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Posts Tagged ‘1950s America’

Just the Facts, Man: the Complicated Genesis of Television’s Dragnet

Sunday, November 25th, 2012

I have a new piece out in Film International on the genesis of the classic 1950s television series Dragnet.

Here’s the part of what I have to say on the subject: The 1950s version of Dragnet was in many ways an “outlier” in the contemporary televisual landscape; easily burlesqued and imitated, there was still nothing else like it in terms of hard-nosed stylization, grimly procedural story lines, and, for the period, grimy authenticity. Just a look at some of the plot lines demonstrates just how out of sync Dragnet was in a world populated by the likes of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, The Donna Reed Show, Leave It to Beaver, and other enormously popular, family-oriented series of the era. Dragnet, in contrast, concentrated almost entirely on the downside of 1950s American existence; the misfits, psychos, drifters, conmen, and ne’er do wells who collectively comprised the series’ world. Dragnet’s world was the netherworld of American society; and every episode made it clear that only the LAPD was holding back the tide of scum that threatened to engulf Los Angeles, and by extension, the entire nation.

In “The Big Death” (January 17, 1952), an unsuspecting husband hires Joe Friday as a hit man to kill his wife; in “The Big Mother” (January 31, 1952), a newborn infant is abducted from a hospital by an unstable young woman, who is unable to have children herself; in “The Big Speech” (February 28, 1952), Friday delivers a lecture warning on the evils of drug addiction at his former high school, even as he tracks down a teenage hoodlum, who, seeking his next fix, beats up and robs a friendly druggist; in “The Big Blast” (April 10, 1952), which Webb both wrote and directed, a young mother is killed in her bed by a shotgun blast, as her infant son slumbers next to her; in “The Big September Man” (May 8, 1952), an unbalanced sociopath feels divinely inspired to kill “a sinner,” and his former fiancée is his most recent victim; in the justly infamous “.22 Rifle for Christmas” (December 18, 1952, Dragnet’s first “Christmas episode”), co-written by [James] Moser and Webb, a young boy prematurely opens a Christmas gift – a .22 rifle – and accidentally kills one of his friends while playing with the rifle, subsequently hiding the young victim’s body in the brush on Christmas Eve.

In “The Big Lay Out” (April 16, 1953), a high school honor student becomes strung out on heroin; in “The Big Hands” (May 21, 1953), a young woman is found strangled to death in a cheap hotel room; in “The Big Nazi” (November 25, 1958), Friday uncovers a high school neo-Nazi ring; and on and on it goes, a parade of beatings, stabbings, murders, rapes, robberies, and wanton brutality that seems to have no end in sight, an unstoppable tidal wave of human greed, violence, and corruption. Compared to the 1960s version of the series, which kicked off with an unintentionally risible episode on the dangers of LSD – the “Blue Boy” episode, actually titled “The LSD Story,” first broadcast on January 12, 1967 – the 1950s version of Dragnet bristles with menace, energy, and simmering social disruption; no one even thinks of “Mirandizing” suspects, because, of course, no such law existed.

You can read the entire essay by clicking here, or on the image above.

The Unguarded Moment (1956)

Monday, August 6th, 2012

I have a new article on The Unguarded Moment in Noir of the Week.

Here’s the opening paragraphs: “Harry Keller’s The Unguarded Moment is a lost gem from the 1950s, which reveals the real dark side of the American dream, and the nightmare behind the seemingly pleasant facade of Eisenhower America. Esther Williams, usually more at home in aquatic roles, had just been dismissed by MGM, and was looking around for an interesting project to help her establish a new screen identity.

Universal suddenly, and unexpectedly, stepped in and offered her $200,000 to appear in The Unguarded Moment — more than $1.5 million in 2012, adjusted for inflation — which was more than MGM had ever paid her for any of her many films for that studio. The film was described to Esther Williams as a suspense thriller, which it manifestly is, and it was a complete change of pace from the roles she had spent her lifetime playing; essentially the same role over and over again, in a series of Technicolor swimming extravaganzas. Williams was sick of them, and sick of the genre as a whole; she wanted something different. Seeing the role as a challenge, Williams accepted the assignment.

Williams plays Lois Conway, a small town high school music teacher living in well-manicured suburbia — actually the Leave it to Beaver / Desperate Housewives street on Universal’s back lot — whose life is turned into a nightmare when one of her pupils, an unbalanced high school football star, Leonard Bennett (John Saxon, in a very early role) starts sending her love notes, physically attacks her after a football practice underneath the bleachers, breaks into her house and steals her possessions, all without leaving a shred of evidence against him.”

You can read the entire essay by clicking here, or on the image above.

Invaders From Mars (1953)

Friday, September 9th, 2011

Click here, or on the image above, to see the trailer for Invaders From Mars.

Invaders From Mars is a classic of 1950s Red Scare science fiction, depicting a world that is paranoid beyond belief, photographed in garish color, as directed and designed by the renowned William Cameron Menzies, the production designer of many excellent films, including Gone With The Wind (1939) — the first film on which a “production designer” credit was formally listed in the credits.

As Glenn Erickson of DVD Savant notes of the film:

Invaders from Mars was made relatively early in the 50s Sci Fi cycle, when the field was still dominated by “A” quality efforts. A script by John Tucker Battle, optioned by one set of producers, eventually landed with Edward L. Alperson, who made the uncharacteristically brilliant decision to put the entire project into the hands of legendary production designer and sometime film director William Cameron Menzies. Menzies was the genius who practically invented the concept of production design, on big silent movies like The Thief of Baghdad. His unique graphic sense graced the films of Sam Wood (Our Town, For Whom the Bell Tolls, King’s Row). Menzies made Hollywood history with David O. Selznick by single-handedly engineering Gone With the Wind’s visual dimension. Without him, the divergent contributions of a half-dozen directors might have created a shambles.”

You can read the entire essay by clicking here.

As Glenn Erickson continues, “the furious action that concludes Invaders from Mars becomes even more dreamlike with the repetitions of shots and scenes [. . .] Dialogue lines are also repeated, especially young David’s, “Colonel Fielding!, Colonel Fielding!,” which is heard so often it becomes an unending echo. These repetition patterns make the ending more dreamlike in two ways. First, a high level of anxiety is maintained while the actual story progression slows to a crawl. A classic anxiety dream situation is ‘running in place but not getting anywhere,’ exactly the feeling imparted to Invaders. Second, the repetition forces a fixation on the images that keep coming back, a fixation that has the obsessive quality of dream logic. In our dreams, shocking moments seem to hang forever in the consciousness, or illogically ‘come back again, but for the first time,’ over and over.”

Click here, or on the image above, to read the entire screenplay for the original film.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at or

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