Gunsmoke returns for the second-half of its seventh of 20 seasons, the first season in which Gunsmoke had switched from a 30-minute to 60-minute show. Watching these episodes, the benefits and occasional drawbacks of this format change become apparent. You'd think, for instance, that the already grueling schedule of 34 half-hours per season would only double the workload with Gunsmoke expanded. Instead, the longer running time is wisely seized by its writers as a means to enrich its one-off guest characterizations, typically pairing them with one of Gunsmoke's regular cast members, and which in turn often results in Marshal Matt Dillon and others sometimes making but token appearances. When it's done right, as it is here most of the time, Gunsmoke is richer than the earlier half-hours.
I've sung Gunsmoke's 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, the sixth season, volumes 1 and 2, and the seventh season, volume 1.
This volume, The Seventh Season, Volume 2 includes the last 17 episodes of the 1961-62 season, spread across five discs instead of the previous sets' three. Sponsor material and, for the first time, preview trailers of next week's episodes are included, but only on four of the episodes in this set.
From "The Gallows"
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.
As noted above, more and more the episodes tend to focus on one of Gunsmoke's regulars or guest characters, with less emphasis on Matt than in the past. "He Learned About Women," for instance, is almost exclusively a Chester story, his character taken hostage by a gang of cutthroats. Attempting to escape, he and the outlaw leader's girl (Barbara Luna) fall in love. Another good episode, "Half Straight," follows a would-be gunman's (John Kerr) efforts to build a new life for himself after falling in love with a local girl (Elizabeth MacRae). Matt's in these shows, just not as much as in the past.
Occasionally, some truly outstanding episodes result. I've not been able to view every single Gunsmoke up to this point, but "The Gallows," is certainly the best I've seen so far, a genuinely powerful show that also gets to the root of Matt's unique appeal, that Dodge's great moral quandaries all funnel through his office, so to speak, and that he must absorb, Christ-like at times, the sins of others to maintain law and order. (Spoilers follow): In a typically long first act minus the show's regulars (a formatting concept likewise common to Perry Mason) cowboy Pruitt (Jeremy Slate) arrives in Dodge with a load of freight he's brought up from New Mexico. He dislikes the work but desperately needs the $100 the job pays. However, the drunk, surly freight master strings him along and eventually flatly refuses to pay him. Pruitt, also drunk, attacks the man, who winds up dead.
It's not clear exactly what happened. Pruitt admits he was too drunk to remember, though he concedes he might well have murdered the man, that it may not be a case of self-defense. Transporting Pruitt back to Dodge, Matt is bemused by Pruitt's friendly, at times humorous demeanor and his almost existential acceptance that his life is essentially over. En route they encounter a crazy old-timer who shoots Matt. Pruitt saves Matt's life. But rather than run, Pruitt digs the bullet out of Matt's shoulder and nurses the Marshal back to health, with a grateful and surprised Matt promising to testify in Pruitt's defense. However, a last-minute change in judges results in Pruitt receiving the harshest possible sentence - death by hanging - over Matt's strong objections.
While transporting Pruitt to another town to be hanged, Matt decides to set Pruitt free, even though Matt will certainly lose his job and possibly go to jail himself. Pruitt rides off but catches up with Matt hours later. Pruitt explains to the Marshal that Matt obviously felt morally obligated after Pruitt saved his life, but that now, through Matt's selfless gesture, that debt has been paid. Now they can ride together to the hangman with their consciences clear.
At the town where the hanging is to take place, the local deputy abuses Pruitt like an ordinary murderer. Matt eventually slugs the oaf. "That's for both of us," he tells Pruitt. Pruitt is led to the gallows but Matt can't bring himself to watch the hanging, and walks away as the lever is about to be pulled.
I noted last time that some of these best Gunsmokes have the flavor of Larry McMurtry's acclaimed Western novels (Lonesome Dove, etc.). "The Gallows" certainly achieves that high standard. John Meston teleplay is also certainly up to the level of the very best writing being done for American series television in the 1960s. (And, for that matter, so is Andrew V. McLaglen's direction.) I hope those who've dismissed Gunsmoke up to now consider giving it a shot.
Guest stars this half-season include semi-regulars Glenn Strange (debuting as Sam the bartender), Dabbs Greer, George Selk, and Clem Fuller; also Gloria Talbott, Anthony Caruso, Wayne Rogers, Edgar Buchanan, William Campbell, Phil Coolidge, Dick Sargent, Sue Ane Langdon, Frank Sutton, Claude Akins, Ted de Corsia, Robert Wilke, Joseph Ruskin, Robert J. Stevenson, Dianne Foster, Jason Evers, Tom Reese, Grace Lee Whitney, Joe Maross, Don Keefer, Paul Birch, Joan Hackett, Alan Reed, Jr., Andy Clyde, Hank Patterson, Constance Ford, Ellen Burstyn, Joan Marshall, Arch Johnson, Kevin Hagen, William Schallert, Judi Meredith, Gary Clarke, Roy Roberts, Bethel Leslie, John Crawford, Myron Healey, Cyril Delevanti, Percy Helton, Liam Redmond, J. Pat O'Malley, Shug Fisher, Carl Reindel, Jena Engstrom, Karl Swenson, Eddie Little Sky, Lew Brown, Andrew Prine, Nancy Gates, Conrad Nagel, Ed Nelson, William Phipps, Malcolm Atterbury, George Kennedy, Harry Dean Stanton, Michael Parks, Arthur Malet, and Hal Needham.
Directors giving Gunsmoke its movie-worthy appearance primarily include Andrew V. McLaglen and Ted Post, while Harry Harris, Christian Nyby, and Tay Garnett picked up the slack.
Writer John Meston is credited with writing or co-writing most of these 17 scripts, but some of the more interesting were written by Wichita-born Kathleen Hite (1917-1989), a secretary at CBS Radio who rose through the ranks to become its first female staff writer, and who eventually penned dozens of TV Westerns and created the series Empire (1962-64), starring Richard Egan and Ryan O'Neal.
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 17 black-and-white episodes are spread over five discs, with a total running time of about fourteen hours and 19 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. Well, except for the last three episodes, that is.
Supplements this time include a modest sampling of sponsor spots, and previews for next week's episodes on about one-third of the shows.
Technically, the Gunsmoke expansion was only partially successful. The ratings actually dropped, from the Number 1 prime-time show with a 37.3 rating to the Number 3 show (behind Wagon Train and Bonanza) with a 28.3, though it did extend CBS's dominance over Saturday nights to 11:00. More significantly, the quality of the show doesn't suffer, with some truly outstanding shows in this set. A DVD Talk Collector Series title.
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.