Live Modern with Jack Webb

Curator's Note

Live Modern. The slogan of L&M cigarettes in 1958. The enticement of American advertising throughout the twentieth century. When this episode of Dragnet aired for the first time in April 1958, the sponsors were Post cereals and L&M cigarettes. Cigarettes and breakfast cereal created American television. Sometimes we forget this truth. Watch this segment through to the end – to the moment when Jack Webb, the producer-director, emerges from behind the stoic mask of detective Joe Friday and invites the television viewer of 1958 to Live Modern by smoking L&M cigarettes. Human memory has never been sufficient to the task of recalling the flow of television from one moment to the next. The stream of program segments, commercials, and interstitial announcements turns out to be magnificently self-erasing. History offers small recompense. Time wears away all bonds that once linked particular programs with particular commercial contexts. Programs circulate through the twilight of cultural memory shorn of their original commercials. The commercials, after all, were designed to expire following the fleeting half-life of a marketing campaign and then to disappear without a trace from the historical record. Episodes in syndicated repeats acquire attachments to new commercial imperatives, which also are quickly forgotten. The DVD box set completes the effacement of history by displaying the television series as a found object from a distant age, more kitsch than classic, like a cookie jar in Andy Warhol’s attic. So take these six minutes from NBC’s program schedule during the evening of April 10, 1958 and marvel at the startling incongruities in the flow of the old, weird television. To live modern in the world of Dragnet is to live hard-boiled. Emotion is a weakness, hyperbole unthinkable. The language of Dragnet, its mode of address, could not be further removed from the idiom of advertising. A boy has died in a brutal gang fight. Friday’s voiceover reports the moment when he and his partner encountered the mother:

11:45 pm. We broke the news of her son’s death to Mrs. Barson as gently as we could. She immediately became hysterical and Frank called the family doctor, who prescribed the proper sedatives.

Three decades before Oprah, the detectives are dispassionate, duty-bound to chastise the mother for her permissive parenting, which they presume has contributed to her son’s delinquency and death. At the commercial break, they abandon her on the sofa – bereft and alone in her grief. Cue the commercial for Post Grape-Nuts. To live modern in a Post cereal commercial is to live in a family whose joy briefly touches on delirium as mom, dad, sister, and brother find themselves singing and dancing with full hearts at the supermarket. (And, in contrast with the absent father of the Dragnet story, this father symbolically births the son in the commercial’s odd opening. How does this possibly make sense?) To live modern in the world of commercial television is to live in service to advertising. Dragnet owed its entire existence to the patronage of Liggett & Myers and its Chesterfield brand cigarettes. It was Chesterfield that sponsored Dragnet in its original radio incarnation beginning in 1949 and Chesterfield’s substantial advertising budget that convinced NBC to add a television version of Dragnet beginning in January 1952. In 1950 the Journal of the American Medical Association published the first major study definitively linking smoking to lung cancer. Tobacco companies responded to mounting public health concerns by introducing new brands with filter tips. Marketing implied the health benefits of filter tips over traditional cigarettes. Television in its first decade benefited from the financial windfall of these marketing campaigns for new cigarette brands. Liggett & Myers introduced L&M as its filter-tip brand and launched the brand by introducing it on Dragnet, a top-five program with a weekly audience of more than 30 million viewers. “Just what the doctor ordered,” L&M announced with its 1953 slogan. For a short time, the company turned to the tepid “Light and Mild.” The answer, at least for a moment in the flow of television in 1958, was to Live Modern with Jack Webb.

Comments

Avi Santo's picture

This is a fascinating piece

This is a fascinating piece Chris. On the one hand, it makes me question who the imagined audience for Dragnet was. My own research into radio-turned-TV properties like The Lone Ranger and The Green Hornet indicate that their creators/corporate owners were very opposed to having cigarette companies associated with their properties, but were heavily invested in cereal, bread, milk and other “wholesome” “family-friendly” sponsors. And the Green Hornet was often imagined as an adult series (although its owner, George Trendle, was unsuccessful in convincing sponsors of this claim partly because Dragnet was his misguided frame of reference).

On the other hand, the ways both sponsors juxtapose their products to the “unhealthy” world depicted in Dragnet is pretty amazing. If only Mrs. Barson had fed Bobby more post cereal (and kept a man around so that Bobby wouldn’t have fallen victim to her over mothering). If only Joe Friday could unwind with an L&M cigarette the way Jack Webb can, he might have been able to help Mrs. Barson to understand. Webb’s relaxed repose and smile and the post family’s gleeful nuclear-ness are positioned as natural and desirable worlds compared to the delinquency, broken families, and dispassionate detective work of the crime drama they are inter-textually linked with.

Kyle Edwards's picture

I echo Avi in saying that

I echo Avi in saying that this is a really interesting clip. I’m always interested in the various methods by which Dragnet promoted its own realism and the purposes the program had in producing such a discourse. This authenticity persists through to the end of the credit sequence, with the card describing the participation of the LA police chief in maintaining the accuracy of the program. The L&M plug is fascinating because it seems to complicate this in a manner quite different from the bizarre Post ad (though I do envy that family).

As the unguarded and out of character Webb shares his feelings about L&M in a modified, more intimate environment (reflected also in his wardrobe, tone and posture), the product seems to provide access to a more ‘authentic’ version of the producer-director, even as it disrupts the realistic aspects of Dragnet and exposes its constructed nature via the production equipment in the background.

I really love the final two shots, which reintegrate L&M into the mise-en-scene of the program through the concluding images of the cigarette, gun, wallet, mirror and moving hand. In this way, these shots do more than just conclude our interaction with the program with a close-up image of the product; they also dissociate L&M from the tragic tale of delinquency and family disintegration that is the sordid world of Dragnet, even as they conjure a connection to the modern world of Friday/Webb.

