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Watching Matt save the day in episode after episode made me realize how great it would to have a Matt around today: someone who would stand up to the bully, step in a wield his gun at the villains taking advantage of anyone in sight. I guess we all had heroes, but who could ever match James Arness. He was fair, gentle, understanding, but had the strength and skill to ward off any foe.
I miss Matt Dillon. We won't see his like again. Even Clint Eastwood, with his Dirty Harry justice, did not have the depth of Matt with his combination of gunplay and compassion.
Out of the 635 episodes that "Gunsmoke" produced,the series premiered on September 10,1955 with the episode "Matt Gets It". From September 10, 1955 until June 17, 1961 there were 233 half-hour black and white episodes. On September 30,1961 the show expanded to a hour long format that produced 176 episodes in black and white until May 7,1966. Then on September 17,1966 the show evolved from 11 seasons in black and white to color for 266 episodes until the final episode of the series on March 31,1975. During the first few seasons of "Gunsmoke" the show was in the top ten of the Nielsens becoming a huge Saturday night prime time favorite between 1955-1961 where the show became a phenomenon. By 1967, in it's 13th season, CBS made the decision to move the series from Saturday nights to Monday nights where it was back at the top of the ratings,due to a new audience and a earlier time slot. Between Seasons 13 thru 20 saw "Gunsmoke" surging back into the Top Ten of the Nielsens becoming one of the top five shows on television between 1967-1975.
The astounding success of "Gunsmoke" spawned seven Prime-Time Emmy nominations during it's run winning four Prime-Time Emmys in 1958(Best Dramatic Series);1959(Best Supporting Actor-Dennis Weaver);1968(Outstanding Actor in a Supporting Role-Milburn Stone);1970(Outstanding Achievement in Film Editing). "Gunsmoke" was nominated for four Golden Globes with actress Amanda Blake for Best Actress in a Dramatic Series three times in 1970,1971 and 1972. Golden Globe nominated also when to Milburn Stone for Best Supporting Actor in a Dramatic Series in 1972. Golden Globe nominations also went to Ken Curtis and James Arness as well. When "Gunsmoke" ended it's run in 1975 it marked the end of the television Western...an astounding feat that when it was on the air during the early-1970's it surpass it's rival "Bonanza" which was already off the air two years earlier. When it was abruptly canceled on March 31,1975(with the final episode of the series "The Sharecroppers") the cast had no warning and learned their fate from media outlets. On September 8, 1975 the two shows that replaced the long-running "Gunsmoke" were two spinoffs of CBS' "Mary Tyler Moore Show" which were "Rhoda",and "Phyllis" that were placed on it's prime- time Monday night schedule. James Arness reprised the role of Marshal Dillon for six made for television movies based on "Gunsmoke" that aired on CBS between 1987 and 1994 featuring the original cast that includes Ken Curtis, Amanda Blake and Buck Taylor.
People in the earlier episodes gave the impression that they were ordinary, hard working people who barely eked a living out of a hard land. They did what they had to do to get by, out on the lonely Kansas plains. When they met disaster, it was "implied" on screen and the viewer could use his imagination as to what happened. Those shows did not have all of the "Hollywood" glitz that pervaded later episodes.
It's interesting to speculate how John Wayne's career might have taken a different turn had he accepted the offer to star in a weekly half hour television show about the Marshal of Dodge City. But of course he didn't do it, but instead pushed hard for an even taller marshal for the Kansas frontier town. James Arness had co-starred with the Duke in Big Jim McLain, Island in the Sky, and Hondo. He certainly brought a Duke like presence to the role of Marshal Matt Dillon.
A lot of people forget that Gunsmoke was a radio series for several years before it came to television. It ran parallel on radio in the declining years of radio drama and the voice of Matt Dillon on the radio was William Conrad. Certainly a capable enough actor, Conrad's squat appearance just didn't match the description on radio of Dillon. Why do you think John Wayne was the first choice?
Besides the regulars on every week which included Dennis Weaver as the stiff legged somewhat mentally challenged Deputy Chester Goode, Milburn Stone as testy and cantankerous Doctor Galen Adams, and Amanda Blake as Matt's significant other, Kitty Russell of the Longbranch saloon, the writers were smart enough to make sure the producers kept a recurring cast of regulars as the townspeople. Roy Roberts the banker, Eddy Waller as the livery stable owner, Glenn Strange as the bartender in the Longbranch, and for a while Burt Reynolds as a blacksmith, popped up in several episodes a year, even just with a line or two. It kept a great sense of continuity and the whole community of Dodge City became like familiar friends.
