Gunsmoke is back for another year, its ninth (1963-64) of 20 massively productive seasons. It was the series' third year after switching from a half-hour Western drama to an hour one and, it might be said, the one season where all of Gunsmoke's stars were in alignment. This was co-star Dennis Weaver's last season as Chester Goode, Marshal Matt Dillon's (James Arness) assistant. Burt Reynolds, as mixed-race blacksmith Quint (half-white, half-Comanche) was eased in as a series regular during the previous year, while this season repositions illiterate wolfer Festus Haggen (Ken Curtis), a character first introduced in a 1962 episode, as yet another series regular, more or less taking Weaver's place. He'd remain with the series until its cancellation a dozen years later.
There would be no "final episode" for Chester, the kind of sentimental farewell that became commonplace on later shows like M*A*S*H, Hill Street Blues, and St. Elsewhere, though several of the final episodes featuring Chester hint that he's outgrown the comically lazy hanger-on that made him so endearing. He's eased out while Quint and Festus are made more prominent, and in at least one episode all three characters appear.
I had been a bit concerned about the switchover to the hour format, the earlier half-hour shows being routinely impressive, at times extraordinarily well done. But, so far at least, the switch to an hour has allowed richer character development and a greater sense of a larger Dodge City community, a bustling populace of three-dimensional characters. The half-hour shows, focusing primarily on its four leads, now feels more confined if dramatically taut. These hour shows do come at the expense of fewer Matt Dillon-focused episodes, but are worthwhile in other ways.
I've sung Gunsmoke's praises fifteen (!) times before, 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, the seventh season, volumes 1 and 2, and the eighth season, volumes 1 and 2
These latest volumes, The Ninth Season, Volume 1 and The Ninth Season, Volume 2 include 18 episodes in each set, spread across five discs per. Unlike past seasons, these volumes offer no extra features.
So long, Chester. Howdy, Festus.
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, with Sam (Glenn Strange) its gentle giant of a bartender. She's also its madam, and though the audience doesn't get to see much of that business, it's implied, though not as much as in earlier seasons. 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. By season nine other writers were penning more shows, notably Kathleen Hite (1917-1989), a former secretary whose Mad Men-like climb up the corporate ladder with high-quality teleplays would make a good book or biographical drama all its own.
Her scripts, like the season-opener, "Kate Heller," are more character portrait pieces, this episode about an old prairie woman (Mabel Albertson) operating a relay station and coming to terms with the fact that her son is a murderer. In another good Hite-scripted episode, Quint leads a down-on-its-luck family to the Oregon Trail, the family having fled Illinois after their daughter (Sharon Farrell) murdered a man who tried to rape her. The assault has left her psychologically scarred, creating unanticipated challenges for Quint. In that same episode, Chester surprises Matt, Kitty, and Doc by going after a drifter who swindled the family out of $3,000. Everyone laughs off Chester's declaration to track and catch the crook, but more than proves his mettle by the fade-out.
These and a few other episodes give Dennis Weaver a dignified send-off, if no chance to actually say goodbye in the 12 season nine shows in which he appears. His final appearance comes in "Bently," a late-in-the-season episode in which Chester can't quite accept the deathbed confession of a supposed murderer. His widow (Jan Clayton) is taken in by town folk (Charles McGraw and June Dayton) who along with the rest of Dodge had ostracized the couple. Written by John A. Kneubuhl, this was yet another show where everyone thinks Chester is crazy for not believing the dying man's confession, but Chester's gentle nature and understated determinedness prove right in the end.
Ken Curtis, who plays Festus, was at the time director John Ford's son-in-law. Ford gave Curtis parts in many of his 1950s films, most memorably as Vera Miles' intensely irritating suitor in The Searchers (1956), in the weakest scenes of that otherwise seminal Western. Here he affects a similarly twangy accent, Curtis himself being from southeastern Colorado. Festus makes an interesting contrast to Chester. Where the former was lazy and perpetually broke but sweet-natured, gregarious and a good man to have around when the chips where down, Festus is by contrast more ornery and even less educated. Where Chester spent most of his life in frontier towns, Festus is a former mountain man, a trapper bemused by city folk ways. Curiously, early in the season, in one episode, Curtis guest stars as a different character altogether.
Other than that, it's business as usual. Guest stars include (in Volume 1) semi-regulars Glenn Strange, Dabbs Greer, George Selk, and Clem Fuller; also Tom Lowell, Betsy Jones-Moreland, Sheree North, William Talman, Scott Marlowe, Harry Townes, Mary LaRoche, Philip Abbott, L.Q. Jones, Andrew Prine, George Wallace, Shug Fisher, Chubby Johnson, James Broderick, Everett Sloane, Anjanette Comer, I. Stanford Jolley, Barney Phillips, Jeanne Cooper, Richard Devon, Gilbert Roland, Gene Evans, Lloyd Corrigan, Lynn Loring, George Lindsey, Kent Smith, Marsha Hunt, James Best, Karen Sharpe, Ned Glass, Noah Beery Jr., Tom Reese, Jan Shepard, Butch Patrick, Slim Pickens, Elizabeth MacRae, Kenneth Tobey, Roy Barcroft, (and in Volume 2) Denver Pyle, Strother Martin, Kevin Hagen, Lauri Peters, Robert Wilke, Warren Oates, James Griffith, Lyle Bettger, Don Megowan, Harry Dean Stanton, Ed Nelson, Royal Dano, Vic Perrin, John Dehner, Jay C. Flippen, James Seay, Hank Patterson, Gene Lyons, Bill Erwin, Jacqueline Scott, Herbert Anderson, Patricia Owens, George Kennedy, Julie Parrish, Phyllis Coates, Jack Elam, Harold J. Stone, Paul Fix, Patric Knowles, Mark Goddard, and Michael J. Pollard.
Video & Audio
Still in glorious black and white, 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 18 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.
Two more terrific rounds of great Western drama, Gunsmoke's ninth season volumes aren't cheap, but provide many hours of quality entertainment 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.