Jack Webb and the Cult of Personality

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Once upon a time in Lala Land, a young asthmatic cartoonist who would later die of the effects of years of three-pack-a-day smoking was elected president of his high school class after surviving a talent show. A few years later, after having his art ignored by Disney, and his life diverted by the U.S Army Air Force, he became a radio personality and a movie actor who stumbled upon a production formula for radio and television that would resonate down to the present day with so-called reality programming and police procedural shows, including one, "NCIS", that stars Mark Harmon, whose performance is almost a backhanded tribute to his mentor, who had much earlier given him the supporting lead role in a show called "Sam" that starred an LAPD K9 animal.

There are a million stories in the Naked City

It is an odd fact of television production that real life looks like horse pucky on camera unless elaborate measures are taken. The public has become used to the sounds and artifacts of home video taping over the last three decades and have come to accept that version of reality, but in the bad old days of home filming involving shaky and out-of-focus 16mm and theatrical filming involving 35mm and tons of lights, the black and white little box in the living room allowed a window-like glimpse into shows that prided themselves on their 'realness', regardless of the production costs and values. Jackie Gleason's 'Honeymooner' vignettes on his variety show are valued for their simple sets and simple plots. The artifacts of the Kinescope procedure, wherein the show was filmed by putting a 16mm camera in front of a TV monitor 1, provide the modern viewer with an odd view of the brightly lit stage in an expansive and expensive studio. The other famous example of telly verite was an odd little straight-faced and straitlaced half hour of Police Public Relations called 'Dragnet'.

Despite it's seeming 'reality', what with the simplistic makeup, boring sets and bad acting, 'Dragnet' made use of the finest union shop production facilities, cameras and props that were available at the time. Webb had no problem building a pile of generic sets that were modified for episodal use. He also had no problem with using miles of second unit exterior footage. While it has become an icon of squareness and almost camp white American cultural myopia, 'Dragnet' in actuality was very eclectic in it's scripting and casting. When you sit down and watch a few dozen of the original shows, produced from 1951 to 1959 for a total of 276 episodes at 30 minutes each, it becomes apparent that Webb and his team had no qualms about including anything in the show. For years, if Webb filmed it, it hit the air, regardless of what it was. The show was advertised as having been based on actual files at the Los Angeles Police Department. The show had the support of the National Association of Police Chiefs. Jack produced, directed and filmed the shows in such a way that all the networks got was the finished product, with almost no say about how it was made. In one early episode the lead characters, Joe Friday and his partner, played by Ben Alexander, spend a full ten minutes strolling through a western town set while a has-been guest star reminisces about the good old days in Hollywood. Watching it is like seeing ice melt in an air-conditioned house, but when one keeps in mind that the other shows on the network lineups at that time were fast, loud, vigourous, violent and fantastic, it is possible to view Webb's contribution to the primetime slot as a sincere middle finger gesture to an industry and a town that he really had very little use for. While his shows were nominated for and won many Emmys, Webb referred to the Emmy Award Show as a 'high school amateur hour', which didn't make him very popular around LA. Not that he had ever spent much time worrying about that. At one point or another in his television production career, Jack Webb's shows beat the crap out of everything from 'Gunsmoke' to "All In The Family". "Dragnet" was also one of the shows that was owned by it's star, so when it came time to engage in syndication2 Jack got to pocket the check or plow the funds into new shows, with very little being spent on residuals or royalties.

He walked by night

Like his peer and possible acquaintance, Rod Serling, Webb was a
young man who entered Hollywood and the Television industry practically through the back door, had a run of incredible luck, and died of the effects of years of alcoholism and smoking.

Joe Friday's Blues

Webb had fascination with brass instruments, most particularly the cornet, which he tried to learn to play for many years. His shows and his movies are filled with marches and jazz-tinged almost be-bop. Although he found rock and hippies to be anathema, he seemed to have no trouble with Beatniks or folkies, as long as they kept their noses and their rapsheets clean. The theme song for 'Dragnet' will resonate through American broadcasting history for ever and the theme for a much later Webb-produced show 'Emergency' not only had a memorable theme but also one of the loudest and most irritating intros in US musical history. It was industrial before such a thing existed.

1Originally so performers could critique their live performance, later used for rebroadcast days or years later. 2Selling films or tapes of old episodes as a bloc to individual stations or smaller networks for daytime rebroadcast

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