April 22nd, 1909 — August 18th, 1952
Ralph Byrd’s four serial appearances as Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy were memorable ones, so memorable that most discussions of Byrd’s serial career are often more concerned with his casting in that role than anything else. Such discussions either consist of rhapsodies about how much he looked the part, or grumbles about how lucky he was, considering his alleged lack of talent, to resemble the famous character. Byrd deserves more attention than this. His performances, whatever the role, featured more emotional range than those of other cliffhanger leads; he added intense energy to standard serial-hero determination, and brought genuine warmth to even the most perfunctory dialogue. Most unique of all, he registered full-fledged alarm in scenes where his character was faced with apparent destruction, while other heroes merely looked a little concerned. Byrd did make an excellent Dick Tracy, but he would still have been a top serial hero had the comic-strip detective never made it to the screen.
Ralph Mounce Byrd was born in Dayton, Ohio. He seems to have begun his performing career after finishing high school, working as a singer/actor on radio and stage–presumably on a local basis, since the 1930 census lists him as still living in Ohio with his parents in 1930. However, by 1935 he had relocated to Hollywood, where he began his film career playing small supporting parts in B-films. One of these early roles was in The Adventures of Rex and Rinty (Mascot, 1935), his first serial. Byrd had a small and uncredited role in this outing as a forest ranger named Jerry Morton, who first witnessed the rescue of a lost child by the serial’s animal heroes (Rex the horse and Rinty the dog), and then intervened in a fight between human hero Kane Richmond and henchmen Al Bridge and Edmund Cobb; Byrd arrested the heavies, but was subsequently slugged by them, and disappeared from the serial after questioning Bridge and Cobb’s outwardly respectable employer (Harry Woods) about their actions.
Above: Ralph Byrd listens to contradictory complaints from Kane Richmond (far right) and Al Bridge (center) in The Adventures of Rex and Rinty (Mascot, 1935). Edmund Cobb is between Bridge and Richmond.
Byrd continued to knock about in low-budget films for the next two years, usually playing some kind of professional figure (doctor, pilot, policeman, undercover agent, etc.) but never getting a leading role. During this time he took on his second serial assignment, dubbing the voice of the mystery villain “H.K.” in Republic’s 1936 chapterplay Robinson Crusoe of Clipper Island; his character had little to do but bark out quick orders to a staff of lieutenants in brief scenes scattered throughout the serial–a task Byrd handled with appropriately brusque energy, although his voice lacked the theatrically sinister sound of the typical serial mystery man.
Republic brought back Byrd for a bigger and more heroic serial part in 1937, assigning him the title role in the chapterplay Dick Tracy. The serial’s plot pitted G-man Dick Tracy (Republic “promoted” the comic-strip homicide detective to an FBI agent) against a gang of criminals called the Spider Ring. The Ring’s mysterious leader, The Lame One, orchestrated a wide variety of illegal activities–smuggling, counterfeiting, espionage–and even went so far as to capture Tracy’s brother Gordon and turn him into a zombie-like criminal. The transformed Gordon (Carleton Young), now the Ring’s chief field operative, battled his heroic brother over the serial’s fifteen chapters, as Tracy broke up one Spider Ring racket after another. Aside from the characters of Tracy and his ward, former street urchin Junior (Lee Van Atta), no characters were carried over from the comic strip; Tracy’s serial aides consisted of secretary Gwen Andrews (Kay Hughes), fellow G-man Steve Lockwood (Fred Hamilton), and comic sidekick Mike McGurk (Smiley Burnette). Although Republic used little material from the Tracy comic strip, the first Tracy serial created a formula of its own: Tracy battling a colorful band of villains in a wide variety of locales and thwarting their loosely-connected crime capers. This formula would ensure a long string of successful serials for the studio, and a long string of good vehicles for Ralph Byrd. Whether assuredly piecing together murder clues in Sherlock Holmes fashion, or engaging in lengthy fights and chases with the heavies, Byrd’s performance was always energetic and credible, and suited the hard-driving Tracy character perfectly.
