Aw, I couldn’t let December go by without a Christmas update! I’ve been a busy cat with little time to write arbitrary articles for my silly little blog, but I had to get some kind of post up for the holiday, you know?
I’ve been ruminating on this one for some time now, and I’ve been wanting to showcase Dragnet in some way here for awhile anyway, and today that time has come. I’ll say right up front, I’ve been a big Dragnet fan for, boy, around 20 years now. Back in the late-90s, TV Land was running the 1967-1970 color revival series, and that’s where I was first introduced to Jack Webb’s still-influential police procedural. The cornier, preachier aspects of the show would become increasingly evident to me over the years, but the fact remains that to this day, to me, when 60s Dragnet was good, man, it was good. Nowadays, I find (most of) the episodes that basically act as tutorials on how the L.A. police department operates in various situations to be fairly insufferable, but the rest, square as they may seem in this day and age, I genuinely enjoy.
Anyway, through the power of the then-still-burgeoning internet of the late-90s, I was able to discover that Dragnet was first a 1950s television series, though that iteration was nowhere to be seen regularly on TV by then – at least to the best of my knowledge. (And yes, I know, Dragnet was actually a radio series before it hit television, if y’all wanna get technical, but we’re talkin’ TV here so lay off.) It wasn’t until a trip to Best Buy to visit their wondrous $2.99 VHS section in the summer of ’99 that I came across two episodes of the 1950s Dragnet, one per tape, and needless to say, they so came home with me that night.
What I found was that, on paper, the show was largely the same as its 1960s continuation: sure, Joe Friday’s partner was different, but it was still ultimately a cop show that emphasized realistic police procedure and detail rather than continuous car chases and shootin’ extravaganzas. But that earlier version of Dragnet was, to me, quieter, maybe even quainter in comparison. Hey, I was 13; what did I know? I liked it, but to me, Frank Smith couldn’t replace Bill Gannon.
Looking at it through more-seasoned eyes though, 1950s Dragnet took a grittier, oftentimes positively noir-ish approach to the proceedings, with a more documentary-like feel. Yes, at heart it’s the same thing, but the Dragnet of 1951-1959, or at least what I’ve seen of it via the 20+ episodes that make the public domain rounds today, eschewed the preachy tutorials of that later version in favor of a darker, more unflinching, and dare I say, cooler approach to the television police drama. Ironically, it’s the older version that has aged better than the newer one! The fact that each episode ostensibly presented a real case, with only the names being changed, only added to the sense of realism. None of this may look like much now, but rest assured, this was revolutionary entertainment, with traces of the trails it blazed still evident in the cop shows of today.
(I steadfastly maintain that the three most influential television police dramas are Dragnet, Hill Street Blues and Miami Vice.)
As I said, there are a number of episodes of 50s Dragnet that have fallen into the public domain. The status of the rest of the series I do not know, but it has become a game of mine to search out the best, most (relatively) comprehensive DVD collections. Included episodes and print quality certainly varies from release to release, but at the end of the day, if you’re like me, this is still engrossing stuff!
And yet, months and months ago, when I found myself at a thrift store and in the vicinity of a still-sealed Dollar DVD (a company whose cardboard-slipcased releases were commonly found at Save-A-Lot and the like throughout the 2000s) disc from 2004 that featured two Christmas-themed episodes of Dragnet and in an appropriately-designed sleeve to match, I hesitated. I mean, I’ve got public domain Dragnet episodes over and over and over again by now, so was a two episode, single disc release really something I needed to add to my increasingly-cluttered collection of stuff? Evidently it was, as that’s the very disc we’re looking at today, here and now. (In the interest of full disclosure, I honestly never really intended on actually opening the DVD, but when I decided it would probably be best to review something for Christmas 2019, well, here we are.)
Obviously, here’s the cover to your right, so y’all will know what to look for. The cover is also the sleeve; it flips open and the disc slides out, as you may well expect it to.
I like the inclusion of mistletoe around the “Christmas” banner; there’s no mistaking what the theme of this disc is! The notations of the included episodes on the cover are reversed from how they actually appear in-play, though that was probably a wise decision, for reasons that will become obvious momentarily. Besides scene selections, there are no special features beyond the episodes themselves, buy hey, it originally only cost a dollar, so stop yer complainin’!
The print quality of the two episodes is fairly good. The first one presented (“The Big Little Jesus”) is the better of the two; sure there’s lotsa dust and dirt and scratches, but the image is reasonably sharp. “The Big .22 Rifle for Christmas” (as you can see, titled “Twenty-Two Rifle for Christmas” on the sleeve) is a bit fuzzier, but both are perfectly watchable. So what say we check ’em both out now, eh? (Yes, there will be spoilers ahead, but don’t let that deter you from tracking either of these shows down; they’re both very good!)
“The Big Little Jesus” (Originally aired December 25, 1953)
It was probably a good idea to lead off with this installment, not only because it originally aired on Christmas day, but also because, frankly, it’s the more holiday-appropriate of the two. Fun facts: while no circulating prints feature it, this episode was originally broadcast in color! My dream scenario (which is looking increasingly unlikely) is for the original color broadcast to be included in an official DVD and/or Blu-ray complete series set, if indeed a print even still exists. Or give me a standalone release, I don’t care; I just wanna see the “real deal” finally put out there on home video!
Also, the December 21, 1967 installment of the revived Dragnet series featured a remake of this episode, titled “The Christmas Story” and complete with several of the same cast members reprising their roles. (The 1967 version is the one that introduced me to this story so many years ago, as you may expect.)
