Oklahoma City Mayor David Holt opened a box and found 1990 inside.
Remember 1990? It was, especially from a merchandise standpoint, the year of Dick Tracy.
The birth year of Dick Tracy was 1931, when the comic strip about the detective debuted. During peak years, the popular strip was carried by more than 600 newspapers.
But the character was positioned to crest again in 1990, when Warren Beatty, Madonna and Al Pacino lent star power to a “Dick Tracy” motion picture. The film was released 30 years ago — June 15, 1990.
Holt said he and his family watched many movies during the pandemic. “Dick Tracy” was one of them.
In May, Holt revisited a box that had been stashed away in the attic. The box was full of 1990 Dick Tracy goodies — action figures, posters, toys, magazines and books. Holt said he was “quite the collector” in his youth.
Dick Tracy enthusiasts trend older because they got hooked during the comic strip’s glory years. Holt? “Yeah, well as you recall, ‘Batman’ was (released in) 1989 — when I was 10 — and I was pretty well obsessed with it, and it sort of kicked off a wave of summer comic book movies,” he said. “ ‘Dick Tracy’ was the next year and I just moved my fandom right onto it.”
The summer of 1989, as Holt suggested, was undoubtedly the summer of “Batman.” The movie, starring Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson, was a blockbuster that set box-office records, and it was accompanied by an avalanche of merchandise. You couldn’t walk into a store without seeing something batty.
Let’s transition from batty to Beatty.
Beatty had been kicking around the idea of a Dick Tracy movie since 1975, according to a 1990 Newsweek story about “Tracymania.” A slew of director candidates (Beatty: “There were like 143”) were attached to the project before it became reality. Beatty ultimately agreed to direct the movie himself, and Disney put up the dough to back him.
For those who prioritized ka-ching, the goal was for the Dick Tracy film to do Batman-like business in ticket sales and merchandise, of which there was plenty. There was such a flood of Dick Tracy items that, earlier this year, theretronetwork.com, reminded readers about 15 of the weirdest items, including Dick Tracy suspenders and a bright yellow (of course) rain poncho. Some theaters sold Dick Tracy T-shirts that doubled as admission tickets for a special preopening screening.
Madonna did her part to boost promotion by including Dick Tracy elements in her Blond Ambition tour. A story written after the first two tour dates said Madonna danced “a swell old-fashioned soft shoe number with a clone of the yellow-outfitted flatfoot.” Meanwhile, LA Glow Inc., crafted a line of dresses inspired by Madonna’s character, Breathless Mahoney.
In advance of the movie’s release, journalists dove into Dick Tracy’s roots, which led to ink for an Oklahoma cartoonist. Chester Gould of Pawnee created Dick Tracy. Gould died five years before the movie’s release. Tulsa World book editor Ken Jackson wrote in 1990 that his mother dated Gould.
Added Jackson: “I remember clearly some of the Pawnee people who became characters in Gould’s fabulously successful comic strip. Billy Whiskers (I never knew his real name and don’t know anyone who did) was a Pawnee street eccentric (a kindly description). He became B.O. Plenty. Chief Yellowpony, an early Gould character, was undoubtedly modeled after Moses Yellow Horse, who made it big but briefly into baseball’s major leagues. I do not remember Lou Weirman, although my father mentioned the name often. Pruneface looked a lot like Weirman, Pawnee old-timers say.”
It was a visual treat when Gould creations like Pruneface, Flattop and Mumbles (played by Dustin Hoffman) made it to the big screen. Reviews, however, were mixed. An Associated Press reviewer wrote that the film exceeded “Batman.” Reviewers from the Tulsa World (four out of five stars) and Tulsa Tribune (headline: “Tracy fires blanks”) were split. The World’s Dennis King praised the movie’s rat-a-tat-tat pacing and vivid art-palette colors. The Tribune’s Ron Wolfe described Beatty’s performance as “strangely flat.”
Beatty, straying from his chosen norm, talked to interviewers to generate publicity for “Dick Tracy.” Beatty had declined to promote his previous movie, “Ishtar,” and it was an epic flop. When “Dick Tracy” arrived, King participated in a roundtable Q-and-A session with Beatty, who said this about the comic strip character he was bringing to life: “Tracy is a good man. He’s very direct. He’s straightforward. As an actor, I was challenged to play a kind of tree in the middle of a garden, where everybody else was much more interesting than I was.”
“Dick Tracy” was not the same species of cash cow as “Batman,” but it was No. 1 for two weeks and, at the time, was Disney’s biggest 10-day success with $50.3 million in ticket sales.
Domestically, “Dick Tracy” ranked as the ninth-biggest movie of 1990. However, it didn’t generate enough moolah to merit a Dick Tracy film franchise. The box-office competition that year included “Ghost,” “Pretty Woman,” “Home Alone,” “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” “The Hunt for Red October,” “Total Recall,” “Die Hard 2” and “Driving Miss Daisy.”
Regardless, “Dick Tracy” was a mile marker in history. If you see retro Dick Tracy toys at an antique store or second-hand store, you’re looking at the dawn of the 1990s.
Holt said his kids, after watching “Dick Tracy” with him, are “into it.” He said they played with his Dick Tracy action figures. He posted a video of his still-functional Dick Tracy wristwatch on Twitter. Dick Tracy, always reliant on his ahead-of-its-time two-way wristwatch, would be proud.