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Thursday, March 01, 2007

From Small Screen To Big

I may have seen episodes of the original Dragnet around age five, but not since. Universal has them locked up tight as Dick’s hatband. One of the 60's seasons came out on DVD, 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 that 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 his 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 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 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 had to focus 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 startling because Joe was there to wash his clothes, a process necessary to us all, but not a thing this character would have, or take, time to address. It was 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 has 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. The negative cost at $567,000 was nearly a third less money than WB spent on an average Randolph Scott, but how many westerns 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 was 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 hued to TV's model. 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  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 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 suspect, 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 bring slides. I prefer that my western heroes shoot first and ask questions 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 is anti-heroic beside him. You have to stack the deck to let the saintly masked man overcome combined villainy 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. 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 men shoot holes through Jim Stewart’s open palm, though the risk of insulting eight-year-old intelligence 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 beside him.

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 westerns. 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 elderly persona with a thing called Clinton Spilsbury (their would-be feature successor), latterly an object of 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 boxoffice decrepitude, how likely are we to experience a Ranger encore?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I worked with an old Director of Photography a decade ago who had once toiled on some of Webb's Dragnet TV shows in the sixties. The story goes he had hired a high strung bird trainer who was going to train a parrot for a week to spout the name of a felon on cue for Joe and the gang. Well, when Friday came the trainer valiantly spent an hour on a hot set with everyone glowering, especially Jack. They were about to give up when the bird yelled F___ Jack Webb, F___ Jack Webb. The set became deathly silent and the sweating trainer figured he had worked his last gig when Jack burst out laughing and everyone else followed suit. Jack got it together and said "we'll add it in post" and the trainer lived to train another bird. True story!

9:46 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Holy mackeral --- what a great story! Thanks for bringing it to the Greenbriar!

10:02 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

The Nostalgia Channel (now defunct, I believe) used to run the original "Dragnet" in the late '80s-early'90s. I was pleasantly stunned to see Leonard Nimoy playing a rather greasy juvenile delinquent.

Klinton Spilsbury never made another movie before or after "The Lone Ranger." I seem to remember that his voice had to be dubbed by a professional voice-over artist. Those Hollywood producers are so darned crafty.

7:30 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a baby-boomer, I grew up with the 50's Dragnet on TV (the best version--Ben Alexander makes the best partner--almost like a Smiley Burnett type character compared to the stiffer--though eccentric at times--Harry Morgan.

Since the 50s series are in the Public Domain, they do show up in dollar dvd bins--beware of the "Digiview" editions--they bleep out the great Walter Schumann music cues and insert some digital music--probably to somehow trademark their release.

The 50s show was much grittier at times, and was a great time capsule of 1950s Los Angeles. Ben Alexander, who played Frank Smith was a child actor in silent pictures, a supporting player in 30s and 40s B pictures, and after Dragnet went on to being a game show host.

The Dragnet movie was a hard-hitting blow for a 7 year old me when I saw it in the theatre after the Saturday matinee one week--that first scene of Dub Taylor getting a shotgun blast made an uneasy impression on my young mind in 1954. Hope we can have a Warners Home Video dvd release of it sometime.

The 1960s Dragnet was good, too, and here again is a time capsule with great exteriors shot in L.A. 40 years ago! The dvd release is great on these entries--they were shot in real Technicolor then!

Evan from Toledo

8:53 AM  
Blogger VP81955 said...

Ironically, perhaps the easiest way to now appreciate Webb's genius is through the radio version of "Dragnet." Like virtually all old-time radio programs, the series is in the public domain, and mp3 discs of the show (with dozens of half-hour episodes on a single disc, playable on virtually all computers and some CD players) are readily available on eBay and other sites for only a few bucks. The radio "Dragnet," which began in 1949 (two years before the TV version debuted) and continued with original episodes through 1955 (NBC then reran episodes for another two years) still hold up wonderfully for Webb's attention to detail and feel for police procedure.

And while the Friday character wasn't particularly humorous, Webb did have a sense of humor -- as his famous skit with Johnny Carson proves.

12:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There was one unintentionally hilarious sequence (I thought) in the Dragnet movie just after the fight with the bad guys. Joe Friday and Frank Smith show up for work the next morning with good old Johnson&Johnson plastic band-aids on their faces. You don't see that anymore! As for the Lone Ranger, one thing I remember from the TV shows is that the music would always tip you off when something was about to happen. I saw the movie version as a kid and I found the lynching of Tonto rather disturbing. He was really swinging for a while there. I really enjoy this blog, btw. Thanks!

1:32 PM  
Blogger Michael J. Hayde said...

John, thank you for the plug for my book, "My Name's Friday" - which incidentally also covers all five of the Mark VII theatricals in detail.

To answer the question leading up to the plug: there was one more "Dragnet" movie, made by Webb for TV in 1966 but not aired until 1969. Why the delay? Sorry, you'll have to buy the book. :-) My personal opinion is that the 1966 film tops the theatrical one as far as story and characterization goes... but if you're looking for great wisecracks and the verisimilitude for which Webb was famous, stick to the 1954 flick.

Unfortunately, there won't be a Warners release of that film; it reverted to Webb in 1966, and he sold it to Universal, who by then owned the "Dragnet" property anyhow. Given the lackluster sales of the "Dragnet 1967" TV season, I wouldn't expect to see Universal release the film anytime soon... unless they make it an extra on a special edition DVD of the Dan Aykroyd feature.

