"The story you are about to see is true", "Just the facts, ma'am", "We were working the day watch" - phrases which became so popular as to inspire much parody - set the realistic tone of this early police drama. The show emphasized careful police work and the interweaving of policemen's professional and personal lives. Written by
Ed Stephan <email@example.com>
Gang Busters (1952) ran on alternate weeks with "Dragnet" on NBC on Thursday nights for a little more than a season (1952-53). "Gang Busters" was the highest-rated show at the time NBC decided to cancel it, in favor of airing "Dragnet" weekly. See more »
Ladies and gentlemen, the story you are about to see is true. The names have been changed to protect the innocent.
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I've done some reading over the years about Dragnet. Jack Webb was making a movie called "He Walked by Night" in 1948 when the technical advisor, LAPD detective Marty Wynn, expressed exasperation that Hollywood never depicted police work as it actually was. the cops were always hard boiled tough guys, crooked or buffoons. Webb, after thinking about it, asked to accompany Wynn and his partner, Vance Brasher on their nightly rounds and became fascinated by police procedure and the way the real policemen talked. He suggested the radio series that became "Dragnet". The LAPD was enthusiastic because they found the way they were constantly being depicted as distasteful. Webb's police went by the book, spoke "like doctors would to patients". He also eschewed violence except in rare instances, usually showing it after it had taken place and depicting it as the human tragedy it actually was. Webb closely co-operated with the LAPD, using their files for stories and filling his shows with praise for Chief William Parker, who had been hired in 1950 to clean up and give a new image to the department.
The Watts riots were the first chink in this image. Many analysts blamed them on Parker and his department, which was said to enforce racist unofficial rules about which part of town blacks could be in. In recent years, two films have been released which seem to further undercut the image of the LAPD that Webb created, Mulholland Falls, (1996) and L.A. Confidential, (1997). Mulholland Falls introduces us to the "Hat Squad", which is said to be non-fictional. Nick Nolte and his gang report directly to Chief Parker, (who is played briefly but perfectly by Bruce Dern, judging from newsreel clips I saw on his biography). He hired them to rid the city of mobsters and other criminals and to stay above politics. Nobody, but nobody is allowed to operate in L.A., not even the FBI, without going through Parker. The Hat Squad makes their own rules to do their job, including throwing a would-be mobster, (played by CSI"s William Peterson), off a cliff on Mulholland Drive they have given the title name.
In L.A. Confidential, the Hat Squad and Chief Parker do not make an appearance, although I wonder if James Cromwell's Capt. Smith is somehow supposed to represent him. We are introduced here to Jack Vincennes, who is a technical advisor on a show obviously intended to represent Dragnet, the star of which is a total phony. Russell Crowe's Bud White would look good in a hat and Guy Pearce's Ed Exley seems to have watched too many episodes of Dragnet.
These two films suggest that Dragnet was a phony, too, a public relations gimmick to make the seedy LAPD look good. Recent events have also not helped the image of the department, suggesting that planting evidence to help along prosecution and prejudice against African Americans is a long-standing condition. Maybe those melodramas of the 40's had it right about the LAPD.
But books about Jack Webb tell about him doing such extensive research into not only the methods of the department but also the details of a cop's life. I suspect that even Chief Parker could not have protected the Hat Squad once they attacked and brutally beat up an FBI agent, as Nick Nolte does. And are we to believe that Mickey Cohen was brought to justice so the LAPD could take over his rackets? Was there ever an Alamo-like shoot out between good cops and bad cops? Was it that bad? Or is Hollywood simply reclaiming the territory won by Jack Webb in Dragnet?
There are people who know. But I am not one of them.
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