Detective Story

(from Newsweek, January 14, 1952)

One of the fiascoes of the current TV season was Sound-Off Time, the late and not lamented series that rotated the dissimilar talents of Fred Allen, Jerry Lester, and Bob Hope. Before it was dropped last week, the sponsor slipped in a one-shot film called Dragnet, a whodunit masterminded by its 31-year-old star, Jack Webb. Webb scored the only success of the series.

Last week Dragnet started on a regular basis (NBC-TV, alternate Thursdays, 9-9:30 p.m. EST) and proved conclusively that crime shows, made with professional care, can be literate, authentic, and engrossing. Other video detectives, private and public, could take a few lessons from Dragnet’s young boss.


Show for Pros:
The upcoming shows should maintain the standards of writing, directing, and acting that sent the first show to the top of its TV genre, for Webb is taking the same care with his video work that he has been taking with the radio version of Dragnet for two and a half years. Both are documentations of actual Los Angeles Police Department cases. The radio show has been such a success as an authentic account of police work that recordings have been played to police trainees in Sonoma County, Calif.; and such a success as entertainment that it has almost won Webb two Peabody Awards. And he is using only the “cream of the cases” for television.

Webb is careful to change names, dates, and locations for both his shows, especially since be was slapped with a million-dollar suit for invasion of privacy after one too-literal account of a crime. But the bare bones of the original cases are there – and come through stamped with authenticity.

One reason for his successful documentation is the cooperation of the L.A. police, who act as technical advisers (in off-duty hours “so the taxpayers won’t worry”). A captain and two sergeants work regularly for the radio Dragnet; and detectives – “working detectives, not men with desk jobs” – from different divisions advise Webb on the video version, the division depending on what type of crime is being filmed.

In return for the police help, Webb pays his advisers, contributes to the Policemen’s Benevolent Fund, and always follows three rules. Dragnet can neither vilify nor glorify police officers (“There’s always one or so that you’ll think is a bum”); it must show policemen as average human beings, and it must stick to the straight facts of a case. All of these cop-enforced rules add up to a realism that Webb then proceeds to intensify.

Webb feels firmly that Dragnet is “a half-hour of motion pictures, not a half-hour of TV films.” He feels that, using film facilities and technicians, he can get as much detail and authenticity into each episode as a movie does. “Motion-picture craftsmen shouldn’t be prostituted into making junk and trash. Some TV films have skimpy sets, with no depth, that are really just painted backdrops. We build sets. These are documentary cases, and they’ve got to be believed. We don’t use any stock films. Dragnet cameramen are filming shots all over Los Angeles for future exterior scenes.”

For his interior scenes, Webb never “doubles”: Where some film men have the cast of a serial do scenes from several episodes on one set, Webb one scene on one set. And he never slurs over details. Last week, in the filming of an episode that will be shown next month, a prop man was blowing artificial cigarette smoke into a party scene – a rare precaution outside a full-length feature.

Webb further refuses to let any of his actors except the women use makeup, and they use only their own makeup. And he doesn’t care what his actors look like, preferring to use his radio cast for television whenever possible. “Movies have stereotypes for policemen and bank clerks. What does a policeman look like? People look like people.
Busy Star:
Webb is a modest man also a quadruple-threat He is the star (Detective Sergeant Joe Friday), director, and producer (“whatever that means”) of the radio Dragnet and, though billed as the star and director on television, he also runs the actual production end. He writes for both mediums whenever he gets the urge, or whenever the credited writer, Jim Mosher, an ex-newspaperman, needs a hand. It’s small wonder that Webb labors “all the time” on the two Dragnets.

Six days a week, from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m., he is at the Republic Studios working on the films, and on the seventh he does the radio show. Although Webb has a promising start in movies, his film career is “dead” at the moment. He lives quietly with his wife, Julie London, a former actress, and their daughter, Stacey, 3. He recently bought his first Cadillac, which in Hollywood corresponds to a kid’s first pair of roller skates, but hastens to add that “it’s an old one.”

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