A big brick of a boxed set, Classic TV Westerns - Collector's Edition is a massive public domain release of 300 episodes (yep, 300) culled from 35 different series, most dating from the 1950s and early-'60s, the Golden Age of the TV Western. Spread over 24 double-sided DVDs, there no denying that you get a lot for your money. With an SRP of $44.98, that comes out to about fifteen cents per episode.
This set is really for the collector and die-hard genre fan interested in more obscure offerings like Cowboy G-Men and The Last of the Mohicans rather than familiar fare like Bonanza and The Lone Ranger, shows already available on DVD in better versions, or likely to turn up eventually in authorized editions.
None of the episodes approach the kind of pristine presentations one expects from mainstream labels like CBS DVD, but all of the episodes this reviewer sampled were at least okay. Most seem drawn from 16mm TV prints, second-generation dupes on tape. Considering the rarity of many of these shows, I'm willing to make allowances, and happily almost everything in this set appears uncut and not time-compressed, though there is at least one glaring alteration done to one particular show for obvious legal reasons; more on that below.
Here's the dizzying lineup:
26 Men (Syndicated by ABC, 1957-59) Former serial star Tristram Coffin plays real-life Arizona Ranger Thomas H. Rynning in this series, produced by cowboy actor Russell Hayden. Kelo Henderson co-stars. (Included: 2 episodes)
The Adventures of Champion (CBS, 1955-56) That's right, a half-hour series built around Gene Autry's horse. Human being Barry Curtis and German Shepherd "Rebel" co-star. (1 episode)
The Adventures of Jim Bowie (ABC, 1956-58) Cheap-looking series starring British actor Scott Forbes as the knife-wielding adventurer later played by Richard Widmark in the 1960 epic The Alamo. (6 episodes)
The Adventures of Kit Carson (syndicated, 1951-55) Bill Williams stars as the famous American frontiersman. (6 episodes)
Annie Oakley (syndicated, 1954-57) Gene Autry's Flying A Productions produced this Republic Pictures-esque series about the famous sharpshooter. The appealing Gail Davis stars in this wildly inauthentic but fun show. (6 episodes)
Bat Masterson (NBC, 1958-61) Gene Barry (War of the Worlds, Burke's Law) stars as yet another Western icon, in a series produced by Ziv Television Productions (Highway Patrol, Sea Hunt). (2 episodes)
Bonanza (NBC, 1959-73) The second-longest Western series in the history of television after Gunsmoke, Bonanza was on the air for a whopping 430 episodes. Lorne Greene, Dan Blocker, and Michael Landon star. Note: Fearing legal reprisals, these episodes have replaced the iconic theme song with really awful generic music. (10 episodes)
Brave Eagle (produced by NBC but aired on CBS, 1955-56) Keith Larsen (The Walking Major) stars in the title role, a young Cheyenne chief. It was the first series to feature a Native American as its leading character. Bert Wheeler, one-half of the '30s comedy team of Wheeler & Woolsey, co-stars. (1 episode)
Buffalo Bill Jr. (syndicated, 1955-56) Another of Gene Autry's Flying A productions, the series starred Dickie Jones, the voice of Pinocchio as an orphan adopted by a kindly judge (Harry Cheshire). (17 episodes)
The Cisco Kid (syndicated, 1950-56) One of the first and most durable of Western series, The Cisco Kid starred Duncan Renaldo in the title role, with Leo Carrillo as his faithful, comical sidekick, Pancho. Its producers get an "A" for foresight: reportedly this was the first television series filmed in color (albeit 16mm), though long before the advent of color television. (34 episodes)
Cowboy G-Men (syndicated, 1952-53) Russell Hayden, who got his start riding alongside Hopalong Cassidy in the 1930s and early-'40s, stars as government agent Pat Gallagher. Co-star Jackie Coogan, not the first actor to come to mind for such things, plays his comical sidekick. (5 episodes)
Death Valley Days (syndicated, 1952-72) Another long-running series, this one a Western anthology hosted at various times in its history by Ronald Reagan and Robert Taylor. These episodes are introduced by Stanley Andrews as "The Old Ranger." The episodes this reviewer looked at were surprisngly entertaining. (3 episodes)
