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather receiving his first Oscar nomination and would reprise the role in the sequels The Godfather Part II and The Godfather Part III. Other notable roles include Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, …And Justice for All, Scent of a Woman, 3 Glengarry Glen Ross, Scarface, Carlito’s Way, Heat, Donnie Brasco, The Devil’s Advocate, The Insider, Insomnia, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and The Irishman. In television, Pacino has acted in the miniseries Angels in America and You Don’t Know Jack. He won the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Miniseries or a Movie for each role. He is a two-time Tony Award winner, in 1969 and 1977, for his performances in Does a Tiger Wear a Necktie? and The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel.

Madonna 4 as Breathless Mahoney. As a singer she has released several successful albums, including Madonna, Like a Virgin, True Blue, Like a Prayer, Erotica, Bedtime Stories, Ray of Light, Music, American Life, Confessions on a Dance Floor, Hard Candy, MDNA, Rebel Heart, and Madame X. As an actor, she appeared in Vision Quest, Desperately Seeking Susan, Shanghai Surprise, Who’s That Girl, A League of Their Own, Body of Evidence, Dangerous Game, Four Rooms, Evita, Swept Away, and Die Another Day. Glenne Headly as Tess Trueheart. 5 She was widely known for her roles in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and Mr. Holland’s Opus. She appeared in the television movies Winchell, And the Band Played On, Pronto, My Own Country, and Women vs. Men. She had recurring roles on ER and Monk. Other roles included Comeback Season, Kit Kittredge: An American Girl, The Joneses, Don Jon, and Strange Weather.

Charlie Korsmo as The Kid. His film roles include What About Bob?, Hook, and Can’t Hardly Wait. He has retired from acting and works for the US government. Charles Durning as Chief Brandon. His best-known films include The Sting, Dog Day Afternoon, True Confessions, Tootsie, and O Brother, Where Art Thou? He was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for both The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas and To Be or Not to Be. Prior to his acting career, Durning served in World War II and was decorated for valor in combat.

Dustin Hoffman 6 as Mumbles. His breakthrough film role was as Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate. Hoffman’s many films include Midnight Cowboy, Little Big Man, Papillon, Lenny, Marathon Man, All the President’s Men, Kramer vs. Kramer, Tootsie, Rain Man, Hook, and Wag the Dog. He made his directorial debut in 2012, with Quartet, and has done voice work for the Kung Fu Panda film series and The Tale of Despereaux. William Forsythe as Flattop. best known for his portrayal of various gangsters and tough guys in films such as Raising Arizona, Gotti, Once Upon a Time in America, Stone Cold, Out For Justice, Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead, The Rock, American Me and The Devil’s Rejects. He also played recurring characters in the series Boardwalk Empire, Justified, and John Doe.

Mandy Patinkin as 88 Keys. He is best known for his portrayal of Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride. His other film credits include Yentl, Alien Nation, The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland, and Wish I Was Here. He has appeared in major roles in television series such as Chicago Hope, Dead Like Me, and Criminal Minds, and currently plays Saul Berenson in the Showtime series Homeland. On Broadway, he appeared in Sunday in the Park with George, Evita and The Secret Garden. Paul Sorvino as Lips Manlis. He is possibly best known for his roles as Paulie Cicero in Goodfellas, and NYPD Sergeant Phil Cerreta on Law & Order. He held supporting roles in A Touch of Class, Reds, The Rocketeer, Nixon and Romeo + Juliet.


James Caan makes a cameo as Spud Spaldoni. After early roles in The Glory Guys for which he received a Golden Globe nomination, El Dorado, and The Rain People, he came to prominence in the 1970s with significant roles in films such as Brian’s Song, The Godfather, Cinderella Liberty, The Gambler, Freebie and the Bean, Rollerball, Funny Lady, A Bridge Too Far, Chapter Two, Thief, Misery, For the Boys, Eraser, Bottle Rocket, and Elf, as well as the role of “Big Ed” Deline in the television series Las Vegas. He also prominently lent his voice to Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2.

Pre-fame Kathy Bates and Colm Meaney have cameo roles.

