Friday, April 3, 2009

Jack Webb and the death of Hollywood's Golden Age

Yesterday was the anniversary of Jack Webb's birth, and I can't help but think that careers like his were partly responsible for the death of classic Hollywood as it existed in the 1930s and 1940s. No, it's not his fault, but people such as him who went into TV had a huge effect on Hollywood.

Generally, this is seen as people staying at home to watch TV instead of going to a movie, with the result that Hollywood had to come up with new gimmicks in the 1950s: these could be all-star blockbusters, like The Greatest Show on Earth, or new forms of presentation like Cinemascope or even the short-lived 3-D craze.

One thing that doesn't seem to get as much mention is the nature of the TV series. One of the digital subchannels I get on TV carries the Retro Television Network, which carries programs from the 1950s through the 1980s. Thanks to them, I've been able to see Webb's work in the 1960s incarnation of Dragnet, which I had never seen before. Frankly, I was surprised at the poor quality of the show. The acting was wooden and one-dimensional, the sets were threadbare, and the plots were formulaic. Still, the show had a lot of charm. Then, it struck me: in watching Dragnet, I was watching the 1960s equivalent of Hollywood's B movie series of the 1930s and 40s. Dragnet is fundamentally no different from Torchy Blane or Dr. Kildare (which was of course later turned into a TV series). Back in the day, the B movies were important in that they provided the second bill of an entire night's entertainment. TV wasn't only taking those away; it was taking away a lot of the production staff and assembly-line capacity to turn out such stuff.

So, when you watch crappy TV shows, just think that you're watching the latter-day equivalent of those fun B movies we know and love. (Or maybe not. The movies back then were much cleaner than TV today. But that's a complaint for another day....)

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