The format change presented its share of challenges. Compared to today's standard 22-24-episode season run (with cable series having even shorter "seasons" of as few as 10 episodes) with 40-minute running times (minus the commercials), Gunsmoke, during its 1965-66 season, cranked out thirty-two 51-minute episodes airing between mid-September and early-May. With that kind of grueling production schedule, it was 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 did, others failed.
Probably for this reason, Gunsmoke's ratings began to slip. It had been the number one show in the prime-time ratings race from 1957 through 1960, and was number three in 1961, but by its tenth year had slipped to number 27, and ranked 30th in its eleventh year. That said, it was still pulling in 11.5 million viewers every week and a 21.3 rating. In 2015, a series with those kinds of numbers is to die for.
And, nevertheless, Gunsmoke still proved more than capable of producing the best Western drama on television. Though erratic, several eleventh season episodes easily rank among the series' best.
I've sung Gunsmoke's praises nineteen (!) 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, the fifth season, volumes 1 and 2, the sixth season, volumes 1 and 2, the seventh season, volumes 1 and 2, the eighth season, volumes 1 and 2, the ninth season, volumes 1 and 2, and the tenth season, volumes 1 and 2.
These latest volumes, The Eleventh Season, Volume 1 and The Eleventh Season, Volume 2 include 16 episodes in each set, spread across four discs.
As before, most episodes' stories continue to revolve around one of the show's four principal characters: Dodge City's Marshal, Matt Dillon's (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 assistant and sometime-deputy.
More so than in the earlier, half-hour Gunsmokes, one-shot characters played by guest stars assumed 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. A few shows do, however, focus on our leading characters.
The switch to the hour format did make room for richer character development and a greater sense of a larger Dodge City community, a bustling populace of three-dimensional characters. But this move also turned Gunsmoke into something more along the lines of Wagon Train.
The season begins with a new version of the iconic standoff between Matt and an unidentified gunslinger, repositioned as a pre-titles prologue, followed by a teaser and then new main titles credits. Accompanied by Gunsmoke's new title theme, the series finally gives pre-Act I billing to Blake, Stone, and Curtis (with Arness billed last).
Gunsmoke's eleventh year gets off to an incredible start with "Seven Hours to Dawn" (in Volume 1) Written by Clyde Ware and directed by Vincent McEveety, the story has Mace Gore's (John Drew Barrymore) huge gang, dozens and dozens of men, taking over the entire city of Dodge, cutting off the town from the outside world in a daring late-night raid. The men go door-to-door robbing every bank, every business, even stealing valuables from people's homes. Matt, virtually helpless, makes a suicidal attempt at a break, hoping to ride back with a posse, but is shot dead by waiting bandits.
Of course Matt can't really be dead, otherwise there'd be no series, but Ware and McEveety do their darndest to make the viewing audience think otherwise. Doc hovers over Matt's lifeless, bullet-ridden body, declares him dead and makes no attempt to revive him. Kitty is distraught; Festus can barely contain his rage. How this is all resolved strains credibility, but it's an incredibly inventive and intense episode, introducing a unique, seemingly unresolvable situation in Mace Gore's "shock-and-awe" strategy, to completely overrun all of Dodge with cutthroat villains.
What's also great about "Seven Hours to Dawn" is that it gives Gunsmoke's four stars the opportunity to express aspects of their respective characters rarely seen on the show: Kitty's true feelings for Matt, a darker side to the normally comical Festus, Matt's frustrations at being completely helpless against such an overwhelming force threatening literally every resident of Dodge. A great show.
More conventional but also quite good is the two-parter "The Raid" (in Volume 2) also by Ware and McEveety. In this show, always-reliable John Anderson guest stars as the intellectual front man for a gang of bank robbers, he masquerading as a traveling gun salesman. Intriguingly, unlike most Westerns, the gang is unusually fleshed-out, character-wise. There exists animosity between two sets of siblings at the heart of the gang: one led by the eldest of the Stark brothers, Jim (Gary Lockwood), the other, the Fraleys including guest performer Richard Jaeckel (curiously billed way, way down in the credits). Meanwhile, there are other outlaws in the group related to neither family, including two resentful of the nepotism among the various siblings and who refuse to follow orders: Cash McLean (Michael Conrad) and Clell Williams (Jim Davis). Moreover, this is a handsomely produced show, filmed on real Western backlot streets (as opposed to Gunsmoke's usual soundstage Dodge City "exteriors") and on location somewhere in the Valley. Visually, Gunsmoke has the sheen of a feature film, better produced than most Euro-Westerns just beginning to turn up in America around that time.
Other than that, it's business as usual. McEveety rotated directing duties with a large number of other helmers: Joseph Sargent, Mark Rydell, James Sheldon, Harry Harris, Marc Daniels, Gary Nelson, Alan Reisner, Abner Bieberman, Alvin Ganzer, Robert Totten, Peter Graves (!), and Tay Garnett.
Guest stars include semi-regulars Glenn Strange, Hank Patterson, Roy Barcroft, and others; also Morgan Woodward, Forrest Tucker, Stuart Margolin, Tim McIntire, Ruth Warrick, Jack Elam, Paul Fix, Nehemiah Persoff, Warren Oates, Bruce Dern, Ed Begley, Wayne Rogers, Neville Brand, Robert Lansing, James Whitmore, Harry Townes, Edward Andrews, Tom Skerritt, Darren McGavin, Simon Oakland, James Gregory, John Saxon, Albert Salmi, Diane Ladd, Judy Carne, Woodrow Parfrey, Beau Bridges, Steve Ihnat, Victor French, France Nuyen, Michael Ansara, Noah Beery, Jr., R.G. Armstrong, James MacArthur, George Kennedy, Lesley Ann Warren, Leonard Nimoy, John McLiam, Lee Van Cleef, Sam Wanamaker, Douglas Kennedy, and Joe Don Baker.
Video & Audio
Still in glorious black and white, Gunsmoke looks better than ever on DVD. The graininess of the early seasons is gone, replaced with an extremely clean, sharp image throughout. The 16 black-and-white episodes in each volume are spread over five discs each, with a total running time of about 13-and-a-half 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 eleventh season volumes aren't cheap, but provide many hours of quality entertainment worth the price. Highly Recommended.