James rides into town to help Marshal Matt Dillon (not that one) keep law and order in this review of the classic TV series, sponsored by DVD Pacific.
Hank Hill, propane salesman extraordinaire, is aghast to learn that his home town of Arlen was founded around a house of ill-repute…
Peggy: It’s really no big deal, I mean, you never objected to Miss Kitty on Gunsmoke.
Hank: What about her?
Peggy: Oh come on, they had all those rooms upstairs….she didnt charge enough for drinks.
Hank: (Devastated) Not Miss Kitty!
– “Harlottown,” King of the Hill
Miss Kitty’s profession was always the big open secret of Gunsmoke. As Peggy says, it was never really in doubt – the fact that Miss Kitty employs a bunch of girls who spend their time flitting around the Long Branch Saloon wearing provocative costumes, getting the men of Dodge City all hot and bothered and negotiating a flat fee before leading them upstairs is a bit of a giveaway – but there was just enough left to the imagination to ensure her occupation went over the heads of younger viewers and people like Hank. Nevertheless, it’s one of two questions we should clear up before going any further. The other is an issue which bothered someone so much in the early Nineties that they wrote into TV Guide to get the answer. In which episode, they asked, did Albert Einstein make his appearance? In case you’ve been wondering ever since, the answer is of course he didn’t, not only because the idea is utterly mad but also because he had died some months previously to the first episode being aired and would therefore have had considerable difficulty in getting to the studio or learning his lines. Why anyone would think that he had done seemed strange and the story got even odder when the misunderstanding turned out to be the fault of none other than Brent Spiner (although, in general, I find that all of life’s woes can be pinned on him eventually in one form or another). In 1993 Stephen Hawking made a guest appearance on Star Trek: The Next Generation and Spiner, tongue firmly in cheek, commented that it was “the most notable moment in television history since Albert Einstein appeared on Gunsmoke.” It seems that at least one reader of TV Guide took him literally, and possibly then spent many fruitless hours trying to spot everyone’s favourite relativity-botherer, maybe locked away in Dodge’s jail or chatting to one of Miss Kitty’s girls. But he ain’t there, and it’s good to be able to clear that up once and for all.
William Conrad was someone else who never appeared on the show, although he was considerably more annoyed about the fact than Einstein. Conrad was the star of the original radio version of Gunsmoke, the first Matt Dillon, and when television executives began to discuss the possibility of transferring the successful Western to the new medium he naturally assumed he would make the transition with it. Unfortunately he was not what one might call the ideal physical embodiment of a heroic, noble lawman, being a rather rotund gentleman at the time, and was never a serious possibility for the television role. This was a great disappointment to him, as well as to the other radio cast members who were similarly spurned, and to rub salt into the wound they then had to sit on the sidelines and watch as the new version rapidly and comprehensively eclipsed the old, eventually going on to become one of the most successful US television series of all time. Running for twenty years and a staggering 635 episodes, TV’s Gunsmoke became part of the cultural folklore, made a household name of its new Dillon James Arness, and helped launch the careers of a huge number of luminaries. Sam Peckinpah cut his teeth writing and directing on the series, Elmer Bernstein and Jerry Goldsmith composed music for it, and Dennis Weaver costarred for the first nine years. On this side of the Atlantic it’s possible there aren’t many people for whom these days the name Gunsmoke means anything, but in the US the show is television royalty.
