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Our new blog is coming soon to coincide with our brand new site! Please check back later this week and read more about our exciting new season!
When last we left Young Jack, he was out of wartime service, and tooling around California looking for work to support his family. Down San Francisco way around 1946, he begins to break into radio – first, surprisingly enough, as a disc jockey and comedian, with The Jack Webb Show. But soon, given his fast and hard-boiled vocal abilities, he gravitates toward the radio crime drama with a fairly popular regional series called Pat Novak for Hire – with many scripts written by himself and his SF roommate, Richard Breen. The Mutual Network then persuades Webb and Breen to leave the show and move back to LA to work on another fast-talking private eye program, Johnny Madero, Pier 23.
Webb begins picking up film roles at the same time, as well — and it’s a supporting part as a lab technician in 1947’s He Walked By Night that leads him to begin the work he would be best known for.
Before we get into that, though, let’s take a look at the Big Picture:
The post-World War II period in America – into the 50’s – is one of the most studied by scholars, obviously, as it’s so directly reflective of our wildly fluctuating socio-political development and, to be brutal, misbehavior of the time. The nation had pulled together during the war to vanquish some of the worst threats ever faced by humankind – and in the process, become the biggest military-industrial kid on the worldwide block. You’d think we would’ve been in a better place, longer. But we had also, if you recall, invented the power by which we could, very easily, destroy any enemy – any thing, hell, ourselves and the world – should our leaders (who, frankly, following the death of FDR, were looking a little shifty) choose to do so. And that capability came with an unsettling price of the mind and heart that we did not – nor ever would, really – completely grasp. And once the Russians acquired that same capability in 1949 – via Homeland treason and espionage, horror of horrors – we were in for some bad national behavior of Shakespearean proportions: cue HUAC, cue McCarthy, cue that big ol’ Red Scare and a hunt for the Enemy Within – cue me up some Moral Ambiguity.
But most film students and laymen know Hollywood in the Blacklist Era backwards and forwards by now. It is, however, the short period before that – say, from 1945 to 1948 – when filmmakers who were also returning veterans – or European refugees of the war – begin to push our entertainment toward a much darker, more poetically “realistic” model, that should be taken into account more than it is. Young men and women had been forced to grow up very quickly during the war. Unforgettable things had been seen overseas – and the tentative thread of life was understood a bit more comprehensively. So, naturally, on returning to civilian life, they would expect a wide slice their entertainment to be more adult – more thought-provoking – in nature. Having sorted out some rather large foreign difficulties, we had a few nagging social problems of our own going on. Could they be solved by the Greatest Generation? Before the subsequent paranoia hit, many thought we could take on anything.
So, sure, the top-grossing ten pictures of 1945 include Anchors Aweigh, The Bells Of St. Mary’s, and Week-End at the Waldorf with Betty Grable. But that list also sports the genuinely disturbing Leave Her to Heaven (newlywed homicidal maniac – in color), Hitchcock’s Spellbound (psychiatry and murder), Mildred Pierce with Joan Crawford (single motherhood and murder), and Billy Wilder’s searing follow-up to Double Indemnity (murder for sex and fun) the year before: The Lost Weekend (rampaging alcoholism). These stack up to some grim, adventurous viewing with a social conscience, folks – not a whole lot of Mickey and Judy going on, if you know what I mean. And the term realism – as a very positive attribute – is being bandied about much more readily than before or during the war years.
In Italy, Roberto Rossellini’s incredibly influential Rome, Open City is released – establishing what would come to be called neorealism by his contemporaries. Oscar’s Best Picture of 1946 was Willie Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives – still one of the most effective films regarding the real impact of war on returning veterans and their families. On the top ten list for that year is The Razor’s Edge, Notorious, The Postman Always Rings Twice, and Rita Hayworth in Gilda. Howard Hawks’ film of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep opens, as does The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, The Killers with Burt Lancaster, Deception, Wanted for Murder, and Chandler’s The Blue Dahlia. Japan is beginning to crawl its way out of the rubble, too – Kurosawa releases No Regrets for Our Youth. And so it goes – for a couple of years, anyway. Two important films in 1947 even take on anti-Semitism: one high-toned prestige drama, Gentleman’s Agreement (Best Picture) and a tough-as-nails police mystery, Crossfire.
