“Dragnet”: Revisiting a Classic Police Show

16 Nov

I did a post on “Dragnet” on January 27, earlier this year, focusing on one particular episode, “The Big Producer,” about a onetime silent film producer who heads a ring selling obscene literature to high school kids and, in the course of the investigation, takes Sgt. Joe Friday and his partner, Frank Smith, on a tour of a rundown movie studio, taking on a SUNSET BOULEVARD aura. I’ve since watched all 22 episodes found in the “Dragnet” box set I own, all shown from 1952-1955, and can safely say that “Dragnet” is easily the most intense and dramatic TV series from the 1950s I’ve yet seen. It’s all based on actual cases and the crimes covered in the show include some subjects, such as child molestation and drug abuse, that were off limits to movies of the period because of the Production Code. I’m not sure how they got away with them on television. There are mostly stories of violent crime, such as murder, hit-and-run, and armed robbery and assault, but also episodes devoted to burglary, swindling, and check forgery, as well as suicide and accidental death. The emphasis was chiefly on the investigation, including long scenes of questioning of witnesses, and, ultimately, the grilling of the suspect.

Every episode opened with this statement spoken by a narrator: “Ladies and gentlemen, the story you are about to see is true. The names have been changed to protect the innocent.” And then we’d hear the famous “Dum da DUM dum” brass theme over the series title. The episode proper would then begin with panoramic shots of Los Angeles and narration by series star Jack Webb, as Sergeant Friday, offering a bit of police-inflected urban poetry, e.g. “This is the city, everything in it is one way or the other, there’s no middle ground,” before explaining “I’m a cop” and announcing what division he was working in that day (“We were working the day watch out of homicide…”) and who his partner was and what kind of call they’d gotten. Every so often there’d be a much longer opening narration. This one, from “The Big Cast,” is the best I’ve heard yet:

“This is the city. Every 24 hours a little bit of everything happens. Two million people make a lot of history in one day.  They write it all down and file it away. Some of it’s important, some of it isn’t. Business, industry, government. You buy a 3-cent stamp or an oil well, they keep records on all of it. Progress, money, success, and failure. A complete history of every day. Some of it’s public, some of it’s personal. It’s all written down. In my job we catalog trouble. I’m a cop.”

Each episode ended with an epilogue explaining how the case was resolved, usually with a prison sentence or execution of the culprit.

Friday’s most frequent partner is Officer Frank Smith, played by Herbert Ellis in a couple of early episodes, but by Ben Alexander in most. His partner in some episodes is Sgt. Ed Jacobs, played by Barney Phillips. I prefer the episodes with the less-used partners.  Ben Alexander’s job too often is to try to “humanize” the stiff-necked, all-business Sgt. Friday and provide some kind of forced comic relief in his banter with Webb. It detracts from the no-nonsense tone of the rest of the proceedings.

Jack Webb as Sergeant Joe Friday, Ben Alexander as Officer Frank Smith

The series emphasis was on the minutiae of each case, the more honed the details the better. In one episode, “The Big Casing,” all the circumstantial evidence points to the guilt of a husband in the shooting death of his wife, even though he insists she took his gun and shot herself with it. Eventually, after a thorough examination of the crime scene, Lt. Lee Jones (Herbert Butterfield), the forensic scientist assigned to the case, is able to explain all the points that made them initially think the husband was guilty and conclude that it was indeed suicide, just as the husband said. He takes us on a step-by-step breakdown of the crime scene to do so. As he says at the end of it, “Makes you feel kind of good, doesn’t it? Finding a man clear on a charge instead of having to hang him up.” This prompts a big smile on the face of Sergeant Friday, one of the few I saw in the 22 episodes I watched.

I don’t see a strict formula in the series, given the number of different story formats I saw in the episodes and how different each episode was from the next. Some focus chiefly on the questioning of a suspect and take place almost entirely in a police office. Some go outdoors as Friday and his partner visit witnesses in their homes or shops. Some involve stakeouts and the apprehension of a suspect or two. At least one episode I watched had two shootouts in it.

The storylines are streamlined and the visual emphasis is on closeups. If there’s any fat needing to be trimmed it’s found in the quirky character touches sometimes given to witnesses, like the butcher shop owner in “The Big Grandma” who’s just cut a pound of liverwurst and then, while being questioned about bad checks that were passed in his store, speculates on whether his customers will like the liverwurst or not while he proceeds to eat the whole pile.

Not all character quirks were extraneous. In the final scene in the same episode, the quirk is deftly integrated into the narrative as the gentle old lady of the title, who turns out to have forged a lot of checks, is busy baking a pie while being questioned by Friday and Smith in her kitchen. She even enlists their help in the preparation of the pie.

