Dragnet was perhaps the most famous and influential police procedural drama in media history. The series gave millions of audience members a feel for the boredom and drudgery, as well as the danger and heroism, of real-life police work. Dragnet earned praise for improving the public opinion of police officers. Actor and producer Jack Webb's aims in Dragnet were for realism and unpretentious acting. He achieved both goals, and Dragnet remains a key influence on subsequent police dramas in many media. The show's cultural impact is such that even after five decades, elements of Dragnet are known to those who have never seen or heard the program:
- The ominous, four-note introduction to the brass and tympani theme music (titled "Danger Ahead") is instantly recognizable (though its origins date back to Miklós Rózsa's score for the 1946 film version of The Killers).
- Another Dragnet trademark is the show's opening narration: "Ladies and gentlemen: the story you are about to hear is true. Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent." This underwent minor revisions over time. The "only" and "ladies and gentlemen" were dropped at some point, and for the television version "hear" was changed to "see". Variations on this narration have been featured in many subsequent crime dramas, and in satires of these dramas (e.g. "Only the facts have been changed to protect the innocent").
Dragnet was created and produced by Jack Webb, who starred as the terse Sergeant Joe Friday. Webb had starred in a few mostly short-lived radio programs, but Dragnet would make him one of the major media personalities of his era. Dragnet had its origins in Webb's small role as a police forensic scientist in the 1948 film He Walked by Night, itself inspired by the violent 1946 crime spree of Erwin Walker, a disturbed World War II veteran and former Glendale California police department employee. The film was depicted in semidocumentary style, and Marty Wynn (an actual LAPD sergeant from the Robbery Division) was a technical advisor on the film. Inspired by Wynn's accounts of actual cases and criminal investigative procedure, Webb convinced Wynn that day-to-day activities of police officers could be realistically depicted in a broadcast series, without the forced sense of melodrama in the numerous private-detective serials then common in radio programming. Webb frequently visited police headquarters, drove on night patrols with Sgt. Wynn and his partner Officer Vance Brasher, and attended Police Academy courses to learn authentic jargon and other details that could be featured in a radio program. When he proposed Dragnet to NBC officials, they were not especially impressed; radio was aswarm with private investigators and crime dramas, such as Webb's earlier Pat Novak for Hire. That program didn’t last long, but Webb had received high marks for his role as the titular private investigator, and NBC agreed to a limited run for Dragnet. With writer James E. Moser, Webb prepared an audition recording, then sought the LAPD's endorsement; he wanted to use cases from official files in order to demonstrate the steps taken by police officers during investigations. The official response was initially lukewarm, but in 1949 LAPD Chief Clemence B. Horrall offered Webb the endorsement he sought. Police wanted control over the program's sponsor, and insisted that police not be depicted unflatteringly. This would lead to some criticism, as less flattering departmental aspects, such as LAPD's racial segregation policies, were never addressed.
Dragnet debuted inauspiciously. The first several months were bumpy, as Webb and company worked out the program's format and eventually became comfortable with their characters (Friday was originally portrayed as more brash and forceful than his later usually relaxed demeanor). Gradually, Friday's deadpan, fast-talking persona emerged, described by John Dunning as "a cop's cop, tough but not hard, conservative but caring." (Dunning, 210) Friday's first partner was Sergeant Ben Romero, portrayed by Barton Yarborough, a longtime radio actor. After Yarborough's death in 1951 (and therefore Romero's, who also died of a heart attack, as acknowledged on the December 27, 1951 episode "The Big Sorrow"), Friday was partnered with Sergeant Ed Jacobs (December 27, 1951 - April 10, 1952, subsequently transferred to the Police Academy as an instructor), played by Barney Phillips; Officer Bill Lockwood (Ben Romero's nephew, April 17, 1952 - May 8, 1952), played by Martin Milner (with Ken Peters taking the role for the June 12, 1952 episode "The Big Donation"); and finally Frank Smith, played first by Herb Ellis (1952), then Ben Alexander (September 21, 1952-1959). Raymond Burr was on board to play the Chief of Detectives. When Dragnet hit its stride, it became one of radio's top-rated shows. Webb insisted on realism in every aspect of the show. The dialogue was clipped, understated and sparse, influenced by the hardboiled school of crime fiction. Scripts were fast moving but didn’t seem rushed. Every aspect of police work was chronicled, step by step: From patrols and paperwork, to crime scene investigation, lab work and questioning witnesses or suspects. The detectives’ personal lives were mentioned but rarely took center stage. (Friday was a bachelor who lived with his mother; Romero, a Mexican-American from Texas, was an ever fretful husband and father.) "Underplaying is still acting", Webb told Time. "We try to make it as real as a guy pouring a cup of coffee.” Los Angeles police chiefs C.B. Horrall, William A. Worton, and (later) William H. Parker were credited as consultants, and many police officers were fans. Most of the later episodes were entitled "The Big _____", where the key word denoted a person or thing in the plot. In numerous episodes, this would the principal suspect, victim, or physical target of the crime, but in others was often a seemingly inconsequential detail eventually revealed to be key evidence in solving the crime. For example, in "The Big Streetcar" the background noise of a passing streetcar helps to establish the location of a phone booth used by the suspect.