Poor Dennis Weaver who related the stiff leg was his idea to establish individuality of his character and that he had to study yoga in order to walk with it and mount a horse said that he would have done something different if he knew how difficult it was going to be. He read for the Matt Dillon part and took the role of Chester because he needed the work. But after several seasons, he naturally did not want to spend his career typecast as a half wit. He quit and the rustic Festus Hagen came on as the Deputy. Festus was uneducated, but was by no means stupid. His arguments with the cantankerous Doc Adams were classic. Festus was played with real flair by Ken Curtis.
If Gunsmoke is remembered for something other than a really great western series, maybe the best we ever had on television, it's the show that was saved by White House intervention. Along about 1965 because of declining ratings CBS was considering giving it the axe. But in an interview Lady Bird Johnson happened to mention that Gunsmoke was her favorite television show. That offhand comment revived interest in the series and CBS kept Gunsmoke on for another decade.
Gunsmoke was an adult western, the plot situations were adult, but it's characters were both real and morally upright. Matt Dillon was no kid's cowboy hero like Gene Autry or Roy Rogers, but he was honest and decent and a fine role model who was incorruptible. And he and Kitty Russell had an adult romance going in the same manner as Perry Mason and Della Street. It was unspoken that sex as well as liquor was to be had at the Longbranch, but Miss Kitty had eyes only for the Marshal.
As did America for twenty satisfying years.
The first year (1955) was far from the best, but it did put in place several elements that would mature powerfully over the following period. Of course, there's the cast of those early years. Above all, there's James Arness as the Marshal. Once Arness gets into the role after an uneven start, he's simply superb as the show's long-time anchor. Dennis Weaver's Chester is memorably easy to parody, with his slow wits and distinctive down-home drawl. But Weaver's also a fine actor, who provided his character with a rare measure of pathos unequaled by other supporting players over the 20 year run. There was always the chance that Chester's "comic relief" would descend into buffoonery, but Weaver and the producers handled the risk well. Milburn Stone's Doc adds a lot of color to the core cast, but he also trafficked in a lot of self-conscious mannerisms for my taste. Nonetheless, he mixed well with the others, while his caustic bantering with the over-matched Chester could be both unforced and funny. And, of course, there's Amanda Blake's Kitty, the good-hearted saloon-keeper, who a led a rather implausibly chaste private life. But here we're dealing with the mores of the time. The fact is that Blake brings just the right emotional tone to a character that was more constrained than the others. The cast may not seem so special on paper, but on screen the chemistry was superb.
The 1955 entries opened with an unusual prologue-- Matt's little contemplative walk through Boot Hill where he pondered the fate of those mouldering in their graves.These reflective moments set an unusual tone for an action genre. Plus, they provided an extra dimension that took us outside the story by suggesting there are larger meanings within which the story would unfold. These were not heavy-handed messages, but rather subtle suggestions that moral lessons can be drawn from the stories that follow. The prologue was dropped after the first year, perhaps because the writers had exhausted the brief time frame. Nonetheless, the undercurrent continued for the next few years, especially in Matt's reactions to how some stories turned out. In "Brother Whelp" (1959), for example, he finds out the unexpected truth behind two brothers' rivalry over the same girl,. His perplexed reactions in the final few seconds indicate an attempt to come to grips with the strange ways of the world, ones that continue to elude his grasp. Thus, the episode ends on a subtly contemplative note, unusual for that day or any day. It's this inner dimension present at times during the early years that is often overlooked.
Above all, however, it was the superior scripts that distinguished the series during this period. The excellence, I believe, was largely due to one man-- John Meston, who appears to have served as head writer until 1965. Note how many of the best screen-plays were either penned by him or taken from his ideas. He came to the TV production from the radio version where I expect he honed his skills. Those skills are in real evidence from 1956 to the early 60's. (And I expect it's no accident that this is the same time-frame during which Norman Mac Donnell served as series producer-- the man responsible for assembling the production crew.) Meston's specialty was dramatic structure. His best scripts are tight, suspenseful, and about as realistic as constraints of the time would allow. At his best, there was a dark inkling of just how difficult life on the Kansas frontier was. It's those moments I like best when some sorry homesteader or drifter confronts moments of personal anguish in the face of never-ending hard work, hostile Indians, and unforgiving elements-- in short, those rare moments of historical truth. Few series of the time bothered with the actual plight of prairie sod-busters. But Meston sometimes did. He was also good at limning colorful characters, building suspense, and also, surprisingly for the day, giving women strong roles in a genre that traditionally downplayed them. Together with Mac Donnell, I believe these two are largely responsible for Gunsmoke's "golden age". Too bad, their behind-the-scenes contributions have never been duly recognized.
