‘Gunsmoke’ (Season 1): The iconic 20-year Western begins

Better late than never. I know, I know: I promised over two years ago to begin reviewing the massive 65th anniversary boxed set (beautifully put together for CBS video by pro Andrew J. Klyde) of Gunsmoke, the iconic, legendary 20-year Western series starring James Arness, Amanda Blake, Milburn Stone, and Dennis Weaver. Well…things happen (don’t get me started with the government, okay?), so let’s just all move on and get started on looking at one of the greatest TV series of any decade.

By Paul Mavis

Prominently featured on the handsomely-boxed DVD set is the note that it was produced for Gunsmoke‘s 65th anniversary (the series bowed on the CBS TV network in the fall of 1955). Unfortunately, that mid-50s start date doesn’t sound all that much “before my time,” but to today’s pop culture parrots who squawk the same gibberish about the latest propaganda piece on Netflix, that 65-year time span must seem jaw-dropping (“They had TV back then?” they hoot). To today’s exclusively younger, overwhelmingly liberal, urban-based scribblers who cover the entertainment field, television’s “history” began when their favorite drivel Friends went off the air. Gunsmoke, particularly the earlier black and white episodes, would seem positively prehistoric to their limited sensibilities…if they chose to even watch it, that is.

Click to order Gunsmoke: The Complete Series at Amazon.

After all, when you mention Gunsmoke to one of these nattering nitwits of the nascent 21st century, to them you’re just talking about another TV Western from the 1950s—a genre that elicits either incomprehension or uninformed derision in most of today’s TV critics, and outright esthetic contempt from world pop culture enthusiasts and the mainstream media. That is…unless of course the Western in question seriously deviates from the long-held traditions of the genre, and provides an exceedingly cynical or negative view of America’s past. Then, it’s good to go (and bonus: if it’s directed by that hack Tarantino, well…it’s time for everyone to crap their collective didy). It’s no secret to anyone who follows pop culture and the icons that develop and grow in our society, that the traditional Western hero—if he’s mentioned at all anymore—is considered at best a joke by those who control the media (or at worst, an evil, racist villain), an outdated, anachronistic, even contemptible throwback to days better left forgotten.

What better example can you find for this devaluation of that once-powerful mythical figure than the common pejorative that’s thrown around by people all over the world for anyone who breaks the rules or appears to be a tad too strong in their convictions: “cowboy.” Prejudice as well plays a role in this elimination of an archetype. The notion of a strong, virtuous, largely silent moral authority figure in an historical drama—who also usually happens to be White—is absolutely going to be positioned today in a movie as a villainous, racist, hypocritical figure, ripe for lampooning or castigating, an easy stereotypical target for lazy scriptwriting. To those who write about such matters, and who try to influence people’s way of seeing and thinking about the world, the traditional Western hero—especially if he’s White—is a creature from the past: largely forgotten, a symbol of perceived injustices, no longer culturally relevant, dead.

Gunsmoke was more than just another Western that people watched back during the Big Three’s heyday. It was hugely responsible for bringing the “adult Western” to television, changing forever how that genre was represented on the airwaves. Its massive popularity with viewers ensured that the very best of the best industry writers and directors worked on the series, elevating “just another Western” into one of television’s finest dramas of the 1950s and 1960s. Prior to Gunsmoke‘s arrival, the most popular Westerns on TV were kiddie-oriented shows like The Lone Ranger and Hopalong Cassidy. That first generation of little TV watchers, who learned invaluable lessons in honesty, personal responsibility, civics, and a host of other socially-positive messages from those kiddie oaters, loved them. But Mom and Dad wanted something a little more challenging. The big-screen and radio Westerns had long before “grown up;” TV oaters definitely lagged behind. That is, until Gunsmoke came along.

