DUMMM DAH-DUM DUM
Though nowadays the Dragnet franchise is best emembered today as a TV series (or two TV series), it began existence as was most exceptional as a radio drama. Dragnet starred Jack Webb as Sergeant Joe Friday, an LAPD detective who, when the series began, lived at home with his mother and later on his own in a Silver Lake bachelor pad. It first aired on 3 June, 1949. The day was a Friday; it was warm in Los Angeles.
Jack Webb had previously starred on three hard-boiled detective shows: Pat Novak, for Hire, Johnny Modero, Pier 23, and Jeff Regan, Investigator. He played a crime lab technician in the film, He Walked By Night , shot in quasi-documentary style with technical assistance provided by an LAPD dick. It reportedly sparked within Webb the idea for Dragnet — a dark and realistic police procedural that would stand in stark contrast to the breezy tone of contemporary/rival detective shows like CBS’s Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar and ABC’s Richard Diamond, Private Detective (although Dragnet is hardly without its own odd sense of humor).
DRAGNET & THE LAPD
For most of Dragnet‘s run, William Parker was LAPD’s police chief. Parker’s predecessor, Clemence B. Horrall had resigned a few months after Dragnet’s debut under pressure from the mayor amidst an investigation into police corruption following the exposure of the department’s ties to the Jewish Mob. Horrall’s department had already famously (mis)handled the internment of Japanese-Americans in concentration camps in 1942, the anti-Latino (and to a lesser extant black, Pinoy, and other working class) Zoot Suit Riots of 1943, the high profile (and unsolved) Black Dahlia murder of 1947, and the longstanding, de facto racial segregation that only ended when the supreme court intervened in 1948.
William H. Parker III became the LAPD’s new police chief on 9 August, 1950. Although he is and was often maligned for having institutionalizing many of the LAPD’s militaristic strong arm tactics, compared to most of his predecessors, he was incorruptible and unfriendly to organized criminals and he let it be known that no longer could LAPD officers “be bought for a ten-dollar bill.”
Parker wasn’t just tough on mob criminals, though, and by most accounts he went well out of his way to make life hell for innocent blacks, Latinos, gays, and Communists, and other already harassed and marginalized Angelenos. His shiny reputation for upholding his own brand of justice was likely small comfort to the innocent Mexican-Americans beaten within inches of their lives by drunk cops during 1951’s Bloody Christmas, or to the transgender community — who fought back at abusive cops at Cooper’s Donuts in 1959, or to the poor blacks who revolted in theWatts Rebellion of 1965, or to the gays who rioted after years of unjust imprisonment in Lincoln Heights’ so-called Fruit Tank (and who rioted at Silver Lake’s Black Cat Tavern a few months after Parker’s retirement in 1966).
Parker was keenly aware of the LAPD’s tarnished image and sought to use the radio, film and TV to changer the public’s perception. He collaborated closely with Webb and Sergeant Marty Wynn on Dragnet, giving the series an unparalleled realism. The main characters spent more time sitting in cars, talking about sandwiches and diets, and fighting off boredom than engaging in shoot-outs and chases with criminal arch-villains. The antagonists were more likely to be guilty of check fraud than diamond heists. Tellingly, the public usually depicted as obstacles to justice — threatening the working class heroes of the LAPD with lawsuits and generally uncooperative, petty and seemingly abusive without reason.
Although Dragnet was often lampooned for being square and conservative, it was in some ways progressive. The heroes were racially sensitive and Friday’s first partner, Ben Romero, was Latino. Friday was motivated by a colorblind adherence to law, logic and facts (although he never actually said, “Just the facts, ma’am). To underscore the series’ depiction of reality, each episode began with Friday intoning matter-of-factly, “The story you are about to hear is true. Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent.”
CBS launched a much-publicized series of talent raids on NBC of 1947 and ’48 which resulted in much of NBC’s talents defecting to its then-chief rival. Even though Webb had already made quite an impression on radio for Pat Novak and Johnny Madero, Dragnet had trouble getting off the ground — perhaps because it’s tone was so different from that of any earlier radio dramas. CBS passed on it for not being “enough like Sam Spade” and NBC only picked it up as a summer replacement.
After a slow start, Dragnet was a bona fide hit. Although the TV version of debuted on 16, December, 1951, and despite the fact that by 1952 it was obvious that TV was going to spell the end for radio drama, new episodes of the radio series continued to air until 1957. Reruns continued to air until 1959. (The last prime time radio dramas finally stopped airing in 1962).
One of my favorite aspects of the series, besides the realism and odd humor is the series’ specificity and pan-Los Angeles locations. Addresses are almost always often given — something sereis like The Adventures of Philip Marlowe did too — but whereas most earlier Los Angeles-based shows took place between Downtown Los Angeles and the Hollywood, Dragnet was like a celebrity-unimpressed tour guide to the city and offers glimpses into the way things were at the time. Boyle Heights is diverse, there’s the old Hollywood Subway, and many now-urban County areas are comparatively undeveloped.
