Jack Webb: TV Noir

By Charlotte Younger


It's the walk. If you study Jack Webb's walk, especially in the later episodes of "Dragnet," the 1950s police drama he created, and starred in as the no nonsense Sergeant Joe Friday, you see that Webb's body language telegraphs "square" and "control freak." His arms may swing, but Webb holds them stiff as boards; his posture is as rigid as a drill instructor's (a role he played in one film). His legs march to a monotonous beat that only he can hear. His head nods or shakes; his facial expressions are few: a raised eyebrow, the hint of a smile, that frown--but mostly his mouth forms an inscrutable straight line. His famous staccato delivery of lines (mostly interrogatives) only adds to the effect. How is it, then, that Jack Webb and "Dragnet," have earned such a firm place in the pantheon of cool? Why are they included in Gene Sculatti's Catalog of Cool, along with such other cool cats as Jack Kerouac and James Dean?

"Dragnet," Sculatti tell us, was "TV's equivalent of cool jazz, with dialogue like a bass solo." Were Webb alive today (he died in 1982, at 62), he'd be pleased with that description, for nothing was as important to the real man behind Badge 714 as jazz. Webb had a collection of over 6,000 jazz albums. He told the story of the down and out jazz musician who for a time had a room in the same tenement where Webb grew up. (Jack was raised by his mother and maternal grandmother in downtown Los Angeles.) The musician introduced young Webb to jazz and blues, and when the musician was either arrested or evicted (or both), he left his cornet for the budding jazz aficionado.

Webb practiced for hours on that cornet. He never mastered it, but he moved easily and with pleasure in the world of jazz musicians. His first wife was the golden-haired, smokey-voiced singer Julie London, with whom he had two children. After their divorce in 1953, Webb remained friendly with Julie and her second husband, jazz musician Bobby Troup; Jack even gave them parts in "Emergency!", a TV show he produced in the 1970s. Like a lot of jazz musicians in the late 1940s, Webb went through many women (he was married four times) and cigarettes (Chesterfields--many packs a day). You can see him often lighting up in his Sergeant Friday role on "Dragnet." Unlike a lot of early jazz and blues musicians, however, Jack wasn't a vagabond (or outlaw). His politics were strictly right-wing squared, and he was very much a homebody when he wasn't working--which wasn't often because he could fairly be called a workaholic.

Artistically, "Dragnet" was modeled upon the gangster and underworld movies of the 1940s--a genre we now call film noir. The TV show was shot on location in Los Angeles--the pre-freeway city of wide boulevards, rundown rooming houses, lonely people. Webb captured the stark atmosphere with quick camera shots, sparse dialogue, and action that often took place at night. The show portrayed police work as hard, tough, dirty--summed up in Webb's classic prologue: "The city is Los Angeles. I work here. I'm a cop."

Ironically, Webb's genius has been overlooked because of the show's lack of pretension. The acting and stories were so simple and straightforward that their accomplishment was missed. Only in retrospect do we finally recognize that as a director, Webb was an original and an artist. So next time you catch an episode of "Dragnet" on TV, try to remember that, though by the end of the show's run Webb and his world view of hippies and the domino theory of drugs may seem dated, underneath that gray tweed sports jacket and behind Badge 714 there beat the heart of a man who knew more about syncopated cool than any of the "juvies" or the hippies he busted. Jack Webb was cool.

(Charlotte Younger holds a Ph.D. from the University of Virginia in Germanic languages and regularly writes for American Legends.)