It’s difficult to imagine, but there was a time when making a film based on an old television show or characters seemed novel. Once upon a time, movie theaters weren’t overrun with steroidal re-imaginings of popular television shows, and TV and film still maintained some level of separation and autonomy. Dan Aykroyd’s curious career as a cinematic leading man parallels and reflects the shifting, complicated relationship between television and film. Aykroyd made his leading-man debut in 1980’s The Blues Brothers, which established him as an unlikely but inspired movie star. It’s one of the high points, maybe the apex, both of Saturday Night Live-derived cinema and of the often-disreputable tradition of television-based movies.
When, a few years later, Aykroyd joined Albert Brooks for the wrap-around segments of 1983’s Twilight Zone: The Movie, the intermingling of television and film was still a big deal, especially with the high-powered likes of Steven Spielberg involved. After that, Aykroyd seemingly couldn’t stay away from films derived from old television shows, which reflects his background as a virtuoso sketch performer on Saturday Night Live. Aykroyd and the rest of the Not Ready For Prime Time Players regularly spoofed television shows, real and imagined. Television was, and remains, one of Saturday Night Live’s favorite satirical targets. Why wouldn’t that inclination carry over when its alumni reached the big screen, often via training-wheels vehicles produced by Lorne Michaels, and based on characters they created on Saturday Night Live?
In the production notes for the 1987 feature-film adaptation of Dragnet, Aykroyd describes the role of a dead-eyed, monotone police detective modeled on Dragnet protagonist Joe Friday as “a character I’d always wanted to play.” It would be easy to dismiss that statement as typical press-release hyperbole, but the role of Joe Friday is perfectly suited to Aykroyd’s gifts. On Saturday Night Live, he specialized in monologues where he’d rip through incredibly dense, convoluted speeches with machine-gun speed and sniper-rifle accuracy. He loved to play characters with computers for brains and terrifying intellects instead of human emotions, Vulcan types who look down on humanity as a strange, inferior species worthy of neither understanding or respect. There’s always been something vaguely alien and robotic about Aykroyd, even when he isn’t playing a Conehead. Dragnet’s protagonist is exactly that kind of grim-faced autodidact. Aykroyd’s Joe Friday has seemingly memorized the entire California Penal Code, and recites it at the slightest provocation. His sole human emotion is a grim dedication to duty. He is, in other words, a character Aykroyd was born to play, a role smack-dab in the middle of his wheelhouse.
Dragnet was a substantial hit, grossing more than $66 million domestically, and ranking 14th at the 1987 box office. But by the time Aykroyd once again tried to meld his television past with his cinematic present, with the 1993 SNL spin-off Coneheads, the result was so desperate that it all but spelled the end of Aykroyd’s career as a box-office draw. If Coneheads had followed The Blues Brothers to the big screen in 1981, it could have been a contender, commercially and otherwise. In 1993, nearly a decade and a half after Aykroyd left Saturday Night Live, its existence only highlighted Aykroyd’s creative stagnation. Aykroyd was desperately rifling through his back pages in search of a hit. (And when Aykroyd took over for Bill Murray in the ill-fated 1988 Caddyshack sequel, he was reduced to rifling through his contemporary’s back pages in search of a hit.) When that didn’t work, he nevertheless returned to the television-derived TV trough thrice more, first with 1996’s Sgt. Bilko, then most tragically and poignantly with 1998’s Blues Brothers 2000, which attempted to fill the impossible void left by John Belushi’s death by replacing him with a black guy (Joe Morton), a fat guy (John Goodman), and a kid (J. Evan Bolifant). By the time Aykroyd essayed the role of Yogi Bear in Yogi Bear 3-D, the notion of a movie based on a television show had gone from the intriguing novelty of The Blues Brothers to the safe crutch of Dragnet to a dumb joke with no punchline.
But in 1987, neither Aykroyd nor film adaptations of popular television shows had worn out their welcome, and there was something appealingly irreverent, at least in the abstract, about juxtaposing the stodgy, conservative worldview of Joe Friday, the squarest of all squares, with the decadence and depravity of 1980s California. Then again, the unintentional humor of the late-1960s television revamp of Dragnet lies in the juxtaposition of buttoned-down law-enforcement robot Joe Friday and his similarly dour partners (most notably Harry Morgan, who plays Aykroyd’s boss in the film version) with the long-haired, jazz-listening, cigarette-smoking, hippie-freak space cadets they had the misfortune to deal with on a daily basis.
In Los Angeles Plays Itself, Thom Andersen marvels that the television version of Dragnet depicted the Los Angeles Police Department both as it saw itself, and as it wanted to be perceived by the public: as a terrifying force for order, populated by glowering, cold-blooded, faintly sociopathic robo-officers who made little effort to hide their contempt both for criminals and for the citizens they were sworn to protect and serve. It’s tempting to write that Jack Webb and his partners in crime-fighting represented the friendly, smiling face of fascism, but if my childhood memories of watching Dragnet are accurate, only shaggy freaks hopped up on goofballs and purple poppers smiled, and friendliness was in short supply, from cops and criminals alike. Joe Friday wasn’t the smiling, friendly face of fascism: He was the glowering, joyless, ice-cold face of fascism. Yet audiences rooted for him all the same. As a child, I found something weirdly comforting about Dragnet’s lack of moral ambiguity. It inhabited a world devoid of grays: The good guys were good, the bad guys were bad, and people were more or less exactly what they appeared to be.
