Tuesday, December 19, 2023

Classic TV Holiday Special: Dragnet (1951)

Dragnet (1951 series)
Debut: December 16, 1961
Created by Jack Webb
Starring: Jack Webb, Ben Alexander
Synopsis: Sgt. Joe Friday and his partners follow procedure as they investigate crimes in Los Angeles.

Trey: With the holiday season upon us, it seemed like a good time to dive into the Classic TV tradition of the "Christmas episode." What better place than the venerable, multi-media police procedural franchise, Dragnet. Dragnet got its start on radio in 1949 but moved to TV in 1951. That series ran until 1959. It was revived in new, color series in 1967 and ran until 1971. Films and new series have shown up into the 21st Century.

We watched the episode "The Big Little Jesus" which aired on December 24, 1953. Father Rojas at the Old Mission Plaza Church discovers that the statue of the baby Jesus has been stolen from the Nativity display. The statue isn't worth a lot, but it's of great sentimental value to the parish. Friday and Smith promise to try to get it back before Christmas Day mass--but that means they've got less than 24 hours to do it.

This same story had aired just two days before on the radio show. It would also be remade (as "The Christmas Story"), virtually unchanged, for the 1967 series, airing on December 21, 1967. 

Jason: I vaguely remember watching a few episodes of the 1967 series in syndication in the mid-80s, particularly the infamous LSD episode, as a piece of kitsch illustrating square culture's inability to grasp what the groovy kids were up to. But it had style! The 1953 episode we watched, created at the height of its cultural moment, feels right at home with itself and resists a solely ironic viewing. It is also quite stylish! 

That said, the opening scene jolts the viewer into a bygone culture, as ultra-square bachelor Joe Friday dutifully fills out an impressive stack of Christmas cards. His partner Frank recommends marriage as the pragmatic solution to this burden - his wife takes care of all such matters. Joe muses, seemingly crunching the numbers for a moment, when they are interrupted by news of theft of a statue of the baby Jesus. For the time being, Joe remains all cop.

Their exchange, a machine gun barrage of snappy dialogue presented in quick cuts from close up to close up, demands the viewer's full and complete attention and sets the tone for the rest of the episode. Information is delivered verbally, due at least in part, I'm sure, to Webb's use of the nearly unaltered script for the radio version of Dragnet, as well as time and budgetary limitations. The dialogue comes at breakneck speed, as if fueled by black coffee and an ashtray full of Chesterfields.

One of my favorite moments was when the priest apologized to Joe and Frank for monopolizing their time during the holidays. 

I found this episode fascinating, as a window into the increasingly foreign past and as another example of the hyper-condensed storytelling of its era. 

Trey: I too had seen snippets of the '60s version and I'd seen the 1987 spoof film. Joe Friday doesn't seem quite as square and certainly not as priggish as he would in in the 60s. The 50s is the world he was meant for, though still it's obvious he's a straight-arrow, by-the-book sort.

It's interesting what it says about the view of faith in this era. AVClub did a comparison between this version and the 60s remake that's interesting. All and all, I found my heart suitably warmed with this one. Jason, what about you?

Jason: Most definitely. If Joe Friday can get a little sentimental, there's something there for all of us!

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