Webb was a stickler for accurate details, and Dragnet used many authentic touches, such as the LAPD's actual radio call sign (KMA367), and the names of many real department officials, such as Ray Pinker and Lee Jones of the crime lab or Chief of Detectives (and later LAPD Chief from 1967–69) Thad Brown.
Two announcers were used. Episodes began with announcer George Fenneman intoning the series opening ("The story you are about to hear is true; only the names have been changed to protect the innocent.") and Hal Gibney describing the basic premise of the episode. "Big Saint" (April 26, 1951) for example, begins with "You're a Detective Sergeant. You're assigned to auto theft detail. A well organized ring of car thieves begins operations in your city. It's one of the most puzzling cases you've ever encountered. Your job: break it." After the first commercial, Gibney would officially introduce the program: "Dragnet, the documented drama of an actual crime. For the next thirty minutes, in cooperation with the Los Angeles Police Department, you will travel step-by-step on the side of the law through an actual case history, transcribed from official police files. From beginning to end—from crime to punishment—Dragnet is the story of your police force in action." The story then usually began with footsteps, followed by Joe Friday intoning something like "Tuesday, February 12. It was cold in Los Angeles. We were working the day watch out of Robbery Division. My partner's Ben Romero. The boss is Ed Backstrand, Chief of Detectives. My name's Friday." Friday would then narrate where he or both he and his partner were going, then the time he/they arrived at the location followed by a door opening and an elaboration of the location: "I was on my way in to work, and it was 4:58 PM when I got to Room 42 ... (door opening) Homicide." ("The Big String", January 18, 1953) Friday offered voice-over narration throughout the episodes, noting the time, date and place of every scene as he and his partners went through their day investigating the crime. The events related in a given episode might occur in a few hours, or might span a few months. At least one episode unfolded in real time: in "City Hall Bombing" (July 21, 1949), Friday and Romero had less than thirty minutes to stop a man who was threatening to destroy the City Hall with a bomb.
At the end of the episode, usually after a brief endorsement by Jack Webb for the sponsor's product, announcer Hal Gibney would relate the fate of the suspect, who was usually tried in "Department 187 of the Superior Court of the State of California, in and for the City and County of Los Angeles", convicted of a crime and sent (in most episodes) to "the State Penitentiary, San Quentin California" or "examined by [#] psychiatrists appointed by the court", judged mentally incompetent and "committed to a state mental hospital for an indefinite period". Murderers were often "executed in the manner prescribed by law" or "executed in the lethal gas chamber at the State Penitentiary, San Quentin California". Occasionally, police pursued the wrong suspect, and criminals sometimes avoided justice or escaped, at least on the radio version of Dragnet. In 1950, Time quoted Webb: "We don’t even try to prove that crime doesn’t pay ... sometimes it does" Specialized terminology was mentioned in every episode but was rarely explained. Webb trusted the audience to determine the meanings of words or terms by their context, and Dragnet tried to avoid the kinds of awkward, lengthy exposition that people would not actually use in daily speech. Several specialized terms such as "A.P.B." for "All Points Bulletin" and "M.O." for "Modus Operandi" were rarely used in popular culture before Dragnet introduced them to everyday America.
While most radio shows used one or two sound-effect experts, Dragnet needed five: a script clocking in at just under 30 minutes could require up to 300 separate effects. Accuracy was underlined: The exact number of footsteps from one room to another at Los Angeles police headquarters were imitated, and when a telephone rang at Friday's desk, the listener heard the same ring as the telephones in Los Angeles police headquarters. A single minute of ".22 Rifle for Christmas" is a representative example of the evocative sound effects featured on "Dragnet". While Friday and others investigate bloodstains in a suburban backyard, the listener hears a series of overlapping effects: a squeaking gate hinge, footsteps, a technician scraping blood into a paper envelope, the glassy chime of chemical vials, bird calls, and a dog barking in the distance.
Sometimes the mundane intruded. When shows ran short, directors stalled for time. In "The Big Crime", Dragnet interrupted a scene while a real-estate agent spent a full minute answering and explaining a phone call, not advancing the story but filling in time
Topics and themes
Scripts tackled a number of topics, ranging from the thrilling (murders, missing persons and armed robbery) to the mundane (check fraud and shoplifting), yet "Dragnet" made them all interesting due to fast-moving plots and behind-the-scenes realism. In "The Garbage Chute" (December 15, 1949), they even had a locked room mystery.
