Dragnet L.A.: It’s Jack Webb’s Los Angeles, the rest of us just live in it

By on January 3, 2016

Today, on the 64th anniversary of the first official airing of the TV show “Dragnet” on NBC, our new Night Flight contributor Andre Perkowski pays tribute to the city of Los Angeles as seen through the eyes of the show’s creator, Jack Webb, who tells all about the City of Angels and various other topics associated with living in L.A., including, yes, the dangers of drug addiction and that ol’ gateway drug pot (“Marijuana is the flame, heroin is the fuse, LSD is the bomb”).

On January 3, 1952, Webb’s iconic L.A.-based cop drama officially debuted on NBC after having first been a radio show on L.A.’s KFI station, beginning in June 1949. The TV show — which introduced us to the tight-lipped Sergeant Joe Friday, played by Webb himself, and his original partner Frank Smith, played by Ben Alexander — had actually been previewed several weeks earlier on “Chesterfield Sound Off Time,” sponsored by the cigarette company Chesterfield.

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Andre Perkowski:

Dragnet!” Sure, that impossibly catchy, doom-laden musical cue is what comes to mind first as it’s the aural equivalent of getting cuffed and thrown into the back of a squad car while simultaneously losing control of your bowels while your entire universe collapses in on itself. Then you think of a monotone man intoning: “Just the facts, m’am,” despite that phrase never actually turning up in an episode. Who do we blame for that? Dan Aykroyd? Might as well, even though Stan Freberg is probably the culprit of this catchphrase with his novelty tune St. George and the Dragonet.”

The facts: “Dragnet” was the proud brainchild of law n’ order heartthrob and future James Ellroy character Jack Webb, who you can definitely tell learned more than a thing or two about pumping out police procedural while performing in Anthony Mann’s nifty noir He Walked By Night in 1948. You might have also glimpsed him actually smiling in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, but “Dragnet” was Jack’s show, the one that made his fortune and burned his brand into pop culture while quite likely launching the careers of generations of mall cops.

“A lonely man, in constant search of someone to intimidate.” – Director Herbert L. Strock on Jack Webb

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Webb managed to fund an absolutely massive jazz record collection by portraying the seemingly cybernetic, all-seeing/all-knowing Joe Friday — a zealous crime-fighter who basically defined the phrase “by the book.” Cutting a swathe through the criminal underworld, sorting out shady clerks, dispensing grim parenting advice, sneering at soft academics, walking briskly into shot and sorting everything out all while making sure the paperwork was done right.

As befitting a show blessed by LAPD deity William H. Parker, Joe Friday was the policeman’s policeman. A policeman so policey that to this day, the Jack Webb Awards dinner is given to honor past and present LAPD members and their appreciation society. Before you check, yes — Daryl Gates has one. So does James Ellroy, which makes me wish Webb did an episode about Benzedrex inhalers and/or panty sniffers.

“Webb looked like a man who was too exhausted to rest or to sleep.” – Maurice Zolotow, The Milwaukee Sentinel

When I moved back to Los Angeles a few years ago, my former roommate and I got into a habit of watching an episode of “Dragnet” every day to decompress from the horrors of what Jack Smith accurately dubbed “The Rented World.” The 60s color revival, of course. Although aware of the show all my life, watching the entire run over time allowed me to grow to love Webb’s snarling anger and barely contained rage at anything remotely reeking of “the counterculture.” The rat-tat-tat-tat dialogue which was filmed separately (Leonard Nimoy on Dragnet) and cut together at an alarming pace gave a delirious, almost Kafka edge to any given interrogation scene.

I loved Harry Morgan and the cornball comic relief he brought to the show as Bill Gannon, fussing over food and constantly complaining. I loved the Webb stock company of drinking buddies capable of rattling off the dialogue, you’ll notice the same faces turn up again and again. “Dragnet” is a show well-stocked by That Guys.

But most of all, I completely fell in love with the opening of each episode which set the scene in Los Angeles to some spectacular period footage underneath Jack Webb’s puff-piece proud boasting alternating with scornful and incredibly vicious commentary.

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“This is the city: Los Angeles, California.”

Crisp, authoritative. Webb sets the scene swiftly, praising his hometown in tourist ad tones but also lifting rocks to show America the wriggling, criminal larvae underneath. Nothing escapes his harsh, judgmental stance. Good luck getting off easy with Joe Friday, and pray you aren’t dabbling in “marijuana cigarettes.”

From the suspiciously high-ceiling studio set homes of the rich to the seediest dive, Joe and Bill cruise the city enforcing the law and looking extremely dubious at anything progressive or hippy-dippy. Got some kind of quack New Age philosophy for sale? Joe has a sarcastic face all ready for it. Rebelling against your parents? Better sit down, he’s gonna give you a real talking to.

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For some reason most of the real degenerates seem to be based out of North Hollywood, not far from NBC’s Burbank studios. Since we were living in a pretty crappy part of it at the time and got to enjoy the sound of gunfire, screams, and stupidity while frequently smelling piss in the hallways… it rang fairly true. Thankfully no authoritarians ever burst in and delivered a five minute lecture before arresting us for god knows what.

I doubt he’d believe any sob story I’d give him that it wasn’t my piss. Maybe Bill Gannon would shoot me a sympathetic glance, but that’s about it.

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Bill Gannon’s Lunch

That little burst of documentary footage at the start of each episode was still the “Dragnet” money shot for me, and nothing in any episode ever quite matched it. So naturally, I wanted more of it and decided to string them all together into one continuous Jack Webb orgasm… a convulsing, bubbling, bitter travelogue and tribute to my favorite city: Jack Webb’s Los Angeles.

BONUS: There are another two section of rough cuts I never quite finished, put together from far inferior sources and a bit glitchy.

Jack Webb’s Los Angeles 2: A Slum Can Be The Home of A Poet:

Jack Webb’s Los Angeles 3: A Large Place with a Small History:

Here’s some trivia you might not know about Jack Webb: the pair of hands seen hammering the Mark VII logo at the end of every episode belong to Webb himself. When he passed away in 1982, Webb was buried with the full honors of an LAPD detective, including a 17-gun salute.

Andre Perkowski is a Los Angeles-based filmmaker and collage artist barely known for his adaptations of William S. Burroughs and Edward D. Wood, Jr. You can find further evidence of his arcane research into The Firesign Theatre, The Residents, Brian Wilson, and other topics at his Youtube page.

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About Andre Perkowski

Andre Perkowski​ is a Los Angeles-based filmmaker and collage artist known for his three hour adaptation of the 1964 William S. Burroughs cut-up novel "Nova Express." His underground features weave together found footage, digital, Super-8, and 16mm shards into shambling pop culture Frankensteins. His no-budget Dadaist kung fu epic "A Belly Full of Anger" features the voices of Bob Odenkirk, Joel Hodgson, Trace Beaulieu, and Phil Proctor. His current project is a documentary entitled "Virtual Boys" on the rise, fall, and rise again of consumer virtual reality. You can find further evidence of his arcane research into The Firesign Theatre, Edward D. Wood, Jr., The Residents, Orson Welles, Batman, Brian Wilson, and other subjects at his Terminal Pictures Youtube page: youtube.com/terminalpictures
  • Tony Byrer

    One thing Webb got right: LSD *is* the bomb. I want some more.

  • Paul Mavis

    Thanks for reading my Dragnet reviews.