I haven't seen all the entries from this 5-year period, but I have seen the majority. So let me recommend a few that I think are worth catching up with. "The Guitar"(1955), easily the best of the first season, scripted by the legendary maverick, Sam Peckinpah, and no doubt the only entry of that period to implicate cast principals in a major crime!; "Ma Tennis" (1958), an original concept, superbly directed by Buzz Kulik, with a number of dramatic twists; "Jayhawkers" (1959), an effective glimpse of a Texas trail crew, with a surprising dramatic turn by Jack Elam; "Kangaroo" (1959) a fearsome entry, with hulking, Bible spouting Peter Whitney showing no mercy to even his sons; and,"The Cabin" (1958), an unusual noirish entry that somehow got past the censors.
None of this is to deny that later entries in the series lacked merit. However, I do think the series soon lost the edge and tightness of this peak period. I'm only sorry that copies are so difficult to obtain. Most are worth a look-see, even in our era of super-charged TV.
That Gunsmoke is the greatest TV western of all time is hard to dispute. it may be the great TV show of all time. Think of what your favorite show might have been like after 20 years on the air and then compare it to Gunsmoke, which was probably as good as anything on TV for it's entire twenty year run. Not too many shows were on so long that their runs can be divided into eras, but Gunsmoke has three of them. The first is the half hour black and white era, (1955-61). This is the most praised era of the show and the era of it's greatest popularity, (it was the #1 show on TV the last four of those years). Critics praise the "tight scripting" of those days and James Arness has said he prefers John Meston's "little morality plays" to the later hour episodes, which some critics have called "bloated". I like the half hours because they show the program in it's formative years, when the cast was young, (and the right age for their characters). I also like you can get four of them to a cassette, rather than two. But these shows are basically about incidents, rather than stories. They lack character and story development. The second era is the hour long black and white era. This is my favorite, firstly because it's the earliest one I remember from the times I watched it with my father and secondly because it's the best. With the extra hour to work with and a new group of writers to do the work,. the series matured. The supporting cast became stars, (nearly every famous episode featuring Chester, Festus, Doc or Kitty comes from this period). It also is the era when the second lead was introduced. the first and best was Burt Reynolds as Quint Asper, who's entire run is in this era. The writers also increased the scope of the show by focusing on "guest characters" with the regulars as supporting players. Unfortunately, the general public didn't share my enthusiasm for this era, (or they found something better to do on Saturday nights). Gunsmoke fell from #1 to #36, (in an era where there were only three networks), and actually got briefly canceled until William Paley saved it. But the old Saturday night spot was taken by Mannix so the show was moved to Tuesday, where it was expected to die a natural death among shows intended for younger viewers. In the greatest upset in TV ratings history, the show was discovered by a new generation and rebounded to #2, earning it another 8 years on the air, by which time the western craze it had started was long over and all it's rivals, even Bonanza, were long off the air.
By this time, color had taken over. And it didn't do the show much good. Magazine reporters used to say: black and white for drama, color for excitement. Gunsmoke was about drama. Gunsmoke used to use an outdoor set for daytime Dodge City scenes. That disappeared in favor of an indoor set about 1960. In black an white the indoor set sufficed. In color it looked garish and stagy. Color had the same effect on the actors who were now too old for their roles. Real western marshals served for a few months at a time, (and, by the way, US Marshals were never town marshals). it became increasingly ridiculous to see Matt Dillon still gunning down the young whippersnappers after a decade or more. Miss Kitty went from a purdy young thing to a middle aged painted lady. Doc became increasingly enfeebled as Milburn Stone's health declined. Somehow the color film brought out all the wrinkles more than black and white. There where compensations. Each season began with a movie-caliber two parter shot on location in some national park. the overall script quality remained high as the cadre of writers continued to expand. They even got an outdoor set to use again in the later years, although it didn't look much like the Dodge City we had come to know.
The TV movies? The first one was terrible. The second one was quite good. the third one stunk and I didn't bother with them after that.