In another episode, a killer’s propensity for health food and his insistence on Friday questioning him over a meal in a health food restaurant actually yields some results in the case.

On the other hand, as mentioned earlier, I could do without the folksy little banter between Friday and his partner Smith over some domestic or personal matter, clearly inserted to “humanize” the characters and make them less business-like, as when Smith tells Friday that salt pills eliminate headaches and should be taken with Poland Water (possibly the earliest instance I’ve seen of bottled water featured on film) or when they ponder what wedding gift to buy for one of their colleagues. I find these scenes forced and something of a distraction from the drama. The episodes work best when they keep it simple, keep it focused, and keep it intense.

One highly unusual episode, “The Big .22 for Christmas,” dealt with two missing boys and the revelation that one of the boys took from the closet of his home a .22 rifle meant as a Christmas gift for him. When the boy who’d taken the rifle finally returns home, we learn that his playmate was accidentally shot and killed when the gun discharged and the first boy had moved his body into a secluded spot and covered it up with leaves. The grief-stricken father of the dead boy demands to see the other boy. Friday and Smith agree, not knowing what to expect, but it results in quite an emotional and heart-breaking final scene.

“The Big Crime” involves the disappearance of four-year-old twin girls who later turn up alive after having been abducted and molested by a man in a red truck who’d promised them a kitten. The narration tells us that “an emergency spot check was made of all known and registered sex offenders,” which kind of surprised me because I didn’t realize that sex offenders were registered that far back. Eventually, they narrow down a suspect, Lester Z. Wylie (Jack Kruschen), and question him at his home as he sits at his kitchen table drinking wine. Eventually, he tries to fight his way out and is subdued by Friday and freaks out. The character’s genuinely creepy. An even more chilling element is introduced when he reveals that he would have killed the girls if he hadn’t lost his pocket knife, which is then shown to be lying on the floor of his kitchen.

“The Big Seventeen” shows what happens when a circle of previously well-behaved teenagers suddenly gets turned on to marijuana. The first thing they do is trash a movie theater.

I don’t know about the rest of you, but I remember when teenage audiences high on pot were particularly well-behaved in movie theaters and watched films with rapt attention, never even giving a thought to trashing the place. It just didn’t have that effect in the 1970s. Of course, the movies chosen for such experiences were more attuned to the audience. (EL TOPO, anyone?2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY? FANTASIA? ) Not like the movie that played to the teen crowd in this episode, as seen in this poster on the theater wall:

Yes, the kids went to an arthouse! Maybe they were just bored? If you want to pick a 1952 movie that might have worked for such a crowd, why not Burt Lancaster’s THE CRIMSON PIRATE or Bob Hope’s SON OF PALEFACE?

Things take a much more serious turn in the episode when pure-grade heroin begins to circulate and the teen pusher (never previously seen) turns up dead in a park where he was supposed to meet his cleancut girlfriend (well played by Allene Roberts), who asks, “How could he make such a mistake?” Friday answers her in the blunt manner that was something of a series trademark: “He had the best excuse in the world, Miss. He was seventeen.”

Which brings up the dialogue in the series. Friday often closed the episode with a terse sum-up that was as concise and pungent as one can get. The .22 episode ends with this exchange between Friday and his partner:

“What’s it all prove, Joe?”

“You don’t give a kid a gun for Christmas.”

In “The Big Grandma,” after Friday and Smith get the old lady making pie, Inez Lambert (Gwen Delano), to admit she’s been cashing bad checks, she insists it was always for charity–with the evidence clearly bearing this out—prompting this exchange between Inez and Friday:

“Do you think the good Lord will say I was wrong?”

“Well, I wouldn’t know, ma’am.”

“I only wanted to help the poor. He did. He came to help the poor.”

“Well, there’s a big difference, ma’am. He didn’t use a checkbook.”

In “The Big Cast,” Henry Ross (Lee Marvin), a confessed serial killer, insists that the detective stories have it all wrong, that there isn’t a big motive like money or a woman behind every murder, sometimes it’s for no reason at all, “It’s just cheap.” To which Friday responds, “You got it wrong, Henry. Wait till they read you the bill.” We then learn in the epilogue that Henry was subsequently executed in the gas chamber at San Quentin.

In the “The Big Rod,” Friday’s search for a hot-rodding hit-and-run driver takes him to the local hot rod association, the head of which is eager to cooperate to prove “we’re on your side,” which prompts the following response from Friday:

“That shouldn’t be too hard.”

“What do you mean?”

“There’s a lot of room.”

Later in the episode, after Friday nabs the callous hot-rodder (Jan Merlin), who’d run down and killed a pregnant woman, Friday is asked by him how much of a sentence he’ll get.

