Category: Golden Age Article

The Rathbone-Bruce Countdown, Part One

Note: I’m taking a few weeks off from new columns, so I’m revisiting a series I did back in 2011 on the Rathbone-Bruce Sherlock Holmes series which many newer listeners/readers haven’t read. 

Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as Holmes and Watson. It doesn’t get much better than that. From the late 1930s through the mid-1940s, they were Holmes and Watson.

Their fourteen films are a remarkable mix of detective stories, crime stories, spy thrillers, suspense, and a few touches of comedy. The films gave us the definitive Holmes for an entire generation of viewers. They were exciting, thrilling, and well-played. I should say that because a film is listed low on my list (with the exception of the #14 film), it’s not because it was a bad film. They’re almost all good, and some of these rankings were tough calls.

14)  The Woman in Green (1945)

The weakest of the series. The Woman in Green was a film that struggled with its plot and villains. The character who ought to be the primary villain lacked the personality of Holmes’ female antagonists in The Spiderwoman and Dressed to Kill. So, the writers brought Professor Moriarty back despite having killed him six movies prior. The problem is the plot they created was too small for Moriarty. In previous movies, he’d tried to steal the crown jewels and then been working for the Nazis. In this film, Moriarty’s plot amounts to is a fairly gruesome blackmail scheme. Hardly stuff for the Napoleon of Crime.

13)  The Pearl of Death (1944)

Holmes, while trying to illustrate the ineffectiveness of relying on an electronic burglar alarm to protect a valuable pearl, disconnects the alarm, allowing a thief to steal the pearl. From there, the story follows the premise of the Doyle story, “The Six Napoleons.” However, it adds in a gruesome monster of a killer and makes for a suspenseful chapter in the series.

12) Sherlock Holmes Faces Death (1943)

Not as exciting as the title might indicate, with a few rough spots. However, Holmes’ investigation into a series of murders at a convalescent home has a fantastic final confrontation requiring a lot of guts from our hero to pull it off.

11) Dressed to Kill (1946)

This is a film that gets trashed by some fans for everything from the title to similarities in plot to Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon. The plot centers around three music boxes that were made in prison and purchased at an auction house and the criminals desperate to recover them.  However, I love the use of music in this plot. Also, this film features Watson’s goofiest moments as he’s tricked with a puerile ruse into revealing the location of a music box, but Watson also gives Holmes the final clue that helps him solve the case.

To be Continued Next week….

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The Top Ten Things I Like About Dragnet, Part Three

Continued from Part One and Part Two
3) The Realism

While, some exceptions to the show’s realism (such as the constant changing of departments or Joe Friday giving speeches) contribute to making the show enjoyable, it’s the show’s overall realistic presentation that makes it stand out.

Any program is going to have to compromise on realism. With the exception of the five two-part radio episodes, and two movies, every episode Dragnet resolves itself nicely in half an hour. There are bound to be compromises to make for good, fictionalized drama. As Clive James observed, “Fiction is life with the dull bits left out.”

Where Dragnet excelled is turning things that would be dull into things stuff that was interesting. They made an anti-riot task force set up in the wake of Martin Luther King, Jr’s assassination where nothing happened fairly interesting.

The behind-the-scenes details of how a crime investigation worked were usually neglected on other programs for exciting chases and crooks talking in bad accents in the style of Guys and Dolls. Here we got details on how the police solved their cases in a way no other program had done.

It also created suspense as to the ending. It didn’t always end with them making a dramatic arrest of the suspect. Dragnet wasn’t afraid to portray spending half a day on a stake out only to find out other policemen made the arrest across town. It feels a little anti-climatic, but you buy into that because that sort of thing happens to real detectives.

Dragnet is not perfectly realistic and perfectly true to life. If it were, no one would want to watch it other than people training to be policemen. However, it’s makes the details of police work entertaining and features enough realism in its structure to create a unique feel that allows a listener or viewer to feel like it’s real.

2) The Willingness to Tackle Tough Issues

Dragnet often brought awareness and attention to important issues that most shows wouldn’t tackle. It’s well known for its anti-drug episodes but it doesn’t get enough credit for how it shined a light on child abuse and neglect.

These shows could be the most heartbreaking episodes ever, but that’s what they were designed for. When many modern day dramas  take on a tough issue, it’s exploitative. It was never that way with Dragnet. There’s a sense the show was trying to raise awareness. The earnestness about the show’s approach indicates they’re talking about this issue because it’s important. Jack Webb became highly involved in the LAPD community and the concerns of policemen and what they were seeing on the street became his concerns on the series.

