This Week’s Script Cavalcade: Dick Tracy on the Radio

He wears a bright yellow fedora and trench coat, has razor-sharp intuition and, working with a merry band of sidekicks, employs gadgets (including his famous two-way wristwatch radio) to track down wrongdoers and miscreants in the wake of violent crimes.

He’s Dick Tracy, of course, and since his creation by Chester Gould and subsequent debut on the newspaper pages of the Detroit Mirror in 1931, he’s been the subject of all manner of serialized storytelling including films, live-action and animated TV series, radio shows and, first and foremost, comic strips. He’s one of America’s most recognizable and longest serving private eyes.

With all his recurrent sleuthing, we might contend that Tracy is a kind of grandfather to the modern-day, long-running detective or cop procedural. It’s this contention I’d specifically like to give pause to this week. The WGF Library recently processed a small bounty of radio show scripts from the mid-1940s. Many of these scripts, including The Dick Tracy Show, were written by Sidney Slon, who also famously served as head writer for the gritty and seminal pulp radio series, The Shadow.

Listeners could hear Dick Tracy’s adventures on the radio starting in 1934. The gumshoe’s grizzled voice continued to emanate over airwaves through the 1950s with the show switching networks, sponsors and lengths throughout its audible existence. The scripts in the WGF Library are specifically from 1945 and 1946 when the show aired on ABC in 30-minute segments and was proudly sponsored by Tootsie Roll.

Dick Tracy and The Case of the Perfect Alibi (1946)

In our world of over-saturation with all kinds of media vying desperately for our attention, it can be an informative relief to step back in time and examine a very direct, uncluttered mode of storytelling like radio. Library patrons with the ambition to create distinct, enduring characters whose exploits audiences continue to care about for decades, will find fundamental writing lessons exposed in the pages of these serialized radio capers.

On a warm Wednesday last week, I decided to peruse one of these scripts and found several things worth sharing, which hopefully will spur your imagination when you sit down to create your own nail-biting drama, whatever the form may be.

Dick Tracy and The Case of the Perfect Alibi (1946)

Just like today’s most compelling cop, detective, medical and other procedural shows, each Dick Tracy episode starts with a BANG! – usually literally.

It’s a bang we’d like to see resolved by the end of the episode – and it’s usually carried out by an obscenely un-likeable criminal or thug. It’s characters like Dick Tracy who provide us a kind of wish-fulfillment – that when bad things happen, we can figure out not only whodunit and how it happened, but also bring the morally in-the-wrong party to satisfying justice. In fact, the more unjust the situation at the top of the episode and the meaner the villain, the more truly gratifying it is to see the hero step up and fix things.

Dick Tracy is a unique kind of detective hero. He’s somewhat of a mug himself, which is why (tactically) he’s able to get inside the heads of the criminals he’s tracking and take them down. He might have the Al Capone look, but his heart and sense of making things right make him different and endlessly fascinating.

Dick Tracy, Mystery of the Wooden Bullet (Comic)

However, a radio hero can only be contradictory and compelling insofar as he has other characters to talk to. A common practice in the radio serial is to give the main character a sidekick or someone to explain things to along the way, so that the listening audience not only has a sense of the story, but also of the feelings of the protagonist. A necessity in radio is to make the characters speak and sound differently enough so that the audience can easily distinguish which character is talking. This is a tenet worthy of consideration even if you are writing for a visual medium. The person reading your script won’t have the visual cues to tell your characters apart, so it’s helpful to give even the smallest of characters a unique voice and cadence.

See the following examples featuring Tracy’s accomplice and a woman selling newspapers from The Case of the Nightclub Singer (1945)

Finally, Alfred Hitchcock used to famously explain that a scene between two people talking at a table will become infinitely more suspenseful if the camera pans down and we see a ticking bomb underneath the table. What do you do if you’re writing for radio and you want to generate the same amount of suspense, but you have no camera to show the bomb? In radio, verbal threats and contracts become integral to raising stakes. The hero and the villain make declarative statements, such as “If you don’t bring the money to this place, by this time, this person will be hurt,” etc., setting up anticipation of a horrible event or showdown in the audience’s mind. The characters then must continually verbally remind each other how time is running out.

Dick Tracy and The Case of the Perfect Alibi (1946)

There’s a smattering of Dick Tracy Show radio scripts sitting behind the main library desk, see? And if you don’t get here before we close today to read and learn from them, your script will suffer… gradually and painfully.

Well, maybe not, but you should still browse our catalog, stop by and read newly processed scripts including:

  • Every episode from every season of Girls.
  • Screenplays from The Nutty Professor (1996) and Anchorman (2004).
  • A few episodes of Freaks and Geeks.

