Police Drama (July 6, 1950 – February 20, 1953)
The Lineup is a realistic police drama that gives radio audiences a look behind the scenes at police headquarters. Bill Johnstone plays Lt. Ben Guthrie, a quiet, calm-as-a-cupcake cucumber. Joseph Kearns and later Wally Maher (1951 to 1953) plays Sgt. Matt Grebb, a hot-tempered hot plate who is easily bored.
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The director and script writer often rode with police on the job and sat in on the police lineups to get ideas for The Lineup. They also read dozens of newspapers daily and intermeshed real stories with those that they used in the show.
Police procedural dramas can be the most entertaining form of crime story. Their protagonists may lack the quirky peculiarities we see in a traditional whodunit, but the stories hit closer to home for the audience. The story placed less emphasis on the brilliance of the crook who often thought that they have committed the perfect crime. In the procedural, the focus is on the cops who work to protect their communities from the bad guys.
Radio used police procedurals for a long time. Gang Busters was an over the top example, but Phillips H. Lord recognized that real cops going after real crooks would be a hit with the audience. Police Headquarters, The FBI in Peace and War, Calling All Cars, Border Patrol 1941 and Broadway Is My Beat all focused on cops doing their jobs. The police procedural got its biggest boost after a radio actor named Jack Webb had a small role in the film He Walked by Night (1948).
While filming, Webb struck up a friendship with LAPD Detective Sergeant Marty Wynn, a technical advisor on the film. Wynn helped Webb develop the idea which would become "the most famous procedural of all time", Dragnet. When Dragnet premiered and became a hit in 1949, other producers were quick to put together shows which would imitate Dragnet gritty realism.
The line-up is a common plot device in police procedurals; even Dragnet used it on occasion. The cops round up the suspects on a stage, the eyewitnesses look them over, hoping to pick out the crook and say "That one officer! That’s the man I saw running away". What they neglect to tell us is that eyewitness testimony is notoriously unreliable.
However, the procedure made a nice hook for one of CBS's Dragnet imitators, The Line Up.
The original idea for Gang Busters had been to use actual FBI cases for story inspiration, but it became obvious that Lords and FBI director J Edgar Hoover did not see eye to eye. Hoover was better satisfied with the treatment given by The FBI in Peace and War beginning in 1944. When the time came for Peace and War to take a summer break at the end of the 1950 season, CBS decided to try and win some of the Dragnet audience with The Line Up. The assignment was given Elliot Lewis, whose multiple talents had earned him the nickname "Mr. Radio".
Lewis had the connections to put together just about anything in radio. He was involved with more than 900 radio productions. As an actor, he was best known for playing the trouble making guitar player Frankie Remley on The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show. He also took a turn as Nero Wolfe’s legman Archie Godwin. As one of CBS’s regular players, he made many appearances on Suspense, and occasionally wrote scripts for the William Spier directed program. Lewis would eventually be given the helm as producer/director of Suspense, but first he cut his teeth directing Broadway Is My Beat during the 1950 regular season, which he followed up by creating The Line Up.
It is tempting to discount The Line Up as an imitator riding the coat tails of Dragnet, but Lewis’s creation was very much its own show. Dragnet paints a very realistic picture of the grittiness of LA in the fifties. The Line Up is every bit as realistic, but placing the action in the foggy hills of San Francisco softened much of the grit. Just as Dragnet used cases from the LAPD for scripts, San Francisco police files were story sources for The Line Up. Instead of building the whole show around a single dedicated (if one dimensional) Detective Sergeant like Webb’s Joe Friday, the cases were shared by Lt. Ben Guthrie, voiced by former Shadow actor Bill Johnstone and Sergeant Matt Greb, played by Wally Maher.
The Line Up did well enough during the 1950 summer season to get called back in the fall, but before the summer was over Elliot Lewis was ready to move on to other things, namely taking Suspense into what many critics consider its most creative period. Jaime del Valle was tapped to take over directing.
During the fifties, CBS radio was largely a development ground for programs which would make the transition to CBS TV, and The Line Up was no exception. After the radio version was cancelled after the season, CBS retooled the program for the small screen, where it remained popular for six seasons. The TV version was more closely aligned with its San Francisco setting, even though it was filmed at Desilu Studios in Los Angeles. The Line Up eventually made it to the big screen in 1958, and the film version was shot at several iconic San Francisco locations.
Although often billed as a Dragnet imitation, OTR fans listening to The Line Up for the first time will be better reminded of another popular procedural drama, Gunsmoke. The Western drama owes much of its realism to the sound effect geniuses at the CBS studios, and the development of that genius is a big part of The Line Up.
Although The Line Up had only a short life on commercial radio, it was picked up and popularized on AFRS, becoming a popular diversion for our boys serving Cold War duty overseas. When these GI’s came home to the land of Television, many of them kept their taste for radio, and were among the first hobbyists to begin collecting and trading original OTR recordings.
With Dragnet a smash hit, realism in police dramas was popular at the time this show aired. Don't be caught without this old time radio show in your collection!
See also the true crime story series: Dragnet, Did Justice Triumph, Official Detective, Tales of the Texas Rangers, Border Patrol, Up for Parole, Calling All Cars, Call the Police, and Unit 99