While this can make for some sad and even uncomfortable viewing, I can’t help but respect the show’s honesty and sensitivity in dealing with tough issues.

1) It’s Understanding of the Power of Impact

In a world free of the restraint of prior generations’ mores, producers of film and television hit us with a constant barrage of sex and violence. The result is, what would have been shocking to older generations is rendered meaningless by the sheer volume of it that we encounter.

Dragnet not only stayed within the lines required of its culture, it was more economical with its use of violence. It went back to the show’s realism. Real police officers didn’t deal with shootouts every week, so why should Joe Friday?

Most weeks, Joe Friday’s gun remains concealed in his shoulder holster. However, when there is peril, danger, and gun play in Dragnet, it’s memorable and well done. An episode like, “The Big Break,” which involves smoke bombs, machine guns, and daring criminal escapes is really exciting. There’s Friday’s actions in the big scene of Dragnet 1966 that leaves him a total mess, or there’s also “The Grenade,” where he wrestles a disturbed young man with a live grenade. And limited violence makes Friday’s sadness believable at the end of, “The Big Thief,” when he’s had to shoot and kill a young robber.

Beyond violence, there were many emotions not regularly displayed on the show, but when they were, you knew a situation had really impacted the characters.

A show that uses violence and emotional theatrics all the time quickly makes those moments meaningless to the audience. By being disciplined, Dragnet made these moments truly matter to its audience which is a key to a powerful drama.

Ten Things I Love About Dragnet, Part Two

Continuing with our look at the ten things I love about Dragnet (See Part One)

7) The Music

The show’s incidental and theme music was one of it’s big assets starting from its third episode on radio until it went off the air in 1970. The show’s signature opening notes, followed by the disclosure that what you’re about to hear/see is true, ranks among the most iconic show openings ever.

But the music does more than that. After the opening notes, both the 1950s and 60s versions have different opening and closing themes, both of which are good, though I prefer the 1950s version as it’s just a bit more dramatic.

And once you get into the episode, the incidental music is able to convey sadness, excitement, or bemusement equally well. It’s a particular stand out over radio. In the 1950s, radio producers began cutting back on music, particularly on detective programs. Once you got to the mid-1950s, every single NBC program other than Dragnet was using the same set of canned and generic incidental and transition music. Dragnet continued to use high-quality music that set the mood and helped to tell the story.

6) Those Quirky Characters…

Dragnet had some wonderfully quirky characters throughout its run in terms of the witnesses, victims, and criminals.

The many memorable characters include:

  • the cranky religious book store owner in, “The Big Little Jesus” who was playing a long-term game of chess by mail.
  • the drifter killer in, “The Big Cast.”
  • the tortured woman who stole a baby in, “The Big Mother.”
  • the guy who collects exotic fish in, “The Big Frank.”
  • the young thief dressed in a superhero costume in “Burglary: DR-31.”  He stole movie memorabilia to further fantasies that let him escape for a few moments from school bullies and an overbearing mother.

Dragnet has the best guest characters. They only showed up for one story but they left an impact on audiences. The best Dragnet side characters could be funny or tragic, but they’re memorable. They also added a touch of humanity. While some of them are funny, just like the banter between Smith and Friday, they rarely went over the top, which makes them feel grounded and like real people.

5) The Sound Effects

The radio version of Dragnet has the best sound effects of any program during the Golden Age of radio. Most programs took the philosophy of doing the bare minimum, maybe an effect or two to ground the listeners in the scene.

Dragnet employed five sound effects men to create rich scenes where the sound showcases the location or activity going on perfectly. The many fine details in the sound of a Dragnet episode create a feeling of authenticity. You feel like you’re there with Joe Friday and his partner rather than hearing a radio episode. Even today, most modern radio producers don’t put this much effort into their soundscapes. Dragnet was decades ahead of its time in terms of the detail and quality of sound effects they used.

4) The Variety

Most detective programs and police programs have focused on murder investigations. There’s a reason for that: murder is a heinous crime. We all understand why it’s wrong and why the killer needs caught.

While Dragnet has its fair share of murder cases, Joe Friday works out of nearly every division in the LAPD at one time or another: Burglary, Juvenile, Robbery, Bunco, as well as more specialized divisions. This allows us to see procedures and parts of the police force that never are prominent on other shows.