This Week’s Script Cavalcade: Moaning Lisa

New amongst the WGF Library’s collection of TV show bibles and development materials is a thin packet entitled,The Simpsons: Episode Guide and Storylines (Season 8).” While this 1997 packet consists mostly of brief synopses of every season 8 episode, it also features vivid character profiles as well as rules for writing the show. Looking over this document, I internalized one thing — that the creative possibilities for The Simpsons are literally endless so long as the characters are true to their nature and to their relationships with one-another. In fact, it’s this particular notion that inspired my cavalcade of musings this week.

As any prolific writer knows, having a solid understanding of as many stories as possible can be supremely helpful. Why? Cultivating a reservoir of plot points, characters, arcs and themes that move you can only give you more to draw on when you embark on your own pen-wielding excursions.

The Simpsons is proof of this. Using their titanium-solid characters and staying true to them, the writers have been able to draw on myths, legends, other TV episodes, plays, tabloid stories, hearsay, current events and anything else you can possibly think of to create their own funny and poignant episodes of television (and for nearly thirty years). The idea of creating sturdy, compelling characters and putting them through a wealth of tried and true plots and stories is what I really want to focus on here.

For me, a script that really illustrates the power of this phenomenon is Moaning Lisa.

Written by Mike Reiss & Al Jean as a part of the show’s first season, the episode dates back to when the series had an imperative to, in addition to lampoon current events, establish meaningful relationships within the Simpson family.

The first beat of the first scene tells us exactly what this particular episode is drawing on.

Using the bleakness of Ingmar Bergman, the writers weave the tale of an existential crisis. What makes this episode inventive is the character experiencing that crisis. I’m not sure how many sitcoms about families up to this point ever featured a 2nd-grade girl in a funk over the emptiness of the American dream or life’s ultimate meaninglessness, but in this episode, Lisa Simpson has some big weighty questions getting her down — questions that nobody in her family or at school can seem to answer.

This blogger appreciates centering the story around a young girl who is experiencing depression — and not just depression over something like being rejected by a boy or failing to be popular — but a real experiential pickle, which young women can experience just as acutely, as, say, men approaching mid-life.

The episode finds movement in how Lisa fails to stumble upon anybody who can help her. The kids at school think she’s strange; the teachers don’t get her desire to be-bop on the saxophone during band practice or her inability to dodge balls in gym class. She eventually meets the great Springfield jazz musician Bleeding Gums Murphy who encourages her sax playing, but can’t offer her a cure for her blues.

As in any great coming-of-age story, it’s the character who seems to understand the least who ultimately ends-up helping out the most. Marge, at first, has advice that seems hopelessly destructive to what Lisa is going through:

What’s brilliant about this monologue is that even as we’re reading it, we can tell it hurts Marge to say these words and that perhaps she relates to Lisa on a greater level than she lets on — that she doesn’t believe this advice even though it was passed down to her from her mother. What a fantastic screenwriting lesson that Marge never outrightly states: Lisa I know what you’re going through. Rather, we as the audience infer it. We especially infer it in the action that Marge takes next.

She watches how offering a fake smile and repressing her true feelings actually hurts Lisa when she interacts again with peers and teachers. With not an ounce of hesitation, Marge whisks her daughter back into her car and offers her some of the greatest parenting ever:

And that’s the essence of rock-solid character — doing right by somebody else even if it runs counter to the philosophies that were imprinted on you when you were a young Marge.

Oh, and Homer experiences his own Bergman-esque version of playing chess with death as he keeps getting pounded by Bart at a boxing videogame, leading him too to contemplate getting older and his own mortality.

Moaning Lisa is the perfect read if you have but 30 minutes to spare in the library for it inspires asking big questions of yourself like: If I were going to write my own version of an existential crisis story, who would be my subject and what would they learn? Who would they learn it from?

The WGF Library exists to help you do what The Simpsons does so well — develop your own poignant, true characters and draw on a pantheon of stories and storytelling to create relatable adventures to put them through.

Search our catalog and stop on by, won’t you?

Here’s what’s new:

  • The complete first season of Animal Kingdom on TNT
  • John Carpenter and Nick Castle’s Escape from New York
  • A handful of scripts from Disney’s Doug
  • Season 2 scripts from HBO’s Ballers

This Week’s Script Cavalcade: The Apartment

“The origin of THE APARTMENT was my seeing the very fine picture by David Lean, BRIEF ENCOUNTER [1945]. It was the story of a man who is having an affair with a married woman and comes by train to London. They go to the apartment of a friend of his. I saw it and I said, ‘What about the guy who has to crawl into that warm bed…?’ That’s an interesting character.”