The plot: a statue of the infant Jesus has been stolen from a Catholic Church, and while it’s not technically worth very much, it has great sentimental value to the parish. With less than 24 hours before Christmas Mass, it’s up to Joe Friday and his partner Frank Smith to try to recover it. The fact that they have no solid leads doesn’t help matters.
A check of religious stores that may have taken in the statue comes up empty. Indeed, the only thing approaching a real clue is the sighting of a parishioner who was seen leaving the church around the time the statue might have disappeared. They track him down, and his sketchy demeanor and criminal past initially looks promising for a break, but it turns out he had accidentally scratched a car and thought that’s why he was hauled in.
All seems hopeless, and Friday and Smith return to the church to inform the priest of the developments, or lack thereof. At that moment however, a poor parishioner, a little boy, comes in with a wagon, a gift he received. In it is the statue of Jesus; the boy had taken it. Not to keep, but rather, he had prayed for the wagon, and had promised the Christ child the first ride in it. Needless to say, no charges are filed against the kid.
Obviously this wasn’t your typical episode of Dragnet, but rather one specially tailored to the season, and day, in which it aired. The ending is suitably heartwarming, and the importance with which Friday and Smith go about the case, at one point convincing their superior to let them stay on it despite a more important matter having arisen, is nice. Of the two episodes on this disc, this is the one that could (should?) be considered annual family viewing.
Funny moment: when a boy who Friday and Smith want to talk to comes into the station, and they inform him he could have just called, the boy answers that his dad says “any kid that uses phones is lazy.” Oh how the times have changed!
Also kinda amusing: since Frank smith was the family man of the duo, he takes a moment at the beginning to chide Joe for being unmarried and unromantic. It’s the sort of thing Harry Morgan regularly did as
Col. Potter Bill Gannon in the color version of Dragnet, and it’s to the credit of Jack Webb’s Friday that he tended to accept this ribbing with fairly good humor.
“The Big .22 Rifle for Christmas” (Originally aired December 19, 1952)
The older Christmas episode was placed second, and despite the holiday theme of it and this disc as a whole, it’s, uh, not a very happy installment. Whether hiding it behind “The Big Little Jesus” was intentional or just how things ultimately ended up, I do not know. At any rate, this episode probably isn’t good for perennial family viewing. It does present an important message though, so it probably should be family viewing. Just not Christmas family viewing.
(Ben Alexander normally played Joe Friday’s partner Frank Smith, but in this episode, the role was played by Cleveland native Herb Ellis.)
The plot: it’s shortly before Christmas, and a neighborhood boy has turned up missing. The only clues to his disappearance are a bit of blood on his family’s patio and a spent shell casing from a .22 rifle. It’s soon revealed that his parents had gotten him a .22 rifle for Christmas, and while the gift was wrapped and hidden, the kid had apparently found and opened it.
Not long after, another boy from down the street also turns up missing. The first boy returns home unharmed, but when questioned by Friday and Smith, the boy reveals that his friend accidentally shot and killed himself with the rifle, so he hid the body. It was strictly an accident, but the kid is naturally distraught.
Anyway, when the father of the dead boy is informed of what has happened, he’s understandably in shock, crying over and talking to his son’s body (which is laying in his room; was that proper police procedure back then? I mean, wouldn’t they have taken the body to the hospital or morgue or something?), but then angrily storming down the street to the house of the boy whose rifle killed his son. Friday and Smith follow behind, but when the man confronts the kid, he noticeably softens, says he knows it was accident, and then gives all of his son’s presents to the boy!
Look, I know these shows were based at least in part on real cases, but somehow the conclusion of this one rings a little false to me. The father of a dead child forgiving who he considers responsible is certainly feasible, but giving the kid all of his son’s presents mere minutes after being informed of what happened? I call fake. Or maybe these things actually happened, and they condensed them to fit into the single episode here?
Dragnet was pretty far ahead of its time with stories like this, and it’s overall a captivating, and subsequently heartbreaking, installment. And, there’s an important (and still timely) message here; the subject of giving a rifle to a young boy for Christmas is one that will understandably draw some ire nowadays (and back then too, I’d imagine), but it’s specifically stated the kid was going to be shown how to properly use it. That seems to be no excuse for Friday, who somberly states “you don’t give a kid a gun for Christmas” to Smith as they sadly leave the scene.
Like I said earlier in this article, the 1950s version of Dragnet could be very noir-ish, and while you see some of that in “The Big Little Jesus,” it’s far more evident in this episode (probably due to both the subject matter and the fact that the other episode was originally broadcast in color). There are some very evocative angles and lighting to be found in “The Big .22 Rifle for Christmas,” without a doubt. It all adds to what is an important and vital piece of television, if not a very happy one.
Despite the wildly different emotions and plots found between the two, these are both excellent episodes of Dragnet. They run the gamut of hopeful and joyous to dark and heartbreaking. The birth of Christ is obviously the most important aspect of the holiday, and that message is front and center in “The Big Little Jesus.” The theme of forgiveness is found in both, though it’s more overt in “The Big .22 Rifle for Christmas.”
They’re both engrossing and well-written episodes, and anyone who has only knowledge of the 1960s version of Dragnet would do well to look at these (or any number of 1950s installments, honestly) and see just how different, and frankly, better, the earlier TV version could be. (And keep in mind, I did and do love the 1960s Dragnet.)
I probably won’t see you again until after the new year, so let me wish you now a very Merry Christmas. I hope your holiday is truly blessed, filled with happiness and peace and the joy that should go with the season. That is my hope for you all.