This has to be the #1 Western of all time, Arness, Blake, Stone and company made this a classic. By all means, if its carried somewhere, see it. It's one of the best.
"The Prisoner" features Jon Voight as a condemned murderer rescued from hanging by Miss Kitty because she is grateful to him for saving her own life. Even though the young cowboy openly admits to killing a rich man's wife, Miss Kitty believes in his innocence so much she rigs a poker game to steal custody of him from an abusive bounty hunter. Then she hides him just long enough for Marshal Matt Dillon to stop a rival sheriff and his violent boss from going through with the hanging. The poor cowpoke protests his innocence, finally gets a fair trial and is set free.
This episode of "Gunsmoke" may have been seen by more than twenty million devoted fans in one night, which makes it difficult to equal its achievement in propagandizing effectively in favor of liberal doubt. Although western movies and TV serials have often been attacked by left-wing pundits for promoting right-wing values, in fact the show "Gunsmoke" may have done more to persuade its audience to oppose the death penalty than a string of full page ads in The New York Times. The makers of this show said "give a condemned man another chance" so entertainingly and so convincingly that most of its millions of loyal viewers probably agreed.
In another episode of the show, featuring Carroll O'Connor as a poor farmer who steals back thirty dollars he lost to a rich gambler later robbed and murdered by a trio of feckless drifters, both the Marshal and Festus, believing that the simple souled farmer would never commit murder or lie to them, ride down the real culprits to prove he's not guilty.
How much more plainly could a point in favor of defendants' rights be made? Yet when "Gunsmoke" was pulled off broadcast TV along with most other western entertainment, pundits of the left were foremost among those who celebrated the occasion, as if westerns, like Wall Street capitalism and the Ku Klux Klan, were a cause of society's ills rather than one of its cures. Well, the pundits had it wrong, this type of show should never have been taken off the air. Westerns are no more to blame for reactionary thinking than Marshal Dillon is to blame for the actions of an angry lynch mob.
John Wayne,who legend has it,was considered for the role of Marshal Dillon,and recommended his good friend James Arness for the job,and subsequently introduced viewers to the pilot episode("Matt Gets It" on September 10, 1955). Created by John Meston and Norman MacDonnell(for Seasons 1-9) along with producers John Mantley and Phillip Leacock(for Seasons 10-20),the series "Gunsmoke" began on radio in 1952 with William Conrad as Dillon,then made the transition to television. The series premiered on CBS' Saturday night schedule on September 10,1955 producing 233 half- hour episodes in black and white until June 17,1961(Seasons 1-6). On September 30,1961 the show expanded to a hour long format producing 176 episodes in black and white until May 7,1966(Seasons 7-11)Then the show evolved into color for 266 episodes from September 17,1966 until March 31,1975(Seasons 12-20). Only actors James Arness and Milburn Stone were the only cast members that stayed with the series throughout it's entire 20-year run.
Actress Amanda Blake(Kitty Russell) was in Seasons 1-19 only,while other actors such as Dennis Weaver(Chester Goode)was in Seasons 1 thru 9 only. Weaver was gone at the end of the show's ninth season and was replaced by actor Ken Curtis(Festus Hagen) in 1964 and remained with the series throughout it's run until 1975(Seasons 10 thru 20). Ken Curtis actually appeared in several episodes as a guest star. Actor Burt Reynolds(Quint Asper)appeared in Seasons 8 thru 10 for 50 episodes until the end of the show's 10th season when he was replaced by Actor Roger Ewing(Thad Greene) for Seasons 11 thru 13 only. Buck Taylor(Newly)replaced Roger Ewing when he left at the end of Season 12. Taylor also appeared as a guest star in Season 12 episodes,but became a regular in Seasons 13 thru 20 until 1975,when the show ended it's triumph run.
