A-Ron’s Film Rewind Presents: “Calling Dick Tracy. Come In Tracy”. A 9-part, 30th anniversary celebration of actor, producer and director Warren Beatty’s ground breaking adaptation of Chester Gould’s classic comic strip. Every big director of the era, including: John Landis, Walter Hill, Tom Mankiewicz, Steven Spielberg and even Martin Scorsese had wanted in to direct. “Dick Tracy” was Disney’s answer in terms of scale, look and box office revenue to Warner Bros 1989 “Batman”, directed by Tim Burton (who was also in line as a director for “Dick Tracy”). Ultimately Beatty took the directors chair and unlike the other filmmakers, he had envisioned a stylized homage to the 1930s comic strip, with influences from the Art Deco movement and German Expressionism. Beatty who had a reputation of being an “insane”, but a “perfectionist” director on set, had fought battles over salary issues, the films budget and an endless decades war in court over the rights to the film and it’s intended but never made sequel. Featuring a star studded cast of A-list actors and filmed with over 57 matte paintings executed on glass. The paintings were then optically combined with the live action. It is one of the last films to be made with paintings as backgrounds, as Hollywood ditched it for CGI. Beatty has said that there is a two hour and fifteen minute version of the film. While the version we know is only an hour and forty five minutes. “Dick Tracy” was nominated for 7 Oscars and won three for: Best Art Direction, Best Make-Up and Best Original Song. “Dick Tracy” is a top-tier comic book adaptation that is stylish, unique and an undeniable technical triumph. Beatty creates a world that never could be, with ingenuous art direction and set decoration. It is one of the best comic book films, one of the most original and visionary productions seen on any screen.
•Part 1: Development
Development began in the early 1980s with Tom Mankiewicz (“Dragnet”), who was assigned to write the script. The screenplay was written instead by Jim Cash and Jack Epps Jr., both of “Top Gun” fame. “Dick Tracy” also went through directors Steven Spielberg, John Landis (“American Werewolf In London”), Walter Hill (“48 Hours”), and Richard Benjamin (“The Money Pit”) before the arrival of Warren Beatty. While it was released by Touchstone Pictures, it was filmed at Universal Studios.
Beatty had a concept for a “Dick Tracy” film in 1975. Although at the time, the film rights were owned by Michael Laughlin, who gave up his option from Tribune Media Services after he was unsuccessful in pitching “Dick Tracy” to Hollywood studios. Director Floyd Mutrux (director of “Hollywood Knights”) and Art Linson purchased the film rights from the Tribune in 1977 and in 1980.
United Artists became interested in financing and distributing “Dick Tracy”. Tom Mankiewicz was under negotiations to write the script, based on his previous success with “Superman” (1978) and “Superman II” (1980). The deal fell through when Chester Gould, creator of the “Dick Tracy” comic strip, insisted on strict financial and artistic control.
That same year, Mutrux and Linson eventually took the property to Paramount Pictures, who began developing screenplays and offered Steven Spielberg the director’s position, who brought in Universal Pictures to co-finance. Universal put John Landis forward as a candidate for director, courted Clint Eastwood for the title role, and commissioned Jim Cash and Jack Epps, Jr. to write the screenplay. “Before we were brought on, there were several failed scripts at Universal,” reflected Epps, “then it went dormant, but John Landis was interested in Dick Tracy, and he brought us in to write it”.
Cash and Epps’ simple orders from Landis were to write the script in a 1930s pulp magazine atmosphere and center it with Alphonse “Big Boy” Caprice as the primary villain. For research, Epps read every “Dick Tracy” comic strip from 1930 to 1957. The writers wrote two drafts for Landis; Max Allan Collins, then-writer of the “Dick Tracy” comic strip, remembers reading one of them. “It was terrible. The only positive thing about it was a thirties setting and lots of great villains, but the story was paper-thin and it was uncomfortably campy”.
