Dragnet - The greatest police procedural and realest of the real

Posted by Eric Brightwell, June 12, 2013 06:27pm | Post a Comment

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 dramaDragnet 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).


For most of Dragnet's run, William Parker was LAPD's police chiefParker’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 the Watts 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.”


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 of marijuana 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).


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."

Since then it's been sampled and referenced by seemingly every
bounce or rap producer in New Orleans -- most unforgettably by Mannie Fresh for UNLV’s “Drag ‘em in the River.” Rap music, especially gangsta rap, was often accused of sensationalism and just as often defended as a sort of fact-based reporting from the streets. Real recognize real, as they say, and Dragnet remains the realest.

Credit to the folks at Digital Deli Too for their research, accuracy, and the images.


Happy Birthday to Night Watch - radio's first reality show

Posted by Eric Brightwell, April 4, 2012 10:00pm | Post a Comment
With a few, shining exceptions (Blind Date, COPS, ElimiDate, Jersey Shore, Joe Millionaire, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares, Shahs of Sunset, The Bachelor, The Real World seasons 1and 2 (true stor-ay!), and maybe a couple dozen others, tops) I hate reality TV. To me most reality shows are endurance-defying and totally depressing in a consumerist dystopian way. My aversion to most reality TV is not  really out of some moral disapproval of schadenfreude nor a principled dislike of unscripted entertainment. No, I usually just find them painfully boring and unpleasant. I remember first hearing about Survivor and was rather excited by the concept, hoping for naked castaways with no common language forced to fight tooth and claw just to stay alive. Imagine my disappointment upon finding out it involved little more than people unpleasant from the get go undertaking a series of challenges for prizes in a tropical setting and talking about alliances. Yawn. The good reality shows (as determined by me) offer anthropological thrills, exposing the strange mating rituals of exotic subcultures and paint portraits of people in a way rarely seen in the stylized fictions of the day. 
One of the earliest reality programs was on the radio, Night Watch. It was preceded by the hidden camera prank TV show Candid Camera which debuted in 1948 but, though both reality shows, could scarcely be more different. Night Watch debuted on CBS on April 5th, 1954, a few years after the popularity of TV exploded, threatening film and radio's dominance. To compete with TV's popularity, film offered things not available on TV like widescreen, technicolor, married couples sharing a bed, and
  black people. Old Time Radio ultimately died out in 1962 but in its last days offered other things in short supply on TV, namely adult content, intelligence and exploitation that would never pass muster on the beloved family idiot box. Radio programmers seemed to be OK with a bit of gore and tawdriness since it all took place in the mind and because it was at least packaged as a cautionary public service rather than the exploitation which it really was. The first time I heard it was an episode involving a suicide attempt (there were several) and I was hooked.

Nigh Watch was developed and hosted by Culver City police reporter Donn Reed who in each episode rode around with Sgt. Ron Perkins from 6:00 pm till 2:00 am. Reed was assuredly inspired by the greatest of all police procedurals, Dragnet, which debuted on April 5, 1954 (after two auditions in January and February) and followed the dramatized adventures of LAPD officers but was widely praised for its realism. Night Watch took realism to a new level, with Reed capturing the action with a dry-cell powered reel-to-reel recorder and a microphone concealed inside of a flashlight. It was directed, produced and supervised by Sterling Tracy, produced by Jim Hadlock and Sgt Perkins additionally worked as technical dvisor.

Donald Reed, the youngest of three sons, was born to a doctor in Los Angeles, California. After completing high school, at the beginning of World War II, he joined the Army Air Forces. After the conclusion of the war, he worked for KNX where he created Night Watch. In the program, Reed never
 conveys a sense of self-importance even though his progrma presaged the development of both Cinéma Direct and Cinéma Vérité by a few years and shared many of the same hallmarks -- the lack of non-diegetic sound and a for the most observational approach of the former as well as Reed's end-of-program interviews with the subjects characteristic of the latter. Chief W. N. Hildebrande's wonderfully robotic, stilted epilogues make Mitt Romney sound like Oscar Wilde.

My feeling has long been that the so-called "good ole days" weren't that different from the present -- crime rates today are fairly similar to those in the '50s (although crime coverage has increased dramatically). The mere fact that Night Watch titles include "The Nude Prowler," "Child Desertion, Gabby and Kicker," "Old Fashioned Suicide," "Kid Explosives," "Strippers and Pix Stash," and "Goddam Lady and Mr Peepers" should give potential listeners a sense that it's a fact that the more things change, the more they stay the same. To me, it's also absolutely fascinating to hear the relaxed, natural accents, rhythms and speech patterns of regular 1950s folks and to recognize how completely is from the snappy, highly artificial and frequently corny dialogue of con
temporaneous TV and films.

Night Watch only ran for about a year, till April 22, 1955. I'm not sure why it was so short-lived -- althoughproducer Jim Hadlock's son was hit by a car whilst running an errand for his mother and suffered from a skull fracture. Reed auditioned another similar program, provisionally named, Police Recorder. Police Recorder was to have combined Donn Reed and Detective Sgt. Ron Perkins' recorded field interviews with a police psychologist. The project never progressed beyond the audition stage. Reed subsequently joined KABC-AM Radio in 1957, where he joined Captain 'Max' Schumacher on Air Watch, an early drive time traffic report show. He remained there until 1960 after which, in 1961, he moved to KMPC where he remained until 1981, receiving several Golden Mikes in the process.

Perkins went on to serve as Culver City's mayor and died in 2008. As for Reed's later partner, Captain Schumacher, he died in an air accident with his helicopter and an LAPD one over Elysian Park, in which he and to cops were killed.

You can listen to all 52 episodes for free here. Old Time Radio shows on CD are also available in the store.

Special thanks to the folks at The Digital Deli Too for their invaluable research and preservation efforts