"Gunsmoke" during it's first eight seasons was in the Top Ten of the Nielsens,but when the ratings were slipping during the mid-1960's, a sudden move of the schedule sent the show from Saturday nights where it had been for the past 12 seasons to Monday nights at the beginning of Season 13,sent the show surging back into the Top Ten of the Nielsens becoming one of the top five shows on television from 1967-1975. When it was abruptly canceled on March 31,1975 after 635 episodes and 20 seasons the cast has no warning and learned their fate from press reports. On September 8, 1975, the two shows that replaced "Gunsmoke" were two spinoffs of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" which were "Rhoda" and "Phyllis",to fill that Monday night schedule. The phenomenal success of "Gunsmoke" helped established a standard for adult Western storytelling that has rarely been matched on the small or big screen. "Gunsmoke" spawned a spin-off called "Dirty Sally" starring Jeannette Nolan(who was a guest star in several episodes of "Gunsmoke" appearing in numerous roles)that lasted one season in 1974. James Arness did reprised the role of Marshal Dillon again when CBS aired five made for television sequels based on "Gunsmoke" that aired from 1987 until 1994. "Gunsmoke" held the title as the longest running prime time drama on television which has now been eclipsed by "Law and Order",and the animated "The Simpsons" for its longevity.
THE MAIN CULPRITS in this case would seem to be our reliance on often less than spectacular memories and a natural inclination to write off any TV Series, which has had both longevity and popularity. Remembering that old adage that, "Familiarity breeds contempt."*
WHAT IS CALLED for,and not exactly being coincidental, is a reviewing of as many episodes as is possible; with the object being to attempt to approach such a project without any prejudices, neither Pro or con. Thanks to the existence of such cable entities as NICK AT NIGHT, its video sibling TV LAND and local stations such as Chicago's WMETV (Channel 23) and sister ship, METOO (Channel 48), viewing the episodes is available several times each day.
RECENTLY, WE HAVE taken time to revisit the folks in Dodge City, and make an honest attempt to look at each episode thorough 'new' eyes; putting any or all previously formulated attitudes about the stories on the back burners of mind and memory.
AVAILABLE FOR OUR inspection, were episodes from all seasons. In addition to what has become much more familiar full hour long, color episodes, we were able to take in so many of the old half hour b & w installments from the earlier seasons. Possessing a brand new opening* with a combination of undistinguished theme music and unspectacular fade-in type of graphics, these 1/2 hours were rechristen ed MARSHALL DILLON before their initial season in syndicated reruns.
WHEN WATCHED EN MASSE considered in total, the differences between the products of the various seasons become evident; the earlier stories being far more more unabashedly violent. The more recent entries displaying much less in the area of gunfights, fisticuffs and general mayhem per reel of film exposed. We've heard an explanation recently by the way of an interview on a PBS series. The now retired Marshall of Dodge said that there was an anti-violence crusade in progress fro the U.S. Senate. Consequently, the story lines were shackled with quotas of those very essentials that make a western a western.**
ALL OF THAT being out of the way, we can now move on to what is it that made GUNSMOKE the perennial ratings block buster that it was for some two decades.
IN ORDER TO state it plainly, we need just two words; cast and characterization. The production team knew that the key to success lie in having characters on the screen who would receive enough empathy from the 'characters' in the audience This would require a reasonable high dosage of realism and plain old fashioned authenticity; which of course, GUNSMOKE did posses.
STEP TWO IN the formula for success requires the assembly of a stock company of thespians (that's Actors, to you Schultz) to create the best characterizations for those characters in the story for whom we will care. In the case of series such as GUNSMOKE, BONANZA or today's LAW & ORDER, this would also mean that the roster would undergo a considerably serious degree of metamorphosis; in that in the cast would undergo many changes over the normal course of an exceptionally long run.
IN THE CASE of today's honoree, GUNSMOKE, its continued popularity over the the many seasons is in no way due to fine character development by a very talented stock company; who did their damnedest in giving us folks who we really identified with and truly cared for
AND, WHILE WE are on the subject, we want to mention those very talented group of actors who made all of those seasons. We had people such as:
Marshall Matt Dillon (James Arness), Kitty Russell (Amanda Blake), Doc Adams (Milburn Stone), Chester Goode (Denis Weaver), Ken Curtis (Festus Haggen), Buck Taylor (Newly O'Brien), Glenn Strange (Sam the Bartender), Burt Reynolds (Quint Asper, town blacksmith), and many more.
COLLECTIVELY AND INDIVIDUALLY, these folks were responsible for our identification with an affection for Matt, Kitty, Doc, Chester, Sam, Festus, Newly, Quint, etc., etc., etc.
NOTE: * The series truly hit the ground running; as it had been a popular Radio Series on the CBS Radio Network. It featured: William Conrad (Matt), Howard McNear Doc), Parley Baer (Chester).
NOTE: ** Much in the same way as other Radio to TV Series such as THE LONE RANGER, many of the early GUNSMOKEs were adaptations of radio scripts.