Dragnet was cognizant that we may not care about these other crimes as much as murder, but they highlight victims hurt by activities like the obituaries racket, so we’ll care and understand why this crime is a real problem.

This approach has its drawbacks. The biggest is in the Dragnet 1969 series where they had Friday and Gannon working out of a lot of departments (like public affairs) which didn’t arrest people. Some were still interesting, but others were dull. Police officers sitting at a cabin in the woods and talking about race relations is something even Jack Webb couldn’t make interesting.

It also compromises on realism to have Friday switching departments every week, but it serves the show’s dramatic purposes and allows us to see a whole other side to police work you just didn’t see in other programs.

Next week, we wrap up the series by looking at the three things I like most about Dragnet.

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Top Ten Things I Like About Dragnet, Part One

I first began old-time radio podcasting in 2007 with the Old Time Dragnet show. The Great Detectives of Old Time Radio began in 2009 based on suggestions I received from fans of the Dragnet podcast and it’s safe to say my initial subscribers to this podcast were fans of Dragnet. In 2013, when my Dragnet podcast was finishing its run, I added a sixth weekly episode to this podcast for procedural shows and Dragnet took that stop a year and a half later.

Since beginning, the Great Detectives of Old Time Radio fan base has expanded to include people who don’t care for Dragnet. This is fine. With every series we’ve played on this podcast, someone hasn’t cared for it. Since we started, the strength of this podcast has been that we play a variety of shows so most mystery fans will have some series they can enjoy.

However, a few people have asked genuinely what I like about Dragnet because they just don’t get it. There’s a lot you can point to with Dragnet that shows it was popular and successful. If you’ve listened to the series in recent months, you’ve heard the series given multiple on-air awards, including the Edgar Award for outstanding mystery writing. However, this doesn’t explain the show’s appeal anymore than the box office success of the Harry Potter or Twilight films explains their success to people who don’t get that.

I’m not under the illusion this column is going to persuade everyone to love Dragnet. It’s not to everyone’s tastes and what I love about it may be what someone else despises about it. If anything, I hope some people who’ve never really seen it will check it out and maybe people with limited experience with it might get a fresh perspective.

The Dragnet franchise was actively produced for the better part of two decades across two TV series, a movie, and a radio series, and some of what I talk about will only apply to one of those. With that said, let’s get started with listing ten of the things I love about Dragnet:

10) The Zinger Lines

Many of these lines ended a scene or an episode. It would be rare for the last line in a Dragnet to be something like, “Thanks for your time,” or, “Alright, let’s get going.” The scene had to end with music being played and the show had a sense that the music had to be earned.

Whichever version you’re enjoying, that structure is there. Sometimes, it is humorous, such as in the episode, “the Badge Racket” where Friday is questioned by a detective who sees him making an arrest of two men who’d been pretending to be police officers at police headquarters. This lead to this bit of dialog to wrap up the episode:

Police detective: You make your cases right in the building now?
Joe: No, these two just made a simple mistake.
Police detective: What’s that?
Joe: They thought they worked here.

Other times, it was Joe Friday’s smack downs of the criminal and cowardly. In the 1954 film, a man backed out of testifying against a gang out of fear and asks Friday, “If you was me, would you do it?”

Friday: Can I wait awhile?
Witness: Huh?
Friday: Before I’m you.

In, “The Big Betty,” Friday and Smith had spent the episode on the trail of a gang who took advantage of the families of recently deceased people to find the mastermind half-drunk at a New Year’s Eve Party and blathering about how she cries at midnight at New Years. She declares she does it even though she, “Never had any reason for it.”

Friday frowned and said, “You’re going to have one this year, lady.”

The show’s zingers give it a unique and memorable style. Admittedly, not every zing line works, and some take too long to set up. Still, most hit the mark, and the zinger lines really gives the show a unique rhythm.

9) The Joe Friday Speeches

This one was only prominent in the 1960s revival and is a  controversial element of that series. Overall, I like them.

Probably the closest Friday came to giving big speeches  prior to the 1960s was the episode, “The Big Fraud” where he let his fury fly at con men who had pretended to be policemen and then in the 1954 movie where he detailed his salary to the villain of the film, Max Troy. Both speeches were under sixty seconds but still packed a punch.

It’s in the 1960s when things got epic with speeches like, “A Quirk in the Law” in the Dragnet TV movie or his “To Be a Cop” speech or his speech from, “The Big Departure.”