The above quote comes from Billy Wilder, describing to Cameron Crowe how he came up with the idea for his film THE APARTMENT.

In 1999, Crowe published a book called CONVERSATIONS WITH WILDER, documenting his encounters and talks with the late-great writer/filmmaker, furnishing us with stories like the one above. Last week, when Crowe was here at the Library (before conversing with Winnie Holzman about his own writing life and process), he took the time to scribble a note in our copy of his book.

For regular visitors to the WGF Library, it’s no secret that you can sit amongst Wilder’s personal, bound copies of his scripts — and if you ask really nicely we might let you read one. As part of This Week’s Script Cavalcade, I’m doing my part to hail the maestro by telling you that if you choose to read one of these Wilder scripts, THE APARTMENT is a very nice place to start.

From imagining the unseen flunkee who lets his friend have an affair in his apartment in BRIEF ENCOUNTER, Wilder and his co-writer I.A.L Diamond create CC Baxter (or “Bud”), a corporate drone, who naively believes that if he lets his bosses use his apartment for their affairs, he’ll get a promotion.

Bud embodies the always-relevant notion that if you let other people take advantage of you without complaint, they’ll see what a deserving person you are and you’ll get ahead in the world. The problem is that Bud has let the higher-ups use him and abuse him for so long that he no longer has a sense of his own worth.

Even mother nature and the common cold take advantage of him:

To boot, Bud spends the majority of the script enamored with the elevator operator in his office building, Fran Kubelik. The plot genius at work is that Fran happens to be having an affair with the head of Bud’s company, who also wants to use his apartment.

The theme of the film pops up again and again and it’s particularly relevant today:

The specific wisdom that THE APARTMENT puts out into the world is that when we get “took,” we can find surprising solace in sharing rejection with people who understand because they’ve been there too.

Read how Bud and Fran find themselves alone together on Christmas. Without family, friends or lovers, all they have is each other and they form a makeshift bond. It creates a feeling of losing and winning at the same time. Without going into too much detail, Bud consoles Fran and makes her feel better after she’s attempted suicide by sleeping pills in his apartment.

Bud proves himself an everyman hero at every possible turn in the script. When his neighbors and Fran’s brother-in-law believe he’s the man who has broken Fran’s heart, he doesn’t contradict them, going so far as to take a punch for her. Ultimately, he learns that treating people well – no matter how much it hurts – is its own reward. For people who tell screen stories, there’s a lot to be gleaned from studying his every move.

It seems Cameron Crowe reveres this film and this script and has studied it thoroughly. It shows in films like JERRY MAGUIRE and ALMOST FAMOUS, especially in the relationships between Jerry and Dorothy and especially William Miller and Penny Lane.

In fact, movies like Wilder’s and Crowe’s endure because they feel like a person telling you a story like the one Bud tells Fran to make her feel better. They feel like a person telling you that you are not alone.

What better way to keep good company while you write than to read their encouraging words while sitting amongst fellow scribes in the WGF Library?

While you’re here, you can also read:

  • Scripts from the entire first season of Netflix’s THE CROWN written by Peter Morgan
  • The entire series run of HBO’s THE LEFTOVERS created by Damon Lindelof
  • Gillian Robespierre‘s feature script OBVIOUS CHILD
  • And a handful of scripts from Mike Schur‘s THE GOOD PLACE, including the pilot

And since you’ve stayed to the end of this post, I’ll leave you with the last, classic exchange from THE APARTMENT.

This Week’s Script Cavalcade: The Subject Was Noses

It’s an episode of TV remembered for a single re-playable moment. A football hits Marcia Brady in the face and she staggers back dramatically, yelping out “Oh my nose… my nose!” Fans and aficionados of 70s TV will be pleased to know that the WGF Library now carries a shooting draft of this exceptional BRADY BUNCH episode, aptly titled “The Subject Was Noses.”

Drawing on the folk and fairy tale archetype of a character receiving a physical curse for a misdoing, “The Subject was Noses” is a compact morality play designed for families sitting down in front of their television sets on Friday night.

Written by Al Schwartz & Larry Rhine, the episode most overtly draws on the idea of Pinocchio, whose nose grows with each lie he tells. As the Pinocchio-inspired heroine of this story, Marcia tells a little lie to get out of a Saturday night date with a nerdy average guy, Charlie… all so that she can hang on the arm of a popular football player named Doug Simpson. After telling this fib (and in a stellar example of plot point karma), Marcia literally takes a football to the sinuses, which makes her nose swell-up and turn blue so that she and everybody around her are constantly reminded of the lie she told.