Friday’s response: “I don’t know, but it won’t be enough.”

In “The Big Betty,” Friday finally catches up to Betty McGraw (Gloria Saunders), a woman who heads a swindling ring, and sidles up to her at a New Year’s Eve party. She says to him, “Every year at New Year’s, I cry. No reason.”

Friday: “You’re gonna have one this year, lady.”

My favorite example doesn’t even come from Sgt. Friday. In “The Big Lamp,” a criminal court judge (Ralph Moody) is astounded at the jury’s verdict of “Not Guilty” after the trial of a career burglar and he addresses them this way:

“Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I’ve been a judge for 26 years. For the past 14 years I have presided in this particular court. May I say now that this is the worst miscarriage of justice I have ever witnessed. After hearing your verdict in this case I can arrive at only one conclusion. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, either you are innately dishonest or you are complete morons. Court’s adjourned.”

It’s obvious, of course, that the series was unabashedly pro-law enforcement. Crime victims were often featured, whether grieving husbands, mothers and fathers, or seriously injured assault victims, including one who will never walk again, as well as a ten-year-old girl whose home was stripped by a burglary team of all its furniture including her desk and all her schoolwork contained therein, all to remind us of the consequences of crime and how it impacts all of us.

Michael Ansara (right) as a grieving husband who confronts the hot-rodder who ran down and killed his pregnant wife in “The Big Rod”

Occasionally, we get close to the culprit and hear what makes him tick, like the jeweler who hired a teen to rob his colleague and slowly breaks down under questioning to reveal his wife’s penchant for luxuries as the cause of his turn to crime. Or the serial killer played by Lee Marvin, who tells us what it was like to kill a victim. The point is not for us to sympathize with these men or understand what made them criminals, but to deglamorize crime, to show us how banal they are. They’re never terribly tough. It’s the cops who are the tough guys here.

Vic Perrin as an errant jeweler in “The Big Phone Call”

But Friday’s toughness doesn’t offer much protection for his own wounded psyche in the episode where he kills a man for the first time, “The Big Thief.” When the dead man’s female partner yells at Webb for shooting him (in response to being shot at), Webb responds, “We didn’t call it, lady.”

Still, he is clearly shaken by it and has difficulty filling out the police report. His girlfriend, Ann Baker (Dorothy Abbott), is there in the office with him and takes the time to talk him through it and ponder what it would be like if he had hesitated to shoot at the criminal who shot at him or if he hadn’t gone for extra marksmanship training.

“Joe, I don’t know who made the decision, but I’m glad it’s the way it is.”

The series was made at a time when trust in the police was at an all-time high. Headlines about police corruption and police brutality, at least in the major cities, weren’t as common as they would be a decade or two later. The death penalty was routinely used to remove from society killers who’d wantonly taken human lives. The entrenched racism in the LAPD was an open secret but not often acknowledged in the mainstream newspapers. None of the sentiments voiced in the series shocked or surprised anyone. They were generally shared by the commentators and opinion makers then at work.

There would be a big difference when “Dragnet” was revived in the 1960s, with Webb reprising his role as Sgt. Friday (with no promotion over the past decade) and Harry Morgan joining the cast as his partner, Bill Gannon. Webb had more of an urgent agenda this time as he proceeded to take on the counterculture and what he perceived as its insidious influence on young people. Some episodes were simply stern lectures barely disguised as crime dramas and lengthy exchanges designed to puncture holes in the cases people were making against police tactics, but without input from actual critics of the police. A significant portion of the audience laughed at Webb’s high-handed preaching each week. Not every one of these cases was based on a true story.

Still, I like the approach of the original series and the emphasis on the facts of a case rather than the action associated with it. There was no need to sensationalize each case for a TV audience the way, say, “Law and Order” does. The inherent drama associated with it was enough. I wouldn’t mind seeing a new police drama that just kept to the facts. Speaking of which, in the 22 episodes I watched, I never once heard Friday say, “Just the facts, ma’am.”

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2 Responses to ““Dragnet”: Revisiting a Classic Police Show”

  1. Jim July 29, 2016 at 9:37 AM #

    I was too young to catch the 50s Dragnet, the radio show, or even the 70s version of the show, but let me tell, I love this original series, for the fact based drama and the avoidance of making them so TV. I would say more but you said it exactly as I would. My favorite of his partners was Ed Jacobs.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Rediscovering Classic TV | Brian Camp's Film and Anime Blog - January 20, 2014

    […] then I bought the box set of “Dragnet” that I wrote about here on November 16, 2013. And that only further increased my admiration for classic TV from the 1950s. Also around that time […]

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