Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 64: Ed Wood, Jack Webb, and police procedurals

Two hardworking cops: Harvey B. Dunn and Tony McCoy in Bride of the Monster.

Try to imagine the world as it was before Jack Webb came along. Here's how authors Harry Castleman and Walter J. Podrazik describe that world in their review of Dragnet in the 1989 book Harry And Wally's Favorite TV Shows:
     When Jack Webb first developed the series on radio in 1949, and two years later on TV, Dragnet was a breath of fresh air in the world of pop culture cops. Before Dragnet, crime fighting was usually portrayed on radio and TV in an overly romantic light. Policemen or private eyes would effortlessly deduce the criminal's identity and then outtrick the felon, while engaging in witty repartee and romancing some young lovely at the same time.
      While this image is fine for light entertainment now and then, it paints a wildly distorted image of what real policemen go through. Dragnet changed all that. In Dragnet, thanks to Jack Webb's unwavering dedication to realism, you see the boredom, the red tape, the hard work, the long hours, and the frustration of real police work.
In other words, Webb was essential in shaping the still-vital storytelling form we know today as the police procedural. That's a type of detective fiction in which the audience is shown the steps that police officers go through in solving a crime. It remains a popular subspecies, especially in television, but also in films, novels, short stories, and plays. Dragnet has been accurately called "the most famous procedural of all time." Interesting that Webb's radio show should debut in 1949 with the television adaptation appearing just two years later on NBC. Webb and the character he portrayed, no-nonsense Los Angeles cop Joe Friday, were ascending to prominence just as East Coast transplant Edward D. Wood, Jr. was beginning his three-decade career in film and television in Hollywood.

"Unwavering dedication to realism" is not the phrase that jumps to most people's minds when discussing the work of Ed Wood. Indeed, Eddie's willingness to jump headfirst into absurdity is one of the main selling points of his work today. Dadaists, surrealists, primitivists, satirists, and outsider artists can all claim Ed as one of their own. And yet, consider this: Virtually all of the films with which Ed is most closely associated—especially those from his 1953-1957 golden years—are police procedurals to one extent or another. I'd argue that Jack Webb had as much influence over Eddie's work, if not more so, as Tod Browning or James Whale.

The trend truly starts with Ed Wood's debut feature, 1953's Glen or Glenda, but the seeds were planted even earlier. That same year, Ed wrote and directed Crossroad Avenger: The Adventures of the Tucson Kid, a failed pilot for a proposed Western series starring Tom Keene, who unfortunately proved a dullard in the title role. Keene's straight-shooting character is not actually a cop; he's an insurance investigator. But the basics of his job are not dissimilar to police work. He looks into insurance claims that seem fishy, just the way a cop would investigate a case. He talks to suspects and witnesses and, when necessary, exchanges gunfire with the bad guys. Crossroad Avenger might be described as an Old West equivalent of the radio show Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar, which also centered around an insurance investigator. Dollar hit the airwaves just months before Dragnet.

Just a man with a job to do: Lyle Talbot in Glen or Glenda.