But the political handwriting is going up on the wall, here, gang: the House Committee on Un-American Activities becomes a standing body in 1945, we’ve turned the corner on the Russians and All Things Communist (or even remotely Socialist), the so-called Hollywood Ten are held in Contempt of Congress in November 1947 – and at a meeting the next day in the Los Angeles Waldorf, the major American film studio executives agree to install the Blacklist – more to avoid government intervention than anything, really. A great wave of Anti-Intellectualism is about to begin dumbing down all this dark creativity and healthy critique of the American Experience – thematically, anyway. All the trappings: the tough guys, the big blondes, the cigarettes and Hammett/Chandler-speak, the smoky, sexy, high-impact look and feel of black and white pictures, then – sans the challenging content, naturally – were very healthy, and being well-exercised up, and most noticeably, down the food chain.
Then, as now, what succeeds in the Majors is exploited on the cheap by the Minors; by 1947, B-picture units and the studios of Poverty Row take those exploitable elements of this darker wave of A-pictures, and start grinding out bleak crime melodramas by the fistful. Many on budgets so small, Robert Mitchum used to say they were “lit by cigarette.” These would establish a proving ground for many young, talented directors and performers – and many, again, European refugees who had immigrated to Hollywood – to get their start. The French, denied American pictures during the war years, finally open a package of all the ones they’d missed over the decade, and label this category of crime picture as film noir. In ‘45, there were 20 such pictures that could be characterized under that heading. In ‘46, there were 40. In ‘47, there were over 50. But all of these, spring from this immediate post-war push toward realism – or, at least comparatively, what people 65 years ago interpreted as realistic screen drama.
One very interesting film in this time period – a precursor to both Dragnet, and to a long-running TV series of its own – is The Naked City, produced and narrated by former New York Daily News columnist Mark Hellinger, and directed by the soon-to-be-Blacklisted Jules Dassin. Described as a “semi-documentary,” but actually an A-picture masquerading as a B-programmer, Naked City’s characters and personal storylines are as hokey as anything the studios were putting out in the Hays Office-regulated 1930s. But the step-by-step, realistic police procedural plot, and most importantly, the way Dassin shot on location (inspired by the Italian Neorealists, no less), was strikingly unique for its time. Shooting “on location” is something we don’t spend three seconds in consideration of now —but the stark full-daylight portrait of Weegee’s New York streets presented in wide swaths throughout Naked City is still breathtaking to behold — and the main selling point of the picture in its time.
Meanwhile, that same year, the folks out at the miniscule Eagle-Lion studio in Hollywood have a similar idea — but with a spin. On a much smaller budget, their semi-documentary police procedural picture, too, will visually encompass the streets of LA in all its busted glory — but it will also be based on an actual crime spree by an actual cop killer. And, for the first time to such an intense degree, members of the Los Angeles Police Department will be on hand throughout production to advise on all aspects of their methodology — especially in the area of forensics.
The picture is He Walked By Night starring Richard Basehart – and the guy they get to play the forensics lab technician is a little-known radio actor – completely captivated by police officers he meets on-set, and forever impressed by the importance of the job that they do.
Indeed, within two years, Jack Webb — ready, willing and able to embrace the new wave of reactionary politics sweeping the nation — will become famous the world over as Sergeant Joe Friday: the best public relations man the LAPD ever had.
To be continued …
See Steve Pickering play the role of Officer Paul Landy in A Girl With Sun In Her Eyes this weekend. Preview performances on Saturday, June 25 at 5 pm and 8 pm and Sunday, June 26, at 7 pm. You can purchase tickets here.
Vince Teninty plays the role of William McCaffee in A Girl With Sun In Her Eyes. The following is a story he shared during a rehearsal last week. –SEB
It was something like three in the morning when I got out of the bar where I was working. I walked to Damen just north of North Avenue and stood there. I was smoking a cigarette with one hand and hailing a cab with the other when a dark sports car drove up beside me and stopped. Not the nicest car I’d ever seen, but not a hunk of junk either.
The window on the passenger’s side rolled down, and I saw a guy and a girl—she looked like she was in her early 20s—staring up at me. I figured they wanted directions or something. I bent over enough to see both of them without leaning my head into the car.
As soon as I could make eye contact I smiled and said, “What’s up?”
“How can I help you?” she asked.
I was confused. “You guys need help finding a place?” Maybe it was naiveté on my part, but I’m the kind of guy who likes to help people when they’re lost or they need help.
“You want a ride baby?” The girl was in the passenger’s seat and did all the talking.
“No, thanks. I’m hailing a cab.”
“We’ll take you anywhere you want to go,” she persisted.
“That’s okay. But thanks.”