The Deputy (NBC, 1959-61) Norman Lear scored big by signing movie star (as Western movie icon) Henry Fonda for this series - but he's hardly in it. Fonda's marshal leaves most of the leg-work to co-star Allen Case (in the title role). Fonda was at the center of just 19 of the series' 75 episodes. In the rest, he puts in a brief appearance at the beginning and/or end. Boo! (2 episodes)
Frontier Doctor (syndicated, 1958-59) Rex Allen, former late-period singing cowboy, stars in this series, which is rather like Gunsmoke scripts focusing on Milburn Stone's Doc Adams, except there's no Matt Dillon or Chester or Miss Kitty here. (13 episodes)
Fury (NBC, 1955-60) Long before Mission: Impossible, Peter Graves starred in this British-produced series about a beloved stallion, which co-starred Ann Robinson (War of the Worlds). (4 episodes)
The Gabby Hayes Show (ABC, 1956) George "Gabby" Hayes, endearing sidekick to Hopalong Cassidy, Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, and others, ended his career with this dreadful series, which opens with Gabby yammering about nothing in particular for several minutes, more or less introducing extremely condensed versions of crummy PRC Westerns from the '40s. Of course, even though those films generally ran under an hour, they're still cut to about 20 minutes for these episodes, and are utterly incoherent. (6 episodes)
The Last of the Mohicans (syndicated, 1957) Intriguing series filmed in Ontario, Canada by ITC and the CBC starring John Hart (who replaced Clayton Moore for a time as The Lone Ranger), and Lon Chaney Jr. The snow-covered locations and authentic feel to the Native American scenes add a lot. (15 episodes)
Hudson's Bay (syndicated? 1959)Another Canadian production about fur trappers and the like, starring British actor John Clark and American Barry Nelson, the original James Bond. (3 episodes)
Judge Roy Bean (syndicated, 1956) Edgar Buchanan stars as the infamous title character, "the law west of the Pecos," in a series produced in color (quite rare for the time) by Cowboy G-Men's Russell Hayden. Jack Buetel (Billy the Kid in The Outlaw) co-stars. - (14 episodes)
The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp (ABC, 1955-61) Long-running series that climaxed with the Gunfight at the OK Corral in its final season, with Hugh O'Brian as frontier marshal Earp. This series is slowly being released to DVD, so consider this something like a free sample. (1 episode)
The Lone Ranger (ABC, 1949-57) The first TV Western. Like Wyatt Earp an official DVD release of The Lone Ranger with superior masters is underway, so you'll want to skip these inferior looking shows. (17 episodes)
Northwest Passage (NBC, 1958-59) Another early color show, this one was produced by MGM and starring Keith Larsen (late of Brave Eagle) and Buddy Ebsen (late of Davy Crockett), and set during the French and Indian War of the mid-18th century, a rarely touched-upon period for the Western. (8 episodes)
Pistols 'n' Petticoats (CBS, 1966-67) Western sitcom from Joe Connelly, the co-creator of Leave it to Beaver and The Munsters, featuring movie star Ann Sheridan, who died midway through the show's first season. Alas, though produced in color, these (3 episodes) are in black & white and in faux letterbox format.
The Range Rider (syndicated, 1951-53) Jock Mahoney, step-father of Sally Field, stars in this Gene Autry-produced series that co-starred Buffalo Bill Jr's Dickie Jones. (18 episodes) Note: Jock Mahoney fan Sergei Hasenecz expressed dismay that I had slighted the actor's career, noting, "[He] was Yancy Derringer, which certainly should be of some interest to a reader of your review since this was a TV western with a gimmick and could easily have been included in this set. He did many other westerns - movies and TV, as actor, stuntman, and stunt coordinator - including a part as Raquel Welch's husband in Bandolero! He played Tarzan. He appeared in Three Stooges two-reelers, including Squareheads of the Round Table, where the Stooges perform one of the funniest spoofs of the sextet from Lucia di Lammermoor ever done." Well said.
