Friday, December 16, 2011
“…the names have been changed to protect the innocent...”
By Ivan G. Shreve, Jr.
In the winter of 1992, I moved from my Savannah, Ga., environs to chillier climes in Morgantown, W.Va., (what I often facetiously refer to at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear as “my years in exile”), but before getting my own place I shared the same living quarters with my best friend from high school, along with her husband and their two children. Every weeknight at 10 p.m., her hub and I had a ritual that involved watching reruns of Dragnet on Nick at Nite — laughing our asses off at the incredulous dialogue and the popsicle (stick-up-his-ass) demeanor of star Jack Webb, who as Sgt. Joe Friday frequently struggled to hide his contempt for civilians unable to provide him with the information (eyewitness descriptions, etc.) needed to make an arrest (they clearly had not undergone proper police academy training). Friday and partner Bill Gannon, played by the late Harry Morgan, also would exchange hilarious facial expressions with both men looking at one another knowingly and solemnly nodding — something my school chum’s spouse and I would duplicate to the supportive laughter of anyone who happened to be watching with us. Dragnet was never meant to be a comedy, but many of the episodes that were telecast between 1967 and 1970 certainly came across that way; the ones that provoked the most mirth in our crowd were the incredibly dated installments dealing with drugs/narcotics, particularly the classic premiere episode “The LSD Story” — known to its fans as the “Blue Boy” episode because the kid tripping on lysergic acid diethylamide paints his face blue.
Because of television’s reluctance to transmit black-and-white TV series unless they have the fan base of an I Love Lucy or Dick Van Dyke Show, future generations of boob tube audiences have associated Dragnet as an unintentionally funny crime drama that is nauseatingly pro-police at every turn and often looks as if it were filmed on location in the interiors of some cheap hotel from a David Lynch movie. It wasn’t always that way; Dragnet earned a reputation as being the seminal cop show, premiering at a time when most crime dramas involved wisecracking private eyes making the gendarmes look like jackasses by solving crimes they could not. Sixty years ago on this date, the first television episode of Dragnet appeared as part of Chesterfield Sound-Off Time, but before I toast that auspicious debut, it seems that a little background information is in order — because “the story you are about to hear is true.”
Radio actor John Randolph “Jack” Webb was fortunate to land a small role as a crime lab technician in the 1948 film noir He Walked by Night, a movie based on a real-life murder of a California Highway Patrol officer by a former Glendale, CA police department worker (and WWII veteran) named Erwin Walker (essayed in Night by actor Richard Basehart). Between takes, Webb chatted with Det. Sgt. Marty Wynn of the Los Angeles Police Department, who was serving as a technical adviser on the movie. Webb soon developed an interest in fashioning a radio series that would dramatize actual cases from the LAPD and would put a new wrinkle on police work over the airwaves. At that time, radio crime consisted mostly of private investigators who more often than not worked outside the law as opposed to with it. Webb himself had even played such shamuses on programs such as Jeff Regan, Investigator and Pat Novak for Hire — the latter a show he had created with writing partner Richard L. Breen when they were working for KGO in San Francisco circa 1946.
Webb, with assistance from both Wynn and Officer Vince Brasher, began to do research for his series by taking classes at the academy and riding around on night patrols, learning the lingo and the police's investigative methods. The series that Webb had in mind would focus on the day-to-day routine of an average cop, with less emphasis on melodramatic elements and a concentration on realism (most crimes, for example, are solved via interviewing suspects and witnesses while expending a lot of shoe leather). He pitched an audition record to NBC who really wasn’t interested in another radio crime drama since the airwaves were saturated with them, but the network was hurting for programming thanks to rival CBS's recent poaching of some of their top talent, and so they gave Webb the go-ahead — Dragnet premiered on NBC Radio on June 3, 1949.
Reaction to Dragnet was muted at first, but the program started to build a following due in part to its stark realism, sharp dialogue and underplayed acting (creator-actor Webb insisted that the byplay between the program’s characters be “as real as a guy pouring a cup of coffee”). Radio critic John Crosby was one of the show’s first champions, writing a laudatory review in which he observed that the show was “an astonishing cops-and-robbers job simply because nothing very astonishing happens on it.” Jack Webb established his reputation early on as one of the medium’s first “auteurs”; he not only starred on Dragnet, he supervised every aspect of the show from its hiring of actors to its writing to its sound effects. Co-starring alongside Webb was radio veteran Barton Yarbrough, who played partner Ben Romero, a Mexican-American who was the yang to Friday’s yin (Joe was a bachelor who still lived with his mother, Ben a devoted family man), and in the early broadcasts Raymond Burr (before he started winning cases as Perry Mason on Saturday nights) was Ed Backstrand, Joe and Ben’s superior.
