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Posts Tagged ‘Jack Webb’

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster on Fifties Hysteria and Doomsday Preppers

Saturday, February 2nd, 2013

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster has a new essay on Doomsday Preppers in the journal Film International.

As she writes, “on leaving office, President Dwight D. Eisenhower gave a very famous and oft-quoted speech condemning the rise of the military-industrial complex. Eisenhower specified that Americans ‘must avoid the impulse to live only for today, plundering, for our own ease and convenience, the precious resources of tomorrow.’ Though he no doubt was referring to the escalation of government funding for armaments, the military, and weapons of mass destruction, he would be appalled by the manner in which individual Americans have begun selfishly destroying the environment as they individually prepare for war.

A brief history of Atom Age hysteria films of the Cold War makes evident the through-line to prepping as a form of overcompensation around the fear of emasculation of the nation, from films such as Alfred E. Green’s Invasion, U.S.A. (1952) to more recent television programs such as Doomsday Preppers. Invasion U.S.A. is a prime example of a fascinating, almost forgotten genre of post-war red scare films that traded on American fear and hysteria in the Cold War era. It typifies the post-war captivity narratives in which Americans are subject to wholesale Communist takeovers in what amounts to a repetitive psychologically driven compulsive mass hysteria.

While trading upon the crisis of masculinity, the film poster for Invasion U.S.A. promised the exploitational kicks Americans love to devour in their filmed nightmares: ‘See vast U.S. cities vanish before your very eyes.’ Indeed, in a morally objectionable use of stock footage, audiences of the film were barraged with actual documentary war images from World War II; actual air raids, on camera deaths of American soldiers and images of endless destruction and mayhem were disturbingly exploited as stand-ins to portray a massive Communist military invasion of the United States. Invasion U.S.A. is an outright plea for massive spending and expansion of the American military. Repeatedly, the United States is dishonestly depicted as militarily emasculated, ill equipped, and poorly prepared.

Like Red Nightmare (George Waggner, 1962), Invasion U.S.A. is revealed to be a hypnotic dream, or a nightmare that is incurred by the brandy-swirling Dan O’Herlihy, who hypnotizes a bar full of patrons into believing that America has been taken over by an unnamed Communist nation. Red Nightmare and Invasion, U.S.A. were designed to both exploit hysteria and add even more irrational fear to an already frightened nation experiencing a crisis of masculinity.

‘It will scare the pants off you,’ wrote Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper for the poster of Invasion, U.S.A. Jack Webb, an ultra rightwing bully, and star of the radio and television series Dragnet, really scares the pants off the audience as the narrator of Red Nightmare. This ‘educational’ film features Jack Webb presenting a vision of an alternative America, a dream scenario proudly sponsored by the United States Department of Defense, in which average American Jerry Donavan (Jack Kelly), who is not much interested in civil defense, much less Army Reserve Conferences, gets his just comeuppance in the form of a nightmare sent by macho Jack Webb.

‘Let’s give him a real red nightmare,’ threatens Webb, and indeed Jerry’s character awakens to a frightening captivity narrative – once again, the United States has been taken over by Communist forces. Jerry’s daughter Linda (Patricia Woodell), formerly sweet, feminine, and docile, announces she is going off to work on a collective. The nuclear family falls apart completely; Jerry’s wife and friends turn against him when Jerry is arrested for treason and he has no one to turn to.”

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

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.

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 numerous books and more than 70 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. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu.

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