Every TV series – well. most of them, anyway – does a Christmas episode. Sometimes they’re “very special” episodes. It’s too much for TV writers and producers to resist, really: Do a heartwarming episode for the holiday, usually adapting Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” As they said, in reference to another subject, on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” It is an opportunity to “hug and cry and learn and grow.”
But not Jack Webb, no ma’am. When the creator of “Dragnet” does a Christmas story, he does one that’s to the point and – even though it has some sentimental moments – full of sharp edges.
I just rewatched “The Christmas Story” episode of “Dragnet,” which also proved that when Webb had a story he liked, he stuck with it. Webb wrote the script originally for his “Dragnet” radio series and the version of TV’s “Dragnet” that aired in the 1950s.
I watched the version – called “The Big Little Jesus” originally but retitled “The Christmas Story” by this time – that aired on NBC in December 1967. This was the color version of “Dragnet” and the one that co-starred Harry Morgan as Bill Gannon, the partner to Webb’s LAPD Detective Joe Friday.
“Dragnet” reveled in the everyday police cases that Webb believed made the Los Angeles Police Department the best law enforcement agency in the world. “The Christmas Story” was a perfect example of that.
A San Fernando Valley church reports on Christmas Eve that its Baby Jesus statute is missing from its Nativity display. Friday and Gannon question the priest about who might have been able to get into the church to steal it. Friday seems surprised when the priest says the church is open 24 hours a day. “So any thief could get in?” Friday asks the priest, who replies that the church especially wanted thieves to make their way to the altar.
Friday and Gannon promise the priest they will try to have the Baby Jesus statue back before 6 a.m. Mass on Christmas morning.
The detectives pursue a couple of leads, including a visit to an offbeat seller and, apparently, re-buyer, of religious statues. They also talk to a couple of altar boys, including Barry Williams, who would within two years be playing Greg Brady on “The Brady Bunch.”
Ultimately the cops are pointed toward a down-on-his-luck parishioner who, it’s assumed, stole the statue. But it’s obvious he did not, and Webb makes Friday’s frustration at the dead end briefly palpable.
The mystery, such as it was, is solved without any participation, other than as observers, by the cops. As Friday and Gannon go back to the church to tell the priest they failed, a little boy comes in, pulling a red wagon. In it, of course, is the Baby Jesus statue. The boy, whose family attends the church, had told the infant that if he got a red wagon for Christmas he would give it the first ride. The boy got the wagon from local firemen, who fix up broken toys for poor children in the neighborhood, which explains why he had the wagon early enough to pinch Baby Jesus from the manger.
“The Christmas Story” was, after all, a very special episode of “Dragnet.”
The conversation between Friday and Gannon that opens the episode acknowledges, for the first time I remember really, that Friday has a girlfriend. I’m sure this was touched on at other times in the series, and it’s well-established that Gannon is married, But it’s a nice touch, and the ensuing conversation about proper presents for a wife or girlfriend adds a bit of personality to the characters.
I also love that the Christmas tree that Gannon brings to the office and plops down on the work table he shares with Friday looks like an even more pathetic version of Charlie Brown’s tree, as seen in the animated special two years earlier.
It’s a nice bit of business for Friday and Gannon to get more time to work on the theft by asking their captain – who had wanted them on another case – to call the priest himself and tell him they wouldn’t be returning the stolen Baby Jesus in time for Christmas.
And this, the choir from the hotel for down-on-their-luck men: