April 29th, 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. His father was an insurance agent, and by the time Byrd was nineteen he was working in the same line of business. At the same time, he worked as a singer/actor on local radio and stage; in 1930, he was living in Dayton and working as an insurance-company office manager, but by 1934 he was living in Los Angeles, and by 1935 he was appearing on the West Coast stage. A trade-paper item from 1935 has Universal signing him to a contract on the strength of his performance in a play at the Bliss-Hayden Theater. However, this cannot have been a long-term contract, since he only appeared in a pair of Universal B-pictures in 1935, and in 1936 played similar small parts in B-films for a myriad of studios–Columbia, RKO, and various independent outfits. Also in 1935, he appeared 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 briskly 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.
As aforementioned, Byrd spent most of 1936 playing bits in B-films for Columbia and other studios; his first significant role was as an undercover lawman whose murder jumpstarted the plot in the independently-produced Tim McCoy B-westerns Border Caballero. Most of his other parts during this time were in a similar “official” vein–doctors, pilots, policemen, and the like. In 1936 he also 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.
Byrd’s first major serial role was in Blake of Scotland Yard (1937), from independent producer Sam Katzman’s “Victory Productions.” Released less than a month before Byrd’s first true starring serial, Dick Tracy, Blake appears to have been marketed with Tracy’s impending release in mind–since the serial’s advertising heavily exploited Byrd’s name, and the serial itself gave him top billing, despite the fact that he was neither the title character nor the star. instead, aging former silent-serial star Herbert Rawlinson 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 took a back seat to Rawlinson in both dialogue and action scenes, and like most serial inventors was treated as more of a pawn than an active co-hero, spending a lot of time getting kidnapped by the heavies. He did get to defy the villains with the same grave, energetic determination he would show in his Tracy serials, and participate in an unusually comic undercover masquerade as a drunken tourist, but was given little interesting to do, overall. One suspects that Katzman cast Byrd thinking of him as nothing more than an affordable “juvenile” type and then, on hearing that he was to headline the much-anticipated Tracy serial, decided to sell him as Blake’s star.
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. Not that the card inserts Byrd in a scene from the serial (a confrontation between Rawlinson and Elliott) in which he does not appear, and note also Byrd’s prominent billing versus that of Rawlinson, the serial’s actual star.
We now come to Dick Tracy itself, the serial which allowed Byrd to really demonstrate his aptitude as a serial hero for the first time; it was filmed late in 1936 (after a vigorous battle between Republic, Universal, and Columbia for the serial rights to the popular comic-strip on which it was based), and released in 1937. 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 was now established as a star–albeit at Republic, a studio best-known for serials and B-films. He played leads several of those B-films for them in 1937 and 1938, and also in 1938 starred in his third Republic serial, 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.
Byrd continued starring in Republic B-films in 1939, and toplined his fourth Republic serial in the same year, Dick Tracy’s G-Men. 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 hiatus from Republic and tried spending the rest of 1939 and all of 1940 playing small roles in big-budget films like Twentieth-Century Fox’s The Mark of Zorro or starring roles in B-films like Monogram’s Drums of the Desert. However, 1941 found him back at Republic for the final Dick Tracy serial, Dick Tracy vs. Crime Inc., after negotiating around a scheduling conflict between the Republic film and the Alexander Korda film The Jungle Book, in which he had a supporting role. The villain of Dick Tracy vs. Crime Inc. 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 years; during this time, he landed some credited supporting roles in 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 Army in 1944, 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 radio-singer 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. In 1950, he enlisted in the Army Reserve, and also signed to play his signature role once again, in a Dick Tracy 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 death from cancer in 1952, at the Veterans’ Hospital in Los Angeles.
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 some information on Byrd’s pre-film career. Jack Mathis’ invaluable Valley of the Cliffhangers provided me with information about Dick Tracy’s filming schedule and pre-production history, and about Byrd’s scheduling conflict regarding the fourth Tracy serial. 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. The most valuable source, however, was this remarkably exhaustive blog by a blogger/historian (as far as I can tell, he only identifies himself as “Ray”) who has been using Ancestry.com and similar sites to compile as much original documentation as possible on forgotten actors like Byrd. Thanks are due not only to Ray, but to regular commenter James Swan, for bringing Ray’s blog entry on Byrd to my attention, and enabling me to correct a lot of commonly-repeated errors contained in earlier version of my Byrd bio.