I’ve often said that I love to get to the origin of things. It fascinates me that things that we take for granted today, things that have possibly become cliche, things that have become embedded in popular culture, actually were new at one point. In a lot of cases, someone simply had an idea and had the courage, fortitude and luck to bring it about. This person becomes known as a visionary, a pioneer.
I’ve always been a fan of what’s called “old-time radio”; radio shows from the 1930’s up to the 1950’s that preceded, and then ran alongside of, television. There is one show that stands out from the rest. “Dragnet” debuted in the spring of 1949. The original police procedural was created by actor Jack Webb.
Webb grew up in the Bunker Hill section of Los Angeles and went to school in Echo Park so he knew full well the way of the streets and it comes as no surprise that he would make his name telling the stories of the Los Angeles Police Department. After ‘washing out’ of the Army Air Corps, he returned home to support his mother and grandmother by working in radio and film. His early jobs on radio found him in comedies and a small role in Billy Wilder’s classic “Sunset Boulevard” had him playing smiling Artie Green. He soon left levity behind, though, and began working on shows that exemplified life in post-war Los Angeles, a life reflected in films noir of the time. The shows dealt with crime and punishment, ‘cops’ and criminals.
In 1946, Webb landed the title role in the radio drama “Pat Novak, For Hire”. Set in the seedy waterfront area of San Francisco, this show was typical ‘pulp fiction’ of the time and told stories of hard-boiled Novak who could be hired to help people solve their problems. The dialogue was loaded with wordplay synonymous with detective fiction of the day and owed a lot to the over-the-top descriptions of people and places usually found in the novels of James M. Cain. It portrayed Novak and his world in a gritty style that would come to be cliche and epitomize the genre.
Webb landed a role on the big screen in the film noir “He Walked By Night”, which was based on the real life murder of a California Highway patrolman and was told in a business-like manner, tracking the methods the police used to hunt the killer. Webb had the small role of Lee, a forensics specialist. LAPD sergeant Marty Wynn was the technical advisor on the film. Due to the small size of Webb’s role, he had a lot of free time during the shoot and often found himself talking with Wynn about his work with the police department. When Wynn found out that Webb had portrayed Pat Novak, Wynn teased Webb about the unrealistic nature of the scripts of that radio drama. While Pat Novak wasn’t a police officer, he dealt with them all the time. And they were usually depicted as dimwitted and/or brutal. Wynn informed Webb that the LAPD was not like that. Wynn also pointed out that crimes were not solved with thundering climaxes and glamourous pursuits. Police work, Wynn told Webb, was often dull. Cases took months to solve and often hinged on the smallest break or shred of evidence. Sgt. Wynn wondered aloud if there could be a show that would show policemen in a good light and would depict their work accurately while still providing entertainment that would keep a radio audience coming back every week.
When Sgt. Wynn told Webb he could get him access to actual police files on which to base radio dramas, Jack Webb was inspired. He told Wynn he’d love to create such a show. A show that would depict the authentic, if routine, heroism of policemen. A show employing a semi-documentary style that would show ‘cops’ in their natural element, following procedures and employing all the sometimes dry and sedate methods that were actually used by police forces of the day. Webb began to envision a ‘cop show’ that would avoid all the fictional melodrama that other shows on radio employed liberally.
Sgt. Wynn approached LAPD Chief Clemence Horrall about providing Jack Webb access to case files for a proposed radio show. This was at a time in history when the LAPD had suffered a lot of bad press and policemen were thought of as corrupt bruisers who were not much more than loose cannons on the streets of Los Angeles. Horrall loved the idea of a radio drama that would shine a positive light on police officers and the thankless job that they did. If Webb followed through on his plan to handle the stories with verisimilitude, it would do the LAPD no end of good. Chief Horrall gave Webb the green light and was acknowledged at the end of the early episodes of “Dragnet” on radio. The next two chiefs – William Worton and William Parker – were similarly recognized.
There had previously been a show on radio called “Calling All Cars”. This show ran from 1933 to 1939, making it one of the very first police dramas on radio. It used as a template cases pulled from the files of the LAPD and told a straight story detailing the tedium of police work. “Dragnet” took it’s cue from “Calling All Cars”.
“Dragnet” really is unique among radio dramas, though. What audiences liked in the 1940’s and early 1950’s were grand, sweeping stories with a lot of plot twists, a lot of melodrama and a lot of action. “Dragnet” was singular in that it was able to thrill audiences while maintaining it’s authenticity and it’s sometimes bland storytelling. The show debuted in June of 1949 and, after a few episodes spent working out the kinks, the show hit it’s stride and settled into the format that it would follow for the rest of it’s run. Every episode began with a narrator briefly describing the nature of the crime to be solved. The opening also made the point of noting that “the story you are about to hear is true. Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent” – this became one of the many calling-cards of the show. What also became typical was Jack Webb’s character Sgt. Joe Friday taking over the narration by briefly giving the date, the weather conditions and the department he was reporting to; juvenile division, robbery, homicide, etc. He would make mention of his partner’s name and the boss under which they were working. Friday’s first partner was Ben Romero. Radio veteran Barton Yarborough played Ben and when Yarborough himself died suddenly of a heart attack in 1951, the character of Romero also met the same fate. Ben Alexander played Joe’s long-standing partner Frank Smith and Canadian Raymond Burr portrayed The Chief of Detectives.