Awards: At the 63rd Academy Awards, production designer Richard Sylbert and set decorator Rick Simpson won Best Art Direction, while John Caglione Jr. and Doug Drexler won Best Makeup. Stephen Sondheim was also awarded with Best Original Song for “Sooner or Later (I Always Get My Man)”, which Madonna sang live at the awards ceremony. 7 Nominations included Al Pacino for Best Supporting Actor, Vittorio Storaro (Cinematography), Milena Canonero (Costume Design), and the sound designers (Sound – Thomas Causey, Chris Jenkins, David E. Campbell and Doug Hemphill).[50] Storaro was also honored for his work by both the American Society of Cinematographers and British Society of Cinematographers.

Critical Reception:

  • Roger Ebert gave the film four stars in his review, arguing that Warren Beatty succeeded in creating the perfect tone of nostalgia for the film. Ebert mostly praised the matte paintings, art direction and prosthetic makeup design. “Dick Tracy is one of the most original and visionary fantasies I’ve seen on a screen,” he wrote.
  • Vincent Canby of The New York Times reviewed: “Dick Tracy has just about everything required of an extravaganza: a smashing cast, some great Stephen Sondheim songs, all of the technical wizardry that money can buy, and a screenplay that observes the fine line separating true comedy from lesser camp.”
  • Owen Gleiberman from Entertainment Weekly gave a mixed review, but was impressed by Madonna’s performance. “Dick Tracy is an honest effort but finally a bit of a folly. It could have used a little less color and a little more flesh and blood,” Gleiberman concluded.
  • In his heavily negative review for The Washington Post, Desson Thomson criticized Disney’s hyped marketing campaign, and the film in general. ” Dick Tracy is Hollywood’s annual celebration of everything that’s wrong with Hollywood,” he stated.
  • Peter Travers of Rolling Stone magazine cited that Warren Beatty, at 52 years old, was too old for the part. He also found similarities with Batman in which both films involve “a loner hero, a grotesque villain, a blond bombshell, a marketable pop soundtrack and a no-mercy merchandising campaign,” Travers continued. “But Batman possesses something else: a psychological depth that gives the audience a stake in the characters. Tracy sticks to its eye-poppingly brilliant surface. Though the film is a visual knockout, it’s emotionally impoverished.”

Legacy: Disney had hoped Dick Tracy would launch a successful franchise, like the Indiana Jones series, but its disappointing box office performance halted Disney’s plans. According to Beatty, in 2002, Tribune attempted to reclaim the rights and notified Disney—but not through the process outlined in the 1985 agreement. Disney, which had no intention of producing a sequel, rejected Tribune’s claim, and gave Beatty back most of the rights in May 2005.

In 2008, Beatty convinced cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and film critic Leonard Maltin to make The Dick Tracy TV Special for Turner Classic Movies, which featured Beatty as Tracy in an retrospective interview with Maltin. Judge Pregerson wrote in his order that “Beatty’s commencement of principal photography of his television special on November 8, 2008 was sufficient for him to retain the Dick Tracy rights.”

In June 2011, Beatty confirmed his intention to make a sequel to Dick Tracy, but he refused to discuss details. He said: “I’m gonna make another one [but] I think it’s dumb talking about movies before you make them. I just don’t do it. It gives you the perfect excuse to avoid making them.” When asked when the sequel would get made, he replied: “I take so long to get around to making a movie that I don’t know when it starts.” In April 2016, Beatty again mentioned the possibility of producing a sequel when he attended CinemaCon.

Max Allan Collins 8 wrote the novilization of the film. Later, he wrote Dick Tracy Goes to War. The story is set after the commencement of World War II, and involves Dick Tracy’s enlistment in the U.S. Navy, working for their Military Intelligence Division (as he did in the comic strip). A year after War was released, Collins wrote a third novel titled Dick Tracy Meets His Match, in which Tracy finally follows through on his marriage proposal to Tess Trueheart.

My take: Nothing else looks like this film and I love it. It’s one of the last vestiges of old school movie making. The music is very distinctive of Elfman’s work and Sondheim is of course Sondheim. Madonna was never better, and the actors all look like they are having a blast

Available on Disney +?:No

Next Week: Duck Tales (woo hoo)