Category: Dragnet

The Top Twenty-Five Dragnet Programs, Part Five

Continued from: 10-6, 15-11, 20-16, 25-21.

5) The Big Meet
Original Air Date: October 26, 1950

This was perhaps the best of the classic Joe Friday undercover narcotics buy stories just because the risks were so outrageous. Going up to buy money from drug dealers and hoping to bluff your way through with a wad of cash mixed with newspapers and worth about 5% of what you’re paying  is a tense enough situation particularly when much of the “cash” is newspaper. However, when it appears that the drug dealers have managed to lose your fellow officers tail, you’re looking a suspenseful classic.

4) The LSD Story

Original Air Date: January 12, 1967

This episode is perhaps the most definitive episode of the 1960s Dragnet as it’s known by people who weren’t even into Dragnet. The show does a great job portraying how those who are charged with enforcing the law are often frustrated by the law when it failed to deal with an issue like LSD use. The episode  is often known as the Blue Boy episode for the central suspect Benji Carver who first appears under influence of the drug with his face painted blue. The downbeat ending was beautifully done by Webb both from a directing and acting standpoint.

For some, this represented a hard hit back against the emerging counterculture. When Dragnet had left the air in 1959, it’d been a tired franchise worn out by nearly 600 radio and TV performance over the course of the decade. This episode began a new life with this episode as Friday re-emerged as the rock solid hero we needed in a time when everything was shifting including cherished values.

For many advocates of legalized drugs, this episode began a lifelong hate affair with Webb and Dragnet that continues to this day.

3) The City Hall Bombing/ The Human Bomb
Original Air Date: July 21, 1949 (Radio)
Original Air Date: December 16, 1951 (Television)

This story is quintessential Dragnet. A man holding a bomb is threatening to blow up city hall if the police don’t release his brother from county lock up and time is running out. Friday and Romero opt to try and stop the scheme at the risk of their own lives. The episode manages to mix the best elements of Dragnet: humanity, professionalism, and realistic danger and excitement. The end scene is a classic and sets the tone for the series. Too often, fictional cops were portrayed as almost superhuman or buffoons.The Human Bomb gives us a portrait of brave but cautious men who can make mistakes like everyone else. The story was great over radio and it was the perfect selection to lead off Dragnet over television in 1951.

2) Dragnet 1966

Original Air Date: January 27, 1969

From pure quality of the production, this may be the greatest Dragnet production ever.  Friday returns from vacation early to investigate the disappearance of three missing women. This was a made for TV movie and it took full advantage of its length to create a fully fleshed out thriller with amazing twists and turns, and one of Joe Friday’s finest action moments ever.

The film provides the context through which Joe Friday is commonly understood  It includes the dynamic, “Quirk in the Law” speech and Dragnet’s earliest attempts at taking on race relations. The suspect in that speech identifies Friday as an iconic figure when he calls him “the immortal sergeant..”

In addition to these dramatic features, Dragnet 1966 includes some great comic relief, most notably Virginia Gregg has the head of a matrimonial bureau. In addition, the impending retirement of Bill Gannon is a source of great comedy.

Sadly, this film is less well-known than it should be as it was not replayed often, wasn’t re syndicated with the 1960s Dragnet TV shows, and is only legally available as an extra on the Dragnet 1968/Season 2 DVD, so many Dragnet fans haven’t seen it. This is a pity as it is was a true classic.

1) The Big Departure

Original Air Date: March 7, 1968

Dragnet is often accused of being a forum where Jack Webb pushed his political views. However, Dragnet’s ideas were not seen as all that political at the time. What we know of Webb’s personal politics is really quite limited. What we can say safely of Webb’s political beliefs was that he was anti-Communist, supportive of the Civil Rights movement, and pro-law enforcement. However, this episode provides a good view of Webb on America.

The episode tells of Friday and Gannon encountering a young gang of thieves who look down on society and plan to flee to island to start a just, peaceful, and moral nation. To this end, they begin robbing stores to acquire needed supplies and injuring anyone who stood in their way. (Irony alert.)

“The Big Departure” really was born of its times. The 1960s radicals, many of whom in one form or another urged young people to tune out. There were all types of opportunities to destructively turn away from a society with its troubles. There was the drug culture, hippy communes, and terrorist organizations like the Weather Underground, all of which urged people to tune out of traditional American processes and in many cases, to violate the laws of the land.

In “The Big Departure,” Friday and Gannon don’t bother arguing that America is perfect, rather they argue that its worthwhile and that the boys need to engage in life, not run away from it.

