Calling Dick Tracy!

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer
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I am one of those people who liked Touchstone's Dick Tracy (1990) film starring Warren Beatty. I didn't care for everything in the film, including the anti-climatic ending, but when I run across it on television, I still watch and enjoy it and feel it is underrated.

I wrote about the live action stage show at Disneyland and Disney MGM Studios.

Dick Tracy (the word "Dick" being a slang term at the time for "detective") first came to life in comic strip form from cartoonist Chester Gould in the pages of newspapers in October 1931.

Producer Art Linson (who would later produce The Untouchables) and director Floyd Mutrux acquired the rights to make Dick Tracy movies in 1977. They brought it to Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg, who were at Paramount, and pitched it as a series like James Bond with a new installment coming out every summer.

The film was offered to Steven Spielberg to direct as a co-production with Universal Pictures. Universal proposed John Landis as the director, Clint Eastwood as Tracy and commissioned the writing team of Jim Cash and Jack Epps Jr. to write a screenplay. Cash and Epps would go on to write Top Gun, The Secret of My Success and Legal Eagles.

After his troubles on Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983), Landis left the project and Walter Hill was brought in to direct with Joel Silver as producer. Cash and Epps wrote another draft while Hill approached Warren Beatty to play the lead role.

Beatty didn't like the approach to the character and the story and his financial demands eventually led to him leaving the project as did Hill. Richard Benjamin was then slated to direct a lower budget version of the film with another different script by Cash and Epps. Eventually, the rights reverted back to the Tribune Media Services in 1985 and Beatty bought them.

Cartoonist Gould died in early 1985, although he had already retired from the newspaper strip in 1977, turning it over to writer Max Allan Collins, and the art chores to his long-time assistant Rick Fletcher and later another assistant Dick Locher.

Warren Beatty's father, Ira, loved the comic strip Dick Tracy and read each new installment to his 4-year-old son every night. When Ira passed away in January 1987, Beatty was focused on making a film based on Dick Tracy that to him was a chance to re-capture the happiness he had when he was younger and to make a commercially successful film after his recent failure appearing in the film Ishtar (1987),

Beatty had been interested in doing the film as early as 1975, but at the time, the rights were held by Michael Laughlin, who was unsuccessful in pitching the idea to movie studios. He eventually gave up the option, although at one point United Artists expressed some interest in a script by writer Tom Mankiewicz.

"It's a very personal trip back into my own childhood," said Beatty in a 1992 interview. "Dick Tracy was the comic strip I learned to read by and with. So the experience is indulgently personal for me. I think of it as a story involving the wish for family happiness."

Beatty closely associated with the character and supposedly came up with the story concept for the film where Tracy is tempted to stray from his straight-and-narrow lifestyle by a sexy nightclub singer named Breathless Mahoney.

The final version of the story would eventually evolve into Tracy's fight with crime boss "Big Boy" Caprice, who was organizing all the criminals in the city into a criminal empire and trying to eliminate Tracy, as well. Tracy also had his hands full with his long-time girlfriend Tess Trueheart, a nameless orphan nicknamed the "Kid" and the seductive singer, while a new mysterious gangster named The Blank almost succeeds in finishing off the famous detective.

Beatty said:

"I considered using the title The Temptation of Dick Tracy. This is not some cockamamie detective story. It's about the temptation of Dick Tracy's love life. My Dick Tracy is human. He's all goofed up by temptation.

"Dick Tracy desperately wanted a family. He wanted to marry Tess Trueheart and adopt the Kid as his own. But everything about his job worked against having a family. That's what interested me. That's what I related to. Sometimes I think Dick Tracy is the most personal movie I made.

"I evolved a concept that could recapture my point of view at the age of 6 or 7 when I was really interested in this strip and when a bad guy was bad and a good guy was good. Emotionally, I began to get interested in that childlike feeling about the thrill of bright, primary colors and people with primary emotions."

He had approached Martin Scorsese to direct the film (who later made Goodfellas that same year) as well as Hal Ashby, Sam Raimi, the Coen brothers, Brian De Palma and Bob Fosse, but they were not interested, so Beatty decided to direct the film himself in order to protect the project.

Eisner and Katzenberg were now at Disney and were still very interested in the project when Beatty pitched it to them. They greenlit the production in 1988 under the condition that Beatty keep the production budget within $25 million plus his fee, because Beatty was notorious for his extravagance on his films. Any cost overruns would be deducted from Beatty's fee as producer, director, and star.

The film did significantly exceed the original budget, although some of that was approved by Disney. Katzenberg later forgave Beatty the additional millions of dollars he owed in exchange for a promise to consider doing another Disney film in development at the time, The Doctor, that was never made.

Disney spent over $48 million in advertising, tie-ins and publicity because they felt they had another success like Tim Burton's recent Batman (1989) that would generate hundred of millions of dollars of merchandise revenue and a film franchise. Disney felt both films had some similarities including a well known comic character hero, an outrageous main villain trying to take over the city and kidnapping the girlfriend of the hero as well as a score by Danny Elfman, among other things.


