Thursday, April 4, 2013

Dragnet: Radio and Television Crime Drama

Welcome to day four of the A to Z Bloggers Challenge where D stands for Dragnet, the first successful police drama on television. It was also the highest rated police show in television history for many years. Joe Friday's (Jack Webb) "Just the facts, Ma'am," may have been irritating to me, but the public loved him! 

I always thought the show made housewives appear to be gossipy and irritating, but this wasn't the intention of the show. The goal was to present an ordinary, working-man, Los Angeles cop who was trying to maintain his objectivity in the sad, often depressing world of the inner city. 

Unlike the glitzy comic book hero cops of the 1950s, Joe Friday did not spend his working hours crashing cars and chasing crooks with his gun drawn, he spent his days knocking on doors, looking for leads, filling out paperwork, and leaving the scene of a crime with remarkably witty put-downs for the criminals. In one show, as Friday watched a hoodlum rise very slowly from his chair in a menacing way, he commented dryly, "If you're not growin' sit back down." 


Dragnet promo card with Jack Webb, 1951.

Viewers loved the mysteries on Dragnet, they loved focusing on solving the crime instead of focusing on the antics of wild-eyed police officers chasing bad guys in dark alleys. Apparently, Joe Friday enjoyed this life, as well. His only friends in this imaginary world were the four partners he was assigned during the run of the show. His partners had wives, children, lives outside the show, but for Joe, it was a "just the facts" kind of life, a life spent solving crimes and filling out paperwork back at the station. 

Jack Webb's Inspiration for Dragnet 

Jack Webb's childhood dream was not to become an actor, but a cartoonist. He even created a portfolio of cartoons that he presented to Walt Disney. He was turned down for the job, but later became friends with Disney and one of the Dragnet episodes was shot on the Disney lot. 

When he realized his career as a cartoonist was not to be, Webb joined the armed services. When he returned home he applied for work at a radio station and was hired as an announcer in San Francisco. This led to a role in the radio police drama Pat Novak for hire in 1946-47. The show had a short, but successful run and when it ended, Webb moved to Los Angeles where he was hired for both radio and television shows. He was finally offered a role as a forensic scientist in They Walk by Night, a film noir detective show starring Richard Basehart. 

Webb spent a great deal of time on the set talking to the film's technical adviser LAPD Sergeant Marty Wynn. Webb started spending time at the police headquarters, attended training classes with police officers, then approached NBC with the plot for a police drama that showed the seemingly mundane true-life detailed work of police officers. NBC was reluctant, but eventually allowed Webb to produce the show on radio.

Joe Friday's Partners 

The show had a rough start, particularly after Joe Friday's first on-air partner, Barton Yarborough, Friday's partner for the 1951-52 season, died of a heart attack. Yarborough's death, and the consequential death of his character, Sgt. Ben Romero, was handled in the episode "The Big Sorrow." When Friday arrives for work he is told of the death of his partner. There is a close-up of his face, and the audience can see that he is crying. This was actually the first television episode--a rather painful start for the show. 

Following his death, Joe Friday had a long succession of partners, which made it difficult for the audience to connect to the characters. Friday's next partner was Sergeant Ed Jacobs (Barney Philips), who was transferred to the police academy in the show to work as an instructor. Then Sgt. Ben Romero's nephew, Officer Bill Lockwood (Martin Milner), joined Friday from April to May of 1952. Lockwood was followed by Officer Frank Smith (Herb Ellis), who was also Friday's partner in 1952. Herb Ellis was replaced by Ben Alexander, creating even more confusion. Raymond Burr, however, played the Chief of Detectives, the glue that held this string of partners together so Friday could concentrate on getting "just the facts."  In spite of the chaos, Dragnet was one of the top-rated radio shows.

Raymond Burr, 1956. 

The Importance of Partners

It seemed as though Webb was beginning to recognize the importance of the role of partners in police shows as he began to emphasize their relationships after the quick succession in earlier shows. From 1953 to 57, Ben Alexander, who took over the role of Officer Frank Smith, was given a stronger personality. Alexander, a well-known child actor, was a wealthy man who accepted the role on Dragnet just for fun, and he had fun with the role. Like his partner, Joe Friday, he was focused and dedicated, but he also chattered endlessly about his married life. This behavior helped establish Friday's character. Friday became known as the prototype of the single, dedicated cop whose partners had wives, children, families, but Friday spent his working and off hours tracking leads and completing paperwork at the station. 

Jack Webb and Harry Morgan in Dragnet, 1969. 

