Those who remember Dragnet strictly from its late 1960s-early 1970s television revival, when it seems to be little more than a growing anti-hippie/anti-youth exercise in police recalcitrance, albeit far less aggressive as such than similar exercises, may be shocked at times to discover the radio original and the first television version it sired could be called deeper in more than one way.
It’s not that Jack Webb’s Sgt. Joe Friday is any less stubbornly conservative a detective. But even within the no-nonsense, often clipped, on-the-surface coldly realistic presentation, Friday and his partners manage to display a human element that seems at times to battle with the show’s fundamental rigidity. Friday may be a cop’s cop but he doesn’t veil his heart completely. His partners—first Ben Romero (played impeccably by the ill-fated Barton Yarborough), then Frank Smith—display a comparable balance. Always there is the unwillingness to resign themselves to human depravity however often they arrest it.
More than several exercises allowing the display would suffice for examples, but none of those may be more harrowing than tonight’s 1952 offering. Gun control to any extent is barely a topic in broadcast storytelling as it is. Under the possible impetus of then-Los Angeles Police Chief William H. Parker, who became alarmed over children as young as five owning firearms without understanding their proper use and safe care, Dragnet takes on both that issue and the National Rifle Association alike.
There will be a sufficient volume of protest mail following tonight’s show that Parker and Dragnet alike promise the NRA ten subsequent shows addressing the same subject. Apparently, the protesters didn’t quite understand that the episode doesn’t condemn firearms qua firearms but, rather, their irresponsible presentation and usage. It will be an issue amplified more broadly in the decades to follow. And it will prove to resolve far less readily than tonight’s Dragnet does.
It only begins with a missing nine-year-old boy and suspicion of foul play amplified by shell casings found at his home’s back yard. That prompts Friday (Webb) and Smith (Alexander) to a probe taking them to the boy’s family, the family of his eight-year-old best friend, an unthinkable tragedy involving a Christmas gift . . . and the dead boy’s father offering an equally jarring resolution involving the boy’s Christmas gifts.
Perhaps there are less harrowing ways to send this kind of Christmas message through the vehicle of a crime drama. But you might have to argue, concurrently, that Dragnet—priding itself on terse, non-acting acting, and baloney-proof writing—took a rare gamble stepping somewhat out of its stereotyped character, even for yuletide.
You could argue that mastermind Webb and company could have found a less harrowing way to send a Christmas message through the vehicle of a seminal crime drama. But then you might have to argue that this show, which prides itself on terse acting and baloney-proof writing, for the most part, should have stepped a little too far out of character even for yuletide.
Compare tonight’s broadcast to the eventual television interpretation, however (the first was in the early 1950s as well), and you may understand just how right this radio original will remain into the next century. You don’t really need to see the faces to know two families’ terror bringing to un-stylishly hard-boiled cops as close as they could get to emotion pouring through their usually barely-flappable selves. What you see in your mind will be harrowing enough through this unusual tear-jerker.
Additional cast: William Johnstone, Sammy Ogg, unidentified players. Announcers: George Fenneman, George Walsh. Music: Walter Schumann. Director: Jack Webb. Writer: Jim Mosey.
Further Channel Surfing . . .
Lux Radio Theater: The Pied Piper (CBS, 1942)
Duffy’s Tavern: A Christmas Show with Monty Woolley (comedy; Blue Network; Armed Forces Radio Network Rebroadcast, 1943)
Fibber McGee & Molly: Looking for a Christmas Tree (comedy; NBC, 1943)
The Jack Benny Program: Last Minute Christmas Shopping (comedy; NBC, 1947)
Fibber McGee & Molly: Taking Packages to the Post Office (comedy; NBC, 1948)
Fibber McGee & Molly: Mailing Aunt Sarah’s Gift (comedy; NBC, 1953)
Fibber McGee & Molly: Les Trips Over an Ash Can (comedy; NBC, 1954)
NBC Monitor: “Just Molly and Me”—Taking a Memory Course (comedy; NBC, 1957)
Bob & Ray Present the CBS Radio Network: One Fella’s Family—Wrapping the Christmas Presents (comedy; we’re thinking it over, 1959)