Ralph Byrd delivers old school action...and may have inspired James Bond
Movie Lover: William Watson
Grand Rapids, MI US
-- January, 25, 2009
This 1937 adventure serial has amazing stunts, incredible gadgets, and a dashing hero in its leading man Ralph Byrd who played Tracy in 2 Republic serials, 2 films, and a short lived TV series. In this, his first adventure, Tracy is out to foil the Spider, a mysterious villain out to smuggle, steal, or blow up anything to serves his evil plans as well as destroy anyone that stands in his way. The Spider has a giant, incredible airplane he uses to hijack blimps, attack bridges, and steal experimental aircraft and Tracy has to locate it’s secret base in order to end the Spider’s reign of terror. Not only that, the Spider has abducted Tracy’s brother and managed to turn him against him through a diabolical operation that erases his memory and makes him suseptible to the Spider’s evil will. If all this sounds far removed from the Chester Gould comic strip it’s of little concern. In fact, the story is like a James Bond adventure set in 1937. (Ralph Byrd even looks like Bond leading me to wonder if Ian Fleming got his idea for the character here.) This version of Tracy is an FBI agent, not just a detective. He has a secret knife in his ring, uses radio devices, and remote controled airplanes. One particular action sequence with motor boats was obviously lifted from this serial and used in Steven Speilberg’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
Republic knew how to make these serials better than anyone. Maybe they’re a bit rough compared to modern action films and there are too many random fist fights among the more elaborate action, but this is pretty exciting stuff just the same. Perhaps in a nod to the Chester Gould comic strip a couple of the villains have physical deformities that honestly make them seem like awkward stereotypes more than menacing villains, but I think it will only be offensive to the most sensitive viewers (after all, 1937 was not the most enlightened time and at least there are no racial stereotypes here). Ralph Byrd played the character for over a decade and audiences identified him with the character (a temporary replacement was not accepted very well by audiences when they got around to doing the regular films and Byrd was brought back). According to Wikipedia, Byrd died shortly after taking the character to television, a tragedy that is compared to the strange death of George Reeves who similarly played a comic strip character (Superman) in serials, movies, and finally television. This serial along with the film, **** Tracy Meets Gruesome (costarring Boris Karloff) are my favorites of Byrd’s Tracy films so far.