The partner that I remember most was Harry Morgan who played Officer Bill Gannon from 1967 to 1969. In this relationship, the focus was obviously on the role partners play in police work. Gannon had a little bit less of the hard-nose detective approach of his partner, and he was charming and funny. He was a good cop, but he made it clear that he enjoyed his private life, something he also believed Joe Friday needed to improve in his own life. Gannon spoke often of his love of cooking, as well as his love for his wife, and his belief that Friday needed a wife of his own. Gannon was also a bit of a hypochondriac, which made his character more realistic. 

The Comeback

Dragnet aired from 1952 to 1957. During this time, Dragnet aired both on television and radio. It was briefly taken off the air when ratings dropped, then made a remarkable comeback when it returned in 1967 and ran until 1970. The episodes that ran from 1967 to 1970 were tightly focused on community issues of the day, such as war protests, violence, drug abuse, which made the show even more popular than before. In fact. it is considered to be one of few television shows to make a successful comeback in its time. 

The show had numerous episodes that ranked in the Top 25, including four during the 1952-53 season; three in the following season; eight in the 1955-56 season; eleven in the 1956-57 season; and a remarkable 20 top shows in the 1968-69 television season. 

Cutting Edge Drama

Although some critics have said the later shows were so extreme that they bordered on camp, as a child viewer, I was riveted to the television, stunned by the intense drama of these episodes. In fact, there is one episode that I have never been able to forget, "The Big High," episode 8 of season 2. The episode ran on November 21, 1967, when I was still a child and recently learned that my baby cousin had drowned. 

In this episode, Friday and Morgan receive a visit from the wealthy and successful Charles Porter (Ed Prentiss) who is concerned for the welfare of his granddaughter, Robin Shipley. Porter has learned that his daughter, Jean Shipley (Brenda Scott), a housewife, and her husband, Paul Shipley (Tim Donnelly), a computer programmer. are smoking marijuana. This was an interesting premise as it emphasized that marijuana was not just a street drug. 

Friday and Gannon visit the family and ask if they can search their home. The mother, Jean, refuses, though she admits that she smokes marijuana. Her husband arrives home from work, clearly upset by the interference in their private life, but he also admits to smoking. However, there is no evidence that the couple has committed a crime. Although Friday and Gannon are concerned, they are forced to leave the couple. They return to the station to discuss the case with Officer Dorothy Miller (Merry Anders) who works with severe child abuse situations. Miller points out that there is really very little that Friday and Gannon can do in this situation. 

Then a marijuana dealer, Fred Ludden (James Oliver) is arrested for possession and interrogated by Friday and Gannon. Ludden admits that he actually receives marijuana for free from the Shipleys. Friday and Gannon decide to raid the Shipley home as they appear to be the source of the marijuana problem in that area of town. 

The police arrive when the Shipleys are having a "pot party" and the couple are both clearly annoyed by the appearance of Friday and Gannon. Gannon find an ounce of "reefer," and while he's holding it in his hand, he suddenly notices that baby Robin is not in her playpen. He asks Paul Shipley about the baby, but Paul cannot remember where she is, so he turns to his wife. Jean seems confused at first, then begins to sob hysterically as she runs down the hall to the bathroom--a scene I will never forget. 

When Jean opens the door she sees her baby in the bathtub, face down and drowned. The water is overflowing on the floor. Jean and Paul collapse, sobbing. Gannon leaves the room and vomits. Friday, who now has the bag of marijuana, walks toward the camera. We cannot see his face. The Dragnet theme song begins to play. We see Friday's hand. It tightens, hard, around the bag of marijuana and we feel the intensity of his anger, his rage, and sorrow. 

At the end of the show, Paul Shipley is charged with involuntary manslaughter and received probation. Jean goes insane with grief and is sent to a mental hospital. Friday and Gannon, this one time, in this one instance, have lost their "just the fact" objectivity and clearly will never be the same. 

  • Javna, John. Cult TV. St. Martin’s Press. New York: 1985. 
  • "The Big High." Dragnet. Internet Movie Database. Retrieved April 4, 2013. 
  • Winship, Michael. Television. Random House. New York: 1988.



Kim said...

I remember Dragnet quite well. My dad used to watch it all the time. Love your blog!

Darla Sue Dollman said...

Hi Kim! Thank you for reading! I also watched Dragnet with my father. He loved detective shows (and nature shows). I miss those days! I wish they were playing reruns. It would be fun to stop by his house and watch the show with him again!