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Dragnet, syndicated as Badge 714, is a radio and television crime drama about the cases of a dedicated Los Angeles police detective, Sergeant Joe Friday, and his partners. The show takes its name from an actual police term, a "dragnet", meaning a system of coordinated measures for apprehending criminals or suspects.
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").
The original Dragnet starring Jack Webb as Sgt. Friday ran on radio from June 3, 1949 to February 26, 1957 and on television from December 16, 1951 to August 23, 1959, and from January 12, 1967 to April 16, 1970. All of these versions ran on NBC. There were three Dragnet feature films, a straight adaptation starring Webb in 1954; a TV-movie produced in 1966; and a comedy spoof in 1987. There were also television revivals, without Webb, in 1989 and 2003. A newspaper comic strip version of Dragnet, written by Jack Webb and Joe Scheiber, ran in newspapers from about 1952 to 1955.
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, inspired by the actual murder of California Highway Patrol officer Loren Roosevelt in Los Angeles. The film was depicted in semidocumentary style, and Marty Wynn (an actual LAPD sergeant from the homicide division) was a technical advisor on the film. Webb and Wynn became friends, and both thought that the day-to-day activities of police officers could be realistically depicted, and could make for compelling drama without the forced sense of melodrama then so 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 1950 LAPD Chief William H. Parker 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 LAPD racial segregation policies were never addressed, nor was there a suggestion of police corruption.
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. Raymond Burr was on board to play Captain Ed Backstrand. 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 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.” (Dunning, 209) 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.
 "Just the facts, ma'am"
While "Just the facts, ma'am" has come to be known as Dragnet's catchphrase, it was never actually uttered by Joe Friday; the closest he came were, "All we want are the facts, ma'am" and "All we know are the facts, ma'am". "Just the facts, ma'am" comes from the Stan Freberg parody St. George and the Dragonet.
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 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."
The story then usually began with footsteps and a door closing, 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 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 30 minutes to stop a man who was threatening to destroy the City Hall with a bomb.
At the end of the episode, announcer Hal Gibney would relate the fate of the suspect. They were usually tried by a court "in and for the City and County of Los Angeles, convicted of a crime and sent 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" (Dunning, 210)
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 furthermore, 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 effects 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.
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" (15 December 1949), they even had a locked room mystery.
Though rather tame by modern standards, Dragnet—especially on the radio—handled controversial subjects such as sex crimes and drug addiction with unprecedented and even startling realism. In one such example, Dragnet broke one of the unspoken (and still rarely broached) taboos of popular entertainment in the episode ".22 Rifle for Christmas" which aired December 21, 1950. The episode followed the search for young Stevie Morheim, only to discover he’d been accidentally killed while playing with a rifle that belonged to a friend; his friend told Friday that Stevie was running while holding the rifle when he tripped and fell, causing the gun to discharge, fatally wounding Morheim.
NBC received thousands of complaint letters, including a formal protest by the National Rifle Association. Webb forwarded many of the letters to police chief Parker who promised "ten more shows illustrating the folly of giving rifles to children." (Dunning, 211) 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.
The tone was usually serious, but there were moments of comic relief: Romero was something of a hypochondriac and often seemed henpecked; though Friday dated women, he usually dodged those 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 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. The TV show could be listened to without watching it, with no loss of understanding of the storyline.
