Crime Dramas Before Dragnet
The Golden Age of Radio and Film brought to life many mythic figures: Superman, Batman, Zorro, the Lone Ranger, and many more. These larger than life figures that we saw and heard for the first time were men whose mythic deeds bordered on the fantastic.
However, it wasn’t just these legendary heroes who defied the bounds of reality. There was a string of unlikely heroes with names like Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys, Philo Vance, Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade, Mr. and Mrs. North, Candy Matson, and Sherlock Holmes. These private detectives and amateur gumshoes solved cases before the police did. Their methods varied, but somehow or another, they managed to wrap up the hardest cases for the courts and cut out the middlemen (i.e. the police). In some cases, the police just got in the way, or got the wrong guy.
Of course, there were exceptions. Dick Tracy worked for the police force in some capacity. However, he also had a fancy car and palatial digs that no policeman could buy in two lifetimes. In some movies, Tracy even had a housekeeper.
Fantasy is okay, and who hasn’t taken pleasure in a good mystery with a brilliant amature? The problem comes when media portrayals becomes reality in the minds of the public. And when that reality is twisted, it’s a big concern.
The real life of a Private Detective Investigator is far less exciting that a Chandler or Hammett novel. The private investigator spends more time doing background checks and rarely if ever is hired to solve a murder, particularly one the police are investigating. Certainly, no Private Investigator has ever had someone walk into their office and offer them $500 to not conduct an investigation for a potential client who hasn’t even arrived to ask for their help.
Meanwhile, police officers risked their lives while working long hours in a job that could go from boring to deadly in a matter of seconds, only to find themselves portrayed as either absurd super cops, bumbling clowns with an Irish accent, or like Inspector Farraday of Boston Blackie, a Captain Ahab with a badge determined to persecute our hero.
In the 1940s, police officers got no respect in the entertainment world, and one of the most notorious shows on the air for its portrayal of cops was Pat Novak for Hire. The show’s cop was the prime antangonist. Inspector Hellman was a brutal sadist who always accused the show’s hero of the crime in order to have a suspect and according to the hero, this Inspector Hellman robbed dead bodies. As the episodes wore on, it became apparent that Hellman was prepared to send a man to his death without regard to innocence or guilt, simply to resolve the case.
This PR nightmare for police departments around America was bested verbally before he was shown to be completely wrong by the smartmouthed protagonist played by Jack Webb, who’d spent his middle and late 20s delivering smart remarks to dumb radio cops.
In 1949, Webb was in his second run as Novak, having left the role in ’46. In between he’d played Novak clone Johnny Madero and a far more realistic and police-tolerant private eye, Jeff Regan. Webb had also portrayed a Police Lieutenant on Murder and Mr. Malone which featured an intentionally positive portrayal of Malone’s smart and police rival. Unfortunately, Malone stretched credibility a bit too far when it imagined a lawyer who solved cases on his own rather than racking up billable hours, trying them in court.
In any case, in 1949, Webb was back in Novak, but also playing a Police Lieutenant in the movie, He Walked by Night. On the set, he had a conversation with a police officer who let Webb know exactly what he thought of the outlandish PI shows. the office suggested that Webb do a show about what police work was really like. Initially, Webb wasn’t interested, but he changed his mind and crime fiction would never be the same.
Webb followed around real officers and learned the minute details of their operation, and after the inevitable fight to get entertainment execs to take a new chance on something new, the first realistic police drama launched in June 3, 1949 and Crime Drama would never be the same.
The show ran for 318 episodes over the radio from 1949-55, and 276 TV episodes from 1951-59.
Dragnet was marked by realistic police language (like R and I, APB, and MO), procedures, and weaponry. The story were “true” or at least based on a true story, though the names were always changed to protect the innocent (as well as the producers.)
Dragnet’s one compromise was reality was Joe Friday constantly changing divisions. He’d be working at Homocide in one episode and Bunco Fugitive in the next. This compromise with reality was a creative device to allow the show to cover the full spectrum of what police officers did.
S.S. Van Dine, the creator of Philo Vance, wrote in one of his twenty rules for writing detective fiction, “There simply must be a corpse in a detective novel, and the deader the corpse the better. No lesser crime than murder will suffice.” This had been applied for years, but Dragnet broke this rule and did it brilliantly.
Joe Friday and his partner could experience a drama investigating a string of shopliftings and the story could pack more punch than another’s show’s murder mystery with its spot on directing, writing, and use of sound. Webb’s sound effects were simply the best in radio. Wherever a scene was set, Webb wanted his listeners to feel like they were there. To hear the ding of the cash register, the ring of the telephone. In one episode (The Big Missing), Webb portrayed a long-distance phone call in detail.
Some didn’t work out too well. One episode recorded on location ended up barely intelligible. But these were exceptions.
Dragnet would leave radio in 1955, as Webb was really overwhelmed with other projects and correctly saw that Radio Drama was not going to be the future. The television show was cancelled in 1959 as ratings had slid.
However, a TV movie filmed in 1966 brought the show back as a mid-season replacement starring Webb and Harry Morgan as Officer Bill Gannon. The revival ran for 98 episodes. This is the version most people remember. Friday, in his 40s was remembered as a righteous police officer, who took on the drug culture with a vengance. Some complain about Friday’s speeches in the 1960s version, but for my part, the change in Friday’s character seemed fitting for a veteran police officer pushing 50, as opposed to the 1940s version of Friday, who was a young Sergeant most likely recently promoted when the series picked up in 1949.
