Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Green, green grass of home

Despite the resolution made in May 2008 to continue on with the season box sets of Adam-12 (though Universal had to farm out the series to Shout! Factory in order to do so)—and the recent decision to continue with Quincy, M.E. sets, I’ve come to a conclusion that may be even more difficult to accept than TDOY commenters insisting Curly is funnier than Shemp.

I’ve accepted the fact (just the facts, ma’am) that any further releases from Dragnet (1967-70) simply will not be forthcoming. If I’m wrong about this—I’ll only be too happy to be so…and truth be told, I had a brief flirtation with optimism when they put Adam-12 back in circulation. But despite Jack Webb and Harry Morgan’s presence on the Retro Television Network (I’m convinced RTN is the one of the reasons why interest in Adam-12 and Quincy returned), it looks like I’m going to just have to tape these bad boys off RTN and be done with it.

I decided this at the beginning of the week, though I sort of wish I had done it last week because they showed one of my favorite Dragnet installments, “Homicide – DR-22” (01/09/69). A girl is murdered in an apartment house, and while Friday and Gannon are investigating they encounter an inquisitive codger (Burt Mustin) named Calvin Lampe, who begins to make a bit of a pest of himself by insisting on “helping” with the investigation. Gannon dismisses the old fart as a “crime buff” and the contempt that Friday has for the guy is barely concealed—Webb’s character had developed by that time into an impatient, officious sort who had little patience for people who didn’t think like cops. Halfway through the episode, they have cause to take Barnaby Jones down to the station and their captain (Art Ballinger) recognizes Lampe as a retired Chicago police chief…and from that point on, it’s “let the ass-kissing begin!” You’re literally embarrassed for Friday—a minute ago, this joker was a spur under his saddle, but now that he has some street cred it’s “Yes, Chief” and “No, Chief” and “Shall I polish your shoes with the tip of my nose, Chief?” Pathetic…but undeniably funny.

I’ve stated on numerous occasions how much of a Dragnet fan I am on this blog, even though when the series returned in January 1967 for its “revival” it developed a camp quality that sort of tarnishes how exciting and groundbreaking it was when it premiered on radio and later early television. No place was this more evident than in the number of episodes based on the topic of narcotics—Webb’s philosophy that marijuana was a “gateway drug” that led to the harder stuff (well, he was a jazz fan—perhaps he knew something I didn’t) would permeate these installments, and Saturday night I got a glimpse of this when they excerpted a clip from the series in the 1999 documentary Grass—an interesting if irreverent look at the history of marijuana in the U.S. and how our government has been throwing money down a rat hole for too many years now fighting “the war on drugs.” Friday and Gannon are at some community meeting, answering questions from the crowd, when one individual who has clearly never been exposed to the ferocity of one of Webb’s mile-a-minute drug lectures has the temerity to suggest that pot isn’t really all that different from alcohol. Friday, with that ever-present stick up his rear, chides this poor soul with statistics about how the kind of devastation and destruction booze can wreak—dismissing the man’s point with a “Begone! You have no power here!” insouciance. (Unfortunately, our man Joe never addresses the issue that alcohol is legal and firing up a blunt is not—and that attempts to put the smack down on booze were tried many, many years back with precious little success.)

One of the reasons I can’t run for public office is that I experimented with the killer weed back in my younger days (I like how my friend Doghouse Riley puts it: “I smoked my share of reefer in high school, and a couple of other kid's shares as well”) and apart from my wanting a forty pound bag of Oreos and some onion dip it didn’t leave any scarring or permanent damage…so I was pretty entertained by Grass. It features a number of amusing film and television clips (Cab Calloway’s rendition of “Reefer Man” from International House [1933]; a silent western entitled Notch Number One [1924] that I’m going to have to seek out sooner or later; Up in Smoke (1978; “I think we’re parked, man”) and of course the old stand-by, Reefer Madness [1936]), a groovy soundtrack (John Prine’s Illegal Smile, Sly and the Family Stone’s I Want to Take You Higher) and narration (provided for free) by Woody Harrelson…and if that isn’t a ringing endorsement I don’t know what is. Plus, during the closing credits, one of the funniest lines I’ve seen in a motion picture in quite some time: “No hippies were harmed in the making of this movie.” (I caught this gem on Sundance Channel on Demand, by the way.)


Scott C. said...

I love that Burt Mustin episode. He keeps making casual deductions at the crime scene, the droning flatfoots keep blowing him off, and each time he's proved right until -- as you point out -- Friday finally French kisses his ass so passionately you half expect him to close the show with the usual opening narration: "This is the colon. I'm about three feet up it right now..."

I've only heard one or two radio DRAGNETS, and never seen the 50s TV incarnation, so for me, the show has always been strictly for laughs. Put Friday and Gannon in a room with a hippie, and baby, you've got comedy gold!

Kliph Nesteroff said...

Ron Mann has two far superior documentaries worth seeking out made several years prior to Grass. Twist (1992), a lively documentary on the history of that dance craze, and his best and most well known film, the fantastic Comic Book Confidential full of all that great Bill Gaines interview footage and a lot more.