Additionally, the dialogue is snappy, dry, and usually deadpanly humorous – somewhat reminiscent of the writing of James Cain. The sound effects department was first rate and really helps complete the vivid mental pictures that form in the listener’s mind. The plots range from the titillating to the mundane and treat them the same pragmatism. An early review in a 1949 edition of the Oakland Tribune summed it up nicely when their writer called it “an astonishing cops-and-robbers job simply because nothing very astonishing happens on it.”
DRAGNET THE TV SERIES, FILM, AND COMIC
The Dragnet TV series debuted on 16 December, 1951. Whereas most TV series were tame compared to their radio predecessors (which could get away with suggesting far more than the family-oriented boob tube could show) adult and unsensationalist Dragnet played similarly on both formats.
A Dragnet comic strip ran from 1952 to 1955. The movie, not surprisingly simply titled Dragnet, opened in theaters in September 1954 and was directed by Webb. The TV series, like the radio one, was incredibly popular finally ended only because Webb ultimately desired to pursue other projects. None of those projects came close to Dragnet’s success and before long, Webb returned with a color, made-for-TV-movie called Dragnet 1966.
Though Dragnet 1966 didn’t air until 1969, it convinced the network to revive Dragnet yet again as a TV series the following year, Dragnet 1967. That series aired (with its name changed to reflect the then-current year) until 1970. Though it retained some of the series’ characteristic humor – usually in the form of conversations between Friday and his partner, Frank Gannon, about domesticity and dating, Friday was by then as stubbornly close-minded and uptight as the countless parodies had depicted him as being in the 1950s.
Wheres before he had busted murders and shoplifters with equal amounts of measure, in the revived series he was frequently wound up by an youth culture he was painfully out of touch with. He often lost his temper debating flaky hippies and other defenders of drug experimentation, decried the revolutionary methods of activists, and generally sweat a lot as he did so, looking sallow and increasingly unhealthy as he chain-smoked the tobacco cigarettes that were killing him and oblivious to irony lectured longhairs about the dangers ofmarijuana and other drugs. Though enjoyable, it was as unintentional camp. Jack Webb, who long promoted the healthy benefits of cigarettes, died when he was just 62 in 1982. Timothy Leary on the other hand — born the same year as Webb and debated by Friday and an obvious stand-in an episode titled “The Big Prophet,” lived until 1996.
Five years after Webb’s passing, Dragnet was once again revived, albeit as a wacky comedy rather than intelligent drama. In 1989 Dragnet reappeared on TV as The New Dragnet. From 2003 to 2004 it was revived as a TV series L.A. Dragnet (starring Ed O’Neill).
In addition to the aforementioned parodies — including Stan Freberg’s “St. George and the Dragonet” (which first coined the phrase, “Just the facts, ma’am”), Dragnet’s influence was felt in mostif not all of the best crime dramas that followed. Somebody Knows (1950) was an early crime documentary, recounting the events of unsolved crimes and offering a $5000 reward for information resulting in the crime’s resolution. Tales of the Texas Rangers (1950-1952) was like a Lone Star State version of Dragnet. The Line-Up(1950-1953), while entirely fictional, strove for a Dragnet-like realism. Confession (1953) was like the flip-side of Dragnet, offering the criminal’s perspective following the announcement, “The confession you are about to hear is an actual recording.” Crime Classics (1953-1955) was also a crime docudrama, although it focused on infamous cases and had a more humorous tone than most of Dragnet’s followers. 21st Precint (1953-1956) was like Dragnet relocated to New York City. The first reality show, Night Watch (1954-1955), followed Donald Reed as he rode with and recorded the routine of Culver City PD officers. ABC‘s entry into the genre was Unit 99 (1957-1958).
ON A FINAL NOTE
Dragnet’s famous theme music is still recognized by people who’ve never listened to or watched an episode of the series. In rap it was famously sampled by The Showboys in their song, “Drag Rap,” which begins “The rhymes you are about to hear are true MC’s names have been changed to protect the innocent.”
Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, writer, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities — or salaried work. He is not interested in writing advertorials, clickbait, listicles, or other 21st century variations of spam. Brightwell’s written work has appeared in Amoeblog, diaCRITICS, and KCET Departures. His work has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft & Folk Art Museum, Form Follows Function, Los Angeles County Store, Skid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured in the Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, Los Angeles Magazine, LAist, Eastsider LA, Boing Boing, Los Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA? and at Emerson College. Art prints of his maps are available from 1650 Gallery and on other products from Cal31. He is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
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