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Gunsmoke: The Thirteenth Season, Volume One
That the DVD market would go into sharp decline neatly midway through Gunsmoke's run on the format is, very mildly, ironic. The better but less marketable black-and-white shows, particularly when Gunsmoke was a 30-minute program, were released first, while the later, full-color DVDs of the more familiar to TV viewers, have trickled out like water from a pump in the desert. While this reviewer much prefers the tauter, half-hour shows, there's no denying that these 13th season Gunsmokes sure look beautiful. The transfers are outstanding, and the production values are impressive for late-‘60s television drama.
This is especially true when one compares late-‘60s Gunsmoke to TV production methods today. A current show like Westworld costs $8-10 million per episode, with ten episodes per season. Gunsmoke in the late-1960s probably cost in the region of $175,000 an episode or less, and the 25-episode seasons made for a brutal production schedule. Once Gunsmoke shifted from a half-hour to an hour format, it became impossible to prominently feature star James Arness in every episode - he would have dropped dead from exhaustion.
So with the shift to the hour format, Gunsmoke became a quasi-anthology series, with many more episodes built around other characters living or passing through Dodge City. Those shows, more than ever, depended on the writing and producing end of things than the guest stars to carry the day. Some do, others failed.
The series, the first "adult" Western when it debuted in 1955, was the number one show in the country during its third through sixth seasons, and remained in the Top Ten for the next two years. But the format changes and its graveyard timeslot (Saturday nights at 10:00pm) hurt the show, and by its twelfth season the show had slipped to 34th place in the ratings. CBS decided to cancel Gunsmoke, but viewer outcry and a famous intervention from the Gunsmoke fan and wife of CBS head William Paley earned Gunsmoke a last-minute reprieve (resulting in the cancellation of Gilligan's Island instead).
Gunsmoke moved over to Monday nights at 7:30pm (later 8:00pm) and once again became a Top Ten show for the next six seasons, peaking, incredibly, at #2 during the 1969-70 season.
Further, Gunsmoke proved it was still more than capable of producing some of the best Western drama on television. Though erratic, several thirteenth season episodes rank among the series' best.
These latest DVDs, The Thirteenth Season, Volume 1 and The Thirteenth Season, Volume 2 include 30 episodes in all, spread across seven discs.
As before, most episodes' stories continue to revolve around one or more of the show's four principal characters: Dodge City's Marshal, Matt Dillon (James Arness); Matt's friend Miss Kitty (Amanda Blake), owner of the Long Branch Saloon; cantankerous Doc Adams (Milburn Stone); and illiterate Festus Haggen (Ken Curtis), Matt's backwoods assistant and sometime-deputy.
More so than in the earlier, half-hour Gunsmokes, one-shot characters played by guest stars assume larger roles in the teleplays. Matt, Kitty, Doc, and Festus were more often on the sidelines, with the guest characters conferring with one or more series stars for advice or asking for their help. Sometimes there would be medical issues requiring Doc Adams's services, other times there would be a legal dispute or criminal act compelling Matt to step in and help resolve, or maybe an old friend or relative of Kitty's or Festus's would turn up. Other shows, however, do focus on our leading characters.
The switch to the hour format initially hurt Gunsmoke with half-hour plots at times shamelessly padded to an hour's length. By Season 13 this has generally improved, though still quite often scenes seem awfully padded, and the pacing has slowed from its early years. Basically, the superior half-hour shows tended to present Matt (or other leads) some sort of moral dilemma, with scripts built around a single, confined problem or incident, such as how to take a gunslinger alive when he's holed up in a barn with a hostage, or Matt coming to terms with having to shoot an old friend. Many of these shows were rich character pieces with little in the way of a conventional plotting.
Conversely, the hour Gunsmokes are more plot-driven around guest characters rather than character vignettes and intriguing little think pieces. Fortunately, these plots and stories are usually pretty compelling, and the seasoned cast always does an excellent job selling the material.
Additionally, the hour Gunsmokes have the advantage of more realistically presenting Dodge as a thriving frontier town where even (mostly) background characters like Sam the bartender (Glenn Strange) are familiar, like old friends.