Webb insisted on realism. This sometimes resulted in startling anti-climaxes. In one episode, Joe and Ben have been working night and day to apprehend a suspect. Joe is at the end of his rope when he finally pulls himself away from the police station to go home and make himself a sandwich. While at home, he gets a call from the Chief to come back in; another pair of officers has caught his suspect. Just like that, months of searching have come to an end. The tedium of police work as depicted in the show was also reflected in minor, authentic things that happen in real life that the show included in its scripts. The cops’ interview with a grocer is interrupted by an old lady beseeching the grocer to donate a prize for a raffle. The interruption has nothing to do with the plot. Ben is suffering from a tooth ache in another episode and snaps at Joe. The exchange is just a few seconds and the show goes on. The long process of getting someone on the phone long distance is depicted and we the audience have to wait patiently along with Joe. Actual sounds of operators contacting a party across the country were recorded and used on the show and this method was utilized to present other authentic sound effects.
There was no flamboyance to the show, no elaborate window dressing. Eventually, even the titles of the episodes became sparse and business-like. They began to all be called “The Big…” and then one word; one plot point that was integral to the story: “The Big Safe”, “The Big Streetcar”, “The Big Gun”, etc. The show – in it’s pursuit of realism – wouldn’t sugarcoat any plot point and could often be cold-blooded, even as early as episode 4 (“Quick Trigger Gunman”). This show featured a rare benign and friendly exchange between Friday and Romero and a fellow officer friend of the boys’, Sgt. Lindsay. Friday got corralled into a blind date with Lindsay’s cousin. They chuckled about it. Later, Friday and Romero are called to a murder in a diner. Sgt. Lindsay had been shot dead when he tried to foil a robbery. Friday informs the widow and the scene is subdued and heartbreaking. In the 15th episode, titled “The Sullivan Kidnapping”, a young girl is kidnapped. Friday and Romero find a body in the bushes and it is identified as the young Sullivan girl. The girl’s father is called down to identify the body. As Joe and Ben attempt to question Mr. Sullivan, the father is so distraught that he becomes incoherent. It is agonizing to listen to (tune in at about the 16-minute mark). This is a great example of how harrowing this show could be. Without affectation, it was not presenting the melodrama of star-crossed lovers lamenting their fate. Neither did it employ the supernatural shocks of the suspense shows. “Dragnet” hit home in it’s depiction of crimes that could happen to anybody, bringing their worlds crashing down around them.
The show initially operated without a sponsor until Fatima cigarettes came on board. Like all nicotine advertisements of the day, it’s always a head-shaker to hear the announcer celebrate the fact that Fatima had “more than doubled” it’s number of customers.
Jack Webb had a fondness for radio drama and this led him to continue with the “Dragnet” radio series until 1957, long after television had surpassed radio as the public’s choice for their source of entertainment. Actually, the television show began in 1951, two years after the radio show debuted, meaning that both shows ran simultaneously until ’57. The TV show followed the format of the radio program exactly, starting with Walter Schumann’s iconic theme song and ending with an announcer revealing the fates of the culprits. The original series ended in 1959 but was revived for four years in 1967 until Jack finally pulled the plug to work on the other series being produced by his Mark VII Limited production company. In 1982, Webb began working on another revival of the show. These plans were scrapped, however, when Webb dropped dead of a heart attack near the end of the year. In 1987, a comedy film version of “Dragnet” was released with Dan Ackroyd playing Joe Friday with Tom Hanks as his partner. It was a parody more than anything and bore little resemblance to the original series. Two further TV series were attempted in 1989 and 2003 to little success.
The immense legacy of “Dragnet” is hard to overstate. While “semi-documentary” films were made before the debut of the radio show, “Dragnet” brought the “police procedural” to the masses. It served as alternative entertainment. As opposed to broad comedy or melodramatic romance or bombastic action the police procedural had it’s roots in reality and depicted, without affectation, police persistence as they followed their sometime restrictive methods to solve crimes and apprehend criminals. This drama sub-genre has proved extremely popular over the years. In “Dragnet”‘s wake came a plethora of fine programs that followed it’s lead: “The Untouchables”, “Kojak”, “Hill Street Blues” and “NYPD Blue” to name but a few.
The legacy of Jack Webb and “Dragnet” is most brought into focus by the colossal success of three franchises: “Law and Order”, “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” and “NCIS”. These three television entities account for no less than ELEVEN extremely popular series – starting with the original “Law and Order” which debuted in 1990 – that are watched regularly by untold millions of viewers the world over. Each and every one of these 11 shows follow – basically to the letter – the format laid out by Jack Webb in 1949. While delving only sparingly into the private lives of the players, these shows begin with a crime and then officers are shown going step by step through the process of obtaining evidence, solving the crime and apprehending the suspect. And I will argue that this all started with Jack Webb and the radio show “Dragnet”.