The groundbreaking nature of Dragnet (the show explored then-taboo subjects such as sex crimes and drug addiction) plus the show’s success on radio made it a natural candidate for its transition to the new medium of television like so many of its radio brethren and sistern...and Webb enthusiastically approached the challenge of presenting his creation in a visual version, even to the point of insisting that many of the people involved with the radio show (actors, writers, production staff) work on the TV Dragnet as well. Many of the TV shows were culled from previous radio scripts; the premiere episode, “The Human Bomb,” had previously been broadcast on July 21, 1949, and in watching some of the early Dragnet TV episodes it’s possible to close one’s eyes and follow much of the story solely through the audio. To re-create the clipped dialogue that had become the series’ trademark, Webb often punctuated these exchanges by using tight camera close-ups, and in doing so, made the “close-up” the industry norm. The Dec. 16, 1951 pilot was a huge success, and Dragnet was added to NBC’s regular lineup a few weeks later on Jan. 3, 1952 (though at first it appeared on a bi-weekly basis for a year, alternating with another radio-to-TV transplant, Gangbusters).
Shortly after Dragnet’s television premiere, Sgt. Joe Friday found himself in need of another partner. Yarbrough, whose radio legacy included such shows as One Man’s Family and I Love a Mystery, had succumbed to a heart attack after filming only two episodes of Dragnet and it was decided that Yarbrough’s Ben Romero would pass on in a similar fashion, as dramatized on the radio episode “The Big Sorrow” (broadcast Dec. 27, 1951) and its TV adaptation “The Big Death” (Jan. 17, 1952). Webb tabbed another actor with whom he had worked previously on radio, Barney Philips, to replace the Romero character as Sgt. Ed Jacobs, and while Jack was satisfied with Philips’ performance, the network was not (they thought the two actors looked too much alike). So at the start of the show’s second season, Friday acquired another partner in Officer Frank Smith, who was played in his first four appearances by Herb Ellis (another Webb crony who frequently appeared on the radio Dragnet) before being replaced by Ben Alexander. Alexander was another actor who’d spent time in the radio trenches, both as an announcer and comic performer (he had a regular role on the early broadcasts of The Great Gildersleeve), but he maintained he was hired for Dragnet because “he looked like a cop.”
The byplay between Friday and his partners, from Romero to Jacobs to Smith, was sometimes serious and sometimes played for comic relief. Alexander’s Smith was probably the best at the latter; like Romero, he also was married with kids and had a tendency to prattle on at Joe about mundane subjects such as his favorite foods or projects he was working on at home. The give-and-take between the two actors was a respite from the grim tone of the series, which was uncompromising in its realistic depiction of investigating murders, robberies and missing persons (though the two men were also assigned to more low-key crimes such as fraud and shoplifting). One of the more interesting early episodes is “The Big Crime” (Sept. 9, 1954), which deals with the topic of child molestation and features character great Jack Kruschen as a pedophile. Another controversial episode, “The Big .22 Rifle for Christmas” (Dec. 18, 1952), tells the chillingly tragic tale of a young boy killed by the titular gift (the National Rifle Association got its undies in a bunch over this installment, by the way). Webb used this script on radio a few times as the series’ traditional Yuletide outing before switching to a kinder, gentler tone with “The Big Little Jesus” (Dec. 24, 1953), in which a statue of the Christ child vanishes from a mission church.
Dragnet’s enormous popularity on TV (it often competed with I Love Lucy for the top spot in the Nielsen ratings) made the show a pop culture icon: its theme song (with the unforgettable dum-de-dum-dum opening) was a huge hit for Ray Anthony and his Orchestra, it was parodied in MAD magazine (and also lampooned in a Three Stooges short, Blunder Boys, and a Daffy Duck-Porky Pig cartoon, Rocket Squad) and even became a staple of newspaper comics with a daily strip that ran from 1952 to 1955. Basically, any radio or television variety show of that era that didn’t send up the series in one of its comedy sketches clearly wasn’t trying hard enough. The success of the series also brought a version of the program to the big screen in 1954, but perhaps the most popular of the Dragnet tributes came from comedian Stan Freberg, who scored the first million-selling comedy record in history with a 1953 pastiche entitled St. George and the Dragonet. Webb thought Freberg’s record (and its subsequent follow-ups) was hysterical — his only objection was that in copying dialogue from one of the episodes to use for the recording (“All we want are the facts, ma’am...”), Stan created a myth in the same catchphrase league as “Me Tarzan, you Jane” and “Play it again, Sam” with “Just the facts, ma’am.”
