Day: March 2, 2024

Dragnet: The Big Escape (EP4328)

Today’s Mystery:

Joe Friday arrests an old army buddy for armed robbery.

Original Radio Broadcast Date: January 5, 1950

Originating from Hollywood

Starring: Jack Webb as Sergeant Joe Friday; Barton Yarborough as Sergeant Ben Romero; Herb Butterfield; Stacy Harris.

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Join us again on Monday for another detective drama from the Golden Age of Radio.

Dante and Other TV Shows in Copyright Limbo (UPDATED)

(See Update Below)

After Howard Duff hung up his fedora as radio’s Sam Spade, he took on the role of Willie Dante in the 1960-61 NBC series Dante. He plays the operator of an illegal gambling room called The Inferno, who gets into all kinds of trouble, facing off against all sorts of characters in a series that was often described as charming. The series enjoys a solid 7.5 rating on IMDB among those who remember it, which is an exceedingly small number of people.

Classic television is a niche interest and knowledge of Dante and shows like it are even more niche. The series was created in 1960 and 1961, at a time when copyright lasted for 28 years and then needed to be renewed, and it was. So the series isn’t in the public domain. It’s also not legally available anywhere. Dante is currently only available from sellers of gray market DVDs and at the time of writing, there are a couple of episodes posted on YouTube. Those aren’t legal copies, but no one’s enforcing copyright law regarding Dante. However, businesses and streaming platforms are not going to release high quality DVDs or stream a series that way.

Duff’s successor as Spade, Stephen Dunne, also has a series from the same era in the same situation. He stars as one of two brothers (the other is played by Mark Roberts), who are also private detectives in a 1960-61 syndicated series, The Brothers Brannagan. The opening sequence of this one-season wonder is preserved on YouTube and should have been enough to make the series a cult classic, with the classy ’60s music leading into a voice calling, “Hey, Brannagan,” and one of them asking, “Which one?” before getting asked a question. From all appearances, they custom-filed every opening, but that wasn’t enough for them to avoid copyright limbo.

Of course, something doesn’t have to be obscure to find its way into limbo. Take The Thin Man. It’s a classic mystery novel. It’s one of the most successful film franchises of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Yet, the two-season, 72-episode run of the 1957-59 TV series starring Peter Lawford and Phyllis Kirk has been little-seen for decades. It’s not that no episode has been released, but only two have, and you have to hunt them. One episode was released as an extra as part of the out-of-print Complete Thin Man Collection.  Another, “The Robot Client,” was made available on the Forbidden Planet DVD because Robbie the Robot made a guest appearance.

And it’s not just the shows of the late 1950s or early 1960s that suffered this fate. Another Howard Duff-led vehicle, the 1966-69 series The Felony Squad, in which Duff plays Sergeant Sam Stone, is also completely unavailable by legal means. The series also featured Ben Alexander, who played Frank Smith in the the 1950s Dragnet series and wasn’t able to reprise his role for the 1960s revival because he was starring in this. The only legal purchasable footage of any character from this series is when Howard Duff makes a window cameo in the Season 2 episode of the 1960s Batman series, “The Impractical Joker.Of course, the joke in the scene is undermined for modern audiences, as we have no idea who Duff is portraying. Failing to release a Howard Duff TV series that also features Ben Alexander, while also ruining a window scene joke from the 1960s Batman series isn’t a felony but maybe it ought to be!


We’ve just talked about TV series that are tied to Dashiell Hammett or to actors who played Dashiell Hammett-created sleuths. But there are many series that find themselves generally unavailable to viewers. In some ways, it’s understandable to do this. Even with the rise of print-on-demand DVDs and streaming sales on Prime or Apple that require no physical presence, there is a cost to TV studios for making shows available, and some programs and movies are unlikely to be profitable enough to merit the expense to get them to market.

Is there a solution?

In the past, some in Congress have pushed for laws that would allow some neglected works to become “orphan works” that could freely be used if notice were given and no one came forward. Yet, this has been resisted by many in the entertainment industry, who view it as a throwback to the era of copyright renewals, when media companies’ failure to file timely renewals led to episodes of programs like The Andy Griffith Show and The Dick Van Dyke Show entering the public domain.

One thing that occurred to me is the recent spate of stories of large media companies withdrawing works both released and unreleased in order to get a tax write-off. In effect, the tax code is subsidizing them destroying films. Whether such a write-off should exist is a political question far beyond my purview here. But it seems like if we’re going to provide that sort of tax breaks to corporations, it would make sense to give them to companies to release work into the public domain rather than destroying it. And when it comes to old TV shows and movies languishing in the vault, maybe some small tax write-off could be made available in the public domain. It certainly makes more sense than subsidizing the wholesale destruction of unreleased films.

However, such issues are not likely to be on the national agenda any time soon. Until they are, knowledge of these series will be limited to a select in-the-know clientele, much like those who showed up at Dante’s gambling rooms.


A commenter pointed out that Dante is available on the British Website Talking Pictures TV. It is a website where you can watch certain rare classic television programs and films. Some of these are only available in the UK, but many also are available to those of us in the U.S>. The site does require free registration but I was able to access Dante from there. While it’s not ideal that this is the only legal way to access the series, it is a legal way and I’m thankful for the comment and also for being made aware that Talking Pictures TV is available to U.S. watchers.