When we think of wounded heroes bearing facial scars, it’s often tough guys like Terry Malloy in ON THE WATERFRONT, JJ Gittes in CHINATOWN or Tom Joad in THE GRAPES OF WRATH; it’s not typically a pre-teen girl in the vein of Marcia Brady, but that’s just one aspect of this episode that makes it interesting. From here on out, Marcia is a branded woman, forced to live – physically and emotionally — with the consequences of her choice, but then showing a pleasing amount of agency for a young female character of the time and working to rectify her mistake.

The writing is as poignant as it is funny, transcendent even — for a squeaky-clean family show — with all the characters sweetly adding their support to Marcia during her struggle. Plus, the subplot serves as a comic foil to the central dilemma as Mike and Carol face their own quandary of choosing the right wallpaper for their bedroom.

This blogger wonders, however, if “The Subject Was Noses” was written today – would Marcia’s solution involve accepting a date with Charlie, or would she ultimately ditch both boys to work on a stronger sense of her own self-worth?

Patrons of the WGF Library often come in wanting to read the most recent hit series (and rightly so if you are working on a spec episode of a current show), but if you’re reading scripts to bolster your TV writing knowledge, why shortchange yourself by sticking only to shows written in this decade? There’s a lot to be gleaned from classic TV shows like this one, including inspiration, tropes to subvert and good techniques for creating a moving character arc in less than 40 pages.

Be sure to check out our online library catalog to see what we’ve added recently including:

  • Scripts from NBC’s comedy THE CARMICHAEL SHOW
  • The complete first season of the Netflix’s ONE DAY AT A TIME, created by Gloria Calderon Kellett and Mike Royce, inspired by the 1975 Norman Lear series of the same name (which we also have scripts from)
  • The pilot episode of the 1980s sci-fi sitcom SMALL WONDER
  • A smattering of radio scripts from the 1940s featuring yellow-suited sleuth, DICK TRACY

WGF Archive: Roasting Bette Davis on The Dean Martin Show

In a recent episode of FX’s Feud, Bette Davis gets nominated for an Oscar for What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? eliciting extreme jealousy in her co-star Joan Crawford. As payback, Crawford conspires with gossip columnist Hedda Hopper against Davis by convincing two other Best Actress nominees that year – Geraldine Page and Anne Bancroft – to let her accept on their behalf should they win. The Oscar ultimately goes to Bancroft, so Crawford gets to saunter across stage to accept the award when Davis loses.

If you’re a fan of the rivalry depicted on Feud, a recent find from the WGF Archive might just pique your interest. In a trove of scripts from The Dean Martin Show, we discovered the “Celebrity Roast of Bette Davis.”

Drawing on the celebrity roasts that first appeared at the New York Friars Club in the early 1910s that later came to be broadcast on the Kraft Music Hall program in the late 60s and early 70s, The Dean Martin Show began celebrity roasts in 1973 with the “Roast of Johnny Carson” (a script we also have). Younger TV viewers might be familiar with roasts from when they were revived on Comedy Central with such celebrities as Joan Rivers, Bob Saget and Justin Bieber.

The format of a roast (think: the opposite of a “toast”) involves guests aiming insult comedy at a celebrity “roastee,” who sits back and takes jokes at their own expense with good grace – knowing that the mockery is meant as praise. Studying classic sketch comedy shows like roasts can be helpful to writers and researchers alike – offering a glimpse into the humor, hot topics, social attitudes and personalities of the era in which they were written. More than simply watching the show, reading the script reinforces the idea that the wit and jokes emanating from the famous faces actually begins with writers.

The Davis Roast includes lovingly insulting tributes from the likes of Pat Buttram, Nipsey Russell, Vincent Price, Henry Fonda, Howard Cosell as well as the roastmaster himself Dean Martin. Not to be outdone, Davis has a chance at rebuttal offering this gem, “I’ve certainly had a lot of fun tonight… It would have been nice to have some of my old male co-stars with me… but then, they’d have to hold the roast at the Hollywood Wax Museum!”

One of the more intriguing parts of the script finds gossip columnist Joyce Haber, who took over Hedda Hopper’s job at the LA Times in 1968, referring to events seen on Feud involving Oscar acceptances and marriages to Pepsi-Cola magnates…

This and many other Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts were found in the Norman Liebmann collection in our archive. Liebmann wrote on many a comedy / variety series in the 60s and 70s including The Jerry Lewis Show and The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. No stranger to comedy, Liebmann is known for writing on sitcoms like Chico and the Man and Diff’rent Strokes as well as developing The Munsters with his longtime writing partner Ed Haas. Liebmann passed away in 2010. His personal papers were donated to the WGF Archive in 2015 and will continue to be processed this year.

Materials from the WGF Archive are available for viewing by both researchers and fans. Find more information here.