Dragnet: Jack Webb puts the "fun" in defunding the police.
Jack Webb was many things — director, actor, writer, gun-lover, John Bircher, recording artist, ultra-right-wing Viet Cong-hating fascist, two-fisted drinker, producer, chain smoker — but first and foremost, he was an auteur. His could be the most literary form of cinema known to humankind. Webb’s imprint is instantly recognizable: spare, clean, well-lit frames, choking close-ups, and deeply mesmerizing editing patterns. (Webb cuts on periods, not commas.) As if to add another opiate to the already somnolent mix, like a patrol officer floating on a Segway, the arch, energy-efficient Webb never swings his arms when he walks.
One of Webb’s earliest big screen roles was as a crime lab technician in Anthony Mann’s taut noir He Walked by Night. The film’s fact-driven, pseudo-documentary approach to criminal investigation struck a didactic chord in Webb, and he used it as the basis for his long-running series, Dragnet. The show debuted on NBC Radio in 1949 and within three years made the leap to television and the beginning of a successful seven-year run. It was such a hit that Warner Bros. released a theatrical version (in color!) in 1954. The straightforward ‘50s conjuration was a standard issue, dialogue-driven cop show, more distinctive than most, but too starchy and void of the unplanned laughs that made the color installments from the ‘60s and ’70s so hilariously memorable.
Difficult as it might be to believe, the actor best known for his bread and butter role as the serially ceremonious lawman Sgt. Joe Friday, landed his second job in show business on a self-titled half-hour comedy show for KGO Radio. Perhaps the biggest laugh Webb continues to draw is when audiences first recognize Joe Friday in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard. (It’s similar to the titters George “Superman” Reeves receives the moment he begins to blow through Gone With the Wind.)
During the Cold War, Jack Webb came off as just slightly more amusing than Nikita Kruschev. The very thought of him directing a comedy was bound to be funnier than the end result. Such is the case with his zany recruitment picture The Last Time I Saw Archie, an unserviceable service comedy pairing Webb with a comfortably hazy Robert Mitchum. Normally, one is thrilled at Webb’s deadpan delivery and perfunctory editing style. But it soon becomes obvious that Webb’s curt cutting and even flatter lighting schemes do not translate well to comedy. Mitchum sleepwalks through it, a stylistic approach the actor fell back on when looking to pick up a paycheck. The supporting cast is forged from television gold — Mayberry’s own Don Knotts and Howard McNear, Joe “Capt. Binghamton” Flynn, and Del Moore — but if Mitchum can’t save it, what chance does Floyd the Barber have? As a comedic force, Jack Webb is best remembered for his solemn star turn as Officer Square Nuts.
When the ‘60s radical movement took hold, Webb knew it was time to take his signature show out of mothballs. With his Fred Flintstone haircut and ashtray-sized ears, he became a spokesman for law enforcement agencies throughout America. Each week Webb entered our homes, doing his damndest to combat the influx of perverse thinking and wanton, drug-addled behavior infiltrating our schools, businesses, and houses of worship. He became an iconic figure at a crucial moment in history, and for a brief period, a TV actor had become America’s top cop. More people knew Joe Friday than their local patrolman. The far right took him seriously and sang his praises, but when it came to those revolting ‘60s punks, he posed little more than a preachy, overly moralistic, and highly amusing threat to every scum-sucking, pot-shooting, long-haired pinko hippie radical out there. (Never mind the fact that addict-Jack smoked three packs a day and came home each night to a bottle of bourbon.) Dirty Harry Callahan’s brand of vigilante justice, which appealed to both hippies and their oppressors alike, would soon render Joe Friday obsolete.
The color episodes of Dragnet define sublimity, particularly those involving drugs, errant youth, and swindled seniors falling prey to large dogs trained to snatch purses. “The Big High” has long been a series standout. Friday and Gannon are working the day watch out of Narcotics when a call comes in from a wealthy businessman worried about the safety of his granddaughter, Robby. Robby’s been left in the care of his Phi Beta Kappa daughter — the fool child “practically brags about smoking marijuana” — and her baked hubby, so the caller is justifiably concerned. Friday and his partner Bill Gannon (a deep bow to Harry Morgan) arrive on scene for what would normally be an off night for the stoners. (The couple generally “turns on” only on Friday nights.)
The payoff makes Sophie’s Choice look like a no-brainer. Remember: this isn’t psilocybin they’ve ingested, or the smoke of crack cocaine swirling in their lungs. It’s not Ts and Blues, nor Special K, nor even the Big H — it’s a stick of pot! When was the last time marijuana caused someone to behave in such a psychotic manner? (Probably around the same time a dime bag went for a sawbuck, which was never.) The couple is so gooped up on gop that it soon becomes a matter of “turkey in the crib, baby in the bathtub.” Looking down at Robby’s floating remains, Gannon is so sickened by what he sees that for the first time in the officer’s career, his gag reflex began to kick in. Seeing that Gannon is already in the bathroom, wouldn’t the smart bet be to hop a ride on the porcelain bus? But no. With fingertips pressed to mouth, Bill pivots and flees the bathroom, presumably to lose his cookies on the dining room table. If this episode isn’t enough to get you high, try another fix from Season 1: The LSD Story featuring Benjy “Blueboy” Carver. Spoiler alert: the subject was booked under Section 601 - in danger of leading an idle, dissolute, or immoral life.
Having trouble sleeping despite the leftover turkey? Dozens of episodes of Jack Webb’s Dragnet await you on Hulu. I have spent the last week reacquainting myself with working the day watch out of narcotics, juvenile division, bunco, burglary, homicide, you name it. And don’t forget to stick around for the closing KayroVue theme!