Originally posted December 16, 2008.
The Thiel household has a number of unusual Christmas traditions, such as the gay snowmen that enjoy a place of honor atop our living room television. But the one with the most staying power is our annual screening of a 1967 episode of Dragnet . The plot, in which L.A. police detectives Joe Friday and Bill Gannon track down a missing Jesus statue, might be the stuff of banal, treacly TV Christmas specials. However, viewed through the deadpan filter of Jack Webb, it becomes an inadvertent comedy delight.
Or maybe it’s just us.
Earlier this year, I transferred my aging VHS copy–recorded some two decades ago from a “Nick at Nite” holiday marathon–onto a shiny DVD, and I’d planned to upload some highlights to YouTube in clear violation of their copyright protection policies (which I believe actually include the phrase “wink, wink”). However, Hulu has saved me both the trouble and the potential legal entanglement!
Our story opens on the day before Christmas, with Friday working the day watch out of Burglary Division. His partner Gannon (M*A*S*H ‘s Harry Morgan) enters carrying a desktop Christmas tree that’s basically a twig with a stand. “It sure brightens the place up,” Bill declares.
“I bought it from this round-headed kid named Brown.”
He sees Friday writing out a stack of Christmas cards, and says “You oughta get married, Joe. Only system. Eileen does all this stuff for me. Mails cards, laundry, only system.” One wonders how Eileen feels about the system.
Bill hopes to get off early, as he still needs to complete his holiday shopping. (Laundry detergent?) Joe, however, has already bought his girlfriend a gift: a stationary set.
Gannon: “Joe, you never learn.”
Friday: “What’s the matter?”
Gannon: “No woman wants a stationary set. You get her something personal.”
Friday: “It’s got her initials on it.”
Gannon: “No, no, no. You want something more sentimental. Romantic.”
Friday: “What’d you get Eileen?”
Gannon: “Well, it’s different in her case.”
Friday: “What’d you get your wife?”
Gannon: “A sewing machine.”
Friday: “That’s romantic.”
Gannon: “Well, it is, in a way.”
Friday: “Why didn’t you buy her a catcher’s mitt?”
This banter–which is downright frivolous by Dragnet standards–is interrupted by a call. Father Rojas from the San Fernando Mission Church has reported that their statue of the infant Jesus has been stolen! Even though it’s in Foothill Division territory, Friday decides to meet with the father.
Father: “I’m sorry to bother you men.”
Gannon: “That’s alright, Father.”
Father: “Especially now, the holiday season.”
Friday: “We cash our checks, Father.”
I feel like this is something more of us in the service industry should say.
“Thanks for coming to fix my toilet.”
“We cash our checks.”
“This ice cream cone is tasty!”
“We cash our checks.”
Soon, Father Rojas and Joe Friday are in a full-fledged quip-off:
Friday: “How late is the church open?”
Father: “All night.”
Friday: “You leave it wide open, so any thief can walk in?”
Father: “Particularly thieves, Sergeant.”
Even Friday doesn’t have a smart-ass reply to that one.
Gannon: “Just for a check on the pawn shops, how much is the statue worth?”
Father: “In money?”
Friday : “Well, that’s the point in pawn shops, Father.”
Father: “Only a few dollars. We could get a new one, but it wouldn’t be the same. We’ve had children in the parish; they’ve grown up and married. It’s the only Jesus they know.”
Gannon: “We understand.”
Father: “And we’ve had children who died. It was the only Jesus they knew. So many of the people who come here are simple people, they wouldn’t understand, Sergeant. It would be like changing the Evening Star.”
A frequent paraphrase between me and Mrs. Thielavision: “They’re a simple people; they wouldn’t understand.”
“No, really. They’re fucking stupid. It’s a wonder they know to breathe.”
The detectives promise to continue looking for the AWOL messiah, and, if possible, return it for Christmas Mass. But before they go:
Father: “It’s sad, isn’t it?”
Friday: “How’s that?”
Father: “In so short a time, men learn to steal.”
