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1959 was a pivotal and busy year for actor-writer-director-producer Jack Webb. In a significant milestone, his Dragnet (1951-1959) TV series, which made Webb world famous as the monotone police Sgt. Joe Friday, ended after 278 half-hour episodes (in addition to over 500 radio shows). With his Mark VII Limited production company, Webb stepped-up his TV output, launching a series based on Pete Kelly's Blues (1954), the highly-regarded jazz-soaked film set in the 1920s. (The series, with William Reynolds taking over the title role, only lasted for 13 episodes). The same year, Mark VII also produced two unsold TV pilots, The D.A.'s Man starring John Compton as a private detective, and The Black Cat, about an investigative journalist. The newspaper world also formed the backdrop for yet another 1959 production from Webb, the feature film -30- (1959), for which Webb - as he had with previous films The D.I. (1957), and Pete Kelly's Blues -- became a multi-hyphenate and produced, directed, and starred.
The intent with -30- was to depict a single night-edition shift in the life of the city room at a metropolitan newspaper. The city in never named, but maps of Southern California on the walls indicate a Los Angeles setting. (Incidentally, the unorthodox title of the film, incomplete without the dashes, is newspaper copy-writing code for "the end.") At the start of the three-o'clock-to-midnight shift, city editor Jim Bathgate (William Conrad) is messily cleaning out his coffeepot over a wastepaper basket while chewing out Collins the copy boy (David Nelson). Old-timers in the large city room look on with a knowing smirk, as if they have seen Bathgate play out the scenario with a long succession of copy boys. Nighttime managing editor Sam Gatlin (Jack Webb) arrives late following his weekly visit to the graves of his late wife and child, killed a few years earlier by a drunk driver. Senior female reporter Lady Wilson (Louise Lorimer) asks Gatlin to keep tabs on the wire services for news of her grandson, who is part of an Air Force flight group out of Honolulu intending to set a speed record. Gatlin and his staff, including Hy Shapiro (Joe Flynn) and the sports editor (Howard McNear), discuss the top stories on what appears to be a slow news day. During the course of the shift, Peggy (Whitney Blake), Gatlin's new wife of three years, stops in to discuss the couple's impending adoption of a little boy (which Gatlin opposes), while at the same time a story heats up as a little girl has wandered into an open catch basin and may be dead or may be wandering lost in the city's vast storm drain.
The screenplay of -30-, by William Bowers, is earnest when dealing with Gatlin's home life or the lost little girl, but pushes the comedic angle in all other scenes concerning the newspaper staff. The comedy approach is further emphasized by Webb's direction as well as the rib-nudging music score by Ray Heindorf. In addition, several of the film's supporting players had already begun, or were starting, careers in popular TV sitcoms, including David Nelson (The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet), Joe Flynn (McHale's Navy), Richard Deacon (Leave It To Beaver and The Dick Van Dyke Show), and Howard McNear (The Andy Griffith Show). Bowers' dialogue is almost all of a piece and could be interchangeable between the characters; it drips with a cynical sarcasm, whether appropriate to the character or not. William Conrad's Bathgate leads the charge-- when asked if he called for a copy boy, he says, "Now why should I call for a boy when girls are so pretty?" Every other character in the city room echoes this same tone. When given a supposed comedy retort, Joe Flynn's Shapiro says, "and to think I've been feeling sorry for myself because working nights I've had to miss so may of those TV comedy shows." The endlessly arch dialogue wears thin after a short time and perhaps only Louise Lorimer as Lady Wilson rings true when she confronts Bathgate by saying, "You're pressing again, Jim - your humor's not only forced and reaching - it's not funny."
With -30-, Jack Webb also seems to be fashioning a "softer" character for himself following the by-the-book Sgt. Friday and the tough-as-nails gunnery sergeant he played in his previous feature, The D.I.. The adoption sub-plot feels contrived, and Gatlin is written as a compliment to William Conrad's Bathgate - as if they are two parts of the classic Webb persona; the rat-tat-tat dialogue and phony gruff exterior of Bathgate's character would seem tailor-made for Webb's talents.
Writing in the New York Times, critic Howard Thompson notes Jack Webb's previous feature films and says that "...unlike those others, [-30-] sorely lacks the pounding, graphic drive of Mr. Webb's previous directional efforts. Even worse, about 80 percent of the dialogue is a wearying exchange of stale wisecracking - the kind of sophomoric newspaper lingo that went out with prohibition." Thompson feels the movie only succeeds with the later scenes covering the search for the little girl: "Briefly, in these final-quarter scenes, with some blunt telephone exchanges, a rewrite battery complete with earphones and various department heads huddling tersely with Mr. Webb, The Banner does manage to suggest a real newspaper."
Jack Webb's follow-up film as producer-director-star would be The Last Time I Saw Archie (1961), co-starring Robert Mitchum.
Producer: Jack Webb
Director: Jack Webb
Screenplay: William Bowers
Cinematography: Edward Colman
Art Direction: Feild M. Gray, Gibson Holley
Music: Ray Heindorf
Film Editing: Robert M. Leeds
Cast: Jack Webb (Sam Gatlin), William Conrad (Jim Bathgate), David Nelson (Earl Collins), Whitney Blake (Peggy Gatlin), Louise Lorimer (Lady Wilson), James Bell (Ben Quinn), Nancy Valentine (Jan Price), Joe Flynn (Hy Shapiro), Richard Bakalyanv (Carl Thompson), Dick Whittinghill (Fred Kendall)
By John M. Miller