Anyway, John... you want more of the same? Check out "Pete Kelly's Blues" (1955), also based on a Webb radio series. My book's chapter on that one is called "Young Cop With a Horn" which is what they might as well have titled the film.

7:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not that it matters, but I believe James Keach re-voiced Klinton Spilsbury in THE LEGEND OF THE LONE RANGER.

11:45 PM  
Blogger Michael J. Hayde said...

Forgot to ask something... from where did you get a negative cost of $567,000 for Dragnet? Reason I ask is, I saw an internal WB memo that itemized the cost of production to a total of $501,240. Either the memo left something out, or they were cooking the books on even this show!

Since you mentioned the cost and profit, maybe your readers would like to know how the bounty was split. Since Warners advanced all cost of prodcution, distribution and advertising, they were entitled to all of that back, plus 4% interest on the financing. After that, WB got 50% of the profit, and the other half was split between the following: Webb's Mark VII Limited (34%), producer Stanley Meyer (17%), Sherry TV (the division of MCA that owned and distributed the "Dragnet" TV show) (24.5%) and a legal combine of Meyer and Mark VII (24.5%).

2:15 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Hi Michael, and thanks for your input on "Dragnet". I knew my cost figure differed from the one indicated in your book, and that's not to say I disagree with the number you had. My source was Warner records which obviously differed from those your own fine research turned up. As to the actual cost of "Dragnet", I'd not swear to any I've seen, but being our numbers are fairly close to one another, I'd say we're at least in a ballpark on accuracy. Again, my thanks for your data, and let me say I loved your book --- Webb could not have received a finer (or more detailed) tribute than yours.

2:24 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In the 1980s I was working as a bartender in Pomona and after closing, while we were cleaning up, we'd always turn on the TV in the bar for companionship. One wee-hour morning the all-night movie station was playing the 1956 Lone Ranger feature. Imagine my surprise to hear, mid-movie, as the Ranger sat astride Silver speaking comforting words to his friends, the unmistakeable strains of the theme from the Maverick TV show ("Who is the tall dark stranger there?/Maverick is the name..."). Years later -- well, today as a matter of fact -- I looked up the film on the IMDB and sure enough, the music is credited to David Buttolph, who also did Maverick the very next year. I wonder if William T. Orr, who headed Warners' TV division, ever noticed.

East Side is right: James Keach dubbed Klinton Spilsbury's voice in The Legend of the Lone Ranger; maybe he should have shared the two "Razzies" (Worst Actor and Worst New Star) that Spilsbury "won" for his only film. I never saw the movie myself, but I remember my uncle talking about it, wondering where in the world they found "that boy who played the Lone Ranger." I asked him to elucidate, and he said: "Well...he's not the most masculine actor anyone ever saw..."

6:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Back to Jack Webb's film credits.
I've seen all of his movies at least once, and except for Dragnet
and Pete Kelly's Blues, they don't
show up often.
One movie I have never seen is
"30", Webb's look at the newspaper
business circa 1959. I even own an
eight-sheet movie poster of this,
but have yet to find this on tv
or video. Love to see ALL of Webb's feature films in a special
DVD set. What do you mean, not
commercial enough? I'D buy it!
In the meantime I guess I've got to get hold of Michael J. Hayde's book "My Name's Friday". It sounds like THE source to answer my many nagging questions about Jack Webb, the man and the legend.
Thanks to Greenbriar Picture Shows
and you, John, for bringing this fascinating subject up and jogging the old grey cells into motion again!

10:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

When I turned on the TCM broadcast of Dragnet a couple of weeks ago, I was shocked it was in color, I thought they'd be cutting corners the whole way.

My childhood ingained a lifelong loyalty to Moore's Lone Ranger in me--I could sit through an episode anytime. I heard or read somewhere that the set of the '81 movie was a shambles, though, and rife with "substance abuse". Too bad--the director is a great cinematographer.

9:16 AM  
Blogger Michael J. Hayde said...

A note for sam kujava: "-30-" did come out on VHS from Warners several years ago; so did "The D.I." and "Pete Kelly's Blues." All of these will turn up on eBay or Amazon Marketplace from time-to-time. The only one that hasn't seen a home video release is "The Last Time I Saw Archie" (1961), Webb's co-venture with writer William Bowers and star Robert Mitchum. I'll bet John could write a dandy story about all the red ink that one spilled!

Enjoy the book!

1:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for the -30- tip, Michael!
I did an immediate Ebay and Amazon
search for a used VHS video of this
movie, and of course turned up
nothing. But! The search is on.
And the search is half the fun!

8:27 PM  
Blogger Vanwall said...

They used to show "D.I." and "Pete Kelly's Blues" on local TV all the time in the late sixties-early seventies when I was young and I got to liking 'em, and the Ben Alexander "Dragnet" episodes were often on as well. I never liked the later episodes, they were too stiff - the originals had a bit of an edge like "He Walked By Night", where "Dragnet" gestated.

12:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Today is May 3/ They showed "Legend his evening on TV. I m pretty good at spotting voice over and you couldn't tell. They stayed away from an imitation of Moore's voice, which happens to be an imitation of Brace Beamer (One of the many radio TLR voices, the first of which was Orson Welles.) I think that spilsbury got almost as much as a shafting as clay moore did. Wonder where he hangs his mask these days. I also have the old Chapter with missing parts filmed in mexico.

11:26 PM  

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