Thoughts of Julie London the other day naturally stirred the ghost of her first husband, the deeply misanthropic maverick television auteur, Jack Webb. In fact, his ghost practically kicked me in the ass this morning and told me the pussycats could wait another day–as he still hasn’t gotten his due, twenty-five years after his death. Alas, he’s correct. Most people know him either from the many “Dragnet” parodies (including the atrocious Dan Ackroyd “comedy” remake) or from Webb’s own worst endeavor, the bland and stupid “Adam-12”, which he produced but didn’t act in–and which bares little resemblance to the Webb-i-tude of the fifties and early sixties.
And what was that Webb-i-tude, exactly? Well, in my opinion, Jack Webb was the man James Ellroy dearly wishes to be and whose personality he adopts in his non-fiction writing. The crew-cut, tough-ass be-bopper who loves jazz, hates hippies, is one with Los Angeles cops, and takes no b.s. from anyone–unless it’s a blonde and he might get laid . The mix of hard-core right wing values (very LA in the fifties–the Chief Parker years, remember) and smoked-out nights staring into drinks in which the ice has melted at Nickodells…you get the idea. Webb elevated squareness and it’s icons (cops, military etc.) to a level of super-square that became hep, riffing relentlessly in his trademark monotone and using the camera as a sort of visual partner in his patter –dig the below clip from one of my old KTTV afternoon favorites, “The D.I.”, where he plays a relentlessly verbal (and never to be topped) drill instructor. The camera is as fixed, monotonal and unforgiving as Webb’s dialogue and delivery. Even the introduction of Webb (this is the opening scene of the film and the first we see of him is the back of his neck) carries this attitude with it.
Webb was a California kid–born in Santa Monica, raised in Downtown LA and was living in San Francisco at the time of his ‘break’–some sort of radio announcer gig which he adroitly manipulated into a show called “Pat Novak For Hire”–a radio series that presaged his later themes of straight but irreverent law enforcers talking turkey to a world full of liars. Indeed, Webb appears to have been something of a fearless self-starter. “Dragnet”, which he created for himself, soon followed (after a few movie parts–he’s the nice-guy assistant director who William Holden cuckolds in “Sunset Blvd.”–a very un-Webbian part) and, amazingly within a couple of years of” Dragnet’s” success, Webb was writing, directing, producing and starring in his own movies. He seemed to have no doubt about his somewhat limited abilities and quickly fashioned a series of vehicles tailored to his strengths. “Pete Kelly’s Blues” is a very underrated mid-fifties (set in the twenties) gangland saga, featuring a really fine perfomance (Oscar nominated) by the great Peggy Lee. Other jazz greats can be seen in the film (Webb was a major jazz fan) including Ella Fitzgerald. “30” is also well worth a second look–I haven’t seen it for years and, like Webb’s other movies, it is strangely absent from the cable line-ups.
I wish Webb had directed more movies–he had his own tough, articulate style and I see and feel a humor in the entrenched humorlessness that can only be the deep, grimly knowing laugh of the true misanthrope. Alas, he made his fortune in television, producing boring seventies series like “Emergency”, “Mobile One” and the aforementioned “Adam-12”. These shows have none of Webb’s own singular style–only his late sixites revival of “Dragnet” (the color version with Harry Morgan as his sidekick) brought back Webb in all his terse glory. And after all those cigarettes and drinks, Webb only made it to age sixty-two before succumbing–no doubt without surprise and with a certain perverse inner satisfaction–to a heart attack that took him out of the game that he’d mastered once and for all.