Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Radio Greats: The Big Little Jesus (Dragnet)

Dragnet, starring Jack Webb, was an extraordinarily successful radio program that went on to be an extraordinarily successful television program. Webb had been successful in radio for years when he came up with the idea for the show: a depiction of a police detective, as authentic as possible, showing them as working-class heroes. Realism with respect turned out to be a powerful formula for a police drama, and because of it Dragnet has set the standard all police dramas have been trying to achieve ever since. One of the most inspired decisions was to make the hero of the show Everyman -- Sergeant Joe Friday is every policeman who does his job, which is why in one episode he's in Vice and in another he might be in Homicide and in another he might be in Robbery or in Auto Theft. The entire style of the show was to underplay everything, so it can be easy to miss, but an immense amount of work went into getting even tiny matters right. An example of this is the sound effects, which are done brilliantly and in unusual quantities for a radio show of its day; the show had a team of sound effects experts, and they were expected to get their sound effects exactly right, so that if Friday walked from one room into another in police headquarters, the number of footsteps that could be heard had to be the number it would take really to walk from one room into another in police headquarters. The sound effects almost never put themselves forward -- but as a constant background they contribute immensely to the realism of the show. The entire show was like that.

The program ran on radio from 1949 to 1957, becoming a major fixture in American culture. (It is the single reason most Americans learned what an A.P.B. is, for instance.) During that time, it dealt with difficult, edgy issues like drug trafficking, prostitution, rape, and murder. But one of the strengths of Dragnet is that it wasn't about edginess: it was about honest work-a-day policemen doing their job in ways that made us all better off. And so they handled smaller issues, too, and the cases where the world turns out to be a little better than you might have thought.

Such a case is "The Big Little Jesus", from December 22, 1953, one of the most famous Dragnet radio episodes, on which was based one of the most popular of the Dragnet television episodes. Sgt. Friday and his partner, Frank Smith, are working Day Watch out of Burglary Division when they get called to the Old Mission Church, which serves the small and poor Mexican community of Los Angeles. When there they learn that the Jesus statue has been stolen from the church's Nativity scene. It's not worth much dollar-wise, but the church has had it for thirty-one years. Friday and Smith promise Fr. Rojas to do their best to find it in time for the first mass for Christmas, which leaves very little time to discover it....

You can listen to the episode at the Internet Archive here (where it's episode 221), or here (where it's episode 209). You can also read the transcript for the episode at the Generic Workshop Radio Script Library.

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