Tuesday, November 4, 2003

"You're pretty high and far out...what kind of kick are you on, son?"

I suppose I should take a moment to come clean with a confession of one of my dark, terrible, innermost secrets.

I am a Dragnet junkie.

As a kid, I was exposed to Dragnet through the TV magic of syndication. The revival version of the show (broadcast on NBC from 1967-70) was in heavy rotation on WCHS-TV, our CBS affiliate in Charleston, WV. I was still sort of young at the time, and I will also admit that some of the episodes kind of scared me. I remember a particularly harrowing episode (and again, this is an 8-year-old kid talking) where Friday (Jack Webb) and Gannon (Harry Morgan) were investigating a murder and were trying to decipher a message from a dying witness, who kept repeating the words “Oft One.”

As I grew older, I became more than a little aware that Dragnet (the 60’s version, anyway) had the unmistakable odor of unintentional parody about it. Some of the episodes had become more than a little dated—although one could certainly argue that these shows were probably dated the first time they aired. The camp value of these shows reached its zenith when they were rerun endlessly on Nick at Nite (and later TVLand), and I remember some of the promos for the show’s reruns were falling-down funny. I was living with some friends in Morgantown, WV around 1992, and we made it a personal mission to catch the Dragnet rerun every night. A friend and I would even mimic the habit of Friday and Gannon nodding to one another in assent, be it after the discovery of a clue or some other earth-shattering revelation.

The sad thing about all this is--Dragnet was, at one time in its history, a groundbreaking dramatic series that revolutionized the concept of the “cop show.”

Actor Jack Webb was no stranger to radio, having worked for station KGO in San Francisco beginning in 1945. He would soon score a solid success with a 1946 show for ABC Radio on the West Coast entitled Pat Novak, For Hire-—written by his good friend Richard Breen, the series embraced a hard-boiled detective quality so extreme it bordered on high camp. Webb left the show after 26 weeks to follow Breen to Hollywood, and established himself as an in-demand radio actor with appearances on shows like The Whistler and Escape, and starring in series like Johnny Modero, Pier 23 and Jeff Regan, Investigator. (He would later return briefly to Novak when ABC Radio broadcast the show coast-to-coast—but left shortly after Dragnet’s debut.)

Webb’s Hollywood career wasn’t just limited to radio, however. He secured work in films like Sunset Blvd. (1950) and The Men (1950). It was his appearance in a taut little 1948 noir called He Walked By Night (Webb played a lab technician) that was the genesis for Dragnet; while talking with L.A. Police Sergeant Marty Wynn, who was serving as an advisor on the film, he began to develop an idea for a radio crime drama. It would not be like the umpteenth number of crime shows already on the air—most of which featured wise-cracking detectives who would breezily solve mysteries in less than a half-hour and seemed to spend much of their non-mystery-solving-time making the police look like idiots—but would instead concentrate on the day-to-day routine of an average cop. Webb believed that the investigative procedures utilized by the police could prove every bit as dramatic as the typical private-eye melodramas of the day.

NBC Radio gave Webb the go-ahead for an audition record (at that time, NBC had lost many of its shows and stars to CBS in what were termed “talent raids” and figured “What have we got to lose?”) and the show debuted on June 3, 1949. Listeners were introduced to Sergeant Joe Friday (Webb), who, according to radio historian John Dunning, “was a cop’s cop, tough bit not hard, conservative but caring”; veteran radio actor Barton Yarborough played Friday’s partner, Sergeant Ben Romero. Dragnet’s stark realism, sharp dialogue and underplaying acting style soon made the program a solid hit for NBC, thanks largely in part to good buzz from radio critic John Crosby who called the show “an astonishing cops-and-robbers job simply because nothing very astonishing happens on it.” It would later become of the more successful radio-to-TV transplants, having a successful run on the tube from 1951-59.

