From Small Screen To Big
I may have seen episodes of the original Dragnet around age five, but not since. Universal’s got them locked up tight as Dick’s hatband. One of the 60's seasons came out on DVD a while back, but the fifties group shows up, if at all, on public domain releases culled largely from 16mm. TCM recently gave us a rare peek via their broadcast of the Dragnet feature released in 1954. So what’s more dated than a police show from five decades back? Viewers would opt for yet another Law and Order over 276 black-and-white dead sea scrolls filmed on cramped sets, but Law and Order never had Jack Webb. Like George Reeves and Superman, this man was Dragnet’s whole show. For me, nothing about Jack dates. You could say he’s so out he’s in. If Webb had eternal life, I’ve no doubt Joe Friday would yet be pushing a beat on some network. His kind of directness never loses its cool. We’re made to understand early on that Friday has no life outside his work, nor seeks one. You have to admire the man’s absolute single-mindedness. There’s a scene in the feature where Joe and sidekick Frank wait around a Natural Science museum to grill the curator. Frank points out an exhibit, but Joe’s indifferent. It’s only about the job for him. War Of The World’s Ann Robinson is the policewoman going (shallow) undercover, and there’s a moment when it looks as though Friday might have a personal interest there, but we get nothing beyond a tease. Joe and Frank do hallway repartee about crummy food they’ve eaten --- on-the-fly of course --- and this is close as we get to exploration of personal lives. Weekly viewers thrived on all this. Wish I’d been one of them. By the time Webb brought back Dragnet in the mid-sixties, he was older, jowlier, less given to patience. Hippies and dopers always got his goat. Jack/Joe was locked outside the counterculture, but this guy never wanted in. He preferred turning a key on the whole lot. A young Joe Friday had at least the hope of getting a girl and (maybe) entering the mainstream. Sixties Joe was too late and maybe bitter about it. The Jack Webb trajectory is one of the great dramas of movies and television walking hand-in-hand through the fifties and sixties. He was a genius thriving on overwork and cigarettes. Law enforcement organizations lionized him (as shown here, and yes, that's Jack Warner with Webb). He made police procedure everybody’s business. Jack was the first producer/director to put us inside the station house. Others had ventured close. Detective Story on stage and Naked City on screen were admirable, but Webb made us an ongoing part of the investigation, and he never allowed for distraction. To give Joe a life would have been slacking. We needed to keep our mind on the case at hand. I remember one color show where Friday shot a guy in the Laundromat, not so novel a thing in itself, but fairly startling when I realized Joe was there to wash his clothes, a process necessary to us all, but seemingly not a thing this character would have (or take) time to address. It was actually reassuring to know the job followed Joe wherever he went. Once he signed on for continuing education (in an uncharacteristically casual sweater as I recall) at one of those radical-infested campuses Webb despised, and it’s barely commercial time before he’s got cuffs on a student for brandishing reefers in class.
Here’s one for Ripley. The Dragnet feature ended with more black ink than anything else Warners handled in 1954, except The High and The Mighty. Webb shot it like a TV show, and finished for crumbs. That negative cost at $567,000 was nearly a third less money than WB spent on an average Randy Scott, but how many oaters brought back $4.4 million in domestic rentals? The profit of $3.3 gave impetus to a slate of Webb-directed experiments --- none conventional, all worthwhile (seen The D.I.? --- it’s terrific). Dragnet’s in Warnercolor. That’s all the concession Jack would make to a bigger canvas. No Cinemascoping for him. Imagine a flat picture coming out in the first year of wide screens based on something they could get free at home --- and it’s a smash. Tells you something about the popularity this man enjoyed. His format’s largely unchanged. It was 9:10 AM. I was working bunco (not really, but I like that word). The boss is so-and-so (actually, Richard Boone). I’ll bet theatergoers recited much of this along with Webb. Modern crimefighting equipment includes recording devices big as steamer trunks and even more complicated than my cordless phone. The metal detector they use looks like something Klaatu left behind. Director Jack shoots upward through the bottom of an ash tray for one scene. Bet Orson Welles went for his note pad upon seeing that. Judging by a donny-brook staged in the second half, Webb might as well have been composing for 3-D, for every punch here is comin’ at ya. The story was dug out of police files --- words like procuring are bandied about to let us know it’s real asphalt we’re smelling. Always great to hear Webb machine gunning dialogue. He fires off rejoinders to put modern-day ironists to shame. Polite with civilians, surly to suspects, Friday’s got a short fuse for witnesses that chicken out on line-ups. I wonder why there weren’t more Dragnet movies. Michael Hayde would know. He wrote a fantastic book about Jack Webb and all his works. I wish there were more Jack Webb movies. Of course, that would have meant an increase on the twenty-hour days he was already working …
