DUNCIAD POST # 200! THIS TIME IT’S FOR KEEPS!
But boy, once we get to our last Dragnet selection, won’t that little touch of celebration seem out of place…
The Other Christmas Episode: “The Big .22 Rifle For Christmas” (aka: “A Gun For Christmas”). Original Telecast: December 18, 1952.
As I said before, there were two Dragnet Christmas shows, both of which were originally presented on the radio show and repeated most years thereafter. The one we covered yesterday—the second one—was the one that warmed your heart. Our last Dragnet, however, was written for the first radio season, and it’s job is to punch you in the gut.
I’ve got a little bit more to say about this one than the others—with spoilers—so we’ll just park the video right here if you want to take it in fresh (and have a half-hour to spare), then you can come back and we’ll compare notes. That’s gonna be a long one, too.
ANYWAY…once again a bad omen: Joe and Frank are working Homicide, and immediately we’re told that a 9 year-old boy named Stanley Johnstone has been missing from his home for two hours, and the evidence points to foul play. The evidence, as we find out in the Johnstones’ back yard, are blood stains on the back patio and a .22 caliber cartridge casing found hidden under a coffee can.
Joe looks like he needs a manicure.
While the field test verifies that definitely is a blood stain, Roy Pinker takes the sample back to the lab to see if it’s animal or human.
They talk to the boy’s mother—not yet telling her what they just found—who thinks Stanley just got a touch of the wanderlust. They ask a few questions about guns in the house, and well, the dad has a .45 automatic from the war, but he did buy the boy a gun and just casually left it in the hall closet with all the coats…y’know, where a kid was sure not to look for presents (wink wink). Friday asks if they can have a look at it, but when she pulls the present out, it looks like Stanley already got to it. When Joe and Frank see the box, they share a worried look.
After a quick call back to the station, they find out that not only did the blood come up as human, but now Stevie Martin, one of the neighbor boys, is missing too. And if your blood doesn’t run cold at this point, I can’t do much for you.
Let’s skip ahead…oh pardon me, if you didn’t watch the video yet, THIS IS WHERE THE SPOILER MATERIAL STARTS……shield your eyes.
Are they gone?
Okay then, let’s skip ahead to the point where the tragedy kicks in. “Joe, the Johnstone kid. He’s been found.” Stanley just walked into the house, looking as rough as a mile of unpaved road, sat down in the kitchen and went into a kind of fugue state. But when Joe presses him about his friend Steve, he breaks down sobbing: “I killed him. I killed Steve. With a .22.”
Turns out he didn’t really kill his friend, but it was his gun, doggonit. They’d forgotten it was loaded, Stevie tripped on a stump, and it went off. He dragged his friend into the woods little his little wagon and (here’s the part that gets me every time) had spent all that missing time praying for Stevie to come back to life.
Stevies’s mom passed out when she was given the news, but still haven’t dealt with Stevie’s dad yet, who is just getting home from work and…
Well, let’s say things take a turn here, partially because Webb has an agenda and wants to twist the knife just a little bit more. Not that I entirely disapprove, because the story's really been moving very well so far.
When it dawns on him what Joe and Frank are telling him, Mr. Martin just loses it. He enters the boy’s room—and the dead boy, who was found in the woods where Stanley left him, is now lying on the bed…1950s cops, go figure—and tearfully tells him about all the toys he was going to get for Christmas.
Then, getting very serious and very intense in a screaming hurry, he asks where the other child is. While Joe and Frank don’t move to stop him, they go with him down the street, because 1950s or not, they sure as hell don’t like where this is going.
When he finally sees Stanley, he softens considerably…very considerably. In fact, here’s where the whole thing just jumps the tracks for me (at least in the moment), because Mr. Martin, realizing that it was an accident, offers Stevie’s presents to the boy. The presents of the boy’s dead best friend. The one he was convinced maybe an hour ago that he killed himself. AND THE MOM THINKS THAT WOULD BE A FINE IDEA.
REALLY MOM? REALLY? Y’know, Stevie’s about Stanley’s size, would Mister Martin like to bring over some of his dead son’s long underwear, too?
Joe and Frank leave this scene of shattered families, and that’s when we get…
The Holiday Lesson For Today:
Frank: “Well, what’s it all prove, Joe?”
Joe: “You don’t give a kid a gun for Christmas.”
(Let’s set aside the other “lesson”, that if your best friend dies right in front of you, you inherit all his toys. A little churlish to keep harping on it, I know, but come on…)
The radio version originally aired on December 22, 1949, and it proved to be the first of quite a few controversial Dragnet episodes. The flood of mail to NBC was mostly positive, but there was one organization that gave no quarter in its condemnation of the whole episode: the National Rifle Association. Jack Webb himself, who co-wrote the story with James Moser, forwarded the letter to the LAPD, which fired back a reply to the NRA promising at least ten more episodes “illustrating the folly of giving rifles to children.”
Of course, they didn’t need to. Webb and the network just repeated the rifle story every Christmas for the next three years.
Eventually, Webb got into the habit of inserting a notice that “this story is for you, not your children” when the stories were too intense—one of the first parental discretion notices.
Spot ‘Em: Once again proving that Webb put radio people into the new medium wherever he could, the grieving father John Martin was played by William Johnstone, the man who replaced Orson Welles as The Shadow after Orson decided he wanted to become an artiste. In fact, Johnstone was the one telling us what evil lurks in the hearts of men on the same night Welles was raining Martian death down on New Jersey.
Also, Roy Pinker, the man taking the blood samples at the beginning, was played by Olan Soule, radio-famous for playing male leads in The First Nighter series and being Captain Midnight's second-in-command, but at my age you’d know him as the guy who voiced Batman on the Super Friends cartoon. An instantly recognizable voice...a shame we didn't hear much of it here.
Next: Date With the Angels and OMIGOD IT’S BETTY WHITE!