There’s a potentially scathing satire to be made about the incongruity of a television show that gets American audiences to root for glowering, compassionless law enforcers, but that’s not the film Aykroyd and his collaborators were interested in making when brought Dragnet to the big screen. Many years back, I interviewed Alex Cox, who talked about how Lorne Michaels approached him about directing The Three Amigos. Cox replied that he would be interested, but only if the screenplay were to directly attack and confront American imperialism as it relates to our relationship with Mexico. That, unsurprisingly, marked the end of Cox’s involvement in The Three Amigos. Michaels had a commercial property to protect, and didn’t want Cox’s blustery Marxist politics to interfere with his payday. On a similar level, Aykroyd was understandably more concerned with scoring another commercial hit than in confronting the disturbing undertones of our obsession with television cops. Instead of making a satire of Dragnet, Aykroyd made an amiable, amusing, relatively toothless spoof that let everyone off easy: the source material, the audience, and the characters alike.
Aykroyd might be able to love a man with no emotions, but audiences can be more demanding. So Aykroyd’s take on Joe Friday (he actually plays the nephew of Jack Webb’s character from the original Dragnet, following in his relative’s footsteps to the extent of having the same name) is softer and more sympathetic. The robotic commitment to duty remains, but Aykroyd has wisely jettisoned the barely suppressed rage lurking behind Webb’s poker face even during his most peaceful moments.
Dragnet opens with Aykroyd rattling off staccato, hard-boiled narration with the dependability of a metronome:
This is the city. Los Angeles, California. Four hundred and sixty-five square miles of constantly interfacing humanity. Representing every race. Color. Creed. And persuasion that God, no matter how he is worshipped, chose, in His infinite wisdom to deposit here in the cultural nexus of the Pacific Rim. Almost 4 million people work and play here. And, like any other place, anywhere, there are those who have it. And those who want it. Those who have it, enjoy it. No matter how they got it. Those who want it, can get it, by attempting to better themselves in a sympathetic community populated by decent citizens cheering them on. Or they can try to take it the easy way. Because even in the city of angels, from time to time, some halos slip. That’s where I come in. Doing my job to the best of my ability on a daily basis. I work here. I carry a badge.
This opening narration establishes the film’s setting not as the 465 square miles of constantly interfacing humanity that constitute Los Angeles, so much as the headspace of Aykroyd’s Joe Friday, where it’s forever 1956 and God’s own Dwight D. Eisenhower has joyously been re-elected president. There aren’t many clear-cut jokes in the opening narration, but the screenplay—which Aykroyd co-wrote with fellow Saturday Night Live alum Alan Zwiebel and Tom Mankiewitz, who also directed—lovingly captures the strangled syntax, excessive formality, and above all else, the relentless squareness that constitutes the worldview not just of the film’s protagonist, but of Jack Webb, who created Dragnet to share his sensibility with the world.
The film’s opening captures the rigidly deadpan tone of the television show it’s spoofing with the meticulousness of The Naked Gun and its inspiration, Police Squad! The martial stomp of the Dragnet theme then collides with Art Of Noise’s stuttering, trashy, flashy remix, complete with manic sampling of the show’s “Just the facts” catchphrase. Within the first minute, a TV show that embodied the 1950s is reinvented as a very 1980s movie. The film reviews that Friday’s current partner has retired to start the goat farm that has long been his dream. Friday greets the news with the stoic forbearance that is his trademark. Then he meets his new partner, Pep Streebeck (Tom Hanks). Friday mistakes him for a dyed-in-the-wool no-goodnik/ne’er do well on account of his appearance, which is half heroin-addicted homeless man, half Bon Jovi roadie: long, stringy hair, red bandana, flannel shirt, grungy green jacket, Miami Vice scruff.
In a state of high agitation, Friday rattles off the particulars of the robbery/homicide-division dress code. Seconds later, Pep Streebeck has cleaned up nicely, and now looks like future Oscar-winner Tom Hanks, at the height of his adorability and youthful charm. This speaks to a minor flaw in the screenplay’s construction: Dragnet is a wacky buddy-cop comedy where the partners aren’t all that mismatched. Sure, Pep Streebeck isn’t as uptight or wound-up as Friday, but who is? Richard Nixon is a far-out super-hippie compared to the Fridays. True, Pep Streebeck (whom I am always going to reference by his full name, because, c’mon, Pep Streebeck!) does things that cause Friday to say his partner thinks he’s a “freebird hipster cop,” like bliss out to rock ’n’ roll (the kind with screaming electric guitars and pounding drums!) on his Walkman, eat snack food between meals, and ogle the ladies. But otherwise, he’s a devoted, hard-working, accomplished cop who cuts a relatively clean-cut figure when he isn’t going undercover.