Despite Dick Tracy’s sucess, Byrd’s very next serial, SOS Coast Guard (Republic, 1937) was not a Tracy sequel. This atmospheric thriller featured Byrd as US Coast Guard Lieutenant Terry Kent, who tracked down a gang of spies smuggling deadly disintegrating gas and avenged his brother’s murder at the hands of the spies’ leader, one Boroff (Bela Lugosi). The serial’s action was just as good as that of Dick Tracy, and its cast was a memorable one, with Lugosi and Richard Alexander (as Boroff’s monstrous mute henchman) giving Byrd some formidable opposition. SOS Coast Guard also marked Byrd’s first collaboration with William Witney, who was already on his way to becoming the studio’s chief cliffhanger director and would direct all of Byrd’s subsequent Republic outings.
Byrd’s next serial appearance was his oddest, as he journeyed to independent studio Victory Productions to appear in tightwad producer Sam Katzman’s Blake of Scotland Yard (1937). Although Byrd received top billing and was the principal name featured in all the serial’s advertisements, his actual part was a supporting one. Herbert Rawlinson, a star of silent serials by now rather advanced in years, played the title hero, British detective Sir James Blake, protecting a death ray against a master villain known as the Scorpion. Byrd’s character, Jerry Sheehan, was the inventor of the ray and also served as the love interest for heroine Joan Barclay, but surprisingly took a back seat to Rawlinson in both dialogue and action scenes, serving as a pawn as much as a co-hero. One suspects that Katzman signed Byrd at the last minute and put him into the only uncast part in order to capitalize on his name.
Above: A title card for Blake of Scotland Yard (Victory, 1937). The three men at the bottom of the card, are, from left to right, Ralph Byrd, John Elliott, and Herbert Rawlinson. Dickie Jones and Joan Barclay are above them to the right. Interestingly, this card inserts Byrd in a scene from the serial (a confrontation between Rawlinson and Elliott) in which he does not appear, further supporting the idea that his casting in Blake was an afterthought that the advertising tried to play up. Note also Byrd’s prominent billing versus that of Rawlinson, the serial’s actual star.
In 1938, Republic brought Dick Tracy back in Dick Tracy Returns. Byrd was the only cast member to return from the previous serial; the roles of Junior, Gwen, Steve, and McGurk were taken over by Jerry Tucker, Lynne Roberts, Michael Kent, and Lee Ford, respectively. The villains of the new serial were a gang of criminals headed by the evil Pa Stark (Charles Middleton) and his five vicious sons. The Starks’ brutal murder of Tracy’s protege, rookie G-man Ron Merton (Dave Sharpe) spurred Tracy’s resolve to round up the Stark gang, and he began smashing their various criminal enterprises chapter by chapter–killing off the entire felonious family in the process. Dick Tracy Returns, like Dick Tracy, featured a wide variety of on-location action scenes, but had a somewhat swifter pace than the earlier serial, thanks to the direction of William Witney and John English. Byrd again delivered a good performance, holding his own against the imposing Charles Middleton and making Tracy’s grief at the death of Ron Merton seem quite heartfelt.
Dick Tracy’s G-Men was Byrd’s next serial, released by Republic in 1939. The serial pitted Tracy against international spy and saboteur Nicholas Zarnoff (Irving Pichel), and boasted particularly memorable first and last chapters (Zarnoff’s escape after apparent execution, and the villain’s unusual demise on the desert). In between, the serial featured an impressive array of action and stuntwork, and surpassed not only Dick Tracy but also Dick Tracy Returns in swift pacing and slick production. Byrd’s co-stars were recast again–Ted Pearson played Steve Lockwood and Phyllis Isley was Gwen, while Junior and Mike McGurk were simply omitted from this serial–but Byrd’s own characterization remained the same. As in the previous two serials, his sincerity and tense energy aided the fast pacing, by making Tracy’s pursuit of the villain seem more like a truly urgent game of cat-and-mouse, not routine racket-busting.
