A lot of us grew up watching the 1967-1970 revival of Dragnet, either first-run or in syndication. It’s known informally as “the color Dragnet,” to differentiate it from the black-and-white original, which aired from 1951 to 1959. Both incarnations were NBC shows. (Radio buffs will scowl and remind you that the true original Dragnet was the radio series, and they’re right, but let’s stick to TV.)
“The color Dragnet” is a pretty good show overall. Episodes from the first one-and-a-half seasons are often terrific. The third season falls into a rut of showcasing tedious police administrative procedurals, but the show recovers somewhat afterward. And of course, even if a particular episode isn’t anything special, you still get to enjoy Jack Webb’s performance as Sgt. Joe Friday, with that voice of his and the way he delivers his lines.
So yes, it’s a pretty good show, but what’s really good is the black-and-white original Dragnet. It’s got a very film-noir feel to it, full of dark nights, heavy shadows, staccato dialogue, fedoras, overcoats, dangerous losers and cynical dames. The Sgt. Friday of these years is lean, terse and somewhat haunted. He can relax a little bit while bantering with sidekick Frank Smith (Ben Alexander), but soon it’s right back to the exhausting grunt work of a police detective: following up on leads, dealing with dullard civilians and surly punks, and piecing together a case, one clue at a time. And the cases are often very grim. There are rapists and violent psychotics on Dragnet, even child molesters. Many episodes in the early years recycled the superb radio scripts of James Moser, which lost none of their impact in the transition. There’s stark, dramatic lighting and unusual overhead camera shots. It’s very compelling television.
Dragnet was one of the few hit radio dramas to become even bigger on TV, placing in the Top Ten throughout most of its first six seasons (not surprisingly, it was especially popular in its home base of Los Angeles). A Warner Bros. movie version was also a hit, arriving pretty much right at the peak of Dragnetmania in late 1954.
Things began unraveling three years later. Maybe audiences felt the show was getting a bit stale. Certainly, Webb himself was getting a little winded by this time. Besides starring in every episode, he was producing and directing them as well, while developing other film and TV projects on the side. In spite of a very strong lead-in (Groucho Marx’s You Bet Your Life, the most popular Thursday show of that 1957-58 season), Dragnet’s ratings began falling steadily. It was beaten in its timeslot by ABC’s The Real McCoys, prompting a move to Tuesdays the following season. But even more viewers were lost, and Webb turned in his badge. Dragnet was over, at least in prime time, but the show was already a staple of the syndication market, and would remain so well into the 1960s, under the title Badge 714. Oversaturation is as good an explanation for the show’s demise as any, but it should be noted that by the time these later seasons were produced, the well of old James Moser radio scripts had run dry.
Given Dragnet’s popularity and prestige, why hasn’t it been given an official DVD release? Unlike the fabled anthology shows of the era that were aired live, Dragnet was shot on 35mm film. So why doesn’t someone just transfer it to video?
Dozens of Dragnet episodes never had their copyrights renewed, and some people believe that’s why no one’s produced an official DVD release— after all, why spend a lot of money restoring public domain shows for DVD when anyone could legally copy your work and sell it themselves? But official releases of the early seasons of One Step Beyond and The Beverly Hillbillies have come out— material that’s largely public domain— so why can’t that be done with Dragnet?
Michael J. Hayde, in his book My Name is Friday (2001), says that “the negatives have been placed in storage,” but if so, nobody seems to be able to find them. I’ve heard that one of the more prominent video labels has tried to do a comprehensive release of the show, but that the project blew up on the launch pad when very little quality material could be obtained.
The bitter truth is that most of Dragnet is missing. Like Lon Chaney’s London After Midnight, it’s simply lost, possibly forever. Many of you will scoff at that notion, since people like to think that every movie and show ever produced is resting patiently on a shelf somewhere. That’s just not the case.
In 1953, Jack Webb and two partners sold the Dragnet franchise to MCA, the company whose Revue subsidiary was a prodigious producer of prime-time TV material. Revue’s stuff was filmed at Universal’s movie studio, and in the course of time MCA gobbled up Universal as well. Today the amalgamation is known as NBCUniversal.
For years, there’s been some confusion about what this means for Dragnet. Universal has a very spotty record when it comes to preserving the camera negatives of its vintage TV material. Timeless has released many of these shows on DVD— everything from M Squad to State Trooper to Medic— which had to be mastered from 16mm collector prints rather than the far-superior original elements, because no one at Universal can seem to find them. In case after case, Universal has retained the rights, but not the negatives. (In this case, Universal also forgot to renew the copyrights on dozens of episodes.)
There are a number of explanations for why this is so. Simple incompetence is one. The sheer size of the company’s holdings is another. And accidents do happen. Vault fires have destroyed more material than incompetence ever did, and Universal had a devastating one as recently as 2008, though the 35mm elements for Dragnet seem to have gone missing well before then.
The suggestion has been offered that Jack Webb’s estate must be sitting on them. But Webb and his Mark VII Productions sold the early Dragnet material to MCA, as noted. The later seasons were produced as a work for hire, and neither Webb nor Mark VII ever had those originals.
Is there a chance that the Webb estate has copies? Dupe negatives, maybe?
Webb did indeed maintain a film vault, and he did hold original camera elements for other shows he produced. Unfortunately, he disposed of the contents of that vault, for tax and insurance reasons, around 1976. The late film historian Robert Birchard was just out of college at the time, and had the unhappy assignment of overseeing that destruction. Lost were the original 35mm elements for the Mark VII shows Noah’s Ark (1956-57) and Pete Kelly’s Blues (1959), along with a set of 16mm Dragnet episodes, among other things. All of those prints are now long gone.
How about other 16mm prints? This is a real puzzler for me. Considering how successfully Badge 714 played in syndication, the collectors’ market ought to be swimming in those prints. But it isn’t. In thirty years of collecting 16mm, I can’t remember ever seeing a single episode advertised in The Big Reel or Film Collectors World. Why are they so rare? I have no idea, but about the time the 1967 “color Dragnet” appeared, Badge 714 was pulled from syndication to prevent oversaturation. This likely prevented a lot of prints from slipping into collectors’ hands in the first place.
They’re not completely gone, of course. A few dozen episodes are available on YouTube and the DVD collectors’ market, transferred from stray 16mm prints. (Wikipedia says there are 52 episodes in circulation, but I’ve got 64 myself and I’m sure there are at least a few more out there.) That’s a fair sample, but considering there were 267 episodes produced, the survival ratio is pretty miserable for such an iconic series.
In terms of image quality, some of these 64 look very good, but a great many circulate only as copies-of-copies-of-copies, so if you’re shopping around, lower your expectations accordingly. One edition I like is a five-disc, 25-episode set released in 2004 by Madacy, easy to find on Amazon and eBay. For diehard collectors, a much larger set is available from Randy Narramore (randyn (((at))) earthlink (((dot))) net). I’ve bought this set and others from Randy in the past. He’s reputable and his prices are very fair, but unavoidably the image quality in the Dragnet set varies from beautiful to blecch.
A show as popular, compelling and influential as Dragnet deserves better, but unfortunately this is as good as it’ll ever get. I hope to be proven wrong.