Friday: “Yes, but consider us, Father.”
Friday: “If some of ‘em didn’t, you and I would be out of work.”
The thought of continued employment comforts Father Rojas.
Hitting the pawn shops, Friday and Gannon make the acquaintance of the absurdly cantankerous Mr. Flavin, owner of Flavin’s Religious Art. (“Fifty percent European items!”) The thing about Dragnet is that I’m never quite sure when it’s trying to be funny, but the things that come out of Flavin’s mouth are so bizarre that even Joe Friday begins rolling his eyes.
Actual dialogue (paraphrased): “How’d you know my name? We never met!”
Friday asks the shopkeeper if he has a large statue of the baby Jesus, to which Flavin responds as if he’s never heard of such a thing:
Flavin: “You don’t want a large one unless it’s fer a church. That’s where you want a larger one.”
Friday: “Could we see it, please?”
Flavin: “I guess. It’s not my due to butt in, but unless you live in a big place, this’ll make your living room all a-kilter.”
Friday: “Yes, sir. Do most of the people who go to the Mission Church trade here?”
Flavin: “Good many of ‘em. Especially the kids.”
Friday: “Why kids?”
Flavin: “More religious! Check on yourself. See if kids aren’t more religious than you.”
Friday: “Might be so.”
Flavin: “That’s what’s wrong with the world!”
I’m pretty sure that no old person in the history of humanity has ever said that a resurgence of faith is the problem with the world. Especially not the owner of a religious paraphernalia store. However, Mr. Flavin is bugfuck nuts, so there’s that.
“You wouldn’t want this here Jesus! It’ll rob you blind!”
The interrogation continues:
Friday: “Do people ever come in and sell back a religious article?”
Flavin: “Like a prayer book or rosaries?”
Friday: “Yes, sir.”
Flavin: “Second hand, you mean?”
Friday: “Yes, sir.”
Flavin: “Not since I ever been around. It’s silly.”
Flavin: “People don’t have religious articles so they can get rid of ‘em. They have ‘em so they can have ‘em.”
Gannon: “But if a man had a statue and wanted to sell it, he’d come to a place like this.”
Flavin: “Sure, but he wouldn’t want to sell it.”
Friday: “He would if it was stolen.”
Flavin: “No, sir! If a man was to steal a statue, he’d be crazy or something like that. The only place he’d want to go is where crazy people are.”
Friday: “You may be right, Mr. Flavin.”
Flavin: “I don’t know what you fellas are looking for, but if it’s somebody who stole a statue, he’s crazy and you won’t find him. You won’t find him as long as you live, or in a million years!”
Friday: “That should cover it.”
Point to ponder: If crazy people are impossible to find, why do I encounter so many of them?
You too can enjoy a visit with Mr. Flavin! Click here!
Confronted by this unassailable logic, Friday and Gannon retreat. They continue to check religious stores, but “none of them were as encouraging as Mr. Flavin.”
The flatfoots return to the office to be met by one of the Mission’s altar boys, John Heffernan, played by a pre-Brady Bunch Barry Williams. When Joe tells little Greg Brady that he didn’t have to come in (“A phone call woulda worked”), the boy replies, “My father said to get on over. He said that any kid that uses phones is lazy.” My, times have changed.
“Is this about the time I stole that goat?”
Heffernan hadn’t noticed the statue being Jesus-napped, but mentions a man carrying a bundle. Friday jumps at the chance to lead the witness:
Friday: “How large a bundle?”
Heffernan: “It’s hard to say.”
Friday: “Come on, son! Was it large or small? The size of the statue?”
Heffernan: “About that big! Yes, sir!”
“Then, Marcia was hit by a football…”
The search for the man with the mysterious bundle–a church regular named Claude Stroup–leads them to a hotel for down-and-out old folks called “The Golden Dream.” Stroup is absent, and the desk clerk is worried that he won’t return in time to sing in the Christmas concert with the hotel choir.
The Three Tenors eventually went to seed.