Dragnet 49-06-17 ep003 Production 3 aka The Werewolf
Dragnet 49-07-07 ep005 The Helen Corday Murder
Dragnet 49-07-21 ep007 Attempted City Hall Bombing
Dragnet 49-08-04 ep009 Benny Trounsel - Narcotics
Dragnet 49-08-25 ep012 Police Academy - Mario Koski
Dragnet 49-09-03 ep014 Eric Kelby - Body Buried In Nursery
Dragnet 49-09-10 ep015 Sullivan Kidnapping
Dragnet 49-09-24 ep017 Brick-Bat Slayer
Dragnet 49-11-24 ep026 Mrs. Rinard Albert Barry - Mother-In-Law Murder
Dragnet 49-12-08 ep028 George Quan - The Jade Thumb Rings
Dragnet 49-12-22 ep030 22 Rifle for Christmas
Dragnet 50-02-09 ep036 The Big Girl
Dragnet 50-02-23 ep037 The Big Grifter
Dragnet 50-03-09 ep039 The Big Thank You
Dragnet 50-03-16 ep040 The Big Boys
Dragnet 50-03-23 ep041 The Big Gangster Part 1
Dragnet 50-03-30 ep042 The Big Gangster Part 2
Dragnet 50-04-06 ep043 The Big Book
Dragnet 50-06-01 ep051 The Big Fake
Dragnet 50-06-29 ep055 The Big Grab
Dragnet 50-07-06 ep056 The Big Frame
Dragnet 50-08-10 ep061 The Big Actor
Dragnet 50-09-21 ep067 The Big Pair
Dragnet 50-11-23 ep076 The Big Betty
Dragnet 50-12-14 ep079 The Big Break
Dragnet 51-01-04 ep082 The Big Holdup
Dragnet 51-01-18 ep084 The Big Dance
Dragnet 51-02-08 ep087 The Big Cast
Dragnet 51-02-15 ep088 The Big Crime
Dragnet 51-03-15 ep092 The Big Ben
Dragnet 51-06-14 ep105 The Big Building
Dragnet 51-06-21 ep106 The Big Run
Dragnet 51-06-28 ep107 The Big Cliff
Dragnet 51-07-05 ep108 The Big Love
Dragnet 51-07-12 ep109 The Big Set-Up
Dragnet 51-07-19 ep110 The Big Sophomore
Dragnet 51-07-26 ep111 The Big Late Script
Dragnet 51-08-09 ep113 The Big Screen
Dragnet 51-08-16 ep114 The Big Winchester
Dragnet 51-08-23 ep115 The Big In-Laws
Dragnet 51-08-30 ep116 The Big Crazy
Dragnet 51-09-06 ep117 The Big 17
Dragnet 51-09-13 ep118 The Big Waiter
Dragnet 51-09-20 ep119 The Big Sour
Dragnet 51-09-27 ep120 The Big September Man
Dragnet 51-10-11 ep122 The Big Shoplift
Dragnet 51-11-08 ep126 The Big Hit and Run Killer
Dragnet 51-11-22 ep128 The Big Hands
Dragnet 51-12-27 ep133 The Big Sorrow
Dragnet 52-01-03 ep134 The Big Red Part 1
Dragnet 52-01-10 ep135 The Big Red Part 2
Dragnet 52-02-14 ep140 The Big Phone Call
Dragnet 52-02-21 ep141 The Big Producer
Dragnet 52-04-10 ep148 The Big Show
Dragnet 52-07-03 ep160 The Big Trio
Dragnet 52-11-16 ep178 The Big Walk
Dragnet 53-10-06 ep216 The Big Little Mother
Dragnet 53-12-22 ep227 The Big Little Jesus
Dragnet 54-03-02 ep237 The Big TV
Dragnet 54-08-03 ep259 The Big Stand
Dragnet 54-09-07 ep264 The Big Trunk
Dragnet 54-10-12 ep269 The Big Tarbaby
Dragnet 55-02-01 ep285 The Big Bird
Dragnet 55-02-22 ep288 The Big Slug
Dragnet 55-03-08 ep290 The Big Father
Dragnet 55-03-15 ep291 The Big Set
Dragnet 55-03-22 ep292 The Big Talk
Dragnet 55-03-29 ep293 The Big Death
Dragnet 55-04-05 ep294 The Big No Tooth
Dragnet 55-04-12 ep295 The Big Tie
Dragnet 55-04-19 ep296 The Big Deal
Dragnet 55-04-26 ep297 The Big Child
Dragnet 55-05-03 ep298 The Big Momma
Dragnet 55-05-10 ep299 The Big Revision
Dragnet 55-05-17 ep300 The Big Squealer
Dragnet 55-05-24 ep301 The Big Siege
Dragnet 55-05-31 ep302 The Big Sisters
Dragnet 55-06-07 ep303 The Big Limp
Dragnet 55-06-14 ep304 The Big Fall Guy
Dragnet 55-06-28 ep306 The Big Convertible
Dragnet 55-07-05 ep307 The Big Rush
Dragnet 55-07-12 ep308 The Big Genius
Dragnet 56-05-22 ep353 The Big False Move
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