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Gunsmoke: The Fourteenth Season, Volume One
I've been reviewing Gunsmoke sets since the First Season was released in July 2007. The program was so prolific, upwards of 40 episodes per season in its early days, it's been impossible to watch everything in broadcast order. As new sets have been released, I typically watch 7-8 representative episodes then return to where I left off which, at present, is still Gunsmoke during its prime, black-and-white years. Reviewing the later, color (and hour-long episodes) I've expressed mild disappointment that they're not as taut as the 30-minute version of the show, or that too much time in the hour episodes are allotted to character portraits of guest stars rather than the series' regulars.
However, the shows sampled in Gunsmoke: The Fourteenth Season proved a major surprise. The show has improved markedly in almost every way. There's more, and better, focus on the regular cast, by now like family, and the production values have shifted intriguingly: previous seasons resembled well-crafted television, but Gunsmoke's fourteenth season's episode look more and more like mini Hollywood Western movies, of a type exemplified by those made by John Wayne at this point in his career. Not Spaghettis, not revisionist, but a solidly traditional, even classical style.
This is almost astounding 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 depended on the writing and producing end of things than the guest stars to carry the day. Some do, others failed. But by this point the show's producers seemed to have found ways around this. Instead of Arness making veritable extended cameos in some shows, he's better integrated into the stories even when his screen time is limited.
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).
It proved to be one of the great comeback stories in the history of television: 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 fourteenth season episodes rank among the series' best.
These latest DVDs, The Fourteenth Season, Volume 1 and The Fourteenth Season, Volume 2 include 26 episodes in all (down from 30 the previous year), 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 14 this has improved considerably. There's much less obvious padding, and perhaps a deliberate, concerted effort on the part of the show's producers to integrate two or more of the four stars better. 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.
This season's shows play more like mini-movies. In "Zavala," for instance, Matt has tracked a gang of outlaws to Mexico, where he befriends a fatherless Mexican boy and his mother, the boy developing a Shane-like worship for the marshal. Even better is the superlative "9:12 to Dodge," with Matt and Doc escorting an outlaw (Jason and the Argonauts' Todd Armstrong) knowing that his gang will certainly attack the train they're aboard en route, a situation complicated when regular passengers unexpectedly board their car. It's a terrifically tense, unpredictable episode, and Arness and Stone are especially good throughout.
The production schedule for episodes focused on Matt and balanced by others in which he plays a smaller role in the story, but which still maintain Gunsmoke high standards. "Uncle Finney" is a mostly comical yarn that actually works: No-good bumpkins Victor French and Anthony James turn their 103-year-old uncle (Burt Mustin, who looks the part) for horse thieving, leaving Festus little choice but to arrest the old man. It's part of an elaborate bank robbing plot they've schemed, despite protestations from their backwoods sister (Lane Bradbury). These characters had appeared in an earlier Gunsmoke and would turn up again later, as would innumerable other minor characters, lending Dodge City the authentic feel of a community constantly evolving.
"The Long Night" is another great show, more an ensemble piece with Matt's role in the story limited to the opening scene and the climax, though his absence makes sense and adds to the tension of the story. Determined to collect a $10,000 bounty for an accused killer Matt has already arrested, a gang led by sadistic Guerin (Bruce Dern) holds Kitty, Doc, Sam, and town drunk Louie (James Nusser) hostage at the Long Branch. This episode, like others this season, makes excellent use of normally background players Glenn Strange and especially Nusser, while giving all four stars fine moments to shine.
Further, episodes like "The Long Night" exemplify both Gunsmoke's superb production values and how, at that point in the show's run, it was able to mine a wealth of TV and Western movie talent. Dern by this time was playing similar roles in big screen Westerns, while in his gang are actors Lou Antonio, a prolific guest star before turning director, and, of all people, Russell Johnson, miscast but nonetheless welcome as the most excitable member of Dern's gang.
Other guest stars this season include Jim Davis, Will Geer, Jacqueline Scott, Harry Dean Stanton, Leslie Nielsen, Steve Forrest, Jeff Corey, Brock Peters, and Jon Voight.
Video & Audio
Now in color, Gunsmoke looks stunning on DVD,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 very 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 fourteenth 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.