Dragnet next sends Friday and Pep Streebeck on the trail of PAGAN, a sinister organization causing havoc all over Los Angeles. PAGAN boasts a moniker custom-made to antagonize Joe Friday: People Against Goodness And Normalcy. The case leads Friday into some pretty seedy places, like a Playboy Mansion-like abode for soft-core pornographer Jerry Caesar (Dabney Coleman). The place is so opulent, it makes Friday grouse to his partner, “It’s enough to churn your guts, isn’t it, Streebeck? That a smut-peddler like Jerry Caesar could build a modern-day Gomorrah smack-dab in the middle of the same city where they recorded ‘We Are The World.’” I love the specificity of that line, and the insight it provides into how Friday sees the world, particularly the world of pop culture. But otherwise, the film opts for broader, breezier humor: Dragnet has the brightly lit, upbeat, family-friendly sensibility of a Touchstone comedy from the 1980s and early 1990s. I half-remember seeing it as the second half of a drive-in double feature as an 11-year-old, which I believe is the perfect way to experience it.
In time-honored buddy-cop-movie tradition, Dragnet is big on culture-clash comedy, most notably in this setpiece, where Friday and Pep Streebeck go undercover to crash a PAGAN bacchanal that’s part biker rally, part satanic orgy, part Gay Pride Parade, part Nazi rally, and part be-in, with a heaping helping of the Gathering Of The Juggalos thrown in for good measure.
The big PAGAN rally makes good use of the resources available to filmmakers, and introduces one of the film’s most memorable elements: Connie Swail (played by Alexandra Paul), a beautiful, pure-hearted woman whose virginity makes her an attractive human-sacrifice target for the PAGAN degenerates. Swail’s purity similarly makes her an appealing love interest for Friday. Swail is invariably referred to as “The Virgin Connie Swail” until the film’s kicker, where Pep Streebeck asks Friday, who is now dating her, how she’s doing, and Friday refers to her merely as “Connie Swail.” When an impressed Pep Streebeck reiterates that he’s referring specifically to “The Virgin Connie Swail,” Friday impishly raises an eyebrow.
Dragnet has its share of sharp gags and memorable lines, but for the most part, it’s entertaining but forgettable, a fun romp that assuredly hits all the expected mismatched buddy-cop-movie beats and serves up the subgenre’s clichés straight, rather than subverting or lampooning them. Over the course of the film, the partners experience a predictable reversal, with Friday learning the value of tossing out the old rulebook for the sake of the greater good, and Pep Streebeck realizing that a lot can be gained from not just playing by the rules, but also memorizing them, and imploring others to do likewise. Dragnet suffers from at least one car chase too many, though it’d probably be prohibitively difficult to convince the screenwriter and star of The Blues Brothers that a car chase could ever be gratuitous.
Big-screen adaptations of beloved old television shows have become ubiquitous, but Dragnet has more of a right to exist than the vast majority of inferior adaptations that followed. With the exception of exemplars of the form, like Wayne’s World and The Naked Gun, Dragnet is about as good as these kinds of films get, yet it still feels inconsequential and slight, a trifle that’s amusing in the moment, but patently not meant for posterity. Why is that? Why are Bill Murray’s ramshackle early comedies like Meatballs, Stripes, and Caddyshack held up as pop classics, while Aykroyd-penned hits like Dragnet and Spies Like Us have been half-forgotten? I suspect it’s because Murray is a true movie star: audiences for Stripes or Meatballs could imagine they were seeing the real Bill Murray onscreen, whereas Aykroyd disappeared into extreme, stylized, sometimes-grotesque characters in film the same way he did on Saturday Night Live. He disappeared so far inside his characters that it was difficult to know where they ended and the actor began.
Though perfectly cast as Joe Friday, Aykroyd was miscast as a proper movie star. He’s a chameleon, a character actor, and a writer, not a lead. That’s why Murray is revered to this day, while Aykroyd’s name tends to come up only in discussions of the long-fabled concluding entry in the Ghostbusters trilogy. As Dragnet illustrates, Aykroyd has never been afraid to reprise both his own triumphs and the triumphs of others. Yet the appropriately mocking response that greeted Yogi Bear 3-D suggests that eventually, even the most backward-thinking souls need to either reinvent themselves, or consider calling it quits entirely. As a longtime Aykroyd fan, I would love to see him reinvent himself and experience a proper comeback. (If Chevy Chase can be part of a beloved cult hit, then there’s hope for anyone.) But for that to happen, Aykroyd would need to let go of the past and start over. Abandoning the long-simmering dreams of Ghostbusters 3—and the long habit of reheating older ideas like Dragnet—might be an excellent place to begin.
Up next: Psycho II