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Dragnet
(From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia)

Dragnet is a long-running radio and television police procedural drama about the cases of a dedicated Los Angeles police detective, Sergeant Joe Friday, and his partners. The show takes its name from an actual police term, a "dragnet", meaning a system of coordinated measures for apprehending criminals or suspects.

Creation

Dragnet was created and produced by Jack Webb, who starred as the terse Sgt. Friday. Webb had starred in a few mostly short-lived radio programs, but Dragnet would make him one of the major media personalities of his era.

Dragnet had its origins in Webb’s small role as a police forensic scientist in the 1948 film, He Walked by Night, inspired by the actual murder of a police officer in Los Angeles. The film was depicted in semidocumentary style, and Marty Wynn (an actual LAPD sergeant from the robbery division) was a technical advisor on the film. Webb and Wynn became friends, and both thought that the day-to-day activities of police officers could be realistically depicted, and could make for compelling drama without the forced sense of melodrama then so common in radio programming. Webb frequently visited police headquarters, drove on night patrols with Sgt. Wynn and his partner Officer Vance Brasher, and attended police academy courses to learn authentic jargon and other details that could be featured in a radio program. When he proposed Dragnet to NBC officials, they were not especially impressed; radio was aswarm with private investigators and crime dramas, such as Webb’s earlier Pat Novak for Hire. That program didn’t last long, but Webb had received high marks for his role as the titular private investigator, and NBC agreed to a limited run for Dragnet.

With writer James E. Moser, Webb prepared an audition recording, then sought the LAPD’s endorsement; he wanted to use cases from official files in order to demonstrate the steps taken by police officers during investigations. The official response was initially lukewarm, but in 1950 LAPD Chief William H. Parker offered Webb the endorsement he sought. Police wanted control over the program’s sponsor, and insisted that police not be depicted unflatteringly. This would lead to some criticism, as LAPD racial segregation policies were never addressed, nor was there a suggestion of police corruption.

Radio

Jack Webb in an advertisement for Fatima Cigarettes, ca. 1951.  The now-defunct Fatima brand was the primary sponsor of the early Dragnet radio episodes.

Jack Webb in an advertisement for Fatima Cigarettes, ca. 1951. The now-defunct Fatima brand was the primary sponsor of the early Dragnet radio episodes.

Dragnet debuted inauspiciously. The first several months were bumpy, as Webb and company worked out the program’s format and eventually became comfortable with their characters (Friday was originally portrayed as more brash and forceful than his later usually relaxed demeanor). Gradually, Friday’s deadpan, fast-talking persona emerged, described by John Dunning as "a cop's cop, tough but not hard, conservative but caring." (Dunning, 210) Friday’s first partner was Sgt. Ben Romero, portrayed by Barton Yarborough, a longtime radio actor. When Dragnet hit its stride, it became one of radio’s top-rated shows.

Webb insisted on realism in every aspect of the show. The dialogue was clipped, understated and sparse, influenced by the hardboiled school of crime fiction. Scripts were fast moving but didn’t seem rushed. Every aspect of police work was chronicled, step by step: From patrols and paperwork, to crime scene investigation, lab work and questioning witnesses or suspects. The detectives’ personal lives were mentioned, but rarely took center stage. (Friday was a bachelor who lived with his mother; Romero was an ever-fretful husband and father.) "Underplaying is still acting," Webb told Time. "We try to make it as real as a guy pouring a cup of coffee.” (Dunning, 209) Los Angeles police chiefs C.B. Horrall and (later) William H. Parker were credited as consultants, and many police officers were fans.

Webb was a stickler for accurate details, and Dragnet used many authentic touches, such as the LAPD's actual radio call sign (KMA-367), and the names of many real department officials, such as Ray Pinker and Lee Jones of the crime lab or Chief of Detectives Thad Brown.

Two announcers were used. Episodes began with announcer George Fenneman intoning the series opening ("The story you are about to hear is true; only the names have been changed to protect the innocent.") and Hal Gibney describing the basic premise of the episode. "Big Saint" (April 26, 1951) for example, begins with, "You're a Detective Sergeant, you're assigned to auto theft detail. A well organized ring of car thieves begins operations in your city. It's one of the most puzzling cases you've ever encountered. Your job: break it."