Disney invested in Dick Tracy trading cards to take advantage of licensing.

The company invested in having items like trading cards, action figures from Playmates, books, t-shirts, drinking mugs, bath towels, a $300 wristwatch pager developed by Motorola, clothing (including Day-Glow yellow raincoats) and other novelties produced to take advantage of the expected licensing bonanza.

Disney sadly over-estimated the public's interest or connection with the character, especially with younger audiences, and Beatty's ability to draw a substantial audience to one of his movies. It had to write off over $50 million in losses (even though the film made over $100 million in its initial release) prompting Katzenberg in December 1990 to write an 28-page (11,000 word) internal memo that was leaked to the trade newspaper Variety.

In it, Katzenberg wrote about Dick Tracy that "the number of hours it required, the amount of anxiety it generated and the amount of dollars that needed to be expended were disproportionate to the amount of success it achieved" and added that if Beatty were to pitch another $40 million film that Disney should "avoid filmmakers like Warren Beatty, talented as they may be, because their movies spin out of control."

Beatty was furious and stopped talking to Katzenberg for over a year despite overtures to mend the dispute. He wrote a fiery response that included the statement, "It is fascinating that a man could have a picture that is as profitable as Dick Tracy – they got the negative cost back out of cassette sales alone – and try to put a negative spin on it because it didn't do as well as Batman. It never could have been Batman."

Beatty was deeply hurt because, during the production, Katzenberg was Beatty's biggest and most vocal booster and he considered Katzenberg a friend.

As he developed the project for Disney, Beatty started with another script by Cash and Epps who are the only credited writers on the film but brought in Bo Goldman to do an extensive re-write.

Goldman had written a number of top scripts, including One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975) and Melvin and Howard (1980), both of which brought him Oscars. He didn't care for the subject matter, but thought it would be interesting to work with Beatty and he needed the money.

Goldman recalled, "Warren told me that Ishtar had dimmed his star and he needed a big, fat commercial hit. He felt Tracy was his 'ka-ching', that it would make a lot of money. He said, 'I don't want to see any psychology in this thing. Remember, this is an entertainment'."

He would frustrate Goldman by immediately praising something Goldman had written and then start tinkering and second-guessing and expressing his dislike for it. Beatty would sit and ponder a sentence Goldman had written for hours and would attempt to do some rewriting.

Later when Beatty had to approve Max Allan Collins' novelization of the film, Beatty liked some of what Collins had written to fill in plot holes and incorporated it during post-production, including some of the dialog, into the movie as well.

Collins told an interviewer: "When the Dick Tracy movie was in the works, I had my agent aggressively go after the tie-in. I was the writer of the strip and didn't want anyone else writing that book. I was paid peanuts by Disney, but they screwed up and gave me a royalty—and we sold 800,000 copies. I paid off the mortgage on the house I still live in. The experience, however, was miserable—my first draft was rejected because I had drifted too far afield from the, shall we say, lousy script, and I was micromanaged after that."

Beatty would insist that Goldman write in front of him at the table while he made calls or took care of other business. They would start work at noon and go into the wee hours of the morning seven days a week. While they both respected each other, Goldman vowed to never work with Beatty again as other writers before him like Robert Towne had already sworn.

Goldman felt that Beatty was driving him crazy with his constant indecision and it was just exhausting him. He also claimed that Beatty eventually ended up having him denied writing credit for the script because Beatty insisted on getting a co-writing credit.

"He was not a writer. He just isn't," Goldman said. "He never wrote anything. I'd show him the scene and then he'd start marking it up. He wanted to be like Orson Welles. He wanted to be the consummate filmmaker.

"When it came to the Writer's Guild arbitration about who got credit on the film, because he tied himself to my work and wanted a credit, they denied it to me as well," he said. "So I lost the credit and the additional money that would have come with it."

Goldman felt one of his primary contributions was making it about Dick Tracy's desire for a family and what kept preventing that from happening. It was something that paralleled what Beatty was struggling with in his own personal life at the time.

Filming began on the Universal Studios backlot in February 1989 for 85 days using 53 interior sets, and 25 exterior sets. The buildings on the street were three stories tall and the longest stretch of street was four blocks. Some additional shooting was done at the Warner Brothers studio.

The city was enhanced using matte paintings done by Michael Lloyd and Harrison Ellenshaw who had to maintain the comic strip coloring while not letting the film cross the line from being Tracy's town into Toon Town.

While Katzenberg had talked to Beatty about a sequel while the film was in production, Beatty was doubtful that one would materialize, so he loaded the film with as many of Gould's classic villains as he could.

John Caglione Jr. and Doug Drexler created elaborate make-ups for the grotesque criminals to try to mimic the extreme appearance they had in the comic strip.