Webb understood what it was to be angry about injustice. When he was 26, he made a radio series, “One Out of Seven” that dealt with racial prejudice and intolerance. By 1968, the situation had begun to improve. But, this only happened because people worked to make things better, not escaping to a fantasy land.

At the core of Dragnet was a belief in the rule of law. The police officers were the good guys because they enforced the laws and made America work, giving democracy a chance to work. As Friday said, “Don’t try to build a new country. Make this one work. It has for over four hundred years; and by the world’s standards, that’s hardly more than yesterday.” That is the heart of the series.

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The Top Twenty-Five Best Dragnet Programs, Part Four

Continued from: 15-11, 20-16, 25-21.

10) DR-19

Original Air Date: February 27, 1969 (Television)

With the focus on Dragnet’s anti-drug shows, what gets lost in the shuffle is how Dragnet really shined a light on child abuse. DR-19 is one of the more poignant episodes. It begins with Friday meeting with the President of a woman’s club (Cathleen Cordell) as she previewed information that would be used for a presentation at the woman’s club. Dragnet couldn’t show pictures of child abuse but Webb’s narration of the pictures Cordell was looking at combined with her reactions gave the viewers the idea of what horrific things were going on. Then they were called to investigate a missing child. When they find the boy, they find he’s been abused. The show is powerful and portrays Friday’s heart and brings home the dramatic way in which the system often leaves abused children vulnerable. It’s one of Dragnet’s poignant and most moving stories.

9) The Big Fraud

Original Air Date: October 27, 1953 (Radio)
Original Air Date: September 2, 1954 (Television)

Two conmen pretending to be cops are taking traveling businessmen for thousands of dollars by setting up a phony arrest and offering to take a bribe to “clear everything up.”  A similar episode would air in the 1960s. I like this one better for a superior ending as well as the fact that it features one of Jack Webb’s earliest speeches, “The Phony Badge.”

8) The Pyramid Swindle

Original Air Date: November 30, 1967 (Television)

Legendary Character Actress Virginia Gregg looms large in this comedic bunco case as she plays an over-the-top pyramid swindle marketer trying to sell people on her get-rich scam with a religious fervor. The episode provides a great performance from Gregg while also serving as a warning to the public making this  a great fusion of education and entertainment.

7) The Big Red

Original Air Dates: January 3 and January 10, 1952 (Radio)
Original Air Date: August 23, 1959 (Television)

The radio version of this story was perfect. It came right on the heels of the  death of Barton Yarborough who played Friday’s first partner Ben Romero, so a script that centered on Joe Friday working pretty much alone definitely was helpful. This was one of many episodes where Friday went undercover to bust narcotics. This was somewhat notable as in the first episode, he caught part of the drug ring, revealing himself as a cop. In the second episode, he has to have their boss somehow still believing that he’s a drug dealer so he can get to the source. It’s a tough job that Friday has to do. To do it, he has to break out a tough persona that’s reminiscent of many of the hard boiled characters he played over radio prior to Dragnet. The Television version is not in circulation. It was the last 1950s episode of Dragnet, but probably wasn’t as good as 1) it wasn’t two parts and 2) those really late Dragnet episodes suffered in quality. That’s a shame because the radio version’s a pure classic.

6) The Grenade

Original Air Date: September 14, 1967

This is probably the most exciting episode of the 1960s Dragnet, with perhaps one of  most tense and exciting moments in Dragnet history. It all begins with Friday and Gannon investigating a case where a troubled teenage boy threw acid on the back of another teenager at the movie theater.  The boy is released to the custody of his parents, but he’s not done. In a rage over attempts by his stepfather to impose discipline he storms into a party he wasn’t invited to and holds a a group of teenagers hostage. This leads to an unforgettable showdown with a live grenade.   This was a key episode for the 1960s Dragnet.  Dragnet had returned to the air after eight years absence with a thirteen episode short season and they needed a strong season opener. This did it and with gusto.

Next week, we countdown the top five greatest Dragnet stories ever.

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The Top Twenty-Five Best Dragnet Programs, Part Three

Continued from: 20-16, 25-21.

15) The Big Break

Original Air Date: November 14, 1950 (Radio)
Original Air Date: March 19, 1953 (Television)

For me, while this episode first aired on radio, the TV version was probably the best. When you see it, Friday and Smith are carrying Tommy Guns to go and get this suspect. You know right off that he’s dangerous and as the episode shows, he never will be taken “the easy way” like most Dragnet criminals. And he’s incredibly resourceful with a clever jailbreak, and then after another escape, he showed more nerve than probably any other Dragnet criminal. The show does include a scene of monotony as Friday and Smith wait in vain for the guy to come back to his room to provide some realism and balance to the program’s action high points.

