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Dragnet, “The Christmas Story” (a.k.a. “The Big Little Jesus”) 

Sometimes a single TV episode can exemplify the spirit of its time and the properties that make television a unique medium. A Very Special Episode presents The A.V. Club’s survey of TV at its most distinctive.

This is Jack Webb. Actor, writer, producer, director. Star of radio and television and—occasionally—the movies. Contrary to the public persona he wore for decades, Webb actually began his career in radio as a comedian, then had his big break playing a caricatured gumshoe on the radio series Pat Novak For Hire. It was while playing the role of a lab tech in the 1948 procedural noir He Walked By Night that Webb met Detective Sergeant Marty Wynn, and became convinced that there was an untapped bounty in the case files of the Los Angeles Police Department. So in 1949 he created Dragnet, a radio show that aimed to depict what it was really like to be a cop. Borrowing the style of big-screen docudramas like The Naked City and Call Northside 777, Dragnet walked audiences through the step-by-step process of crime-solving, including the blind alleys and eccentric characters that police detectives dealt with on the job.

Slowly but surely, Dragnet became a hit, and in 1951 Webb took the show from radio to television, often repeating his radio scripts almost word-for-word in the new medium. In an era where live broadcasts were the norm, Webb insisted that he be allowed to shoot on film, so he could replicate the many scene-changes that the radio Dragnet had required. To keep costs low, he shot quickly, using Teleprompters to help the actors get through pages of dialogue in just a few takes. To accommodate the prompters, Webb shot his actors in close-up as much as possible, using insert shots, montage, and voiceover narration to break up the monotony. Necessity, combined with Webb’s vision for a show about the drudgery of diligence, resulted in a style that was uniquely Webb’s. The original Dragnet TV series ran for eight years, and Webb’s flat, staccato performance as Sgt. Joe Friday became ingrained in the culture, spawning homage and parody.

When Webb brought Dragnet back to TV in 1967, not much had changed about the show, superficially. The episodes were in color, and shorter—to allow for more commercials—and Friday’s partner Frank Smith (Ben Alexander) had been replaced by Bill Gannon (Harry Morgan). But the square “just the facts” style remained, and the cases were still drawn to reflect the reality of law and order in Los Angeles. In the late ’60s, that meant more stories about drugs and troubled youth. And that meant that at a time when the popular culture at large was scrambling to become more youth-friendly, Dragnet came across as reactionary. In the ’50s, Webb had been hailed as a progressive for his open attitude about race and his dislike of guns. In the ’60s, Webb seemed more of a seething conservative.

Did Webb really change, or did the new context alter his meaning? Consider “The Christmas Story.” First aired on December 21, 1967 as part of the revamped TV Dragnet’s second season, “The Christmas Story” is a remake of “The Big Little Jesus,” which first aired on December 24, 1953 as part of the first Dragnet’s third season. The radio Dragnet was still going strong back then, and aired its own “The Big Little Jesus” on December 22 of that year. Almost nothing changed between the three versions of the episode, outside of a line-tweak or two. What differs is what we can read between the lines.

Friday and his partner catch the “Big Little Jesus”/“Christmas Story” case on Christmas Eve. Friday gets the call: a small statue of “the child Jesus” has gone missing from the old Mission Church. Friday and his partner start by questioning Father Rojas about any shady characters who might’ve been hanging around. They ask a local supplier of religious artifacts, Mr. Flavin, if anyone’s tried to sell him a used statue. They get a tip from an altar boy named Joseph Heffernan about a poor parishioner he saw leaving the sanctuary with a bundle under his arm. And they track down that parishioner, Claude Stroup, and subject him to hours of interrogation before they realize that he’s not their guy. The case appears to be a wash-out. Friday and his partner stop back by the church to pass along their regrets to Father Rojas. Just then, a little boy walks in, toting the Jesus statue behind him in a red wagon. He explains that he promised Jesus that if he got a wagon for Christmas, he’d give the Christ child the first ride. All very innocent. Father Rojas explains that the boy got the wagon from the local fire department, which fixes old toys for the underprivileged. “Paquito’s family, they’re poor,” the priest says. To which Sgt. Friday provides the button for the episode. “Are they, father?”