Beatty told writer Mike Bonifer, "I went through the prosthetic things. But nobody's going to look like (the comic book) Dick Tracy and occupy the audience in the way the character needs to in this movie. It's very hard to put those grotesque make-ups onto Dick Tracy or Tess Trueheart or the Kid. It's just too distracting. The make-up runs away with it. In the characters of Flattop, Pruneface, Big Boy – that's something else. That's where it works."

About the extensive latex used, Drexler stated, "It's physically and mentally taxing. It takes extraordinary, heavy-duty concentration for hours on end. The appliances have to be laid onto the actor's face perfectly. If you lay it down a little bit too far to the left, when he smiles, you're going to get wrinkles running across his face in an unnatural way."

"The trick is to cover an actor's face with make-up in such a way that the audience doesn't suspect that there's any make-up there at all," he said. "We had to recruit what became affectionately known as the 'MPs' (the Makeup Patrol) to follow the actors around to make sure they didn't eat anything or fall asleep in their malleable prosthetic head gear. Even the type of food you eat can ruin the pieces we created. Nothing takes off makeup faster than grease."

The most complex make-up job was on actor William Forsythe as Flattop. Some of his appliances were less than an eighth of an inch thick to give the actor a greater range of expression. Fifteen separate pieces were used. In the beginning it took four hours to put on all the appliances and 90 minutes to remove.

The make-up duo used special lights to make sure the prosthetic make-ups would look authentic under the lighting, adding colors and things like freckles, moles and veins to convince the camera that it was real flesh.

Beatty wanted what he called a "super-real" approach to the design of the film so that it resembled a timeless comic strip. This was in the days before CGI so all of this had to be achieved physically from characters flying in the air when they were punched to cars blowing up and more.

The color palette was limited to the colors used in a Sunday comic strip: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple, black and white. Every time a blue appeared either on a building, prop or costume, it was always the same blue.

Costume designer Milena Canonero dyed large swatches of gabardine in seven different variations of yellow in order to pick just the right one for Tracy's overcoat that wouldn't shift too far up or down the color spectrum under the lighting. The prototype coat was made by a tailor at Universal Studios and then duplicated at Burberry's in New York.

The famous Tracy fedora and its duplicates were made by Stetson in Texas. Three different prototypes were produced in different styles before deciding on a high crown with a medium brim.

Property master C. J. Maguire shared:

"We used the original comic strip design as a template for the wrist radio. Then jeweler Ian Campbell in Santa Clarita, California, made up 10 of them in sterling silver, at a cost of about $600 each.

"The only difference is that in the comic strip a wire runs off of the wrist radio for the antenna, and for our purposes we thought it would be more convenient if we went without the wire. Other than that, it's an exact copy. The watch mechanism works…second hand and all. We had a set of ten of them on hand for filming.

"Tracy's badge was modeled on the Chicago Police badges of the 1930s and made generic. I don't think you're going to notice it in the film but we did the same engraving on the items Warren uses (like the butt of the Colt .32 caliber pocket gun and pen and pencil set from the older Dick Tracy strips). Though they were mainly kept in his pocket, it was fun for Warren. He got a kick out of it."

Production designer Richard Sylbert working with Beatty decided to keep everything generic. A café sign simply reads "Café" while a bottle of beer has a label that says "Beer".

Sylbert recalled, "Warren wanted the cars to be as nondescript as possible. He didn't want the audience to be aware that they were Chevys or Fords or a particular year. He wanted a simple idea of what a gangster vehicle from the 1930s should look like and by adding uniform grills and hood ornaments, the property and transportation departments manufactured a fleet of cars with basic similarities in shape and appearance. All the good guy cars were the same and all the bad guy cars were the same but bigger."

Dick Tracy premiered at Walt Disney World's AMC Pleasure Island theater on June 14, 1990, and was released nationwide the following day. It was the ninth-highest-grossing film of America in 1990 and number twelve worldwide.

It won Oscars for Best Art Direction, Best Makeup and Best Original Song (Sooner or Later I Always Get My Man by Stephen Sondheim).

Beatty has been holding the film rights to the character hostage for 30 years, claiming that he would someday make a sequel. He has successfully fought in court to retain those rights.

As a result, over the years an attempt to make a weekly television series in 1997 with Bruce Campbell for ABC as the detective was stopped by Beatty. as well as another film in 2005 by producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura of The Transformers and G.I. Joe movie series among other credits.

It is also Beatty that has prevented supplements being included in the DVD/BluRay releases because he wants the film to speak for itself. A two hour and 15 minute version of the film exists as confirmed by Beatty. Katzenberg had him cut the film to one hour and 45 minutes. Beatty does not want that additional half hour shown.

Beatty also does not want releases to include material like Disney's 1990 "making of" television special Dick Tracy: Behind the Badge Behind the Scenes nor the half hour Dick Tracy Special that Beatty did in 2011 that aired on TCM to retain Beatty's film rights to the character.

So, I guess these days, no one is calling Dick Tracy anymore or calling Warren Beatty. Certainly not Disney.