What was television's Number One-rated show for four seasons in a row (1957-58 through 1960-61) returns with 20 new-to-DVD half-hour episodes in Gunsmoke - The Third Season, Volume 2. This three-disc set of is nearly identical to those that had come before it, and after an excellent start in its first year Gunsmoke had matured to a point where its best scripts and performances were as good as the top movie Westerns of the period. Clearly, the show's huge popularity begat enormous latitude with the network and the suits sponsoring the show, facilitating unusually adult scripts that in some respects haven't been bettered more than half a century later. Most surprising are the show's frequently grim storylines and characters that contrast sharply with the generally lighter fare of the show's later years.
U.S. Marshal Matt Dillon (James Arness) and his eccentric, game-leg assistant Chester Goode (Dennis Weaver) are still maintaining the peace in unruly, barely-tamed Dodge City, Kansas. The various gunslingers and cattle rustlers causing Marshal Dillon no end of grief usually can be found drinking and gambling at the Long Branch Saloon. There Matt's friend Miss Kitty (Amanda Blake) works as a (coded) prostitute, though officially she's the saloon's proprietress. Matt's line of work often requires the services of cantankerous Doc Adams (Milburn Stone) - Matt, Chester, and Miss Kitty's other close friend.
Writer John Meston (1914-1979) was to Gunsmoke what Rod Serling was to Twilight Zone; he wrote an incredible 257 episodes of Gunsmoke during its 20-year run - and that's not counting episodes of the radio series he also penned (though there was a lot of crossover, apparently). Two of Meston's favorite devices are "What's Going On Here?" and "How's Matt Going to Solve/Get Out of This?" scripts, with Matt presented with a puzzling situation/irresolvable conflict at the beginning of the episode, with him and other characters working through the mystery/conflict which is revealed/resolved, often violently, at the end.
(Major Spoilers Ahead)
Within this structure Meston and other Gunsmoke writers created some extraordinary bleak shows. In the Ted Post-directed "Claustrophobia," Matt and Chester meet Ollie Ridgers (equally prolific TV actor Vaughn Taylor) and his friend, Jim Branch (Joe Maross) while searching for ruthless killers. Ridgers is a free-spirited man who has lived nearly his entire life outdoors. When Branch pushes him to come to Dodge for some fun, Ridgers feels uncomfortable being indoors. Later on, when the killers Matt and Chester are looking for cruelly gun down all of Ridgers's hogs and leave them to rot, he shoots one of the killers dead while Matt, under fire, kills the other. Unaware of Ridgers's claustrophobia, the judge sentences Ridgers to life in prison, prompting Branch, guilt-ridden because he had forced his friend to leave his hogs, to shoot his best friend in a mercy killing.
The even darker next episode, "Ma Tennis," written by Meston and directed by Buzz Kulik, has Matt arresting hotheaded Andy Tennis (Ron Haggerty) for shooting a gambler in cold blood. However, his backwoods Ma (Nina Varela, in an unnerving performance) points a shotgun at Matt and breaks her son out of jail. When Matt goes to their rundown home to re-arrest Andy, Matt finds Ma putting the finishing touches on what she says is Andy's grave, claiming to have shot him so he wouldn't have to hang. Matt is skeptical, and later discovers that since returning home Andy had killed his gentler brother (Corey Allen). Ma, sadly realizing too late there was no hope for her troubled son, takes him into a back room and shoots him for real.
John Rich, later better-known for directing sitcoms like The Dick Van Dyke Show, helmed "The Cabin," a terrifically suspenseful show with Matt, trying to escape a blizzard, stumbling upon a cabin taken over by two psychopathic bandits, menacingly played by Claude Akins and Harry Dean Stanton. A battle of nerves ensues, and it's superbly done. But what really impresses is Matt's relationship with a third character, a woman named Belle (Patricia Barry, excellent in a stark departure from her usual femme fatale persona of the time), whose husband was murdered by the two killers. She has been kept a slave/prisoner in her own home, and it's obvious Belle's been raped multiple times by the two men. When Matt finally rescues her she surprises him by announcing her depressing plans for the future: with her life in ruins and few options open to a widow of the west with limited means, she intends to open a whorehouse. How all this got past the censors, I'll never know.
Mind you, not every episode is as dark as those noted above, but a good many are. Other shows still tend to be interesting, adult, and/or offbeat. "Sunday Supplement" improbably teams Jack Weston and Werner Klemperer as writers from Back East poking around Dodge, and eventually inciting violence for want of salacious material for their latest book. Sam Peckinpah adapted Meston's unusual story "Dirt," about a wealthy rancher (Wayne Morris) with a reputation for carousing who decides to marry and settle down, prompting the innocent, uneducated, and lonely young woman (June Lockhart, excellent in another surprising bit of inspired casting) he'd visit on those many drunken nights to shoot him. How this story resolves itself is unexpected and touching.
Guest stars in this set include Eddie Little Sky, Phyllis Coates, Murray Hamilton, Gail Kobe, Ken Lynch, Strother Martin, Ben Wright, Virginia Gregg, Kevin Hagen, John Dehner, Peggy McCay, Ross Martin, Barney Phillips, June Dayton, Cyril Delevanti, Ned Glass, Allan "Rocky" Lane, John Mitchum, Stafford Repp, Jeanette Nolan, Helen Kleeb, Raymond Bailey, Marshall Thompson, Ruta Lee, Clem Bevans, Simon Oakland, Timothy Carey, Jack Cassidy, and Henry Corden.
Most episodes are directed by either Ted Post or John Rich, with other shows helmed by Buzz Kulik and Richard Whorf, among others.
Video & Audio
Once again, Gunsmoke looks exceptionally good on DVD. Shows are bit overly grainy but otherwise very sharp, very clean. The 20 black and white episodes are spread over three discs, with a total running time of about eight hours and 43 minutes. The Dolby Digital mono (English only) is clean and clear, and the show is closed-captioned. One minor change to the packaging allows viewers to read the episode descriptions inside the snap case without having to remove any of the discs.
As in previous sets, the only extra is several minutes worth of sponsor spots, which are entertaining and have a certain camp value seen today.
More terrific shows I can't recommend highly enough to Western genre and classic TV fans. A must.
Film historian Stuart Galbraith IV's latest book, Japanese Cinema, is on sale now.