Dragnet’s mystery plots were never the main selling point; and the show wasn’t exactly action-packed, either. As TV scholar Jason Mittell notes in his book Genre And Television: From Cop Shows To Cartoons In American Culture, “For a show centered around crime, there is a distinct lack of actual crime portrayed.” Dragnet’s pleasures largely derived from the flavor and rhythm of its dialogue, and in the strange people that Joe Friday met while following leads. “The Big Little Jesus” was written by Oscar-winning screenwriter Richard L. Breen, and in its original form, the episode is full of terse-but-cool expressions. When Frank asks Joe if he’s made any headway on another big case they’re working, Sgt. Friday says he’s found nothing but a “pound of air.” When the priest apologizes for calling them on Christmas Eve, Friday shrugs, “We cash our checks, father.” The dialogue is an extension of Webb’s vision of what the LAPD is: a band of savvy pros.

Those two lines don’t make it into the 1967 version—victim to the shorter running-times—but otherwise, “The Christmas Story” is slavishly faithful to “The Big Little Jesus,” right down to the cast. Ralph Moody plays Mr. Flavin in both versions; Herb Vigran plays the desk clerk at Claude Stroup’s hotel; and Harry Bartell plays Father Rojas. The actor playing the altar boy—renamed slightly as John Heffernan—differs, naturally. In 1953, it’s Billy Chapin, best-known for his role as the boy in The Night Of The Hunter; in 1967, it’s Barry Williams, of Brady Bunch fame.

Watching the two versions of this episode back-to-back—and listening to the radio version, too—a lot of what seems initially to be filler in “The Big Little Jesus” and “The Christmas Story” takes on more of a classic quality, almost like a repertory theater piece. The Heffernan scene is a case-in-point. Plot-wise, the purpose of the scene is to point Friday toward Claude Stroup, but as Friday himself mentions, the kid could’ve just as easily called the station and told what he knew, which would’ve taken about 10 seconds of screen-time. What’s really being conveyed here is the character of Joe/John Heffernan, and a sense of where his generation comes from. Heffernan’s an altar boy who comes to the cops in person because his father says that “any kid that uses phones is lazy.” It may be that he has a demanding, super-religious pop, or it may be that the tidbit he drops later—that he serves the six o’clock mass so that he can get done quicker and have breakfast sooner—is an indication that he is lazy, and that his father’s just trying to get him to shape up. There’s nothing essential about this scene in terms of advancing the story, but it adds color and texture to the world of this church and its members.

The best scenes in “The Big Little Jesus” and “The Christmas Story” are more frivolous. In the opening of both episodes, Joe banters with his partners about Christmas cards, and about what Joe’s buying for his girlfriend. The way Frank and Bill insist that the best way to handle Christmas business is to get married—“Only system,” they both say, crisply—is funny and real, even when delivered in monotone Dragnet-speak. In Mittell’s Genre And Television, he writes, “Dragnet’s style is not fully ‘anti-realist,’ as Webb’s quirky conventions are not explicitly avant-garde, nor do they represent a radical break from the real world.” But as Mittell points out, the style’s mannered enough to be easily spoofed, right down to the brassy musical cues, which Mittell describes as “like an aural ‘reaction shot,’ providing the emotional impact of Webb’s line without employing the standard visual reaction shot” (which was something Webb couldn’t have done on radio).

See also: the Mr. Flavin scene. Friday gets little of value to the case from this somewhat nutty purveyor of churchy paraphernalia. Instead, he listens to the man talk about his chess-by-mail game, and hears him pitch that half the items he sells are “European,” and he gets an earful about the kind of people who would steal a Jesus statue. (Crazy people. Who can never be found because they’re crazy.) Mr. Flavin also explains that an ordinary person wouldn’t have any use for such an item, because, “Unless you live in a big place, this’ll make your living room all a-kilter.”