Clerk: “I hope it’s nothing serious for Claude. Fella’s troubles oughta be over.”
Clerk: “Way back. Wouldn’t count now.”
Friday: “Tell us anyway.”
Clerk: “It was something back where he used to live. He robbed somebody or something.”
Friday: “What else?”
Clerk: “That’s all. It was a long time ago, way far back. But he forgot it all, the robbing and everything.”
Friday: “No, not quite.”
Friday: “He remembered it this morning.”
Joe Friday has heard of the presumption of innocence, but holds no truck with it.
Later, back at the station, Captain Mack attempts to send Joe and Bill off to pick up a captured fugitive, but Friday is adamant about finishing his work for Father Rojas.
Captain Mack: “What is it, a ten, fifteen-dollar chalk statue?”
Friday: “Since when’s the price determine a case?”
Well, considering that the Champaign police never called me back after my Halloween decorations were stolen, I’d say that price very much determines the case. But this is Dragnet, so instead Joe Friday adroitly guilt trips the Captain into letting him continue in the search for Jesus, leading to one of the queerest looks I’ve seen in a police drama.
Click here to watch Friday play “Good Cop, Guilty Cop!”
At 4:45 pm, there’s a break in the case: Stroup has returned to the Golden Dream. As Joe puts it, “The desk clerk was right, Claude Stroup looked like a man who’d had his troubles at bargain rates.”
“How many badges do you see?”
Impatient about being unable to present his sweetheart with her personalized stationary set, Joe Friday gets cranky:
Stroup: “Honest, I didn’t do nothing against the law.”
Friday: “You haven’t been accused. We want to talk to you downtown.”
Stroup: “No, sir, I’m not goin’. I’m not goin’ anyplace. I’m not goin’ to talk to nobody.”
Friday: “You’re half wrong already.”
And so Friday and Gannon drag his happy ass halfway across town. A couple of hours pass, and Stroup still refuses to talk. Ultimately, the real reason for his reticence is revealed: earlier that day he’d gotten into a minor parking lot accident with a borrowed car. The suspicious bundle was nothing more than his spare pants for the Christmas Eve concert. Joe glumly releases him, and tells Claude to go home. Not that he offers the poor guy a ride. Or cab fare. Go home, Stroup. Get walking. Bargain rates, indeed.
With the pawn shops closed and all leads dried up, the defeated duo return to Father Rojas with the bad news. Just then, a small Mexican boy enters pulling a wagon…inside which is the baby Jesus!
Jesus makes Paquito’s nose itchy.
The father recognizes him as Paquito Mendoza, one of the locals, and translates his Spanish:
Father: “He says that all through the years, he prayed for a red wagon. This year, he prayed to the child Jesus. He promised that if he got the red wagon, the child Jesus would have the first ride in it.”
Paquito: (speaking Spanish)
Father: “He wants to know if the devil will come and take him to Hell.”
Friday: “That’s your department, Father.”
Father: (to Paquito) “El Diablo, no.”
At which point, Vic always shouts, “El Diablo! Si!” And then she hisses. That’s what we Thiels call Christmas spirit.
Paquito returns the statue to the creche, to be watched over by its chipped and worn Nativity-mates.
God in His natural habitat.
Approving Donkey approves.
“No, you see, you are simple, Paquito. You wouldn’t understand.”
All is well. The Whos down in Who-Ville will wake up on Christmas morn and never face the prospect of being hopelessly confused by a Replacement Christ. Paquito gathers his wagon and hightails it back to his life of petty larceny.
Paquito will soon learn that there are no red wagons in Hell.
Gannon: “I don’t understand how he got the wagon today. Don’t kids wait for Santa Claus anymore?”
Father: “It’s not from Santa Claus. The firemen fix the old toys and give them to new children. Paquito’s family, they’re poor.”
Friday: “Are they, Father?”
Off to solve the Case of the Purloined Dreidel.
And with that, we draw a close to the Dragnet Christmas special. I hope that it will become a tradition in your household as well.