Landis had left “Dick Tracy” following the controversial on-set accident on “Twilight Zone: The Movie” (1983), in which actor Vic Morrow and two other actors were killed. After which he was charged with manslaughter. Walter Hill (“The Warriors”, “48 Hrs”) then came on board to direct with veteran action producer Joel Silver as producer. Cash and Epps wrote another draft, and Hill approached Warren Beatty for the title role.
Earlier in Pre-production, Tim Burton was offered the chance to direct the movie, but declined because he was already in production with “Edward Scissorhands”. Pre-Production had progressed as far as set building, but the film was stalled when artistic control issues arose with Beatty, a fan of the “Dick Tracy” comic strip. Hill wanted to make the film violent and realistic, while Beatty envisioned a stylized homage to the 1930s comic strip. The actor also reportedly wanted $5 million plus fifteen percent of the box office gross, a deal which Universal had refused to accept.
Walter Hill and Warren Beatty left the film, which Paramount then began developing as a lower-budget project with Richard Benjamin directing. Cash and Epps continued to rewrite the script, but Universal was unsatisfied. The film rights eventually reverted to Tribune Media Services in 1985. However, Beatty decided to option the “Dick Tracy” rights himself for $3 million, along with the Cash and Epps script. When Jeffrey Katzenberg moved from Paramount to the Walt Disney Studios, “Dick Tracy” resurfaced with Beatty as director, producer and the leading man.
Warren Beatty originally wanted Bob Fosse (“All That Jazz”) to direct, but Fosse turned him down. Martin Scorsese was also a fan of the comic strip and considered directing at one point, but he lost interest and chose to make “Goodfellas”. Beatty considered appearing in and even directing “Misery”, which Rob Reiner went to direct. Beatty said about directing “Dick Tracy”….
“It never occurred to me to direct the movie. But finally, like most of the movies that I direct, when the time comes to do it, I just do it because it’s easier than going through what I’d have to go through to get somebody else to do it”.
Beatty’s reputation as director, most notably with the critically acclaimed and superb “Reds” (1981), did not sit well with Disney. As a result, Beatty and Disney reached a contracted agreement whereby any budget overruns on “Dick Tracy” would be deducted from Beatty’s fee as producer, director, and star. Beatty and regular collaborator Bo Goldman significantly rewrote the dialogue but lost a Writers Guild arbitration and did not receive screen credit.
Disney’s Touchstone Pictures, greenlit “Dick Tracy” in 1988 under the condition that Beatty keep the production budget within $25 million. Beatty’s fee was $7 million against 15% of the gross. Costs began to rise once filming started and quickly jumped to $30 million and its total negative cost ended up being $46.5 million: $35.6 million of direct expenditure, $5.3 million in studio overhead and $5.6 million in interest. Disney had spent an additional $48.1 million on advertising and publicity and $5.8 million on prints, resulting in a total of $101 million spent overall.
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.
•Part 2: Casting
Although Al Pacino (who was nominated for Best Supporting Actor) was Beatty’s first choice for the role of Alphonse “Big Boy” Caprice, Robert De Niro was also under consideration. Madonna pursued the part of Breathless Mahoney, offering to work for scale. Sean Young (“Blade Runner”) was originally cast as Dick Tracy’s girlfriend Tess Trueheart, but was fired after a few days of filming by Warren Beatty.
Sean Young publicly accused Beatty of firing her because she “wouldn’t sleep with him”, though Deborah Ruf, Charlie Korsmo’s (who played The Kid) mom, later disputed this saying that “the rumor was that she had become too demanding, and they just decided not to put up with it”. Beatty issued a statement saying, “I made a mistake casting her in the part, and I felt very badly about it.”
Brigitte Nielsen was named as a contender for the role of “Tess Trueheart”. It was also stated that Kim Basinger, Michelle Pfeiffer, Kathleen Turner, and Melanie Griffith were considered for “Breathless Mahoney” before Madonna, who was romantically involved with Beatty at the time. When Beatty proposed to her, and she stalled on the question of marriage, he ended their romance and claimed what he had given her was just a “friendship ring.”
