Sunday, August 18, 2013

Pioneers of Television/Crime Dramas (PBS, 2011)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Afterwards Charles and I watched one of the PBS shows that had accumulated in my backlog, an episode of the Pioneers of Television series dealing with crime dramas and hitting the expected high points of early TV’s crime shows: Dragnet, The Untouchables, Mission: Impossible and I Spy along with such later 1970’s phenomena as Police Woman and Columbo. The show touched on how TV’s policiers managed to break down racial (I Spy) and gender (Police Woman) barriers basically by not making a big deal about them: Robert Culp recalled how he had to fight to keep Bill Cosby as his co-star on I Spy (though it’s not clear whether the “suits” at NBC objected to Cosby because he was Black or they were afraid that, as someone whose previous career had been entirely as a stand-up comedian, he couldn’t act — or maybe a little of both), to the point where he told the network, “If you replace him, you’ll have to replace me too.” Perhaps the most interesting segment was about Dragnet because it went into some depth about just how Jack Webb — who was not only the star of Dragnet but also its producer, frequently its director and clearly its auteur — got the effects, including the famous clipped monotone with which not only he but also virtually everyone on the cast delivered their lines and the emphasis on close-ups.

It seems that Webb had once watched an old Western movie on TV and realized that, especially given the poor reception and small screen size of 1950’s TV sets, vast, panoramic vistas that looked impressive on a movie screen just looked flat and dull on TV. (I have a joke I’ve repeated fairly often on what it would be like to watch Lawrence of Arabia in a letterboxed print on a normal-sized TV: “You see that big expanse of desert? You see those two little dots in the middle of all that desert? Well, that little dot is Peter O’Toole, and that other little dot right next to it is Anthony Quinn.”) So Webb decided to shoot Dragnet almost exclusively in close-ups, and while the tennis-match back-and-forth cutting between Webb as Joe Friday and whoever it was he was interrogating did get a little old and stale after a while, it did allow his actors to show emotion with their faces that they couldn’t show with their voices due to the clipped, even, flat line deliveries he insisted on. Dragnet was also the first fiction show to use a teleprompter; instead of having the actors memorize their dialogue as usual, Webb wanted them to read it off the teleprompter. This both cut down production time — an episode that would have taken five days to shoot with the actors speaking memorized dialogue only took a day and a half with the actors reading their lines off the prompter (a throwback to Dragnet’s early days as a radio show — radio shows were always performed as readings; on the rare occasions radio producers tried to have their actors speak memorized dialogue, the little slips and hesitations between and during lines audiences wouldn’t be bothered by if they were watching the performance live or on film proved intolerable to people who were just listening) — and helped Webb get the flat, emotionless delivery he was after. One of the most fascinating interviewees on this program was a woman who took a job as a guest star on Dragnet, came to the set line-perfect for the whole part, and got chewed out by Jack Webb and told to use the prompter. So she had to struggle and keep turning her head between the camera and the prompter — until Webb said, “We can’t use this. It looks like you’re reading it.” “I am reading it,” she said, whereupon Webb, for the first and apparently last time in the history of Dragnet, let her perform her role from memory.

As the show progressed it started getting into more recent shows that I had seen when they first aired, including Columbo (which I found utterly delightful for the same reason everyone else did: Peter Falk’s amazing, amusing, often irritating characters — sometimes you actually started feeling sorry for the bad guys as he continually badgered them until they confessed) and Mannix (which I liked because it aired just as I was getting interested in Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, and in the 1970’s the Mannix character was as close as you could get to seeing anyone like Philip Marlowe on TV), along with Hawai’i Five-0 (an O.K. show whose principal attraction was the sheer energy level of Jack Lord’s performance, though this documentary gave it points not only for shooting on the Hawai’ian Islands but showing Hawai’i’s actual racial mix of populations, including Polynesians, Japanese and Chinese — though the “novelty” of an Asian detective in Hawai’i was nothing new to fans of Charlie Chan, whom Earl Derr Biggers based on a real Chinese-born detective on the Honolulu Police Department’s homicide squad). I don’t remember ever seeing Police Woman when it was new, though Angie Dickinson’s bad-ass female detective is the obvious ancestress of every lady cop on TV since, especially in her audacious straddling of the line between butch and femme. It was interesting that Dickinson’s then-husband Burt Bacharach refused to write the theme song for the show because he thought it was silly, and that the one script she refused was one that would have required her to drive an 18-wheel truck — she said that though she might be able to hold her own in fight scenes with bigger but less well-trained men, she didn’t have the musculature to handle a big rig. The show alluded to Dickinson’s experience making Rio Bravo with director Howard Hawks, who was famous for making his women “one of the boys,” which probably prepped her for this series.

It also made the distinction between Dragnet and The Untouchables, particularly in the amount of violence — Dragnet was understated and kept most of the violence off-screen (Webb was concerned less with the depiction of actual crime than with its aftermath, and in particular with the details of the police investigations of crimes) while The Untouchables seems over-the-top even now in its open brutality, though at least producer Desi Arnaz and his directors cut away from the actual bloodletting. (The narrator also made a pretty funny mistake when he identified the real Elliot Ness as an FBI agent; he was actually a U.S. Treasury agent.) Indeed, one of the oddest things about this show was it revealed how crucial Lucille Ball’s role was in creating a lot of the crime shows that defined the genre in the 1960’s even though her own fame was as a comedienne; it seems that Lucy was so popular even after she and Arnaz split in 1960 (and she retained control of Desilu Studios until she sold it, and its franchises, to Paramount in the late 1960’s) that she could get just about any series she sponsored on the air on her network, CBS. It was the post-Desi, pre-Paramount Desilu that originated Mission: Impossible, Hawai’i Five-0 and Mannix — and when Martin Landau and his then-wife Barbara Bain left Mission: Impossible over a salary dispute they were replaced by Leonard Nimoy, just coming off his three-year run as Spock in the original Star Trekanother show Lucille Ball green-lighted for production at Desilu (something even Charles hadn’t realized). I remember getting into an argument once with someone who said he didn’t like Lucille Ball because he preferred watching more serious TV, like Star Trek — and my voice rose to its “indignant” level as I said, “If it hadn’t been for Lucille Ball there wouldn’t have been a Star Trek!” It’s a testimony to Lucy’s skill as a talent-spotter and show-picker that her successes ran so far outside her own genre.