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View Diary: Jack Webb, Dragnet, and the NRA: "A .22 Rifle For Christmas" (114 comments)

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  •  "The Big .22 Rifle for Christmas":Great TV Episode (3+ / 0-)
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    Orakio, commonmass, Ricochet67

    Thanks for the post, Commonmass.

    Although I watched the color version of Dragnet as a kid, I got hooked on the available black and white 1950's TV episodes a few years back and then started to listening to the radio version of the program.  Webb's work from the 1940's and 1950's remains powerful and compelling today.

    To the degree that anyone remembers Jack Webb or Dragnet today, it’s usually for a handful of controversial episodes from the second run of the television series (1967-1970) which focused on “the Establishment” view regarding the evils of illegal drug use.  Although there were other episodes from the ‘60’s series that dealt with still relevant topics such as racism, religious extremism, white-supremacists, neo-Nazis, right-wing militias and even police brutality, Webb’s reputation as a television artist continues to suffer today because of the hard-line stance his signature character, Sgt. Joe Friday, took against marijuana and LSD use, not to mention the counter-culture in general.  Webb is thus often characterized as harboring “ultra-conservative” or “extreme right-wing” views almost solely on the basis of his, at time admittedly preachy, anti-drug messaging.  As a result, Dragnet, which is highly stylized, is often parodied (and mocked) as simplistic and formulaic.  However, both Dragnet and the real Jack Webb were far more complicated than these simple and misleading characterizations would suggest and perhaps even worthy of praise from progressives for their attempt at social commentary.

    Webb’s genius as television’s first real auteur is clearly demonstrated in many of the earlier episodes from the first television run of "Dragnet" (1951-1959).  The minimalistic but enormously powerful Dragnet formula regarding narration, storyline, acting, scripting, attention to detail, sound effects and realism were well established in the radio version of the show.  One can draw a line from Webb’s work in radio (One Out of Seven – social realism, Pat Novak for Hire, Johnny Madero Pier 13, Jeff Regan – noir crime radio series) and then He Walked By Night  and Sunset Boulevard) right through to the radio and television versions of Dragnet to understand the genesis and evolution of the show.  Webb combined his successful formula from radio with cutting edge visual elements from Film Noir expressionism to create a distinctive television show that often showed the gritty and disturbing underside of the American Dream to the viewing audience on a weekly basis.  In general, many of the episodes from the 1950’s radio and black and white TV series still remain powerful, relevant and artistically well crafted even today, unlike some of those from the 1960’s.  

    As Professor R. Barton Palmer remarked in Dragnet, Film Noir and Postwar Realism, The Philosophy of TV Noir (2008),

    “As critics remarked at the time, what made Dragnet distinctive, and popular, was its deep commitment to a form of realism that Webb borrowed, if in a substantially modified form, from the cinema, where as a young actor, he had begun to make a name for himself … He Walked By Night (1949), in which Webb played a small role as a detective, exerted an especially powerful influence on his developing conception of a police procedural series, which would derive its name from the initial response to a bloody murder detailed in the film, the dragnet that brings in dubious characters and the usual suspects into temporary custody for questioning.  The realism Dragnet brought to television violated many industry conventions, as Variety effusively observed when the television series was first broadcast in 1952: “There was no wasted motion, establishing the theme swiftly with racy, realistic dialogue and deft locale transition.  More importantly, there was no violence or blood-letting, and none of the artificially contrived clichés to achieve suspense.”

    Before Dragnet and television came along, Webb had already made his mark as a serious actor and producer on radio.  I don’t know if you ever had the chance to listen to Webb’s work as a narrator and actor on One Out of Seven, a weekly radio docudrama that was produced by ABC’s KGO in early 1946 in collaboration with James Moser (you can find these on the Internet Archive of old radio shows).  The series presented a weekly commentary on one of the seven most interesting or compelling stories from the wire services that week.  Although the show did not have a long run, Webb and Moser used the format to expose listeners to the dark underside of the generally accepted Norman Rockwell portrait of America as a place of equality and justice for all.   Both men used the show to draw attention to the suffering of African-American across the nation and the ugly reality of American racism and segregation.  Webb was also a great lover of Jazz and moved in much more racially diverse circles than was the norm in mainstream 1950’s America.  I have never seen any evidence to suggest that Webb harbored any kind of racist worldview or was bigoted.  In fact, at time when everyone on television was generally as white as the driven snow, episodes of Dragnet from the 1950’s (The Big Bar, The Big Mother, The Big Little Jesus) highlighted the reality of Latinos in Los Angeles.  This hardly suggests an “ultra-conservative” or “extreme right” worldview.  As mentioned previously, there are also a number of episodes from the 1960’s run of the series that pointed for the need to achieve reconciliation between whites and blacks based on full racial equality, albeit in a perhaps naïve way.  ‘60’s Dragnet also decries right-wing extremism and takes the view if the laws are unjust, then citizens ought to use every legal means available to change them. Again, this hardly suggests a far-right mindset.  

    Referring back to the social realism aspect, Dragnet television episodes from the ‘50’s raised issues related to adultery (The Big Show), pornography (The Big Producer), and the evils of religious extremism (The Big September Man) in a pretty liberal and fair-minded way for the time.  The adulterer was portrayed in a very sympathetic manner and not deserving of condemnation by others.  In a similar vein, the pornographer was not shown as a monster but rather a sad and tragic figure, a tired old man who once was a Hollywood producer of silent movies but became desperate after falling on hard times. The religious extremist (a born-again Christian fundamentalist) who quoted the bible to justify murder was portrayed as a hypocritical killer who relied on the word of God to sanction his evil deeds.  Of course, as you pointed out, Webb also earned the opprobrium of the National Rifle Association for the anti-gun sentiment presented in The Big .22 Rifle for Christmas.

    Webb’s work on radio from the late 1940’s and the original black and white television episodes of Dragnet from the 1950’s are certainly worth listening to or watching.  Not only do they hold up very well today both in terms of their social commentary and artistic merit, they ultimately demonstrate Webb’s genius and cement his reputation as producer, director and star of one of the most influential television shows in history.

    These Republican gluttons of priviledge are cold men ... They want a return of the Wall Street economic dictatorship -- Harry Truman

    by Laborguy on Mon May 06, 2013 at 11:31:43 PM PDT

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