While the other actresses reportedly demanded too much money, Madonna agreed to work for the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) scale fee of $1,440 per week. Her resulting paycheck for the film added up to $35,000.
It was only Madonna’s seventh big-screen role, and the pop star was at the height of her singing fame. Al Pacino has stated that Madonna flashed him during rehearsals for this movie, opening her coat to reveal that she was naked underneath. Pacino joked that when he is old if he is observed with a beatific smile on his face, it will be because he is recalling the incident.
It was listed early into pre-production that Tom Cruise, Gene Hackman, and Faye Dunaway were up for possible cameos, although none of these actors appear in the film. In fact Gene Hackman turned down the role of Lips Manlis, because he couldn’t bear being directed by Warren Beatty again after his experience on Beatty’s epic masterpiece “Reds” from 1981.
To star in the title role of “Dick Tracy”, possible stars: James Caan, Harrison Ford, Richard Gere, Mel Gibson, Paul Newman, Robert Redford, George C. Scott and Tom Selleck were considered for the role of Dick Tracy. Even studios (originally optioned by Paramount Pictures, it was made by Disney and released under their adult label Touchstone Pictures) for over a decade.
Things turned around once Beatty came on board to direct, produce, and star, marking only his third turn behind the camera. A hard-core Tracy fan, Beatty was committed to making his film more of an homage to the comic strip than a singular adaptation. He didn’t go for the dark and gritty; he wanted something that looked like what it was, and Beatty’s desire to do just that turned “Dick Tracy” into one of modern cinema’s best adaptations of a comic book and comic strip.
Macaulay Culkin was considered for the role of The Kid, but turned it down, as he preferred to do “Home Alone” over this film. The role went to Charlie Kosomo, who went on to play Robin Williams son in “Hook”.
The supporting cast is rounded out by names such as Pacino, Charles Durning, Paul Sorvino, Dustin Hoffman, William Forsythe, Estelle Parsons, Dick Van Dyke, and James Caan. As a fan of the comic strip, Warren Beatty wanted to put in as many characters from the comics into the film as he could. This was a measure used by Beatty in case the film didn’t have a sequel. The cast list remains impressive, stacked with Oscar winners and nominees, some of Hollywood’s biggest stars, all lead by Beatty. This is a comic-book film with a pedigree.
•Part 3: Filming
Principal photography for “Dick Tracy” began on February 2, 1989. The filmmakers considered shooting on-location in Chicago, but production designer Richard Sylbert believed “Dick Tracy” would work better using sound stages and backlots at Universal Studios in California. Other filming took place at Warner Bros. Studios in Burbank. In total, 53 interior and 25 exterior sets were constructed. Beatty, being a perfectionist, had often filmed dozens of takes of every scene.
As filming continued, Disney and Max Allan Collins conflicted over the novelization. The studio rejected his manuscript: “I wound up doing an eleventh hour rewrite that was more faithful to the screenplay, even while I made it much more consistent with the strip,” Collins continued, “and fixed as many plot holes as I could”. Disney did not like this version either, but accepted based on Beatty’s insistence to incorporate some of Collins’ writing into the shooting script, which solved the plot hole concerns. Through post-production dubbing, some of Collins’ dialogue was also incorporated into the film. Principal photography for “Dick Tracy” ended in May 1989.
•Part 4: Design
Early in the development, 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 (whom Beatty had worked with on his previous box office bomb “Ishtar”),visual effects supervisors Michael Lloyd and Harrison Ellenshaw, prosthetic makeup designers John Caglione Jr., Doug Drexler, and costume designer Milena Canonero. Their main intention was to stay close to Chester Gould’s original drawings from the 1930s. Other influences came from the Art Deco movement and German Expressionism.
For Storaro, the limited color palette was the most challenging aspect of the production. “These are not the kind of colors the audience is used to seeing,” he noted. “These are much more dramatic in strength, in saturation. Comic strip art is usually done with very simple and primitive ideas and emotions. One of the elements is that the story is usually told in vignette, so what we tried to do is never move the camera at all. Never. Try to make everything work into the frame”.