James Arness, onetime protégée of John Wayne, remains Gunsmoke's anchor both onscreen and off. After so many seasons Arness by all accounts took a relaxed, paternal approach to his company of actors and crew. He famously treated bit players and lowly grips with the same respect accorded to important guest stars. Arness generously would insist featured extras would get a line or two in each script, or add them to the background of an additional scene to ensure them a higher rate of pay, and he hired the same people over and over again.
Watching Gunsmoke in color is alternately thrilling and odd. Although the show continued shooting extensively on location and, occasionally, Western backlot streets, it also relied heavily on the huge exterior-interior set of Dodge City's main street, built on a soundstage at CBS Studio Center, in the Valley just north of Hollywood. This expansive set, with its forced perspective and painted sky backdrops, fared reasonably well in the black-and-white shows but often looks singularly unreal in color. Even when the show was still in first-run it seemed terribly "fake" to my then-child eyes. TV sets of the day tended to greatly overscan the broadcasted image, but on DVD occasionally the overhead studio lights or lip of the cyclorama are sometimes briefly glimpsed. On the other hand, sometimes the photography and direction are so good that the indoor set is occasionally very convincing, especially for nighttime scenes. (Daytime scenes are spoiled somewhat by a "sun" casting multiple shadows, very obvious whenever someone rides into town.)
One last point about the switch to color. One friend of mind generally likes Gunsmoke's early seasons but can't stand the later, color shows for one very specific reason: Amada Blake's Miss Kitty. While Arness, Milburn Stone, and Ken Curtis aged hardly at all through the years, actress Blake, a heavy smoker, seemed to age dramatically overnight. Her once alluring, husky voice became a Bea Arthur-like croak, and somehow she went from the sexy saloon gal of the ‘50s show to a broken-down tart later on.
Many years later I caught Blake appearing on an episode of The Mike Douglas Show shortly after she quit Gunsmoke, the year before it went off the air, and the actress, then in her mid-40s, looked her age and, well, normal. Though her heavy smoking no doubt contributed to the premature decline of her looks, watching that interview it became clear that part of Blake's less-than-appetizing appearance in later Gunsmokes is partly the fault of her hair and makeup (trying to be period and contemporary at once) and her garish costumes, partly designed to help sell color television sets.
Other than that, it's business as usual. Veteran Gunsmoke directors Robert Totten, and Bernard and Vincent McEveety are joined by Gunner Hellstrom, Richard Sarafian, John Rich, John Butler, Darrell Hallenbeck, David Alexander, Irving J. Moore, and Alvin Ganzer.
Guest stars include semi-regulars Glenn Strange, Hank Patterson, Dabbs Greer, and Buck Taylor (son of Dub), the last major cast addition, as gunsmith Newly. Also appearing: Warren Oates, Forrest Tucker, Robert Wilke, Lew Ayres, Lamont Johnson, John Ireland, Kim Darby, James Stacey, Paul Fix, Royal Dano, Chill Wills, H.M. Wynant, Gene Evans, John Astin, Bo Hopkins, Carroll O'Connor, Victor French, John Saxon, Jon Voight, Lou Antonio, Charles McGraw, Pernell Roberts, Jacqueline Scott, R.G. Armstrong, Henry Jones, Dana Wynter, Morgan Woodward, Ralph Bellamy, Anna Lee, Richard Mulligan, Harry Carey Jr., Denver Pyle, Gary Grimes, James Gregory, Beverly Garland, Cliff Osmond, John Dehner, Mark Lenard, Nehemiah Persoff, Anthony Zerbe, Noah Meek, Jim Davis, Paul Richards, Todd Armstrong, Jack Elam, and Ed Begley, Sr.
Video & Audio
Now in color, Gunsmoke looks great on DVD. The episodes themselves look wonderful, with rich color and excellent detail. 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.
The lone supplement is episodic previews, generally in poor condition, for most of the shows. As is commonly done, they're attached to each show rather than positioned so as to actually preview the next episode, which takes away from the fun.
Two more terrific rounds of great Western drama, Gunsmoke's thirteenth season volumes aren't cheap, but provide many hours of quality entertainment worth the price. Highly Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian largely absent from reviewing these days while he restores a 200-year-old Japanese farmhouse.