Friday’s role wasn’t just taking on cases like the Blue Boy Story or the Little Pusher. Most shows were normal cases investigating bunco cases, burglaries, robberies, and more. The show’s worst moments were in Season 3, where the shows became too real, featuring episodes covering such mundane aspects of the LAPD as police officers getting together to talk about community relations at a cabin in the woods.
Despite, its flaws, and the critics who dislike it for “preachiness”, its still a favorite with fans because through all the years, Webb’s Dragnet held to values and principles most people would agree with: Respect for the law and equality of all citizens before the law, the need for parents to parent, and that the abuse of children is wrong. And more than anything else, Dragnet made us appreciate that as fun as the outrageous adventures of Philip Marlowe could be, the greater hero was the police officer who day after day laid his line off the line in order to protect and serve.
About the Cast
Jack Webb:Much of Webb’s bio was worked into the main article, beginning with his big break playing Pat Novak in 1946. When Webb hit gold with Dragnet, he hoped to parlay that into success in other projects. The most notable of these was Pete Kelly’s Blues, which Webb made three times: As a summer replacement radio program, as a movie, and then as a TV show starring William Reynolds. While these efforts are fondly remembered by fans, commercial success was somewhat elusive.
Other efforts such as the films, “The Last Time I Saw Archie” and “-30-” were forgetable. It was during the time that Webb was reviving Dragnet, that he enjoyed success that proved him more than a one hit wonder.
While he was making Dragnet, Webb launched two other series that would be remembered as TV Classics: Adam 12, which realistically portrayed patrol officers in the same Dragnet had detectives and Emergency, which focused on the work of paramedics.
When Webb died in 1982, the police badge number 714 of Joe Friday was retired. The Los Angeles Police Historical Society created the Jack Webb Awards in 1994 to honor lifelong committment to law enforcement.
Barton Yarborough (1900-51): Yarborough is probably the least well-known of Friday’s partners as he only made it into two TV episodes. However, Yarborough played Joe Friday’s partner, Sgt. Ben Romero in 132 radio episodes of Dragnet. So he was paired with Webb more often than the better known Harry Morgan. Yarbough came to Dragnet as a veteran actor, particularly in radio where he played the role of Clifford Barbour for nineteen years in the soap, One Man’s Family. He portrayed Doc Long in I Love a Mystery and Skip Turner in Adventures by Morse. He also played the lead in Western Series Hawk Larabee. He first appeared with Webb in an episode of the Anthology series, Escape and would later do three guest spots on Jeff Regan, Investigator. Yarborough’s Ben Romero was a family man who would add some relief to the episode by complaining about an inconvenience on the case or domestic problems at home. Romero was cool under fire, and would be more likely than his successors to crack the case. Romero was unique in many ways. He was the only regular partner to Joe Friday to be his equal in rank, and he was also the only one to ever take over narrating the show. (The Big Ben.) After Yarborough died in 1951, Romero “died” of the same cause of a death (a heart attack) and Webb mourned him in a memorable episode (The Big Sorrow.)
With Yarborough’s death, Webb had to find a replacement partner.For 18 episodes on Television, fans saw veteran character actors Ken Peters, Barney Philips, and Herb Ellis fill in as Friday’s partner. Of course, the television show only aired once every two weeks and took the Summer off. On radio, the limbo period lasted 37 episodes and in addition to the three actors mentioned previously, radio veterans Harry Bartell, Ken Patterson, Vic Perrin took turns as Friday’s partner, along with future Route 66 and Adam 12 star Martin Milner.
Ben Alexander (1911-69) was a former silent film star whose most famous film role was in All Quiet on the Western Front. In the 1930s, his film career declined and Alexander shifted to a career as a radio announcer and small businessman. He opened a Ford Dealership and hosted a local game show. According to Writer Jim Doherty, Webb had a picture of the role of Officer Frank Smith, “A humorous, dependable, supportive family man. Someone who could provide some comic relief, but still be believable doing realistic police work. A little off-center, perhaps, but someone you could count on when it came to the crunch.” And Webb had the picture of the perfect man for the job, Ben Alexander. However, he assumed Alexander was unavailable. Opportunity knocked when Webb found out Alexander was a big fan and would like to do a guest spot. Webb immediately offered the Frank Smith role. Alexander declined, saying he was only interested in doing one show. Webb got Alexander to agree to do the role of Smith for four shows. Said Alexander later, ““[Webb] knew those four episodes would be enough to get the hook into me. So here I am. A perpetual monument to a smart man’s come-on.” (source: Doherty.) Alexander played the role of Frank Smith for more than 400 TV and radio performances as well as in the 1954 Dragnet Motion Picture.
Seven years after Dragnet went off the air, Alexander found himself working on another TV cop show with a cast led by another great radio star when he co-starred in Felony Squad with Howard Duff (of Sam Spade fame.) His committment to ABC and Felony Squad meant that he was unable to reprise the role of Frank Smith when Dragnet returned to television in 1967.
Alexander was a vital part of the show, providing a real human element that brought out the best in Jack Webb. He was able to take a larger or smaller role, as the script dictated. Alexander was a big admirer of Webb and provided his picture of Webb in a 1957 story in TV People.