Those people who are familiar only with the 1967-70 series--or the modern day abomination L.A. Dragnet for that matter--simply do not know what they are missing. I recently bought a run of twenty Dragnet episodes on CD (the first twenty that still exist today, to be precise) and have been bowled over by the complexity and maturity of the show. Dragnet laid the ground work for breaking several of broadcasting's taboos of that time; many episodes, for example, dramatizied sex crimes, and the killing of children was an oft-explored subject. I am fascinated by the show’s gradual program evolution as well; the second episode doesn’t feature the famous “dum-da-dum-dum” theme and the announcer pronounces the title with a slight pause in between: Drag-net. Much of the acting leans toward the melodramatic side, but soon was refined to the point where it is, as Webb once commented, “as real as a guy pouring a cup of coffee.”

One of the episodes that I enjoyed listening to is the July 21, 1949 broadcast (a classic show that later got another workout a year later on July 13, 1950 and later still became the debut TV episode on December 16, 1951) called “The Big Bomb.” Vernon Carney, a disgruntled malcontent with a record of incarceration for small-time thefts, has walked into City Hall with a homemade bomb under his arm—he demands that his brother Elwood be released from jail by 9:00am or else he will detonate the device, blowing up the entire building. As the episode plays out in real time, Friday and Romero try everything at their disposal to make certain the bomber does not carry out his plan. Finally, when it appears that they’ll have to comply with Carney’s request, they manage to overpower him and Friday takes off with the device, throwing the device into a bucket of water and commandeering an elevator to get it out of the building before it detonates:

FRIDAY: (narrating) …I picked up the bucket and ran for the street…I missed the first step…(SFX: sound of bucket clattering to the ground) I fell forward, the bucket spun out of my hand…I sprawled flat on the sidewalk… (pause) I waited for the explosion… 
(dramatic pause, then SFX: footsteps approaching) 
JONES: It didn’t go off, Friday… 
FRIDAY: (slightly stunned) Well…I gave it a good chance, Lee… 
JONES: It’s all there…look…at least a dozen sticks of dynamite…(to another officer) Snyder! Bring that over here… 
(SFX: footsteps approaching) 
SNYDER: Here you are, Lieutenant… 
JONES: Thanks…here’s why it didn’t go off…he had it rigged for a hard trigger pull…it would have taken a good yank to set this one off… 
FRIDAY: (relieved) Yeah… 
(SFX: footsteps approaching) 
ROMERO: Hi, Joe… 
FRIDAY: Hi, Ben. 
ROMERO: (slight pause, then oh-so-quietly) Clumsy. 

I’ve also noticed with amusement the participation of actor Harry Morgan in these early Dragnet broadcasts—who, of course, later become familiar to fans as Officer Bill Gannon, Friday’s partner during the 1967-70 revival. (Ben Romero was the first of Friday’s partners, but the death of Barton Yarborough in 1951 brought on a new partner in Sergeant Ed Jacobs, played by actor Barney Phillips. Jacobs was then replaced by Officer Frank Smith, notably played by Ben Alexander—although the actors who essayed the role of Friday's partner before Alexander included Martin Milner, Harry Bartell, Herb Ellis, Ken Peters, Vic Perrin and Ken Patterson. Alexander was unable to play Frank Smith in the 1966 TV movie responsible for reviving Dragnet due to a previous commitment on ABC-TV’s Felony Squad, so Morgan replaced him as Friday’s sidekick.) Morgan’s unmistakable voice can be heard in several of these early shows, most notably as both a hotel manager and bank teller in the September 17, 1949 broadcast. Michael Hayde, author of My Name's Friday: The Unauthorized But True Story of Dragnet and the Films of Jack Webb explains Morgan's appearances on the show as a by-product of his working with Webb on a movie entitled Appointment With Danger at this time, although the finished product wouldn’t hit theaters until 1951. (An interesting noir starring Alan Ladd as a postal inspector who must protect a nun who witnessed a murder, Danger also features a memorable scene where Webb beats Morgan to death with a pair of bronzed baby shoes. The film was co-written by Richard Breen, and used to appear on AMC quite frequently before the film channel decided the definition of “American Movie Classic” was something like They Live.)

I would heartily endorse the classic radio broadcasts to any Dragnet fan who’s ever wondered as to why the program became such a phenomenon—and also to anyone who’d like to discover just why the Golden Age of Radio was so special, and remains so today.

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