14) The Interrogation

Original Air Date: February 9, 1967 (Television)

Friday and Gannon are working out of Internal Affairs and they bring in a rookie undercover cop (a young Kent McCord) who has been accused of armed robbery. The young cop is outraged at his treatment and gets to a point where regardless of the investigation’s outcome, he’s ready to leave the force. It’s at this point that Joe Friday delivers perhaps his best speech ever-“To Be a Cop.” It details the hardships a policeman faces in a way that’s as moving today as when Webb delivered it in 1967. It’s at times rhythmic in its cadences, “And the heartbreak– underfed kids, beaten kids, molested kids, lost kids, crying kids, homeless kids, hit-and-run kids, broken-arm kids, broken-leg kids, broken-head kids, sick kids, dying kids, dead kids.” The speech was a tribute to the sacrifices police officers made every day, and one of the most powerful of Webb’s speech and a reminder for the young officer of what the job was all about.

13) The Big Explosion

Original Air Date: January 19, 1967 (Television)

This episode is a great thriller. It’s scary enough when on a typical day working in burglary divisions, Friday and Gannon learn that high velocity gelatin dynamite has been stolen. However, it becomes even more scary when they find the perpetrator is a man whose house is dedicated with Nazi paraphernalia and a large amount of dynamite is gone. The stakes don’t get much higher and the episode ends memorably.

12) The Big Knife

Original Air Date: May 11, 1950 (Radio)

21 girls have been injured in knifing at a local high school. It’s obviously the work of a very disturbed person and that makes for a very chilling episode. The mood in the episode is perfect, and the scene where they finally discover who the criminal is also brilliantly executed.

11) The Big Thief

Original Air Date: December 17, 1953 (Television)

This episodes back to a time when doctors made housecalls for patients even ones they didn’t know. It also shows one reason why that practice has gone the way of the dodo. A young couple pretending that they’re pregnant lure doctors there in order to beat them and rob them of the drugs in their doctor’s bags. In this episode, Friday and shoots and kills a young armed suspect in self defense, setting up a scene of uncharacteristic vulnerability as he struggles with what he had to do. His then-girlfriend does her best to offer comfort. In later years, Friday would become more of an iconic figure representing police everywhere. This story on a far more human note that makes you wonder how the show might have been different had Webb gone this direction with the series.

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The Twenty-Five Best Dragnet Programs, Part Two

Continued from: 25-21.

20) Big Trio

Original Air Date: July 3, 1952 (Radio)
Original Air Date: November 20, 1952 (Television)

This was cited by Jack Webb in an interview in the mid-1950s as his favorite Dragnet episode and it was definitely classic Dragnet particularly as it appeared on the radio. “The Big Trio” followed the detectives on three separate traffic investigations. The first and last were gut-wrenching stories of tragedies that had occurred due to foolish and careless drivers, with the second being a lighter vignette which helped make the impact of the last story even greater. The last scene in particular was intense. The episode was also one of the few episodes that they were very intentional about the timing. Airing the day before the Independence Day holiday, the Big Trio served as a perfect cautionary tale for a holiday that far too often is accompanied by traffic fatalities.

19) The Big High

Original Air Date: November 2, 1967 (Television)

This episode begins with a father concerned about his grandchild because his daughter and son-in-law are drug users. It then leads to a dramatic discussion of the pros and cons of marijuana use between Friday and the yuppie couple. Unlike another similarly themed episode, “The Prophet,” this episode packed a punch by wrapping up the debate with an actual plot that leads to a stunning and unforgettable dramatic moment that makes this a sobering episode that shows the power of Jack Webb as a director and producer.

18) Big Missus

Original Air Date: August 9, 1955 (Radio)
Original Air Date: October 11, 1956* (Television)

This episode begins with a woman coming to Friday and Smith to tell them that her husband is wanted for parole violations in Michigan. It’s made him paranoid and he’s on the verge falling back into crime, and she’s finally realized that the only thing to do is for him to go back and serve his time, so that they can have a hope of having a normal life. However, she doesn’t want him to find out that she had anything to do with the police finding him, for fear of what it’ll do their marriage. The way Friday and Smith handle this case shows incredible humanity that goes beyond Dragnet’s “by the book” stereotype as they could have just slapped him in jail and that would have been the end of it. What results is a truly compelling and interesting human story spurred on by a wife’s tough love for her husband.