When Gunsmoke premiered in 1955, the network schedules were dominated by comedies, game shows, drama anthologies, and variety series. Within a few short years, over thirty Westerns would be on the networks at the same time, and Gunsmoke‘s success was largely responsible for that. The Western was always one of the more malleable of the dramatic subgenres, both for television and movies, where writers of any generation could inject their viewpoints on then-current societal conditions, within the story framework of the cowboy in the old west. Gunsmoke was the first to do this on television (well…technically, adult Western The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp premiered four short days before Gunsmoke, and though excellent in its own right, lasted only six seasons). A stable of excellent scripters, later including female scribes such as series’ favorite Kathleen Hite, were able to write about important themes that transcended the Western genre, while still respecting the genre’s conventions.

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Top directors worked on Gunsmoke, as well, and their efforts to push the limits of the Western genre in terms of dramatic content allowed Gunsmoke to move to the forefront of TV dramas. That’s why its fascinating to me to hear current critics belittle it and other intelligent oaters from that time period (such as Rawhide or The Big Valley) for being merely “shoot ’em ups,” when in reality, Gunsmoke was just as influential in the 1950s and 1960s for helping TV to “grow up,” as the more noted All in the Family was responsible for taking TV even further in the 1970s. They do this because they either haven’t actually watched the shows (you’d be amazed at how many write about what they’ve never seen), or they watch them through distorted prisms of ideology, checking off boxes and looking for scores to settle, rather than evaluating what’s really on the screen.

The figure of U.S. Marshal Matt Dillon, a solid, commanding lynchpin for the revolving stories and characters that populated Gunsmoke, represented the best possible image of the strong, silent man of action that rode the west of our imaginations. Arness instills in the character of Marshall Dillon the traditional traits and attitudes that Americans once fervently admired (and feared we were losing) back in the 1950s, including honesty, morality, fairness, and courage. It’s difficult if not impossible to turn on today’s television and find a show as popular as Gunsmoke was in its heyday, that not only dramatizes such traditional American attitudes, but actively encourages their practice.

It’s been a seismic shift in American TV entertainment, with cynicism, depression, mordant, superficial, wise-ass humor, and titillation for its own sake, now ruling the tube (how wonderfully ironic that one of “new television”‘s most warped, psychotic pin-ups, Tony Soprano, continually longed for the days of the “strong, silent” Western heroes embodied by Gary Cooper, and by logical extension, Marshal Dillon). It’s no wonder that older viewers are turning away in droves from television. According to new studies, younger viewers are turning off their TVs, as well (my youngest set of kids simply do not watch television. They watch short videos on their phones). The studies say it’s because other technologies are grabbing their attention, and that may be true. But maybe, just maybe, they’re also getting tired of seeing a hopeless, valueless image of people and society projected back to them—an image in direct opposition to the layered, complex, but ultimately uplifting Gunsmoke. I seriously doubt it…but we can hope.

Gunsmoke the TV series had its origins in a medium even less studied or celebrated today than the 1950s TV oater: Golden Age American dramatic radio. Originally commissioned in 1949 by CBS chairman William S. Paley, who wanted a “hardboiled” Western radio series, Gunsmoke‘s audition script, Matt Dillon Goes to Gouge Eye was recorded twice, but then shelved when lead actor Howard Culver became unavailable to star. The Matt Dillon script sat for three years before it was rediscovered by producer Norman Macdonnell and writer John Meston. They were both interested in doing an adult Western, filled with morally ambiguous characters and heightened realism, that showed how nasty and brutal the “Old West” really was, compared to Hollywood’s traditional take. Radio’s Gunsmoke, starring William Conrad (later TV’s Cannon) as Matt Dillon, was a big critical and commercial success (it ran from 1952 to 1961), and CBS almost immediately envisioned it being translated to the small screen.

With Meston brought on as story editor/head writer and Macdonnell initially given a lesser associate producer title (they both continued to work on the radio version of Gunsmoke, as well), CBS hired Charles Marquis Warren as the hands-on producer and director of Gunsmoke‘s first season. A pulp writer and highly decorated WWII veteran, Warren was making a good living in Hollywood, specializing in turning out scripts for and/or directing profitable oaters such as Streets of Laredo, The Redhead and the Cowboy, Springfield Rifle, Only the Valiant, Little Big Horn, Hellgate (where he met James Arness), Pony Express and Arrowhead. Reluctant to move “down” to television, a hefty $7k a week salary (about $75k today) changed Warren’s mind; he would go on to direct the first 26 episodes of the first season’s 39 episodes (yes, you read that number “39” correctly. Remember that when people talk about the record books and series like Frasier and The Simpsons and Law & Order).

