There's still an awfully long way to go, but so far CBS-Paramount seems fairly committed to bringing all 20 seasons of Gunsmoke to DVD. They released the fifth season in October and December of last year, and now comes Gunsmoke - The Sixth Season, Volume 1, another round of extremely good half-hour Western dramas.
As stated in earlier reviews, these taut, half-hour, black and white shows from the late 1950s and early '60s are generally much superior to the one-hour (and later still) full color ones. They offer compact, intriguing little scripts that play like short stories, the acting is usually excellent, and the direction and production values are comparable to movie Westerns of the period. As drama, the best Gunsmokes compare favorably to the best half-hour television dramas running concurrently, in any genre. If you're a fan of, say, the original Twilight Zone, you may be quite surprised by just how good Gunsmoke frequently is.
I've sung its praises many times already, having reviewed the first season, the the second season, volumes 1 and 2, the third seasons, volumes 1 and 2, the fourth season, volumes 1 and 2, and the fifth season, volumes 1 and 2.
Never having watched Gunsmoke when it was in its last throes in the late-'60 and '70s, or in reruns, catching it all for the first time on DVD has been a minor revelation. I had no idea that these earlier, black & white, half-hour shows were so good. From the very first season they're way above average and, so far, continue only to improve. The bad news is after all these reviews it's darn near impossible coming up with something new to say.
This latest volume includes the first 19 episodes of the 1960-61 season, when as the number 1 show in the Nielsen Ratings, for the fourth year running, Gunsmoke enjoyed a 37.3 rating, a figure unimaginable today. (For instance, the number 1 [scripted] show last season was NCIS, which had a 19.7 rating.) The 19 episodes are spread over three single-sided, dual-layered DVDs, and as always look great. No extras.
As before, U.S. Marshal Matt Dillon (James Arness) and his eccentric, game-leg assistant (not deputy) 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 one of the innumerable saloons. Matt's friend Miss Kitty (Amanda Blake), formerly a (coded) prostitute, is now half-owner of the city's finest, the Long Branch Saloon. She's also its madam, and though the audience doesn't get to see much of that business, it's implied. Matt's line of work often requires the services of cantankerous Doc Adams (Milburn Stone), another close friend of Matt, Chester, and Miss Kitty.
Writer John Meston (1914-1979) was to Gunsmoke what Rod Serling was to Twilight Zone; he penned an incredible 257 episodes of the series during its 20-year run, and that's not counting episodes of the radio show he also wrote (though there was a lot of crossover, apparently). Two of his favorite devices are the "What's Going On Here?" and "How's Matt Going to Solve/Get Out of This?" structures, with Matt presented with a puzzling situation/irresolvable conflict at the beginning of the episode, and he and other characters working through the mystery which is revealed/resolved, often violently, at the end. A favorite plot Meston did myriad riffs on has cool cucumber Matt withholding judgment on an accused killer's guilt or innocence while all of Dodge City is ready to lynch the accused. Sometimes in these shows the accused is a friend of Matt's, like Chester, sometimes he's a guest star, but always, even with a mountain of evidence stacked against him, Matt remains calm and just.
Many sixth season episodes fall into one of these categories. "Say Uncle" is a good example, with young Lee Nagel (Richard Rust) convinced that his disreputable Uncle Hutch (dancer-actor-director Gene Nelson) has murdered Lee's father and plans to marry his unwitting mother. They send Lee back to St. Louis, where en route Lee becomes friendly with George Farr (genre great Roy Barcroft), a gregarious older man. The episode is so subtly written that only near the climax does it dawn on the viewer that Farr has been hired by Hutch to murder Lee before the train gets to St. Louis, in a genuinely gripping sequence.
"Shooting Stopover" is an outstanding, Stagecoach-like episode that has Matt, Chester, a young schoolteacher (Patricia Barry, excellent in an atypical role), a preacher (Paul Guilfoyle), the stage driver (Robert Brubaker), and a two-time murderer Matt and Chester are transporting to Witchita trapped at a waystation. Gunman outside have the party pinned down, unable to access the water pump just a few feet away. It's a tense, exciting story with an admirable amount of characterization crammed into just 25 ½ minutes.
I also really liked "The Blacksmith," which offers rising character star George Kennedy a choice role as Emil, a genial German immigrant blacksmith pushed to violence by Tolman (Bob Anderson) just as Emil's mail-order bride from Germany, Gretchen (Anna-Lisa), arrives in Dodge. Usually in shows like this Matt plays umpire between two warring sides but here Matt wisely lets the good-natured but super-strong Emil take care of things himself.
Guest stars this half-season include semi-regulars Dabbs Greer, George Selk, Clem Fuller; and Tom Reese, Wesley Lau, Herb Patterson, Rex Holman, Warren Oates, Susan Cummings, Lawrence Dobkin, Bing Russell, Ben Wright, Barney Phillips, Kenneth Tobey, H.M. Wynant, Ned Glass, Howard Culver, John Dehner (who was Paladin on the radio version of Have Gun - Will Travel), Allan "Rocky" Lane (the voice of Mr. Ed), Bruce Gordon, George Mitchell, John Lupton, Leo Gordon, Guy Stockwell, Denver Pyle, Anne Seymour, Sue Randall, Buddy Ebsen, Hope Summers, Kevin Hagen, Gene Lyons, Harry Carey Jr., Kenneth Lynch, Don Keefer, and Strother Martin.
Directors giving Gunsmoke its movie-worthy appearance include Andrew V. McLaglen and Jesse Hibbs mainly, with Arthur Hiller, Gerald H. Mayer, Ted Post, Franklin Adreon, Harry Harris Jr., and Jean Yarbrough picking up the slack.
Writer John Meston is credited with all 19 scripts, but a number of these were adaptations of Marian Clark's and Norman Macdonnell's original radio plays.
Video & Audio
Gunsmoke looks exceptionally good on DVD. Shows are a bit overly grainy (especially during the opening titles, reworked slightly for syndication) but otherwise they're very sharp, very clean. The 19 black-and-white episodes are spread over three discs, with a total running time of about eight hours and 14 minutes. The Dolby Digital mono (English only) is clean and clear, and the shows include optional English SDH subtitles. The packaging allows viewers to read the episode descriptions inside the snap case without having to remove any of the discs.
For those who recognize that the half-hour, black-and-white Gunsmokes are real gems, dramatically taut and movie-like, Gunsmoke - The Sixth Season, Volume 1 is a most welcome release, classic American television that comes Highly Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.