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Gunsmoke: The Fifteenth 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 initially expressed mild disappointment that they weren't 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 Fifteenth Season proved a major surprise. The show has improved markedly in almost every way. And that holds true here as well. In The Fifteenth Season 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 from Gunsmoke's fifteenth season episodes 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. Some shows are still largely bottled in those soundstage "exteriors" of Dodge's main street, which looks fine for nighttime scenes but is less convincing in the "daytime," where the sun seemingly casts shadows from multiple directions. But other shows are gorgeously photographed on location. By 1969-70 TV standards, Gunsmoke looks more expensive than other shows, and it appears its producers budgeted carefully to allow for some lavishness here and there.
This is especially 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.
Still, like the allocation of the show's budget, the writers-producers seemed to have finally struck a balance emphasizing one or two characters in one episodes, the others in the next, and so on.
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 fifteenth season episodes rank among the series' best.
These latest DVDs, The Fifteenth Season, Volume 1 and The Fifteenth Season, Volume 2 include 26 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. In this fifteenth season, Buck Taylor is promoted to the opening credits as Newly O'Brien, another youthful deputy of Matt's. He'd stay with the series until its cancellation. The son of character actor (and xylophone player extraordinaire) Dub Taylor. So embraced was Buck by the Gunsmoke cast, he named his second son Matthew, after Arness's character, and third son Cooper Glenn, after Sam the barkeeper Glenn "Pee-wee" Strange.
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 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.
The shows I sampled ranged from very good to outstanding. The season premiere, "The Devil's Outpost," has Matt and a stagecoach driver (Karl Swenson, eschewing his usual Swedish accent for a convincing Scottish one) escorting a stagecoach robber through the wilderness, hotly pursued by the man's obsessive, intellectual gang leader (Robert Lansing). Beyond the fun of watching actor Lansing, always great in parts like this, the episode is notable for its exceptionally good photography, which really gives it a movie-like epicness.
There's more good casting in the second episode, "Stryker," which casts Morgan Woodward as the disgraced former marshal of Dodge who blames then-deputy Matt Dillon for his downward spiral. This episode also exemplifies the wonderful blending of new and veteran talent. Of the former there's young actors like Joan Van Ark (as his daughter) and up-and-coming character player Mills Watson, while veterans like Andy Devine and Royal Dano make appearances.
"Danny" toplines new Oscar-winner Jack Albertson as a lifelong con man who, after learning that he's terminally ill, resolves to go out with a bang, ordering an elaborate funeral he has no money to pay for. A clever, funny, and ultimately touching show, it exemplifies how Gunsmoke could spotlight a guest performance and make it work.
"Jake MacGraw" is another, with J.D. Cannon playing a notorious gunslinger newly released from a long prison sentence, in Dodge seemingly to wreak vengeance against those who helped convicted him. The surprising show instead has him going to work as a piano player for Miss Kitty, which baffles everybody, especially those certain their lives are in imminent danger. A well-written, unpredictable show with an exceptional performance by Cannon. Watching it, it's too bad he never starred in his own Western series.
Video & Audio
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 fifteenth 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.