This didn’t stop the radio cast grumbling, often at some length, claiming this new interloper was a pale shadow of their magnificent original. In many ways they were right, but what they perhaps didn’t appreciate was that the change in style was the very reason it became such a mainstream hit. While both incarnations shared the same core four characters – Marshal Dillon, his slow-witted sidekick Chester (Weaver), Miss Kitty (Amanda Blake) and Dodge’s always-in-demand sawbones Doc Adams (Milburn Stone) – their tones were completely different. The radio version was intentionally gritty, with Dillon a haunted, troubled man, Miss Kitty’s profession never in doubt and the Doc an alcoholic sometimes as much in need of treatment as his patients. Intended by its co-creators Norman Macdonnell and John Meston as a riposte to the endless succession of juvenile Westerns which up to that point had cluttered the airwaves the series broke new ground and was not afraid to tackle what were at the time taboo subjects. Television, on the other hand, had very different priorities. It was a new medium, tentatively experimenting with different genres, and Gunsmoke was one of the first major attempts to make a Western fit on the small screen. This was no time to be busting taboos, and so the characters were re-imagined, with Arness’s Dillon portrayed as a more traditional, straight-down-the-line hero and Doc Adams no longer a drunkard, while Miss Kitty’s profession was kept very much in the backroom.
The four characters now formed a reassuring family dynamic, with Dillon the all-protecting father figure keeping watch over Kitty and dozy but lovable junior Chester while relying on the elder Adams to dispense advice and care when he himself needed it. Their relationships embody the fact that, despite the ostensive lawless setting of Dodge City, Gunsmoke is a striking conservative show. Most episodes go along the same basic lines: a stranger walks into Dodge and causes some sort of trouble, leading to a climax in which he or she is either shot dead or hounded out of town. The subtext couldn’t be clearer, and as a portrait of attitudes at the time, wary of any outside influence, not especially attractive. It isn’t just the traditional Other that is a subject of suspicion in the series either – as well as the alien Indian (the sight of which, at least in the volume under review here, is surprising rare) any interference from back East is just as bad. The wild west has its own rules that the Government just doesn’t understand, and as long as they don’t come poking their noses into our affairs we won’t go into theirs, and we’ll all get along just fine. It seems that the white picket fences of small town America extended even to the prairies of Kansas.
It was Meston who set that tone. In the first few years he virtually wrote the series single-handed, churning out well over thirty scripts a season for both radio and television incarnations. In an interview at the time he explained how he maintained such a prolific output: “I decide that it’s time for an Indian story, or an army story, or maybe a Civil War vet returning home. Then I think of the people I knew as a kid in Colorado. And I think about what I’ve read about the West in the 1970s, and I put a character together.” It’s easy to see that formula at work in the collection of episodes making up this volume, all of which date from 1957. There are women beaters and braggarts and gunslingers, men who think they can run the town better than Dillon and women who love to cause trouble amongst the men folk. Unsurprisingly, some of the episodes are very similar – Bureaucrat is not much different from Uncle Oliver or The Man Who Would be Martial for example – but there’s just enough variation to make sure things don’t get too repetitive. As can be inferred from the above quote Meston deals in archetypes and doesn’t innovate much (not that he had time to) but he packs his scripts with a wry humour and sufficiently interesting characterisation to make sure that even if the end point of each episode is signposted clearly from the outset the journey is still worth making. Occasionally he even hits upon a truly intriguing figure, such as the remarkably modern psychopath of What the Whisky Drummer Heard, the clinical photographer of The Photographer or the coquettish troublemaker of Sweet and Sour, which give the impression at times of a writer secretly wishing he could be as daring on screen as he could be on the wireless.
As with the guest stars characterisation of the leads is simple (albeit not simplistic) and the odd time that the series tries to dig a little deeper into the souls of its characters the writing has a tendency to cop out, as seen in Bloody Hands and Daddy-O. But there’s just enough about Dillon and co to ensure they are not completely one-dimensional creations – Kitty, for example, is a proud, gallant woman (not unlike her modern-day equivalent, Inara, in Firefly) while Dillon has his own morality that says it’s okay to shoot a guy as long as he’s wearing a firearm as well. That said, while there’s a lot written about how much of the show’s appeal is in the characters, as much is down to the performance as the scripts. Arness (the brother of Peter “Mission: Impossible” Graves) is the sort of lantern-jawed hero one would expect to marshal a town like Dodge, while Weaver, who eventually grew to hate his role, is charming as Chester. They are helped along by a Dodge City set that betrays its small screen origins but is surprisingly immersive – the transitions between soundstage and on location footage work far better than they have any right to, while the show’s collection of directors disguse the fact that much of the action is stagey as hell.
