I haven't seen enough of the hour Gunsmokes, especially the earliest ones, still in black and white and still co-starring Dennis Weaver, to rate them alongside the half-hour shows of seasons 1-6, but the taut Western dramas of Gunsmoke's early seasons are going to be hard to beat. (The hour shows will, however, thankfully provide this reviewer with something new to write about.) They far exceeded this reviewer's expectations, with only Have Gun - Will Travel boasting a similarly high caliber of writing and, less important to its overall success but still significant, direction and acting.
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, 2, and the sixth season, volume 1.
This volume includes the last 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. Sponsor spots have been tossed in as an extra.
Gunsmoke was so popular during 1961-64 that CBS ran reruns of the half-hour Gunsmokes on Tuesday nights under the title "Marshal Dillon" so as not to confuse viewers with new, hour-long episodes.
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.
More and more, Gunsmoke was also fast becoming a show content to focus entire episodes on the concerns of Doc, Chester, or Kitty, while others were primarily interested in one-off characters. In "Minnie," for instance, Doc is hotly pursued by an unrefined buffalo-skinner (prolific character actress Virginia Gregg in a plum role), allowing Chester and Matt the opportunity to tease Doc mercilessly. Conversely, Matt, Chester, and Doc are mostly on the sidelines during "Love Thy Neighbor," with two families resolved to decimate the other. That episode, the first of four Gunsmokes directed by Dennis Weaver (three in this set), features a typically impressive list of character stars. This episode, for instance, features Jeanette Nolan, Jack Elam, Harry Dean Stanton, Warren Oates, and Nora Marlowe.
That same episode also touts an original score by Jerry Goldsmith. Around this time, the networks were compelled to stop relying on their extensive stock music libraries and commission a certain percentage of original scores each season. The result of this is some spectacularly good television scores were written by the era's top composers. This set features original scores by Nathan Scott, Bernard Herrmann (twice), William Lava, Jerome Moross, Fred Steiner, Van Cleave, and Leonard Rosenman, most of whom were concurrently writing scores for Twilight Zone and other CBS shows. Herrmann's score for "Kitty Shot" is particularly haunting and impressive.
Guest stars this half-season include semi-regulars Dabbs Greer, George Selk, Clem Fuller; and Cyril Delevanti, George Kennedy (twice, and very effective in both), Charles Aidman, Harry Shannon, Suzanne Lloyd, Tom Reese, Howard Culver, Karl Swenson, James Drury, John McLiam, Chris Alcaide, Sandy Kenyon, Barney Phillips, Susan Gordon, Buck Young, Shirley O'Hara, Guy Raymond, Henry Brandon, Alan Hale Jr., Vic Perrin, John Larch, Allan "Rocky" Lane, Dawn Little Sky, Paul Langton, Patricia Smith, Cloris Leachman, and Warren J. Kemmerling.
Directors giving Gunsmoke its movie-worthy appearance primarily include Andrew V. McLaglen and Ted Post, while Alan Crosland, Jr., Gene Fowler, Jr., Gerald H. Mayer, and Byron Paul picked up the balance.
Writer John Meston is credited with writing or co-writing the 19 scripts, but some of the more interesting were chiefly or co-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 19 black-and-white episodes are spread over three discs, with a total running time of about eight hours and 15 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.
Supplements this time include a modest sampling of sponsor spots.
Those curious as I am to compare these last half-hour Gunsmokes to the hour-long shows that immediately followed won't have to wait long. CBS DVD/Paramount have already announced Gunsmoke - The Seventh Seasons Volumes 1 and 2 for release on December 11, 2012 and February 5, 2013, respectively. In the meantime, The Sixth Season, Volume 2 comes Highly Recommended.