Gunsmoke returns for the eighth of its 20 massively productive seasons. It was the second year of the program's switch from a taut half-hour drama tightly wound around one or several of its four major characters, with many of its stories expertly adapted from earlier radio versions. It was difficult to imagine Gunsmoke, famously television's first "adult Western" (publicly introduced by no less an authority than John Wayne), maintaining the extremely high standard of its writing, acting, direction, and production values when it expanded to an hour in 1961. But though less consistently excellent, the program benefitted in other ways. Characterizations, short-handed in the 30-minute format, are deeply expanded and made subtler here, while many more series regulars joined the cast. And, when it's done right, as it is most of the time, Gunsmoke is as good or better 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 season, 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, volumes 1 and 2.
These latest volumes, The Eight Season, Volume 1 and The Eighth Season, Volume 2 include 19 episodes in each set, meaning that during the 1962-63 season, Gunsmoke's producers cranked out an incredible 38 hour-long shows! (Mad Men, by way of comparison, did just 13 episodes last season.) Episodes are spread across five discs. Sponsor material and preview trailers of next week's episodes are included, many more than in last season's sets.
Burt Reynolds joins the cast of Gunsmoke as half-breed blacksmith Quint Asper
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.
Gunsmoke's eighth year is marked by yet more change. Dennis Weaver was steadily growing weary of his character, having expressed a desire to move on as early as 1961. The network let him direct a few episodes but that didn't placate him particularly. He was more determined than ever to leave the series and try his hand as a bona fide leading man, but was talked into coming back for two more years, albeit with a notably lighter workload. Of this season's 38 episodes Weaver appears in less than half, just 15 shows, and his absence is sorely felt. (The following season, his last, he's in just 12.)
Initially intended to take his place was none other than rising star Burt Reynolds, introduced in the eighth season's third episode, "Quint Asper Comes Home." Half-white, half-Comanche Quint lusts for revenge after the murder of his father but is tamed through Matt's guidance. Reynolds appears in 16 shows, one more than Weaver, and it's an interesting if clearly demographically thought-out addition. His smoldering good looks, at the time strongly resembling a young Brando, add significantly to the show. Reportedly, for a time, he received more fan mail than the rest of the cast combined.
Also in season eight, ornery plainsman Festus (Ken Curtis) was added to the show, albeit in a one-shot guest appearance in "Us Haggens." Not yet a regular and a full season away from replacing Weaver as Matt's right-hand-man, the still-forming character returned for good in the middle of season nine.
Other than that, it's business as usual. Guest stars include (in Volume 1) semi-regulars Glenn Strange (debuting as Sam the bartender), Dabbs Greer, George Selk, and Clem Fuller; also Virginia Gregg, Leonard Nimoy, Joby Baker, Harry Carey Jr., Foster Brooks, James Doohan, John Dehner, Sherry Jackson, Howard McNear, Ruta Lee, Jacqueline Scott, Richard Bull, Joanne Linville, Strother Martin, Robert Lowery, Phyllis Coates, John McLiam, Robert Middleton, Joe Flynn, Chill Wills, Claude Akins, Denver Pyle, Elizabeth MacRae, Joyce Bulifant, Ed Nelson, William Windom, Andrew Prine, Roy Thinnes, Frank Sutton, Roy Roberts, Vitina Marcus, Woodrow Parfrey, Don "Red" Barry, Bob Steele, Mariette Hartley, (and in Volume 2) Booth Colman, Michael Forest, Gloria Talbott, John Anderson, Dee Hartford, Adam West, Joyce Van Patten, James Westerfield, Warren Stevens, Richard Jaeckel, Kent Smith, Sharon Farrell, Dick Foran, Angela Clarke, Lonny Chapman, Mary LaRoche, Ben Johnson, Don Keefer, Edgar Buchanan, Michael Constantine, H.M. Wynant, Morgan Brittany, Beverly Garland, Peter Breck, and James Hampton.
Directors giving Gunsmoke its movie-worthy appearance primarily alternated this season between Harry Harris, Jr. and Andrew V. McLaglen, with Ted Post, Sobey Martin, and others picking up the slack.
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 five discs, with a total running time of about 16 hours per volume. 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.
Supplements this time include a modest sampling of sponsor spots, and previews for next week's episodes on about two-thirds of the shows.
Another terrific round (well, two rounds) of great Western drama, Gunsmoke's two eighth season volumes aren't cheap, but provide many hours of quality entertainment are worth the price. 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.