Ultimately it’s pulp, but it’s good pulp. The ambitions of many of the finest big screen Westerns of the era on just couldn’t squeeze into the confines of the small so there’s nothing especially meaningful or profound to be discerned from the show, and admittedly there’s nothing memorable about any of the lead characters, Chester’s hick drawl notwithstanding. But as half an hour’s diversion it’s hugely enjoyable, helped along by Meston’s writing and the charm of the leads. Gunsmoke was the vanguard to a whole wave of TV Westerns – by 1959 there were no less than 26 in a single season – and set the gold standard, so much so that it was still standing when most of the rest had fallen by the wayside. Arness spent the rest of his career playing Dillon, and the very fact the last TV movie was made as recently as 1994 is a testament to its appeal. Time declared it one of the 100 best TV shows of all time, and while it looks simplistic today its ability to entertain has not diminished one iota. And that’s despite the fact that Einstein doesn’t turn up once.
This release completes the issue onto DVD of Season Two, covering the last nineteen episodes from Bloody Hands (first broadcast 16th February 1957) to Jealousy (6th July 1957).These nineteen half-hour episodes come on three single-sided DVDs which are packaged compactly in a single case. This is attractively styled, and comes complete with a brief episode synopsis and airdate for each episode on the inside cover. The menus for each DVD are simple, a list of the episodes on that disc together with the ever-helpful Play All option, accompanied by a picture of at least one of the main characters. However, there are no subtitles.
There is a concerning caveat to be noted amongst the small print on said case, namely “Some episodes may be edited from their original network versions” but never having seen Gunsmoke in the raw as it were I can’t say whether this happened on this set – there are no obvious edits, except for the excising of the sponsor slots on the opening sequence. At first glance the Video transfer looks excellent, with a notably vivid picture and hardly any artefacts worth mentioning. However, there are some problems which bring the score down. The most notable is the amount of aliasing to be seen; while the scenes shot on one of the external sets aren’t too affected, nearly every sequence which takes place in either the Marshall’s jailhouse or the saloon suffers from the problem. The grain, too, is much in evidence, so much so that occasionally the background swims with the stuff when the camera moves, which can be at times most distracting. The Marshall’s habit of wearing a closely-chequered shirt also causes the odd problem with the sudden appearance of vibrant stereoscopic colour on the usually clear black and white image. Fortunately the mono Audio track is virtually flawless – unsurprisingly not quite as sharp as something filmed last week but perfectly clear and clean.
There are some grumbles to be seen amongst online reviews voicing the opinion that Gunsmoke is being treated shoddily, splitting up the release of this second season and not providing anything decent in the way of extras. The former quibble is valid but hardly unique to Gunsmoke, with many classic television series suffering similar treatment (not least Gunsmoke’s stablemate Rawhide.) However, the latter concern is certainly one which needs addressing. The earlier, Best Of episode compilations, the 50th Anniversary Set and The Directors’ Collection, have come with a goodly collection of extras, including commentaries, footage taken from the set and archive interviews. In comparison, the only thing these complete season releases have had are a miserably small collection of Sponsor Slots (“Always get L&M’s full exciting flavour!”) which on this volume total only 3’17” in running time. At the very least, those extras pertaining to the first two seasons from the earlier releases should have been bundled in. It’s a derisory effort. doubly disappointing given that in other respects the presentation of these episodes is pretty good. Let’s hope they pull their fingers out for Season Three.
I love this show. It’s repetitive at times, conservative in nature and stereotypical in the extreme, but it’s just so gosh-darned entertaining, with four very attractive central performances, excellent production values and a central writer who produces the goods week after week. The packaging on this particular collection is simple but effective, but the lack of supplementary features is a big negative which, if wasn’t for the fact the episodes themselves are so much fun, would be enough to send the set to Boot Hill. As it is, let’s just hope things pick up for the next release, otherwise we might have to send the Marshal up to Paramount to sort things out…
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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