Another episode dealt with high school girls who, rather than finding Hollywood stardom, fall in with fraudulent talent scouts and end up in pornography and prostitution. Both this episode and ".22 Rifle for Christmas" were adapted for television, with very few script changes, when Dragnet moved to that medium. Another episode, "The Big Trio" (July 3, 1952), detailed three cases in one episode, including reckless and dangerous (in this case, fatal) driving by unlicensed juveniles. With regard to drugs, Webb's strident anti-drug statements, continued into the TV run, would be derided as camp by later audiences; yet his character also showed genuine concern and sympathy for addicts as victims, especially in the case of juveniles.
The tone was usually serious, but there were moments of comic relief: Romero was something of a hypochondriac and often seemed henpecked; Frank Smith continually complained about his brother-in-law Armand; though Friday dated, he usually dodged women who tried to set him up with marriage-minded dates. Due in part to Webb's fondness for radio drama, Dragnet persisted on radio until 1957 (the last two seasons were repeats) as one of the last old time radio shows to give way to television's increasing popularity. In fact, the TV show would prove to be effectively a visual version of the radio show, as the style was virtually the same [including the scripts, as the majority of them were adapted from radio]. The TV show could be listened to without watching it, with no loss of understanding of the storyline.
1951–59 original versionWhen television was interested in Dragnet, Webb bucked the prevailing wisdom which argued that radio staff could not adapt to the new medium. He insisted on hiring actors, writers, and production staff from radio as much as was feasible to work on the television version. This loyalty would endear Webb to many of his Dragnet colleagues for decades to come, but more important was that it brought continuity between the television and radio series. This made it possible for a busy person to listen to the audio and get the whole story.
The pilot for Dragnet, "The Human Bomb" (adapted from the July 21, 1949 radio episode), aired on television on December 16, 1951 as a special presentation of the NBC program Chesterfield Sound-Off Time. It introduced the many close-ups that became Webb's trademark. After the pilot's success,[ the regular series debuted in January 1952. Friday's original partner in the TV episodes (as on the radio) was Sgt. Ben Romero, played by Barton Yarborough, who died of a heart attack after only three episodes were filmed. The Romero character (who also died of a heart attack, as acknowledged on the December 27, 1951 radio episode, "The Big Sorrow") was replaced first by Detective Sergeant Ed Jacobs (Barney Phillips), and then by Officer Frank Smith. Smith was first played by Herb Ellis. After four episodes, Ben Alexander took over the role on both television and radio.
Television offered Webb the opportunity to increase the realism to a point unmatched by any other program for years. Many early episodes involved cases which had been handled by the Robbery or Homicide Divisions, which was at that time located in the ground floor of the Los Angeles City Hall. Webb had his set designers precisely duplicate the office,including details such as the remnant of a notice which had been torn from the bulletin board, leaving only one corner. He insisted that Friday and his partner use badges in the then-unique shield shape used by LAPD. This led to the loan of actual LAPD badges, brought in every morning from the Office of the Chief of Police in the care of an officer who acted as technical advisor.
Webb was uncomfortable with firearms and mentioned this to the technical advisor. When an early script called for Friday to use a shotgun, LAPD detailed Jesse Littlejohn, a member of the Robbery Division's elite "Hat Squad", to teach Webb how to handle the riot gun. In the episode, Friday carries the shotgun using proper technique, but passes it to his partner rather than fire it himself. In thanks for this and assistance by other officers, Webb dropped their names into scripts, beginning a tradition which continued through the end of production of Dragnet and Adam-12; all officers' names are real, except for recurring characters and officers suspected of wrongdoing, in which cases the names were changed to protect the innocent.
Two hallmarks of the TV show came at the end of each episode:
- The arrested criminal stands uncomfortably, presumably for the mug shot, and the fate of the perpetrators is stated, as a verdict of a court generally "in and for the City and County of Los Angeles" on an appropriate date.
- A sweaty, glistening bronze colored left hand appeared, holding what would turn out to be a stamp for indenting metal; a heavy hammer struck the top of the handle of the stamp, twice, loudly; the stamp was removed to reveal the imprint "VII" (over which the words "Mark" and "Limited" were superimposed on a title card), referring to Webb's production company, Mark VII Limited Productions. The hands were Webb's own, giving a signature/personal stamp to the end of the show.
- January 3, 1952—December 29, 1955: Thursday at 9:00 pm on NBC
- January 5, 1956—June 26, 1958: Thursday at 8:30 pm on NBC
- September 23, 1958—April 28, 1959: Tuesday at 7:30 pm on NBC
- July 7, 1959—August 23, 1959: Sunday at 8:30 pm on NBCings
- October 1951—April 1952: #20/36.3 (tied with All Star Revue)
- October 1952—April 1953: #4/46.8
- October 1953—April 1954: #2/53.2
- October 1954—April 1955: #3/42.1
- October 1955—April 1956: #8/35.0
- October 1956—April 1957: #11/32.1
- October 1957—April 1958: Not in the Top 30
- October 1958—April 1959: Not in the Top 30