For the matte paintings, over 57 paintings were executed on glass, which were then optically combined with the live action. For a brief sequence in which The Kid dashes in front of a speeding locomotive, only 150 feet (46 m) of real track was laid; the train itself was a 2-foot (0.61 m) scale model, and the surrounding trainyard a matte painting. The film was one of the last major American studio blockbusters to have no computer-generated imagery.
“Dick Tracy” is one of the last films to be made with paintings as backgrounds. Hollywood was ditching this for computer graphics imagery (CGI). Using paintings as background saves a lot of time and money, but has a massive drawback: as the camera must remain still. This is why the movie has a “big budget on-stage play” feel and look. When watching the movie, notice that the camera never “pans” or swivels left or right. Warren Beatty had warned his camera people to not do this, because it would make it clear to the audience that the backgrounds were paintings.
Caglione and Drexler were recommended for the prosthetic makeup designs. The rogues gallery makeup designs were taken directly from Gould’s drawings, with the exception of Al Pacino, who improvised his own design for the character and ignoring the rather overweight character from the strip. His makeup took 3.5 hours to apply.
Make-up designers John Caglione, Jr. and Doug Drexler said they often had trouble keeping the Big Boy Caprice make-up on Al Pacino. Caglione told Entertainment Weekly that their biggest scare came when Drexler discovered Al Pacino, in full make-up and eating a big bowl of spaghetti that could have potentially disfigured and ruined his make-up. After that incident, several production assistants were designated as “Make-up Police”, to follow the actors around and to keep them out of pasta when in full make-up.
Beatty’s intention to make “Dick Tracy”, the movie was to look like an homage to the comic strip. It resulted in a feature that looked to be pulled straight from the paper, with vivid flatness and limited color palette. The film only uses seven colors, mostly red, yellow, green, and blue, all the better to approximate the look and feel of a comic strip. The film’s wider shots make the background look newspaper flat and colorized by ink, a look achieved by combining matte paintings with live action.
•Part 5: Music
Beatty hired Danny Elfman (“Fifty Shades Of Grey” trilogy) to compose the films score based on his previous success with Tim Burton’s 1989 “Batman”. Although Elfman said on working with Beatty, that “Warren was insane”. Elfman who was a part of the 80’s band Oingo Boingo, had enlisted the help of the bands lead guitarist Steve Bartek and Shirley Walker to arrange compositions for the orchestra. “In a completely different way,” Elfman commented, “Dick Tracy has this unique quality that Batman had for me. It gives an incredible sense of non-reality”.
In addition, Beatty hired acclaimed songwriter Stephen Sondheim to write five original songs: “Sooner or Later (I Always Get My Man),” “More,” “Live Alone and Like It,” “Back in Business,” and “What Can You Lose?”. Madonna performed “Sooner or Later” and “More”, while “What Can You Lose?” became a duet with Mandy Patinkin, and Mel Tormé sang “Live Alone and Like It”.
“Dick Tracy” was also the first film to use digital audio. In a December 1990 interview with The New York Times, Elfman criticized the growing tendency to use digital technology for sound design and dubbing purposes. “I detest contemporary scoring and dubbing in cinema. Film music as an art took a deep plunge when Dolby stereo hit. Stereo has the capacity to make orchestral music sound big and beautiful and more expansive, but it also can make sound effects sound four times as big. That began the era of sound effects over music”.
•Part 6: Marketing
Disney modeled its marketing campaign after the 1989 success of “Batman”, which was based on high concept promotion. This included a McDonald’s promotional tie-in and a Warren Beatty interview conducted by Barbara Walters on 20/20. “I find the media’s obsession with promotion and demographics upsetting,” Beatty said. “I find all this anti-cultural”.