Dragnet was telecast throughout almost the entire decade of the 1950s, and could have held out even longer were it not for Webb’s wish to pursue other projects, so the series came to a close in August 1959. (The radio version of the show even enjoyed a healthy run, lasting until 1957, though its final two seasons consisted of reruns). In 1966, however, Jack expressed interest in reviving the series and did so with a made-for-TV movie entitled Dragnet 1966 (to distinguish it from Dragnets 1951 through 1959, one supposes — though these shows also underwent a name change, Badge 714). But Frank Smith would not be reunited with Joe Friday; Ben Alexander was employed on another half-hour crime drama at that time (Felony Squad, also starring Howard Duff and Dennis Cole) and so Webb created a new partner in Bill Gannon, played by Harry Morgan. Morgan had appeared on the radio Dragnet on two occasions in 1949 when he and Webb were working on an Alan Ladd film entitled Appointment with Danger (which wasn’t released until 1951) and proved to be an excellent choice to fill Alexander’s shoes. The character of Gannon was played much broader than that of Smith, and Morgan’s flair for comedy (he had appeared on the sitcom December Bride and its spin-off, Pete and Gladys) added a new spin on the traditional exchanges between Friday and his partner. Dragnet 1966, the TV-movie pilot, wouldn’t actually be shown on NBC until 1969, but in the meantime the new Dragnet 1967 returned to its familiar Thursday night home in January of that year and became a hit all over again.
In the time frame between the 1950s and 1960s Dragnets, there had been more than a few changes apart from Friday’s new partner. Joe Friday had morphed into a relentless scold, delivering to miscreants lectures in his inimitable mile-a-minute fashion that were even more self-righteous than they had been in the past. (Maybe the fact that he had been demoted back to the rank of sergeant — after being promoted to lieutenant in the show’s 1958-59 season — was at the root of his new attitude.) On any given episode, you couldn’t dismiss the irritation that the Friday character displayed in questioning eyewitnesses, and he seemed to reserve most of his condescension for those individuals who espoused support for the counterculture (in my house, we nicknamed the long-held belief that marijuana acts as a gateway to harder narcotics “The Jack Webb Theory,” though a friend of mine once argued that dismissing this was not to be taken lightly because, after all, “Webb hung out with a lot of jazz musicians...maybe he knows something we don't”). Many of the 1967-70 episodes of Dragnet rival the absurdity of 1938's Reefer Madness, particularly the classic “The Big High,” in which a careless pot-smoking couple neglects their young daughter, found by episode’s end drowned in a bathtub. Webb would assert later that much of the content in the 1967-70 incarnation was to improve the image of the police at a particularly tumultuous time in this country, but his rah-rah depiction of law enforcement was scorned by more than a few critics; one wag humorously dubbed the new Dragnet “the fuzz industrial.”
Though the 1960s Dragnet never really reached the height of the Nielsens as did its predecessor, it still was a strong ratings performer and could have soldiered on had Webb not canceled the series on his own decision — by that time the actor was intent on becoming a major TV mogul, and was making inroads in that area with the success of the uniformed police drama Adam-12 (which he brought to TV in 1968) and the later Emergency! in 1973. But in 1982, he attempted a Dragnet hat trick by writing some preliminary scripts for a third incarnation of the series...and once again, he was going to have to break in another rookie as partner (Harry Morgan was at the time still a M*A*S*H regular, and in fact had signed on to appear in its spin-off, AfterMASH), this time with Kent McCord (whether McCord was going to play a new character or reprise his Adam-12 role as Officer Jim Reed was never made clear). Jack’s death from a heart attack on Dec. 23, 1982 put a halt to his Dragnet revival (the LAPD paid tribute to the best PR man they ever had by lowering flags to half-staff and retiring “Friday’s” badge number, 714), but the time-honored cop show concept was revamped in a 1989-90 syndicated version (The New Dragnet) and a 2003 series produced by Law & Order’s Dick Wolf (later re-titled L.A. Dragnet, as if that would make the show any better). A 1987 film that parodied the series starring Dan Aykroyd (as Joe Friday’s nephew) and Tom Hanks was a box office hit, though the only things in it that made me laugh were seeing Morgan’s Gannon get promoted to commander and Dabney Coleman as a lisping porn merchant (“Reverend, you got ballth as big as churchbellth...”).
In April 2011, Shout! Factory released the fourth and final season of the 1967-70 Dragnet on DVD (there had been a five year gap between the first season release by Universal Home Video in 2005 and Seasons 2 and 3 by the Factory in 2010), and with the proliferation of the repeats on outlets like Hulu.com, the show is widely available to a new generation of TV viewers. Sadly, the earlier incarnation of the show is absent (save for a smattering of public domain DVD releases and the presence of a 1955 episode, “The Big Smoke,” on Shout’s Season 3 set) on disc and that’s a tragedy; I adore both editions of the show, but watching it in its prime rewards you with the experience of what made Dragnet so remarkably groundbreaking before Jack Webb’s Joe Friday turned into your mother. If you get an opportunity to listen to the classic radio broadcasts or view vintage TV episodes, I think you’ll come away with a brand new appreciation of a program that broke all of the rules and invented new ones to present “your police force in action.”