Monday, July 16, 2007


For some reason a local affiliate station airs 50s-era black and white episodes of Dragnet every once in a while, usually sometime after midnight. Commercial breaks are stitched into the episode with the precision and grace of a blind taxidermist working from mismatched body parts, and the film quality is pretty wretched, but I don't care. I set my DVR to catch every episode. Dragnet is my number one guilty pleasure.

If you've seen one episode you've got the whole idea. In its radio and television iterations, whether in black and white or in color, Dragnet never really changed -- at least not too much. For over two decades since his 1949 radio debut Detective Joe Friday and his partners caught a variety of cases, working in robbery, homicide, juvenile, and even the "bunco squad." As a procedural, the show followed the course of their investigations from initial canvassing to "just desserts," when the crook would face the harsh but fair wages of sin. The plot advanced according to the complexity of the case. One radio episode followed the real-time efforts of cops to catch a bomber. Some episodes took place over a number of weeks. While movies such as LA Confidential mocked Dragnet's fakery and hypocrisy, the show was originally praised for its no-nonsense realism. Many listeners and viewers had never heard of an APP or R & I or MO until Dragnet. Cops generally loved the show for its attempt to depict the gritty and sometimes mundane truth about their jobs.

For me, Dragnet began as an exercise in kitsch. Starting with re-runs on Nick-at-Nite and TV Land I loved watching Joe Friday and his partner Bill Gannon, two black and white characters in a Technicolor world, facing down potheads, hippies, and other assorted riffraff floating about late-sixties Los Angeles. Every episode would begin with a tour of local schools, churches, and happenings, all wrapped up into one synecdochal line: "This is the city." I'd wait for favorite moments: Joe and Bill exchanging a knowing head nod, people employing some goofy pantomime to illustrate something being said, the way cops always walked with such clinched authority.

I also love the speaking patterns of Dragnet, particularly Joe Friday's delivery, which is alternately staccato-clipped and deadpan laconic. Friday's creator, Jack Webb, insisted that his cop should be low-key and professional, a patient and methodical detective, mirroring the LAPD cops he idolized. Studying his real-life counterparts, Webb produced a show built mainly around questions. Even a statement of fact would be turned into a question with the aid of an invitational tag such as, "You say you live alone, is that right?" In a 1958 Film Quarterly essay, Paul A. Jorgensen cites research stating that 60 percent of the show's dialogue consists of questions. Beyond those procedural interrogations and some light banter between Friday and his colleagues, the show is stripped of any ornament. I suppose that's what I love most about Dragnet: its promise of simplicity and consistency.

Webb's production company, Mark VII, created Dragnet and plenty of related shows such as Adam-12, Emergency!, and Project Blue Book. I loved each of these shows (even carrying an Adam 12 lunch box as a kid), yet I had no idea that one man produced them all. Thus I feel warm appreciation for Jack Webb who, even as a young man, was a notorious workaholic. A 1954 Time Magazine cover story paints a vivid picture:
Unlike his creature, Sergeant Friday, Webb can roar with laughter and talk with vast intensity and enthusiasm. He attracts all sorts of people. But he has few friends, almost no social life and is seldom seen in Hollywood nightspots. Nothing but an ailing script can keep him from sleeping nine hours a night, and he is hard at work every morning at 8 o'clock. In his spare time he stares at motion pictures, often "stopping them and backing them up" to engage in rapt inspection of every last optical effect and lap dissolve. In five years, he has read only one book (The Caine Mutiny), but few films, good, bad or indifferent, have escaped his coldly appraising eye.
Aficionados all know that the hard drinking, jazz loving, chain smoking perfectionist died young at the age of 62. He's interred at Forest Lawn, Hollywood Hills, a gravesite I plan to visit one day. I will make that pilgrimage out of respect for an actor and LAPD advocate who never seemed to fit into his times exactly. And along the way I'll listen to Dragnet radio episodes, remembering the craft of a true professional.

Learn More

Badge 714: The Dragnet Webb site

Jorgensen, P.A. (1958). The permanence of Dragnet. Film Quarterly, 12(1), 35-40.

Roborant, Dragnet Radio Show: "Dragnet has to be one of the most famous radio programs of all time. The dum-de-dum-dum theme by Walter Schumann is known to people who have never heard the radio shows or seen the television series and the phrase "just the facts, Ma'am" is part of our culture. Dragnet was probably the first "reality-based" program of any kind. At its height, it was one of the top-rated shows on the radio."

Staff writer. (1954, March 15). Jack, be nimble! Time Magazine, np.

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