In attempting to market “Dick Tracy” to young children, Disney added a new “Roger Rabbit” cartoon short (“Roller Coaster Rabbit”) and made two specific television advertisements centered on The Kid (played by Charlie Korsmo). In total, Disney commissioned 28 TV advertisements. Playmates Toys also manufactured a line of 14 “Dick Tracy” figures.
It would be Madonna’s idea to include the film as part of her Blond Ambition World Tour. Prior to the June 1990 theatrical release, Disney had already featured “Dick Tracy” in musical theatre stage shows in both Disneyland and the Walt Disney World Resort, using Stephen Sondheim and Danny Elfman’s music.
The New York Times also wrote in June 1990 of Disney Stores “selling nothing but Tracy-related merchandise”. Merchandise included badges bearing Tracy’s square jaw, followed by dolls, games, toy guns, two-way wrist radios, and books. Max Allan Collins lobbied to write the film’s novelization long before Disney had even greenlighted Dick Tracy in 1988.
“I hated the idea that anyone else would write a Tracy novel,” Collins explained. After much conflict with Disney, leading to seven different printings of the novelization, the book was released in May 1990, published by Bantam Books. It sold almost one million copies prior to the film’s release. A graphic novel adaptation of the film was also released, written and illustrated by Kyle Baker.
Reruns of “The Dick Tracy Show” had began airing to coincide with the release of the film, but stations in Los Angeles and New York pulled and edited the episodes when Asian and Hispanic groups protested that the characters Joe Jitsu and Go Go Gomez were offensive stereotypes. A theme park ride for Disneyland, Disney-MGM Studios and Euro Disney Resort called “Dick Tracy’s Crime Stoppers” was planned but ultimately never built.
•Part 7: Release
“Dick Tracy” had a benefit premiere at a small 300-seat theater in Woodstock, Illinois (the hometown of Tracy creator Chester Gould) on June 13th 1990, while the production premiere occurred the next day at the Walt Disney World Village’s Pleasure Island in Florida. The film was released in the United States on June 15th 1990, earning $22.54 million in its opening weekend, including an estimated $1.5 million of t-shirt sales.
This was the third-highest opening weekend of 1990 and Disney’s biggest ever. “Dick Tracy” eventually grossed $103.74 million in the United States and Canada and $59 million elsewhere, coming to a worldwide total of $162.74 million. “Dick Tracy” was also the ninth-highest-grossing film in America in 1990 and number twelve in worldwide totals.
Although Disney was impressed by the opening weekend gross, studio management was expecting the film’s total earnings to match that of Burton’s 1989 “Batman”, the film was estimated to have generated a $57 million deficit for Disney. Studio chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg expressed disappointment in a studio memo that noted that “Dick Tracy” had cost about $100 million in total to produce, market and promote. “We made demands on our time, talent and treasury that, upon reflection, may not have been worth it,” Katzenberg reported.
It garnered seven Academy Award nominations, winning in three of the categories: Best Original Song, Best Makeup, and Best Art Direction. A two hour and fifteen minute version of the film exists, as confirmed by Warren Beatty in a 2002 interview. He was forced to cut the film to the current one hour and forty-five minute version at the insistence of then chairman of Walt Disney Pictures, Jeffrey Katzenberg, prior to the release.
•Part 8: Sequel & Legal Issues
Disney had hoped “Dick Tracy” would launch a successful franchise, but its disappointing box office performance halted Disney’s plans. In addition, executive producers Art Linson and Floyd Mutrux sued Beatty shortly after the release of the film, alleging that they were owed profit participation from the film.
Beatty purchased the “Dick Tracy” film and television rights in 1985 from Tribune Media Services. He then took the property to Walt Disney Studios, who optioned the rights in 1988. According to Beatty, in 2002, Tribune attempted to reclaim the rights and notified Disney, but not through the process outlined in the 1985 agreement.
Beatty, who commented he had “a very good idea” for a sequel, he believed Tribune violated various notification procedures that “clouded the title”, to the rights and made it “commercially impossible” for him to produce a sequel. He approached Tribune in 2004 to settle the situation, but the company said they had met the conditions to get back the rights.