Kyle Barnett's picture

This clip brings up a lot of

This clip brings up a lot of interesting issues and I’m torn as to which I should address. The amazing lack of critical research on television advertising (andi advertising in general) comes to mind and I’m glad that Chris is taking on the task. This clip also brought to mind all the anxieties tied to the rise of the teenager during this period. I felt like hearing Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers’ “I’m Not a Juvenile Delinquent” after seeing this.

But what most interested me at first read was another question Chris seems to raise, about whether or not we can read Jack Webb from the present day without succumbing to kitsch. Can we read Webb’s performance in “Dragnet” or in the L&M ad in any other way?

Consider another project in which Webb was involved in 1958. He recorded his first album for the nascent Warner Bros. record label that same year, a spoken-word affair known as “You’re My Girl: Romantic Reflections by Jack Webb.” It was an unlikely project for Webb, but also shows the influence he had across media during the period (television, film, recordings, etc.) He brings his same hard-boiled persona to…Rodgers & Hart’s song mentioned in the album’s title, as well as Otis Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness.”

The album’s liner notes try to make up the distance between Webb’s television persona and his musical performances: “The man threaded the tape in the big dark-paneled room and he sat a coffee table listening. His face is dark and grooved and his eyes hold a hint of old hurts.” That’s Jack, alright. Music, we are told, makes Jack ache, it can make him grin (I suppose that’s the closest he’d get to a smile).

Just as with DVD re-releases of “Dragnet,” re-releases of Webb’s first album have targeted kitsch-hungry listeners.

But we risk missing something about Webb’s influence in the era, through his idealized, super-stoic masculinity that might address the power of “Dragnet” during the period as well as the unlikely intertextualities of Webb as a persona. And, of course, Anderson’s larger project has so much to say about television in general. Thanks for the clip, Chris.

Christopher Anderson's picture

Several ideas come to mind

Several ideas come to mind in reading these thoughtful comments:

In a week devoted to the theme of “corporate authorship,” I’m struck, as always, by the delicious incongruities and casual dadaism that hide in plain sight within the flow of corporate-authored texts.

Consider Kyle B.’s mention of the 1958 Jack Webb LP, “You’re My Girl: Romantic Reflections by Jack Webb” (which, by the way, has been reissued as a CD by Rhino Handmade as “Just the Tracks, Ma’am” and is, in fact, a truly amazing kitsch artifact). Webb had a movie contract at Warner Bros. (and would soon take over as head of the studio’s television production unit) at a time when Warners was attempting to use its music division to reverse-engineer multimedia stars in the model of Crosby, Sinatra, and Presley. But Warners had no taste for rock and roll, so they didn’t look initially to turn singers into actors. Instead, the idea at Warners was to release LPs from its growing stable of television stars. These attempts to diversify a star’s persona produced some of the great moments in postwar kitsch. You haven’t lived until you’ve heard the romantic crooning of Clint “Cheyenne” Walker.

At the same moment in 1958 when Webb was “softening” his image on LP and in advertising, he staked his claim in the hard-boiled literary world with the publication of his first book, The Badge, a ghost-authored collection of purported cases from the LAPD that were too gruesome or perverse or unresolved to be used on Dragnet. The collection holds up surprisingly well as an example of postwar pulp fiction.

In other words, there were several versions of “Jack Webb” floating through the mediascape in 1958 — and many of these Jack Webbs are remarkably incogruent with the others. They were produced for different markets, for different purposes. I’m not sure they were even intended to cohere.

As Avi points out, some sponsors were particularly sensitive to the “environment” in which their commercials would be seen. This reflected a concern about both the program as a commercial environment, and also the environment created by other advertised products. (Kraft Foods may have been the company most obsessed with controlling the environment for its products; for more than a decade Kraft advertised only on its own sponsored program — and nowhere else on television.)

The juxtaposition of cigarettes and breakfast cereal in Dragnet is particularly striking since these were often represented as the quintessentially antithetical product categories.

Even the invocation to “live modern” at the height of postwar corporate modernity takes on different meanings when expressed by different corporations with different short-term agendas, or when the product is placed in different settings or situations.

As Kyle E. notes, there is a fascinating juxtaposition at the end when the endorsement by the casual, unguarded TV auteur Jack Webb gives way to an image of the product as one of a detective’s essential accoutrements — the cigarette pack associated in close-up with the gun as a sign of the cop’s urban masculinity.

As a matter of critical practice, it argues for more attention to the material history of flow. It may be convenient to view programs out of their commercial contexts; it may be simply a pragmatic acceptance of the traces that remain in the historical record; or it may be that we have a difficult time letting go of critical traditions that allow us to conceive of a television series as an isolated artifact.

Michael Kackman's picture

Nicely put, Chris (and a

Nicely put, Chris (and a great piece overall).

This clip, and this conversation about it, speaks to the ways in which Webb was often positioned as policing the boundaries between childhood and adulthood. What seems like a contradiction — between wholesome childhood innocence and the breakfast cereal that emblematized it and the world of vice that Webb’s persona mined for cred — is ultimately resolved by Webb himself. On the show, juvenile delinquency, one of Dragnet’s persistent themes, is often represented not simply as aberrant behavior per se, but behavior that is portrayed as generationally and/or gender inappropriate.

In other words, Jack can handle it.

This, of course, is a central premise of anti-Momism’s anxieties about child-rearing and family socialization — issues taken to their hyperbolic extreme in the Webb-narrated 1962 film Red Nightmare.

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