Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Scrounger’s Cheapjack Christmas Special! #5: Dragnet (part 1)

Ah, now we’re in my wheelhouse.

Just Enough Background: It’s hard to imagine now, but when Jack Webb first brought Dragnet to the radio in 1949 it was a pretty radical change in how police work was portrayed in broadcasting, when a cop was just as likely to be the adversary/clueless stooge of the quick-thinking private detective as anything effective. Webb played a few private eyes before the show, and a few other roles after Dragnet hit, but everybody remembers Detective Sergeant Joe Friday.

The goal of Dragnet was realism, and the quiet, deadpan delivery sent up by everyone from Johnny Carson to Rocky and Bullwinkle was a conscious reaction to the overheated melodrama that was crime drama’s bread and butter. If the “Friday type” later became a cliché in itself, something that a new generation of television producers reacted against, that’s just because of the massive shadow the show casts even 50 years later. Can’t blame Joe for being popular.

Another thing that might trip up a modern fan is that Joe and his partner worked a number of different details--auto theft, robbery, bunco, whatever the story (which, as announcer George Fenneman reminded us every week “is true; only the names have been changed to protect the innocent”) required. If the following generations didn’t follow him down that road as thoroughly as the other one…well, America’s just into murder, I guess.

Friday’s partner for most of the original TV run was Officer Frank Smith, played by Ben Romero. Harry Morgan as Bill Gannon didn’t show up until the revival series in 1967.

The color episodes from the late-1960s revival, when Friday could be read as more of an pro-establishment reactionary, tend to pop up in rerun rotation more often than the original 1950s TV run. If you care about this type of show—and to be fair, some people don’t—you owe it to yourself to see all those tropes when they were something new and fresh.

The Christmas Episode: “The Big Little Jesus”. Originally broadcast: December 24, 1953.

Dragnet had two traditional Christmas episodes which turned up pretty much every year. This is the heartwarming one. The other one is a bit more horrifying, but we’ll cross that bridge when we get there.

Joe and Frank are working the day watch out of burglary division swapping some small-talk about the holidays. Joe takes some gentle ribbing about getting his girlfriend something “impersonal” for Christmas.

Friday: “What’d you get Fay?”

Smith: “A sewing kit.”

Friday: “Why didn’t you get her a catcher’s mitt?

The banter is broken up by a call that there’s been a theft at the Old Mission Plaza Church. Missing: one baby Jesus, swiped from the manger.

The set was bought for $30 a few decades ago, and the baby would be easy to replace, but as Father Rojas points out, this is the baby Jesus many of his parishioners have known all their lives. “It would be like changing the evening star.” In other words, it’s the principle of the thing.

So Joe and Frank set off on a Christmas Eve mission of mercy…Dragnet style.

If you’ve never seen this one (and if you were outside of the baby boom, there’s a good chance you haven’t), you really should see this one without spoilers. “The Big Little Jesus” is a marvelous Christmas story with an ending that will leave you all warm and fuzzy, and something that actually lives up the the “TV classic” marketing on the box.

The other Dragnet Christmas show…well, you won’t get fuzzy over that one, but it’s a classic, too.

Spot ‘Em: When the network brass fretted about whether Jack Webb’s radio cast would actually work on television, Webb famously told them that he’d make them work. A perfect example is the man playing the role of Father Rojas, who was a Hollywood radio veteran: Harry Bartell. who also played Rojas when the story was remade for the 1960s revival.

Harry spent a part of his last years with a few of us in a chatroom dedicated to old-time radio, and until now I’ve never really stopped to consider how it must’ve felt for a chunk of your career to be referred to as “old-time.” Nevertheless, Mr. Bartell very graciously shared his knowledge of the way things worked back in the day, and we did what we could to show our appreciation for everything. In 1998, we held a more “formal” Q&A session about his long career, which was logged for the ages…or what passes for “the ages” in Internet time.

Another Spot 'Em: the church interiors were filmed at the actual Old Mission Plaza Church.

But Don’t Take My Word For It: The complete episode is on Why are you still reading? Watch it already!

(Yikes, that's a big ol' embed window...)

Next: More Dragnet! A New Year's show to break up all the Christmas...

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