Disney, which had no intention of producing a sequel, rejected Tribune’s claim, and gave Beatty back most of the rights in May 2005. That same month, Beatty filed a lawsuit in the Los Angeles, California Superior Court seeking $30 million in damages against Tribune and a declaration over the rights. Bertram Fields, Beatty’s lawyer, said the original 1985 agreement with Tribune was negotiated specifically to allow Beatty a chance to make another “Dick Tracy” film. “It was very carefully done, and they just ignored it,” he stated. “Tribune is a big, powerful company, and they think they can just run roughshod over people. They picked the wrong guy”.
Tribune believed the situation would be settled quickly and was confident enough to begin developing a “Dick Tracy” live-action television series with Lorenzo di Bonaventura, Robert Newmyer, and Outlaw Productions. The TV show was to have a contemporary setting, comparable to the Superman teen show “Smallville”, and Di Bonaventura commented that if the TV show was successful, a feature film would likely follow.
However, an August 2005 ruling by federal judge Dean D. Pregerson cleared the way for Beatty to sue Tribune. The April 2006 hearing ended without a ruling, but in July 2006, a Los Angeles judge ruled that the case could go to trial; Tribune’s request to end the suit in their favor was rejected. The legal battle between Beatty and Tribune continued.
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. Maltin explicitly asked the fictional Tracy if Warren Beatty planned to make a sequel to the 1990 film, and he responded that he’d heard about that, but Maltin needed to ask Beatty himself.
By March 2009, Tribune was in Chapter 11 bankruptcy, and lawyers for the company began to declare their ownership of television and film rights to “Dick Tracy”. Lawyers for Tribune wrote in a filing, “Mr. Beatty’s conduct and wrongful claims have effectively locked away certain motion picture and television rights to the Dick Tracy property”. Fields responded that it was “a nuisance lawsuit by a bankrupt company, and they should be ashamed of themselves”.
On March 25th 2011, U.S. District Court Judge Dean D. Pregerson granted Beatty’s request for a summary judgment, and ruled in the actor’s favor. Judge Pregerson wrote in his order that “Beatty’s commencement of principal photography of his television special on November 8th 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”.
The lawsuit was resolved in Beatty’s favor, with a US District judge ruling that Beatty did everything contractually required of him to keep the rights to the character. While there have not been any sequels in either television or motion-picture form, there have been sequels in novel form. Shortly after the release of the 1990 film, Max Allan Collins 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). In the story, Nazi saboteurs Black Pearl and Mrs. Pruneface (Pruneface’s widow) set up a sabotage/espionage operation out of Caprice’s old headquarters in Club Ritz. For their activities, they recruit B.B. Eyes, The Mole, and Shaky. Their reign of terror, culminating in an attempt to bomb a weapons plant, is averted by Tracy.
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. In April 2016, Beatty again mentioned the possibility of producing a sequel when he attended CinemaCon.
•Part 9: The Legacy Of Warren Beatty’s “Dick Tracy”
“Dick Tracy” is a top-tier comic book adaptation that is stylish, unique and an undeniable technical triumph. Actor, producer and director Warren Beatty’s adaptation of Chester Gould’s classic comic strip, is larger than life, ground breaking, well conceived and executed adaptation. It’s success comes from Warren Beatty making all the right moves to make the ultimate “Dick Tracy” movie.
Beatty knows how to bring out the brightest in his full to the brim cast of A-list actors. “Dick Tracy”, further fulfills it’s fun factor, in trying to spot all of the stars under the cakes of make-up. “Dick Tracy” is a masterpiece of studio artificiality, creating it’s world through matte drawings, miniatures and optical effects. It creates a world that never could be.
With ingenuous art direction and set decoration, every frame contains some kind of artificial effect. An entire world has been built here. And “Dick Tracy” reflects the innocence of the comic strip that had inspired it. It is one of the best comic book films and one of the most original and visionary fantasies seen on any screen.