17) The Big Betty

Original Air Date: November 23, 1950 (Radio)
Original Air Date: September 24, 1953 (Television)

There are certain types of crimes, that is really easy to communicate to the public how pernicious their actions are. Robbers, Child Abusers, and murderers are among the easiest. The con man is a bit trickier. Some movies both in the golden age and today portray them as whimsical fellows who play tricks and don’t harm anyone in any serious way. Against this backdrop, the Big Betty succeeds as all the best Dragnet bunco stories do by focusing on a case that connects with us on an emotional level. In this case, they deal with the obituary swindle in which confidence men visit the relatives of recently deceased people and tell them that their loved ones had ordered a gift for them but hadn’t paid for it. The grief-stricken marks then buy cheaply made and overly priced gifts. This episode really hits the emotional notes flawlessly, and it delivers a memorable and satisfying conclusion on New Year’s Eve.

16) DR-31

Original Air Date: March 6, 1969 (Television)

DR-31 is one of those 1960s episode that simply can’t be forgotten. It starts out as a case about a series of small time burglaries of movie memrobilia. Then, the perpetrator is caught, and he’s dressed as one of the old time superheroes, the Crimson Crusader. The interview that follows is classic Dragnet. While other episodes such as the 1950s shows The Big Present, The Big Show, The Big Shoplift, and the Big Mother presented people who committed crime out deep pain, this may be the best of the lot. It strikes a chord as our view of the character changes as he reveals his story. Truly, a classic story.

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The 25 Best Dragnet Programs, Part One

As I finish up my Old Time Dragnet podcast. I’ve seen and heard a lot of Dragnet: More than 300 radio episodes from which most of the 1950s TV version were created and I’ve seen a few of those TV episodes that weren’t based on radio shows.  In addition, I’ve seen the entire 1960s series, and both the 1954 Motion Picture and the 1966 TV Movie.

That’s a lot of Dragnet and I’ve developed a strong opinion as to which episodes that constitute the best. Of course, there are dozens of 1950s TV shows which were never done on radio due to the general unavailability of those programs. In addition, there are 9 radio episodes which aren’t in circulation nor are the television versions available  At least one episode described by Michael Hayde seemed like it could make on the list. (The Television show, “The Big White Rat.”) However, until they become available, this is my top 25 Dragnet stories from radio, television, and film.

25) 16 Jewel Thefts

Original Broadcast (radio): August 18, 1949

Dragnet sought to portray real policemen in the course of their duty and this very early script did a great job at it. Friday and Romero have their thief but to really make the charge stick, they have to find his cache of jewels. They’ve been able to narrow the neighborhood he was staying in, but now they actually have to find his apartment, and so they have to wander around from apartment house to apartment house in the heat, wearing these very hot suits, toting the suspect along, and trying to hide their discomfort. It’s an amazing episode in showing the drudgery that real police work can become but managing to do it an entertaining  way. It’s also somewhat noteworthy for being the first appearance of future Dragnet co-star Harry Morgan in the Dragnet franchise.

24) DR-32

Original Air Date (Television): March 27, 1969

A little girl is bitten by a dog and the dog can’t be found. Under the law, the girl must be given a rabies vaccination if it’s not known whether the dog was rabid. The problem? The girl is allergic to the rabies vaccine, so a rabies shot could kill her. If the dog has rabies, the rabies could kill her. Friday and Gannon have a limited amount of time to track down the dog and save a child from a potentially lethal injection.

23) Big Little Jesus

Original Air Date (Radio): December 22, 1953
Original Air Date (Television): December 24, 1953
Remake Air Date: December 21, 1967

The Dragnet Christmas episode was born out of writer Richard Breen’s belief that the original Dragnet story, .22 Rifle for Christmas was really not appropriate to the festive holiday season.  What Breen did was he took a story from San Francisco and transported to Los Angeles. It centers around a church which finds its statue of the Child Jesus is missing and the efforts made by Friday and his partner to recover it. The production became a holiday classic because it oozes Christmas Spirit, and the conclusion packs an emotional punch, making it a perfect fit for the Season and an all-time Christmas classic.

22) The Big Impossible

Original Air Date (Radio) : March 15, 1953

In this ’53 radio episode, police are able to trace a series of robberies back to a suspect. The problem is that the suspect was confined to a sanatorium. This is one of the better mystery plots in Dragnet’s very long history.

21) The Harassing Wife

Original Air Date: April 2, 1970

One of the funnier Dragnet episodes features a parolee whose nagging ex-wife continually reports him as a suspect in every robbery.  The role of the nagging wife would have probably been well-played by Virginia Gregg but Peggy Webber shows herself every bit as good in this great role. The plot has a pretty solid twist towards the end and one of the most ironic endings in Dragnet history.

Continued next week with 20-16.

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