There are as many stories, seemingly, about how the crucial role of Matt Dillon was cast as there are episodes of Gunsmoke; all of them are entertaining, but it’s difficult to sort out the fact from fancy. After going through the professional courtesy motions of testing radio Matt Dillon, William Conrad, for the role (just too fat), Denver Pyle (later to achieve immortality as rascally Uncle Jesse in The Dukes of Hazzard) and future TV superstar Raymond Burr (again: fat) were looked at, and rejected. John Wayne had to have had some kind of connection with the producers, since he was roped into introducing the premiere episode, promising an “honest, adult, realistic” Western drama. Such an intro was a genuine TV rarity for a current, huge movie star, as well as a solid bet of a good start to the series (“If ‘ol Duke likes Gunsmoke and Arness…well, then I do, too!” thought millions of viewers, no doubt), but he was never offered the part of Matt Dillon, as so many histories claim.

Wayne did, however, help recommend friend James Arness for the role, a 6’7″ “big sonavabitch” as described by Warren, who had worked with Arness before and who thought he’d be perfect for the role. The rest of the cast was filled out with veteran supporting player Milburn Stone as Doc Adams, Dodge’s crusty, irascible physician; lovely Amanda Blake as Miss Kitty Russell, the chief “saloon girl” at Dodge’s Long Branch Saloon and Matt’s mysteriously vague romantic partner (of course something was going on between them); and bum-legged, ingratiating assistant (not deputy) Chester Goode, played by relative newcomer, Dennis Weaver.

Even though Matt Gets It, the first episode of Gunsmoke to air (September 10th, 1955), wasn’t the first to be shot (the actual pilot, Hack Prine, didn’t air until May, 1956), it’s an excellent introduction to the series and its themes (Warren wrote the screenplay, from Meston’s story). The now-iconic title credit sequence—Matt facing down a gunslinger on the streets of Dodge, apparently at high noon—gives us our first clue as to what kind of lawman Matt Dillon is. If you can get past your initial reaction to seeing that mountain of a man Arness anchoring the foreground of the frame, watch and listen carefully: Matt doesn’t fire first. He’s very fast, but if the producers had made him fast and had him fire before his opponent…the audience might think of Dillon as a gunslinger or killer first, and a lawman second. It’s a small but telling detail.

Before each episode begins this season, we see Matt (in various versions of his standard Western garb…including even an incongruous black hat!) striding up and around Dodge’s notorious cemetery, Boot Hill, looking out at the desolate high plains where Dodge squats (“the Gomorrah of the Plains” he calls it in this episode). He then offers some remarkably downbeat pronouncements about the human condition, eventually offering a reoccurring credo (in the best Hemingway tradition): he has a job to do—maintaining law and order—and he’s going to do it. No matter what. And that job often involves killing people, something he frequently regrets (the nod to Dragnet‘s Joe Friday is unmistakable, whenever Matt begins his little speech, only to stop and say, “I’m Matt Dillon, U.S. Marshal,”). These Boot Hill openings are tart, dour little appetizers for the main stories, holdovers, I would assume, from the radio scripts so many of these episodes are based on (you’re never going to hear the Lone Ranger say most people are worthless).

Bracingly for the premiere episode (and staying close to the radio version’s emphasis on showing Matt isn’t some kind of superhero), Matt Gets It is aptly titled: he does get it, right in the gut, from the gun of psychotic killer Paul Richards (terrific, as always, playing an unsettling whack job). Already warned about Richards from a visiting sheriff (Matt dismisses this lawman as “too proud, too confident…like a lot of people”), Matt realizes there’s going to be trouble when Richards goes right up to Matt and warns Matt not to get in his way. With the other lawman killed, Matt has a showdown with Richards…and loses. Matt isn’t as fast (“You see, Marshal? You see how easy it is?” Richards taunts).