But then we come to Glen or Glenda, ostensibly Ed Wood's statement on his own transvestism as well as the then-shocking sexual reassignment surgery of Christine Jorgensen. There is no real reason for this movie to be a police procedural, and yet it is one. The movie's framing story centers around the eminently Webb-ian character of Inspector Warren (Lyle Talbot, who would eventually appear in an episode of Dragnet 1967), a veteran of the police force who investigates the suicide of a transvestite. His inquiries lead him to the office of Dr. Alton (Timothy Farrell). The movie-length conversation between Alton and Warren comprises the spine of the film. At one point, the doctor mentions his guest's reputation as "a hard-hearted policeman." The inspector replies with a monologue that, in its clumsy but earnest way, attempts to explain the plight of all professional lawmen:
Isn't that what's thought of most policemen? The laws are written. The policeman is hired to see that those laws are enforced. We have a job to do. As in most jobs, there is always someone who doesn't want that job to be done. In most factories today, the employer has put up suggestion boxes. Even the employer needs advice once in a while. I think in the case we're referring to, I need advice. Maybe it shouldn't have happened as it did. Perhaps the next time we can prevent it.
If this weren't a story about a cross-dresser, that monologue could have come directly from Joe Friday himself. Compare it to Friday's infamous "John Law" monologue from Dragnet. An excerpt of that speech follows:
It's awkward having a policeman around the house. Friends drop in. A man with a badge answers the door. The temperature drops 20 degrees. You throw a party, and that badge gets in the way. All of a sudden there isn't a straight man in the crowd. Everybody's a comedian. "Don't drink too much," somebody says, "or the man with a badge'll run you in." Or "How's it going, Dick Tracy? How many jaywalkers did you pinch today?" And then there's always the one who wants to know how many apples you stole. All at once you lost your first name. You're a cop, a flatfoot, a bull, a dick, John Law. You're the fuzz, the heat; you're poison, you're trouble, you're bad news. They call you everything, but never a policeman.
You might think that a nonconformist like Wood, who surrounded himself with outcasts and deviates, would be incompatible with the notoriously straight-arrow, right-leaning Webb. But Eddie was a conservative man in matters of politics. He didn't approve of illicit drugs, rock music, hippies, or protesters. As Eddie got further and further into writing paperback novels in the late 1960s, one of his pet themes was how Los Angeles was being overrun by long-haired, androgynous degenerates. That was largely what Dragnet was about during those same turbulent years. Eddie and Jack might have agreed on a lot, had they ever met.

Moore and Duncan: They're cops!

But let's get back to the 1950s, when Ed Wood was making the movies on which his professional reputation would one day depend. In the Wood films from that period, there is one motif that comes up over and over and over again, even more than angora sweaters or the resurrection of the dead. Watch Jail Bait or Bride of the Monster or Plan 9 From Outer Space or Night of the Ghouls, and you know what you'll see? Hard-working, stressed-out police officers tasked with solving seemingly impossible cases. 

How appropriate that Ed's career as a mainstream (or mainstream-ish) director ended with 1960's The Sinister Urge, maybe the single most Dragnet-esque movie in Wood's entire filmography. Here, Kenne Duncan and Duke Moore are police officers dedicated to stamping out the menace of pornography, even if that means spending hours sorting through the smut themselves. Tough break, guys. Wood must have been fond of these characters, as he planned to bring them back for a never-to-be sequel called The Peeper.

Most of Wood's cop characters are plainclothesmen, just like Joe Friday. Their hours are long. Their pay is short. And the job wreaks havoc on their private lives. Poor Duke Moore spends Night of the Ghouls in a tuxedo, having been called away from attending the opera with his wife. Even when detectives Lyle Talbot and Steve Reeves stop off for a drink after work in Jail Bait, their professional duties don't end. They immediately run into a pair of known criminals and have a tense conversation with them. A policeman's job is never done. No wonder Reeves barely has time to half-heartedly flirt with Dolores Fuller's character.

The cops who populate Ed Wood's movies are in the Jack Webb/Dragnet mold in that their work brings them no apparent joy whatsoever. Their jobs are anything but effortless, and they don't engage in any "witty repartee" either. Even if Ed could have written such dialogue, his characters wouldn't have been in the mood to recite it. Their lives do not seem fun. In Plan 9, two uniformed patrolmen played by Conrad Brooks and Paul Marco are dispatched to the local cemetery to investigate the strange goings-on there. "What are we doing out here?" Brooks whines. "I was off duty an hour ago." Marco is not sympathetic: "Aw, don't ask me any questions. I'm just a hired hand, just like you."

That outright hostility is not typical of Wood's cop characters, but the general air of world weariness is. Marco sees himself and the other police officers in the film as "hired hands," men who have a job to do. It may not be a glamorous job or even a safe one, but it has to be done by somebody. That's something both Jack Webb and Ed Wood inherently understood.

P.S. I would be remiss if I didn't mention Joe Friday's deathless catchphrase, "Just the facts, ma'am." Jack Webb never actually uttered those four words on Dragnet, but the line became associated with the character anyway because of numerous parodies and impersonations. And, as every Ed Wood fan knows, one of the hallmarks of Wood's writing is that his characters insist on being told "the facts." Whether this is a symptom of Webb's influence on Wood is unknown, but it does lend credence to the theory anyway.