"Gunsmoke" was originally intended to be a "hard-boiled" adult Western, what William Paley called "Philip Marlowe of the Old West". When writer John Meston and producer Norman MacDonnell, developing an adult Western of their own, came across Paley's pilot, the project was revived, and the result was "Gunsmoke".
Meston was the chief writer for the radio series, and many of his radio scripts were recycled for TV, sometimes censored to remove material considered too "mature" for the TV audience. Though one cannot know Meston's intentions in detail, there's no question he wanted to thoroughly disabuse the audience that there was anything the least-bit "romantic" about the Old West (an anti-theme Larry McMurtry would later embrace).
Meston's stories are often dark, violent, and just plain nasty. One has the comic title "Never Pester Chester", in which Chester is roped and dragged nearly to his death by two cowhands who don't care for Chester asking them to behave a bit more politely in Dodge.
There is no motivation -- of any sort -- for their behavior, other than that they're immoral and not-sane. These sorts of characters -- "Meston maniacs" -- populate his scripts. Meston reasonably (???) assumed there were plenty of such people in the Old West, so there was nothing wrong with using them to tell vicious, violent stories -- whose sole purpose was to remind the audience just how bad the Wild West was. *
The question (to me) is why CBS Standards & Practices didn't object to such crude and unmotivated violence. The answer might be that television standards were influenced by motion picture standards. One rule required that evil //always// be punished, without exception. ** It therefore doesn't matter //what// the villain did -- however vile, depraved, or disgusting -- as long as he was punished in the end. ***
This is, of course, hypocritical beyond belief -- it's okay to titillate the audience with depravity, as long as the perpetrator eventually "gets it". (DeMille was notorious for this sort of thing.)
One of the oddest things about this episode is that Harvey and Merle murder Grant when he refuses to feed them, claiming he doesn't have enough food. Odd, because in most societies, throughout the world, throughout history, even the uninvited guest has an honored place. (Hagen doesn't immediately kill Sigmund, as doing so would break the laws of hospitality.) Murder was an uncalled-for response, but Harvey and Merle were justified in being offended that they weren't fed.
I haven't decided whether this episode should be rated 1 (because of its utter tastelessness), or 10 (for being a vicious slap in the face of the American public). Perhaps Meston was just poking fun at himself. The producers clearly thought of it as comedy, as the music attests. (The music should have been written by Bernard Herrmann (think "The Trouble with Harry") but the talented Fred Steiner was the perfect substitute.)
Regardless, this is a must-see episode -- and not just for "Gunsmoke" fans.
* It's probably safe to say that //no// Western hero -- with the possible exception of David Crockett -- would be considered a decent human being or any sort of role model, by modern standards. Even the famous cattle baron, Charles Goodnight, who is often held up as a model Christian gentleman, was a callous murderer. (See LIFE's "The Cowboys", p62.)
** In Meston's "Passive Resistance" (4.19), a man whose sheep are killed and his house burned refuses to name the perpetrators, because he //will// have his justice -- as the only power evil has is to destroy itself. Episode 9.12, "The Magician", recycles the idea.
*** In "Buffalo Hunter" (4.33), the titular character murders his hands so he won't have to pay them. He kills one of them by shoving his face into a pot of melted lead. He is eventually horribly tortured by Indians.
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