After Dick Tracy’s G-Men, Byrd took a brief hiatus from Republic, spending the rest of 1939 and all of 1940 playing small roles in big-budget films like The Howards of Virginia or starring roles in B-films like Drums of the Desert. However, 1941 found him back at Republic for the final Dick Tracy serial, Dick Tracy vs. Crime Inc. The villain of this outing was a mystery man called the Ghost, who was out for revenge on Tracy and the Council of Eight, a group of influential New York citizens that had aided Tracy in sending the Ghost’s racketeer brother to the electric chair. Tracy’s attempts to capture the Ghost were hampered by the fact that one of the Council’s members was actually the Ghost himself, while the Ghost’s invisibility machine made things even harder for the detective. Byrd was supported this time by Michael Owen and Jan Wiley, as new characters (Billy Carr and June Chandler) not seen in the previous serials. Dick Tracy vs. Crime Inc., although it drew in places on its predecessors’ footage, was perhaps the best of all the Tracy serials, with the guess-the-villain plotline and the invisibility machine adding additional interest to the expected action scenes. Besides being the last Tracy serial, Crime Inc. was also the final collaboration of directors Witney and English, and Byrd’s last serial for Republic Pictures.
After leaving Republic, Byrd worked in features for the next two; during this time, he landed some credited supporting roles in Twentieth-Century Fox A-films like Ten Gentlemen from West Point and Guadalcanal Diary, but any chance of an upward climb into bigger A-film roles was interrupted by World War 2. Byrd joined the Marines in 1943, and didn’t return to Hollywood until 1947; upon his return, he found himself once again firmly typed as a B-movie lead. He starred or co-starred in several B-films for cheap outfits like Pine-Thomas and Lippert during the late 1940s, and also headlined two features for RKO’s classier B unit–the 1947 features Dick Tracy’s Dilemma and Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome, in which he reprised his most frequent serial role. Both films were well-made detective thrillers, though quite different in tone from the Tracy serials, emphasizing realistic urban crime and dogged police work and sticking much closer to the spirit of the comic strip than the serials had.
Byrd’s final serial was also released in 1947–Columbia’s The Vigilante, produced by Sam Katzman, who had worked with Byrd on Blake of Scotland Yard. The Vigilante was one of the best of the usually lackluster Columbia serials of the late 1940s, with a mystery plotline that wasn’t too complex, a strong cast, and good action scenes. Byrd played cowboy star Greg Saunders, who posed as the masked “Vigilante” to fight crime and behaved like a genially self-satisfied Hollywood actor to conceal his identity from the world at large. Though he was as intensely earnest as ever when puzzling over clues or confronting heavies, Byrd here had more opportunities to be easygoing, even flippant, than he had ever had in the Dick Tracy serials; he seemed to get a lot of fun out of this change of pace, especially when delivering some amusingly self-deprecating lines in his “Greg Saunders” identity. He even was allowed to sing a couple of Western songs in the role, no doubt surprising fans who weren’t aware of his Broadway beginnings. The Vigilante proved a worthy if unusual finish to Byrd’s serial career.
After The Vigilante and his two RKO Tracy features, Byrd did some more feature work for Lippert and other low-budget companies, and played a few bits in bigger features, before taking on his now-signature role one more time; in 1950 he signed to play Dick Tracy again, in a television series for P. K. Palmer Productions. Sadly, this would be Byrd’s final starring part; the Tracy show lasted two seasons, but was curtailed by his sudden death from a heart attack in 1952.
While many serial heroes projected little personality, Ralph Byrd always had personality to spare in his performances. Unshakable, gravely determined, yet infectiously enthusiastic and likably human, his characters held center stage even when opposed by bizarre menaces like the Lame One, the Ghost, or Bela Lugosi. Tracy will always be the role on which his serial fame rests, but Byrd gave quite as much to the part as the part gave to him.
Acknowledgements: William C. Cline’s book In the Nick of Time (McFarland, 1984) provided the information on Byrd’s pre-film career; the information about Byrd’s Marine service came from an online copy of the Daytona Beach Morning Journal of September 10, 1943. A comparison of census and death records derived from the Family Search site (“Ralph Byrd” seems to be a fairly common name) helped me to discover Byrd’s middle name and find out his place of residence in 1930.