Thursday, July 24, 2014

JACK WEBB: AMERICAN AUTEUR

What do we really know (or care) about the deeply misanthropic maverick television auteur, Jack   Webb? Mostly that he was Joe Friday on Dragnet. Perhaps that he created Dragnet as well. Some might even know that he was the creative force behind 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) 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 abusive drill instructor. The camera is as fixed, monotonal and unforgiving as Webb's dialogue and delivery.



Webb was a California kid, born in Santa Monica and 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 abilities and quickly fashioned a series of vehicles tailored to his strengths. There simply were no other American auteurs around at that time--Webb was a one-man band who truly possessed a vision.

Probably his best, from my standpoint, is "Pete Kelly's Blues",  a very underrated mid-fifties (set in the twenties) gangland saga, featuring a 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).

It was also something of a cottage industry for Webb. Apparently it began as a radio show which aired as a summer replacement show in 1951, then became the movie, then later a television series and of course spawned two albums which Webb produced--the above soundtrack featuring Peggy Lee and another called "Pete Kelly Lets His Hair Down". This later appeared as part of a compilation which Webb released, called "Just The Tracks, Maam". Which is further proof of my theory that Webb was, above all, a comedian at heart, one who enjoyed twisting the world to his own darkly humourous viewpoint and seeing who, if anyone, was hip to his game.

For awhile in the early fifties, Webb was married to the  ridiculously sultry and talented Julie London, a union which produced two daughters. After their divorce, she began recording albums and was groomed (I suppose you'd say) and managed by the singer/songwriter Bobby Troup. Then they got married. And they had kids. And then Jack Webb hired them both to be in his TV show "Emergency", which doesn't sound so weird now but forty years ago was about as tois as a menage could get and not be in violation of a morals clause. 

Does that sound extreme? Well dig this. When I was a kid growing up in LA, there was a restaurant on the Sunset Strip called the "Cock and Bull"--an English pub sort of place where they served really good, rare, roast beef. (When the nice, aging black guy in the big white hat cut your slice for you, he'd ask, "Old Jews?" Eventually we realized he was offering au jus...) Oftentimes we'd go there on a Sunday and there would be Jack Webb, sitting at the bar drinking and smoking. I recognized him from Dragnet, of course. (An important detail that for some reason caught my youthful eyes: he had two packs of cigarettes open on the bar. One regular and one menthol). Anyway one day my parents and I went for brunch and there, in plain sight, sat the Troup's dining with Webbs--and this absolutely fascinated my parents, who, despite being pretty hip themselves, were shocked that divorced couples could be socializing openly. I suppose it gave rise to thoughts of swapping, thoughts which perhaps were valid. 

I wish Webb had directed more movies--he had his own tough, articulate directorial 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 to a heart attack that took him out of the game that he'd mastered once and for all. Below is the proof that deep down Webb knew it was all a bit of a sham. It's the classic "Copper Clapper Caper" bit that he did with Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show in the early seventies.



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1 comment:

Buttermilk Sky said...

"No other American auteurs around at that time"? What about Ed Wood and Coleman Francis? Webb was easily as good as they were, and he got to be in a Billy Wilder movie.