The best of the Joe Friday speeches were snappy but eloquent. They express their ideas well and often have evocative imagery. There’s nothing original about the idea that police have a challenging job, but the imagery used in his, “To Be a Cop” speech is so vivid:

“And then there’s your first night on the beat. When you try to arrest a drunken prostitute in a Main Street bar and she rips your new uniform to shreds. You’ll buy another one out of your own pocket. And you’re going to rub elbows with all the elite: pimps, addicts, thieves, bums, winos, girls who can’t keep an address, and men who don’t care. Liars, cheats, con men, the class of Skid Row. 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 old people that nobody wants: the reliefers, the pensioners, the ones who walk the street cold, and those who tried to keep warm and died in a three-dollar room with an unvented gas heater.”

It’s a great use of language with good delivery that gives authority to the material. Of course, there’s a question of how this works with the idea of realism in Dragnet. Real life police officers don’t give big, eloquent speeches. They’ll give lectures to motorists but nothing like a Friday speech, particularly in debating non-criminal antagonists of the police force as Friday does in several episodes.

The important thing to remember is Jack Webb had spent many years working with the LAPD at this point and gotten to know several real officers. In many ways, in the 1960s, he made Friday their voice about issues that bothered them such as drugs, family decline, and what being a cop meant. Friday said things that most on-duty cops wouldn’t dare say but that most of the cops Jack Webb associated with really thought. So, it compromises realism but so does Joe Friday switching departments every week.

8) The Banter

This was an element that came into the show in 1952 with Ben Alexander coming on board as Friday’s partner Frank Smith and continued even into the 1960s TV series with Harry Morgan as Bill Gannon.

From 1952 on, this was in the vast majority of episodes and usually right at the start of the episode. Most episodes would begin with some good-natured banter between Friday and his partner, with the conversation often taking a comedic turn. This initial conversation would occasionally be followed up later on in the episode, but usually it was paid off in that one scene.

The scenes are always funny, but not too funny or over the top. Frank Smith and Bill Gannon aren’t sitcom characters or caricatures, they’re just a couple of friends with some personality quirks.

This serves several purposes other than being fun to watch. First, it makes you feel like they are real people with real personalities that play off one another. It also can serve the dramatic plot of the story. Most often, it creates a contrast. In a week where the show deals with a heavy topic, the light scene at the beginning serves as contrast and makes a heavier plot seem more serious and grim by comparison.

Next week, we’ll continue our look at what I think makes Dragnet so great to watch and listen to.

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Graphic Novel Review: Mask of the Red Panda

The Mask of the Red Panda is based on the audio drama podcast written by Gregg Taylor. In this three-issue comic story, the Red Panda and Kit Baxter (aka the Flying Squirrel) investigate a series of strange murders that lead them into a battle with forces of supernatural evil and Nazis. The story’s set in the pulp fiction era, so of course Nazis.

The book captures the flow and spirit of the podcast adventures well bringing our heroes on to the comic page and into the visual media. It moves at a nice pace with plenty of action. I also like the way they deal with magic, but fight with a magic inhibitor device which stops the story from getting too spooky, weird, and out of its typical depth. It’s certainly a better take than many modern superhero stories which become some entirely different series when magical beings come a calling. The art is good and the coloring (while far from natural) isn’t unpleasant.

On the other hand, you might expect something more epic for the trade paperback from a long-running series. This is a decent three-issues story rather than something epic and grand that will make readers demand more Red Panda comics. In addition, some elements don’t quite transfer over from audio to the written page.

In the Red Panda, Kit is not only the Red Panda’s sidekick but his employee as his chauffeur, so she responds to many of his statements with, “Yes, Boss.” In the radio program, Andrea Lyons, the actress who plays her, communicates a lot of what Kit thinks through voice tone as she says it. So “Yes, Boss” can be an acknowledgment or agreement or it can be annoyance, humoring the Red Panda, or something else. You don’t get that sense of expression in the comic and so you have to guess and, without voice tone, “Yes, boss” can be a bit repetitive. In addition, while I appreciate her fighting spirit, there was one panel where I think she went a little too far.

Still, overall this is a decent and nicely written homage to the pulp era that brings a beloved audio drama character to life. If you like pulp heroes like the Shadow or Green Hornet, but would like something a tad less intense than those heroes’ current comic book offerings, this is a worthwhile read even if you haven’t listened to the podcast. If you’re a fan of the Red Panda and the Flying Squirrel, this is a great opportunity to see them in a visual medium.

Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0

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