Dragnet: The Big .22 Rifle for Christmas (NBC, 1952)
What could have remained a harrowing holiday crime drama equivalent to the proverbial lump of coal in the Christmas stocking becomes, instead, a somewhat surprising expostulation on forgiveness in possibly the worst possible circumstance, which might be reduced to a maudlin cliché but for the sober professionalism of the cast and the writing.
It begins when a nine-year-old boy is reported missing, with suspicion of foul play amplified by shell casing found at his home’s back yard, with Friday (Jack Webb) and Smith (Ben Alexander) launching a probe that takes them to the boy’s family, the family of his eight-year-old best friend, an unthinkable tragedy involving a Christmas present—a .22 rifle—with which they experimented, until the nine-year-old returns to tell a staggering story . . . and the eight-year-old’s father offers an equally jarring resolution involving his son’s Christmas presents.
You could argue that mastermind Webb and company could have found a less harrowing way to send a Christmas message through the vehicle of a seminal crime drama, but then you might have to argue that this show, which prided itself on terse acting and baloney-proof writing for the most part, should have stepped a little too far out of character even for yuletide.
But then you may want to give a look at how the show’s first television remake of this very episode plays by comparison. Then you may understand just how right the radio original will remain over half a century later. Because you don’t really need to see the faces to know how two families’ terrors can bring two otherwise unstylishly hard-boiled detectives as close as they would ever come to letting emotion sneak through their customarily unflappable selves. And, how even Dragnet could not be immune to offering a genuine tear-jerker.
Additional cast: William Johnstone, Sammy Ogg, unknown players. Announcer: George Fenneman. Music: Walter Schumann. Director: Jack Webb. Writer: Jim Moser.
FURTHER CHANNEL SURFING . . .
Duffy’s Tavern: A Christmas Show with Monty Woolley (Blue Network; Armed Forces Radio Network Rebroadcast, 1943)—“The wise old actor with the sage old brush,” as Archie (Ed Gardner) describes guest Monty Woolley, is going to play Santa in the tavern’s annual Christmas pageant, except that Archie—as is customary in these situations, alas—hasn’t exactly invited Woolley to do it yet, and probably won’t until he shows up on the day of the pageant. (“Look what a challenge it’d be to you as a thespedestrian!” Archie warbles, and if you had nightmares of him on a date with Jane Ace, there isn’t a jury in this world that would say you were unjustified.) Eddie: Eddie Green. Miss Duffy: Florence Halop. Finnegan: Charles Cantor. Music: Peter Van Steeden Orchestra. Director: Possibly Jack Roche. Writers: Ed Gardner, Abe Burrows, further unknown.
Fibber McGee & Molly: Looking for a Christmas Tree (NBC, 1943)—In which the Squire of 79 Wistful Vista (Jim Jordan) learns the hard way (doesn’t he usually?) that waiting until the last minute to get the Christmas tree is as big a pain in the rump roast as waiting until the last minute to buy the Christmas presents—especially when everyone they know seems to have the same problem. The real treat: Teeny (Marian Jordan, who also plays Molly) reprises her charming performance of “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” with the King’s Men, whose Ken Darby set the classic poem to music. Uncle Dennis: Bill Thompson. Alice Darling: Shirley Mitchell. Louie: Possibly Hugh Studebaker. Doc: Arthur Q. Bryan. Announcer: Harlow Wilcox. Music: Billy Mills Orchestra, the King’s Men. Writers: Don Quinn, Phil Leslie.
The Jack Benny Program: Last Minute Christmas Shopping (NBC, 1947)—With three more shopping days before Christmas, Jack (Benny) meets Mary (Livingstone) for shopping and opens a charge account, Dennis (Day) ponders a gift for his parents, and Phil (Harris) flirts with a salesgirl (possibly Shirley Mitchell) who remembers him from last year’s shopping. Announcer: Don Wilson. Music: Phil Harris Orchestra, the Sports Men. Writers: George Balzar, Sam Perrin, Milt Josefsberg.