Dragnet —later syndicated as Badge 714 — is an American television series, based on the radio series of the same name, both created by their star, Jack Webb. Both shows take their name from the police term dragnet, which means a system of coordinated measures for apprehending criminals or suspects. Webb reprised his radio role of Los Angeles police detective Sergeant Joe Friday. Ben Alexander co-starred as Friday's partner, Officer Frank Smith.
The ominous, four-note introduction to the brass and tympani theme music (titled "Danger Ahead"), composed by Walter Schumann, is instantly recognizable. It is derived from Miklós Rózsa's score for the 1946 film version of The Killers.
During its early success on radio, Dragnet was popular enough to move to television. More important was that it brought continuity between the television and radio series, using the same script devices and many of the same actors.
Just before the show took its final commercial break, the show's announcer would inform the audience of something related to the case, usually the opening date on which the perpetrator's trial would take place in the Los Angeles County Superior Court (this would be accompanied by an onscreen card so the viewer could read along). After the break the camera faded in for what was presumably the perpetrator's mug shot, consisting of him/her standing uncomfortably against the wall, while the results of the trial were announced. The perpetrator's name and fate were then superimposed over the screen, specifically regarding in what prison he/she was incarcerated, or, in the case of perpetrators deemed unfit to stand trial, to what state facility he/she was committed.
The 1950s Dragnet episodes in black-and-white differ significantly from the 1960s Dragnet episodes in color. The earlier series took a documentary approach, with Sgt. Friday and the police force often encountering the seamy side of Los Angeles, with a steady succession of callous fugitives, desperate gunmen, slippery swindlers, and hardbitten women. Most of the cast members were veteran radio actors who could be relied upon to read the matter-of-fact dialogue naturally. Webb used most of his ensemble players again and again in different roles: Jack Kruschen, Vic Perrin, Harry Bartell, Peggy Webber, Barney Phillips, Herb Ellis, Carolyn Jones (then billed as Caroline Jones), Clarence Cassell, Ralph Moody, Natalie Masters, Herb Vigran, and many others. Webb staged each story with newsreel-like authenticity, enhancing the visual action with extremely tight close-ups (unheard of in the days of tiny television screens), location photography, and unusual camera angles. Much of this inventiveness went unused in the 1960s revival. Although still using convincing dialogue readings, the new Dragnet lost the documentary "look" and seemed more staged and studied, like other dramatic shows of its type.
Webb was comfortable playing Joe Friday on radio but balked at the prospect of playing the role before the cameras; according to author-biographer Michael J. Hayde, Webb's choice for the TV Joe Friday was Hollywood actor Lloyd Nolan, whose casual underplaying Webb admired. But Webb was too well established in the radio Dragnet and the network insisted that he continue in the leading role.
The template for the TV show was simply the proven radio formula, embellished with visuals. The two familiar leads, Jack Webb and Barton Yarborough, settled in for the first season, disrupted when Yarborough suffered a heart attack and died. Webb wrote his partner's demise into the storyline, and Sgt. Friday rode with various partners until settling on Ben Alexander as detective Frank Smith. Most of the episodes available to viewers today feature Webb and Alexander.
Most, if not all, episodes of this series are in the public domain, and fifty-two episodes were released by many DVD labels.These collections feature a variety of the same fifty-two episodes. These include "The Human Bomb," "The Big Actor," "The Big Mother," "The Big Cast," "The Big September Man," " The Big Phone Call," "The Big Casing," "The Big Lamp," "The Big Seventeen," "A .22 Caliber Rifle For Christmas," "The Big Grandma," "The Big Show," "The Big Break," "The Big Frank," " The Big Hands," "The Big Barrette," "The Big Dance," "The Big Betty," "The Big Will," "The Big Thief," "The Big Little Jesus," "The Big Trunk," "The Big Boys," "The Big Children," " The Big Winchester," "The Big Shoplift," "The Big Hit & Run Killer," "The Big Girl," "The Big Frame," "The Big False Make," "The Big Producer," "The Big Fraud," "The Big Crime," "The Big Crime," "The Big Pair," "The Big Missing," "The Big Bar," "The Big Present," "The Big New Year," "The Big Rod," "The Big Lift," "The Big Gap," "The Big Look," "The Big Glasses," "The Big Bird," "The Big Smoke," "The Big Bounce," "The Big Deal," "The Big Hat," "The Big Net," "The Big War," "The Big Oskar," and "The Big Counterfeit." Often some are mislabeled as there are no onscreen titles.
Seven collections (Volume 1-7), released from Alpha Video, feature four episodes each.
Eclectic DVD released a collection of three episodes.
Platinum Video released seven episodes from the original series in 2002. The episodes are: "Big Crime," "Big Pair," "Big Producer," "Big Break," "Big September Man," "Big Betty," and "Big Trunk." The two disc set includes episodes from Burke's Law; Peter Gunn; Richard Diamond, Private Detective; Mr. Wong, Detective; and Bulldog Drummond.
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