Red Ryder (syndicated, 1956) Famously disagreeable B-Western actor Allan "Rocky" Lane, later the uncredited voice of Mr. Ed, starred in this unpopular show that followed the popular film series. Louis Lettieri replaced Robert Blake as Little Beaver. (1 episode)
The Rifleman (ABC, 1958-63) Chuck Connors is homesteader and Civil War veteran Lucas McCain, a widower raising a young son (Johnny Crawford, now a popular Hollywood musician specializing in vintage music). I'd hold out for official full season sets. (3 episodes)
The Roy Rogers Show (NBC, 1951-57) Poor Roy Rogers! Though he and wife Dale Evans (and Roy's horse, Trigger, and their sidekick, Pat Brady, etc., etc.) were genuinely beloved by several generations who grew up in the 1940s and '50s, Roy's movies for Republic and his TV show have to a large extent fallen into the public domain. Somebody needs to give this series the same loving attention as has been given to similar shows starring Gene Autry and William "Hopalong Cassidy" Boyd. This is a fun show, but I sure wish it looked better than this. (30 episodes)
Sergeant Preston of the Yukon (CBS, 1955-58) Richard Simmons (no, not that one) stars as the rugged Northwest Mounted Policeman fighting crime with his lead sled dog, Yukon King. This is another one to skip, as a legitimate full season set debuts later this month. (12 episodes)
Shotgun Slade (syndicated, 1959-61) Scott Brady (He Walked by Night, The China Syndrome, and Lawrence Tierney's brother) plays a private eye of the prairie packing a combination shotgun/rifle in this offbeat Western featuring a jazzy score a la Peter Gunn. I was rather taken by this unusual but appealing genre jumble. (15 episodes)
Sky King (NBC, later ABC, 1951-59) Kirby Grant plays rancher and aircraft pilot Schuyler "Sky" King in this popular adaptation of the long-running radio series. A complete set of the entire series is available. (4 episodes)
Stoney Burke (ABC, 1962-63) A pre-Hawaii Five-O Jack Lord stars as a rodeo rider in this cult series, which featured Warren Oates and Bruce Dern as his pals. Created by The Outer Limits' Leslie Stevens with many episodes directed by Tom Gries (Will Penny), this is an obscure series I'd sure like to see more of. Alas, here there's just ...(1 episode)
Stories of the Century (syndicated? 1954) Jim Davis (Dallas) stars in this Emmy-winning series, produced by a dying Republic Pictures and using much stock footage from its films. (27 episodes)
Sugarfoot (ABC, 1957-61) Popular Warner Bros. Television-produced series starring Will Hutchins as frontier lawyer Tom Brewster and wild-eyed Jack Elam as Toothy Thompson (like the audience is going to notice his teeth first). (1 episode)
U.S. Marshall (aka Sheriff of Cochise) (syndicated, 1956-58) This Desilu production stars John Bromfield as lawman Frank Morgan (as opposed to MGM actor Frank Morgan) working in Arizona, where location footage was filmed (near Bisbee). (5 episodes)
Wagon Train (NBC, later ABC, 1957-65) Another series you might want consider holding out for; an official DVD may be in the offing soon. The box credits Ward Bond but he died halfway during the show's run and these (3 episodes) all feature his replacement, character actor John McIntyre.
The Wide Country (NBC, 1962-63) Another rodeo drama that aired the same season as Stoney Burke. This starred Earl Holliman and Andrew Prine as bronco-bustin' brothers, and featured real-life rodeo star Slim Pickens. (1 episode)
Needless to say, I haven't watched everything, and for the purposes of this review could only come close to sampling at least one episode from every show. Most are cheap though adequately produced and unambitious, while a few are polished, adult and sometimes offbeat. Many of these shows are geared for kids, but even some of these are surprisingly violent.
For this reviewer's tastes, the transfers are such that this kind of set works best late at night when you're not quite sleepy yet and have a good half-an-hour left in you, it's 11:50pm and that episode of Shotgun Slade will either intrigue you with its intelligence or will have the same effect as a warm glass of milk. I found myself really enjoying some shows, and was left eager to see more, or I'd be sound asleep 15 minutes in (I'd watch the rest the next day.)
Video & Audio
As previously stated, these are public domain titles of varying quality, but unlike some fly-by-night outfits hawking ghastly, unwatchable junk, everything this reviewer sampled was at least minimally acceptable as reference copies until something better comes along, the one exception being those episodes of Bonanza with the replaced music, and a few shows in faux letterbox, I'm betting to hide the watermark of some other PD label.
The disc comes in a thick plastic DVD case about the size of a standard-issue Leonard Maltin's TV Movies guide. Inside are the 24 discs, in individual sleeves that helpfully note what shows are included, along with the episode titles. The discs are region-free but have no alternate audio or subtitle options, and there are no Extra Features.
If you're a fan of classic TV or Western shows, this set is a good value crammed with enough varied material to keep you busy for months. I'd prefer to see many of these shows released in official DVD version mastered from original camera negatives, but until then this comes Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and Taschen's forthcoming Japanese Cinema.