There’s an unspoken message in these episodes about the proper place for religion in everyday American life. When Friday first meets Father Rojas, he gently chastises the padre for leaving his doors wide open for any thief, to which Father Rojas explains that the church is particularly open for thieves. Later, there’s some tension because Claude Stroup refuses to answer their questions, delaying everyone’s Christmas Eve plans and putting a fully decorated Christmas Day mass at Mission in jeopardy. At one point, Friday’s captain decides to take him off the case, but backs down when the sergeant says that his boss’ll have to be the one to call Father Rojas and explain that there won’t be a baby Jesus in the church’s manger at Christmas. Webb is most reverent when he describes the church’s nativity scene, taking stock of all its imperfections, as well as its cost ($70). He knows that these are just objects, of little market value, but he won’t deny their totemic power.

It’s the acknowledgement of that power that’s most changed the meaning of these episodes as time has passed. In the 1953 version, the subtle devoutness of Breen’s script seems to fit more naturally with the times. In 1967, it feels more defiant, even though the actual words have changed very little. Is it that there’s more of an acid tinge to Webb’s performance, changing the tone? Or is any difference in meaning between the two versions strictly in the viewer’s mind?

Similarly, what once seemed like a fairly respectful treatment of the Hispanic community—and its appreciation of the sacred—now comes off more condescending. The statue is “important to them,” Father Rojas says of his congregation, adding that they are “simple” people who might not “understand” why Jesus is gone. In 1967, this element of Breen’s script appears to be more underplayed, perhaps in a tacit acknowledgment of the emerging ethnic pride movements around the country. But in 1953, the references to how superstitious “they” are is reminiscent of Jim Reeves’ once-charming/now-cringeworthy Christmas tune “Señor Santa Claus,” in which Reeves sings in the broken English of a Mexican laborer, begging Santa for a peso so he can buy his sweetheart a ring. 

As the first Dragnet TV series was winding down, Webb wrote a book called The Badge, spotlighting real-life cases he claimed were too rough to make it on Dragnet. Actually, the material in The Badge doesn’t vary much from what might’ve been on the show, outside of the occasional gruesome murder and a passing reference to the “homos” of West Hollywood. What’s most striking about the book is how Webb goes all-in vis-à-vis his love affair with the LAPD. He writes prose poems to the heroism and skill of the force, hailing the technical advances in law enforcement, from breathalyzer tests to data-mining. A recent paperback edition of The Badge includes an introduction by modern noir novelist James Ellroy, whose own book L.A. Confidential featured characters loosely based on Webb and Marty Wynn. Ellroy insists that he learned everything he needed to know about his craft and his chosen genre from reading The Badge. But Ellroy, unlike Webb, allows ample room for skepticism toward the men tasked to keep the peace on our city streets.

In Genre And Television, Mittell describes the cumulative effect of Webb’s voiceover narration on Dragnet, saying, “While we experience everything from Friday’s limited perspective, there is never any question that what we are being told is factual or accurate.” Though to quote Talking Heads: “Facts all come with points of view.” Webb included the parts of the story that were flattering to the police, and in the case of “The Christmas Story,” he expressed deference to religion as well as to authority. All the while, he holds fast to the idea that he’s merely relating what’s in the official record. (In other words: He reports; we decide.) The evenness of Webb’s tone normalizes his worldview. Everything has its proper size, accord to Webb. Every totem has its place. Nothing a-kilter.

Note 1: Dragnet has another famous Christmas episode, “The Big .22 Rifle For Christmas,” in which a little boy accidentally shoots and kills a friend with a present he unwrapped early. It’s another episode that aired on both radio and TV, and it raised the ire of the NRA, which didn’t care for Webb’s anti-gun stance. It’s also super-depressing, so I hope you’ll pardon me for picking the more heartwarming Dragnet holiday special.

Note 2: Friends, remember your cigarette dealer will be open right up to Christmas Eve. And he can take care of your last-minute shopping problems with Chesterfields. Chesterfields, in the special Christmas carton, featuring the covered bridge. And now, on behalf of the makers of Chesterfields, Liggett & Myers Tobacco Company, their over 6,000 wholesale distributors, and 1,300,000 retail dealers, and of course all of us on Dragnet, we’d like to wish you a very Merry Christmas.

Next time, on A Very Special Episode… Cheap Seats, “Superstars 1978”