That Lone Ranger’s so virtuous as to be nauseating. I wish he’d just once beat a confession out of a miscreant, but you’ll wait till next millennium for that, and I dare say his pants are ever less likely to split upon alighting the saddle, despite every law of physics that dictates they should. Was Clay Moore a good actor? One might better ask if that matters, for I wonder how many fans are left for this character (guess I’ll find out in the comments section). The Ranger makes with speeches every time he corners a heavy. You wish he’d at least have brought slides. I prefer my western heroes shoot first and save questions for later. The Ranger babbles on about federal marshals, warrants, and gathering evidence while bad guys make tracks out of town. This man’s plain dogmatic when it comes to do-gooding. Gene Autry looks positively anti-heroic beside him. You’ve gotta stack the deck to let this saintly masked man overcome combined villainy on the part of Lyle Bettger and Robert Wilke. They’ve both got him clearly outclassed. If backshooter Bob consulted the Ranger rulebook, he’d know his opponent could never gun a man on any account, making it easy to knock over such an impotent force for good, but damned that script for letting L.R. prevail over heavies stronger, and actors better. It’s actually Bettger and Wilke that got me through The Lone Ranger, as while both are slumming, they're game yet to give of their best even amidst this kiddie’s sandpile. The Lone Ranger is actually a good feature. Warners released it in 1956, although the negative eventually reverted back to Jack Wrather's company (explanation perhaps for the indifferent DVD we’re heir to). Action moves fast and those are real rocks the Ranger's passing, unlike papier-mâché mock-ups he camped among in the vid series. Exciting stuntwork punctuates fight scenes. I never saw so many guys plunged off cliffsides. Must have used gallons of mecurichrome on this show. The Lone Ranger was Junior’s treat to a western movie now that "B" series were phased out. Better he look at this than one of those neurotic exercises where guys shoot holes through Jim Stewart’s open palm, though the risk of insulting eight-year-old intelligences loomed occasionally. Since when did cowboy stars play both stalwart hero and dagnabit sidekick? Clayton Moore does, and I could do with less of that overripe coot he impersonates whilst among unsuspecting townsfolk. This disguise was donned on the series as well. Could it be one of the reasons I seldom watched? Moore Gabbys things up with bowed legs and stooped posture --- old pros Bettger and Wilke seem like Olivier and Gielgud by comparison.
Seeing The Lone Ranger also enables that revival viewing of Dodge City you've neglected on TCM, for virtually every money shot derives from this and other late thirties Technicolor outdoor specials. How many times have we seen those same wagons reflecting off the river as they pass? Trees felled in Valley Of The Giants would do so again in dozens more Warner westerns as narrators intoned the march of civilization, while I’m fairly certain Errol Flynn was sitting in long shot on a fence rail during The Lone Ranger’s mass cattle sequence. I actually wish they’d released a movie about the campaign for this one, as Midwest folk swarmed over Clayton Moore at every junket stop. This CBS camera in Jacksonville, Florida recorded a last minute Ranger rescue of WMBR’s tied-up kid show hostess, while theatre front appearances in Dallas found Moore surrounded by moppet admirers. You’re all at liberty to print and paste this keen Tonto headband to serve your own tracking and/or scouting needs. Just be careful using scissors and don’t apply scotch tape where it will show. The General Mills cereal box tie-ins raise but one question --- do any of these still exist? That is, original boxes from 1956 --- sealed --- with cereal still in them? Must be highly collectable if they do. The Lone Ranger feature was produced for a bargain $899,000, earning domestic rentals of $1.4 million. Foreign provided another $1.2 for a worldwide total of $2.6 million. The final profit of $1.1 million equaled the performance of Warner’s same year Helen Of Troy and Baby Doll. A second Lone Ranger feature, for United Artists release, found him seeking The Lost City Of Gold, but this time rentals ($506,099 domestic) totaled less than half what WB realized in their collaboration with the Wrathers. Television’s Ranger series had a shelf life extended by virtue of episodes (though not all) having been shot in color, while Clayton Moore continued wearing the suit to whatever super-markets needed opening, substituting dark glasses for his mask when courts forbade appearances in character. This 1979 showdown occurred as result of Wrather efforts to replace Moore’s ongoing (now elderly) persona with a thing called Clinton Spilsbury (their would-be feature successor), latterly an object of ridicule and derision among Ranger disciples. Updating a figure so venerable as T.L.R. for twenty-first century palettes would seem dicey at best (and what of faithful indian companion Tonto?), but with westerns now in their fourth decade of (more or less) commercial decrepitude, how likely are we to experience a Ranger encore?