The guy behind the wheel said nothing but followed every word of my exchange with the young woman. I could feel him watching us. The longer I stood there the more I realized he could crush me with one hand. The guy was a monster. I mean, he was in this black leather jacket and was so huge his chest cavity almost touched the top of the steering wheel. Not fat, just big. “The Rock”/Dwayne Johnson Professional Wrestler Kind of Big.
“Honey, you need a blow job.”
“Wha-?” What did she just say? This threw me.
“Do you want me to suck you off?”
“I’m engaged.” I told her, as if it would matter to her. I don’t know why I thought it would, apart from the fact that it mattered to me.
“Well, this hot piece of property is taken. Let’s go!” Did I really think she’d say that?
Instead she just stared up at me with a blank expression as if to say, “So?” Then the final push.
“I’ll suck you off so good you can go home and please your woman. Come on and get in.”
“NO. Thank you.”
As the car wheels squealed and the car zoomed away, I stood there at a loss. Was that what I think it was? Did anyone else see that? Do I look that lonely? Do I look like the type that would say yes to a prostitute? These questions kept looping in my mind as I watched the taillights of the car disappear.
The scariest part was when I thought to myself, “What if? What if I had said yes? What if I had let my guard down? What if, for just one second, I had taken her up on her offer?” These were scary thoughts, none of which I would have acted upon; yet at the same time, they were there. Anyone who says he doesn’t have these thoughts is lying.
My gut would never have let me get in that car, but my brain played devil’s advocate with me afterward. I know that I would have been mugged. There’s no doubt in my mind about that. I would have probably been beaten within an inch of my life, stabbed, or even shot.
It wasn’t until the car had left and I knew I was safe that my brain asked “What if I had?” But as my parents always told me, “If ifs and buts were candy nuts, we’d all have a merry Christmas.”
We’re following up our post yesterday with a video clip. Click below to see an opening sequence from Jack Webb’s Dragnet.
It is perhaps because of my more than passing resemblance to actor Michael (The Shield) Chiklis that the Mighty Pine Box folks have asked me to jot down a few notes regarding the history of the police procedural in popular culture. Most likely, though, I’ve been asked to contribute as these good people realize by this point that my Chiklisian pate is simply top-full of completely disposable information regarding the history of American film and television, pre-1980.
But that’s rather fortunate in this instance, as Josh’s play is not only a worthy stage whodunit in the classic vein, but also—to me, in the playing—a fond tip of the hat to thousands of hours spent in the company of Popeye Doyle, Theo Kojack, Frank Bullitt and Steve McGarrett. It’s a Cop Show, in the best sense—written by someone who, like me, enjoys the hell out of a good Cop Show. Well, let’s face it: one day someone calls you on the phone and invites you to play Cops and Robbers five nights a week? If you’re me, you’re taking it.
Now, to begin a formal history of the police procedural, we would need to go back to Poe and the Victorians, I think, but since this is intended more as a personal history—and since our show carries with it very much an American Cop Show sensibility—to highlight a few influential boilerplates, we would be better served by dropping into the Timeline about halfway, say 1949, when the grandpappy of all modern Cop Shows debuts on radio: Jack Webb’s Dragnet.
It’s rather difficult to gauge the influence Dragnet has had on our culture as a whole (and that statement may sound hyperbolic, but if you listen closely, the show’s taglines are still used in everyday conversation). We do know that for most Americans, Dragnet’s initial 10-year run on both radio and television, concurrently—along with it’s successful revamp in the bad ol’ days of the late 1960’s—was the first time, with any degree of overall accuracy, that they learned What Cops Do at their jobs on a day to day basis. In a lot of ways, the weekly adventures of Sergeant Joe Friday and his succession of partners, took the faceplate off a clock, and showed us just how interesting the inner workings could be. And millions responded to that: during the 1950s, the show was rarely out of the Top Five on television, and the overall viewer stats rank it second only to I Love Lucy for the decade. Hell, it only went off the air the first time because Jack Webb wanted to move on to other things.
Webb was an interesting guy with a unique career: a dyed-in-the-wool Californian, he was born in Santa Monica in 1920. The family deserted by the father, Webb was raised Roman Catholic by his mother and grandmother in a boarding house in the then poverty-stricken Bunker Hill neighborhood of Los Angeles. When Jack was a boy, another tenant at the house gave him a copy of a Bix Biederbecke record, which began his lifelong love of jazz music. At Belmont High, he was Student Council President, and began performing in plays as a way to overcome shyness. When World War II came, he joined the Army Air Force, but after being washed out of flight training he secured a hardship discharge, as he was his family’s only means of support.