The story then usually began with footsteps and a door closing, followed by Joe Friday intoning something like: "Tuesday, February 12. It was cold in Los Angeles. We were working the day watch out of robbery division. My partner's Ben Romero. The boss is Ed Backstram, chief of detectives. My name's Friday."

Friday offered voice-over narration throughout the episodes, noting the time, date and place of every scene as he and his partners went through their day investigating the crime. The events related in a given episode might occur in a few hours, or might span a few months. At least one episode unfolded in real time: in "City Hall Bombing" (July 21, 1949), Friday and Romero had less than 30 minutes to stop a man who was threatening to destroy the City Hall with a bomb.

At the end of the episode, announcer Hal Gibney would relate the fate of the suspect. They were usually convicted of a crime and sent to "the State Penitentiary" or a state mental hospital. Murderers were often "executed in the manner prescribed by law." Occasionally, police pursued the wrong suspect, and criminals sometimes avoided justice or escaped, at least on the radio version of Dragnet. In 1950, Time quoted Webb: "We don’t even try to prove that crime doesn’t pay ... sometimes it does" (Dunning, 210)

Specialized terminology was mentioned in every episode, but was rarely explained. Webb trusted the audience to determine the meanings of words or terms by their context, and furthermore, Dragnet tried to avoid the kinds of awkward, lengthy exposition that people wouldn’t actually use in daily speech. Several specialized terms (such as "A.P.B." for "All Points Bulletin" and "M.O." for "Modus Operandi") were rarely used in popular culture before Dragnet introduced them to everyday America.

While most radio shows used one or two sound effects experts, Dragnet needed five; a script clocking in at just under 30 minutes could require up to 300 separate effects. Accuracy was underlined: The exact number of footsteps from one room to another at Los Angeles police headquarters were imitated, and when a telephone rang at Friday’s desk, the listener heard the same ring as the telephones in Los Angeles police headquarters. A single minute of ".22 Rifle for Christmas" is a representative example of the evocative sound effects featured on "Dragnet". While Friday and others investigate bloodstains in a suburban backyard, the listener hears a series of overlapping effects: a squeaking gate hinge, footsteps, a technician scraping blood into a paper envelope, the glassy chime of chemical vials, bird calls and a dog barking in the distance.

Scripts tackled a number of topics, ranging from the thrilling (murders, missing persons and armed robbery) to the mundane (check fraud and shoplifting), yet "Dragnet" made them all interesting due to fast-moving plots and behind-the-scenes realism. In "The Garbage Chute" (15 December 1949), they even had a locked room mystery.

Though rather tame by modern standards, Dragnet--especially on the radio--handled controversial subjects such as sex crimes and drug addiction with unprecedented and even startling realism. Dragnet broke one of the unspoken (and still rarely broached) taboos of popular entertainment when a young child was killed in ".22 Rifle for Christmas" (aired December 21, 1950). The episode followed the search for eight-year-old Stevie Morheim, only to discover he’d been accidentally killed by his best friend while they played with a rifle his friend had received as a Christmas gift. Thousands of letters were mailed to NBC in complaint, including a formal protest by the National Rifle Association. Webb forwarded many of the letters to police chief Parker who promised "ten more shows illustrating the folly of giving rifles to children." (Dunning, 211) "Big Betty" (November 23, 1950) dealt with young women who, rather than finding Hollywood stardom, fall in with fraudulent talent scouts and end up in pornography and prostitution.

The tone was usually serious, but there were moments of comic relief: Romero was something of a hypochondriac and often seemed henpecked; though Friday dated women, he usually dodged those who tried to set him up with marriage-minded dates.

Due in part to Webb’s fondness for radio drama, Dragnet persisted on radio until 1957 as one of the last old time radio shows to give way to television’s increasing popularity. In fact, the TV show would prove to be effectively a visual version of the radio show, as the style was virtually the same. The TV show could be listened to without watching it, with no loss of understanding of the storyline.

 

 
 

     

             
                       

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