Even given this brief biographical sketch, you armchair psychologists out there can have a big time playing cause and effect regarding Webb’s adult development into what he termed an “ultra-conservative”; personal politics also central to the nature of the one character with whom he would be permanently identified. Although it is worth noting that, despite the stentorian on-screen image, he was known as a cheerful, gregarious fellow off the job—kind to children and animals, that kind of thing—and due to his free movement in jazz circles, his opinions and actions regarding Civil Rights were remarkably progressive for his time. However, just as noteworthy, the Los Angeles Police Department’s decades-long dance with institutionalized racism would never become the subject of a Dragnet episode.
Moral Ambiguity was neither the point, nor the intention, of Jack Webb’s baby.
To be continued …
Steve Pickering plays the role of Officer Paul Landy in A Girl With Sun In Her Eyes, which opens on June 30. Get your tickets today.
Turner & Hooch. No question. (I kid, I kid… )
Probably Scorsese’s The Departed.
And on TV?
Law & Order if that qualifies. I think it does.
What about when you were a kid?
I wasn’t really into cop shows specifically, but I loved detective stories. I obsessively read the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, Encyclopedia Brown and Agatha Christie in elementary school. In middle school I discovered “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” and would devour the collections of short stories he edited. I still love stories that have a twist at the end—stories that challenge you as the reader to solve the mystery before the characters in the story do.
Any theories on why we can’t seem to get enough of the police procedural in this country?
I think our appetite for this genre has to do with the structure of these stories. People love puzzles. Our brains are really wired for two things: stories and problem solving. So a story with a puzzle to solve in it is naturally appealing.
Joshua handed you the first draft of A Girl With Sun in Her Eyes in November. What compelled you to bring this story to the stage?
The thing that seduced me about this play was the fact that it is a brand of story we are most accustomed to seeing on TV, not onstage. I was—and am—interested in exploring how this type of story changes within a theatrical context. When the camera doesn’t control what the viewer sees, you have to be much more precise as a director with the action onstage—the details, the placement of props and actors. It’s a fun challenge.
One of the earlier scenes in A Girl With Sun In Her Eyes takes place outside a strip club. Ever visited one?
Once, for a friend’s bachelor party. It was a very sad experience overall.
“If a part of you, no matter how small it is, wants to hurt a woman … you will.”
— Officer Lucy Manis (played by Audrey Francis)
I find the violence in the play to be thrilling, and a little sexy if I’m honest. But as a woman I often catch myself feeling conflicted about its effect on me. To the people who feel strongly about the fetishization of violence at a woman’s expense, what do you say?
We are capable of so many profound things as humans: great love, great magnanimity, and great violence.
I don’t think this play celebrates that capacity for violence at all, but it certainly recognizes what we are all capable of doing. And yes, I also think some of the violent acts in this play are pretty thrilling, but I also think violence onstage is attractive primarily because it is active and action always draws the eye. All the violence in this play has consequences, and that should not be overlooked. No one really gets away clean.
–As told to Dramaturg Susan E. Bowen.
We’re about to start my absolutely favorite part of the entire rehearsal process—at least as an actor—the first rehearsal.
There’s always been something vaguely romantic to me about that first rehearsal: strangers meeting around a table, mug of freshly sharpened pencils in the middle, maybe some chocolate (hint hint), fresh binders, still-warm script paper.
No one really knows what to say to each other. There’s a bit of sizing each other up. There are always a few actors who know each other really well.
I was never one of those.
I was the actor who sat in my chair, exciting to get started but mortified that these amazing people I was surrounded by would find me out—that I would been exposed as the completely self-conscious and border-line neurotic actor I was.
And then something magical would always happen: The actors would start in on the script. The energy in the room would start to crackle. And as they got deeper and deeper into the page count everything else melted away. Fear, anxiety, it all went out the window. Everyone would start to find their rhythm.
And everyone was thankful, for the opportunity to be in a room full of people where judgment has no place, where you are free to create this amazing, wonderful world together.
Tomorrow I get to see that world from the other side of the table. I get to sit back and watch an amazing cast of giving, talented, fearless actors help to create the world I wrote about. The characters I put down on these bound pages get to spring to life. Get to walk. Get to love. Get to breathe.
Four weeks of rehearsal and A Girl With Sun In Her Eyes officially opens. And I could not be more excited.