Not only does Matt almost die, he has the pleasure of hearing his friends tell him he should lay off because he’s too proud, and Richards is just too fast for him (thanks, friends). But Matt knows that Richards has to be “eliminated,” and it’s his job to do so. Figuring out Richards’ fatal weakness, Dillon does just that: eliminate him (even though Matt was beat again on the draw), before walking off alone, as his friends silently watch. Matt must triumph in the end, of course, but he’s seen as vulnerable (as well as being a shrewd judge of character). In Gunsmoke, to survive you have to be fast…but it’s better to be smart.

Hot Spell, written by the prolific E. Jack Neuman (among many other things, the creator of Petrocelli), does a real number on the “solid citizen” type. As Matt intones on Boot Hill, “On a given day, any man can be a bad man. On that one day, that’s when I’m called in. That’s when it’s tough.” Indeed. In his first of many appearances on Gunsmoke (his voice work appeared in over half the radio shows), one of my favorite character actors, John Dehner, almost gets lynched for horse thieving, even though he’s innocent…this time. Dodge rancher and general blowhard James Westerfield still wants him run out of town, especially after Dehner kills a cheating card player—an unpopular shooting that nevertheless Matt backs up. Now a posse of citizens want to get Dehner, even if they have to go through Matt.

Dehner’s ex-con is a perfect proto-Sergio Leone anti-hero. We know he’s not a good guy (he has a nasty laugh at Chester’s limp, which Matt shuts down immediately, and that we don’t like, either), but he is innocent here, so his open sneering at Matt’s and the citizens’ actions is valid. As with so many Westerns from the 1950s, the law-abiding townsfolk are always shown as one hair trigger away from taking the law into their own hands, a hypocrisy Dehner spots immediately (they want to kill him when they think he’s guilty, and then they want to kill him when they know he’s innocent), along with the delicious irony of Matt possibly offering “revenge” on Dehner’s behalf by zapping his would-be lynchers (as Dehner chortles, “If this is the law…I like it!”). And how does Dehner thank Matt, when he survives the vigilantes? By laughing at him and calling him, “not too bright,” since Dehner is free to do as he pleases, in Dodge, should he ever decide to. A terrific, modern-feeling episode, thanks in large part to Dehner’s ability to play a likeable rat.

Just a thought before we get to the Doc-centered Word of Honor: shouldn’t Doc’s surgery be on the first floor? How many cowpokes cashed in their chips being hauled up those narrow stairs like a sack of potatoes? In this nicely twisty outing from Warren (and Meston), Doc gives his word not to rat out three killer kidnappers, in exchange for helping the shot victim (who tried to escape)…and for his own life (Doc argues he’s the only doctor within 400 miles—others will die if he dies). Doc of course hates himself for not being able to tell Matt anything about the kidnapping and death of rich rancher Robert Middleton’s son (there’s a dreamy, nicely creepy long shot of the body, tied sitting to a tree). Eventually, though, everyone is put into a position of giving their word and then not being able to go back on it, even Matt, creating a nice, building “doubling” of everyone’s moral position. Familiar heavies Middleton and Claude Akins both do well here, as expected.

No Boot Hill teaser scene in Home Surgery, just a solid (if familiar) story of personal bravery in the face of inescapable pain (and death). Returning to Dodge after delivering a prisoner, Matt and Chester are fired upon by disturbed Gloria Talbot. They discover she’s no threat, though, as well as learning that her father, Joe De Santis, is dying from gangrene, after a horse stepped on his leg. Matt must amputate the leg, while dealing with snake in the grass Wright King, a suitor for Talbot who isn’t what he says he is. Written by John Meston, Home Surgery has a notably quiet tone to what could have been a rather hysterical situation (that’s how they’d play this now—for “realism,” with lots of howling and gore). When Matt discusses De Santis’ injury, they both know it’s probably too late to do anything, but they still have to try; they still have to cut off that leg—a prospect that frankly blanks a first incredulous Matt.

Arness and particularly low-talking De Santis are wonderful together (as is the scene with Weaver and Arness, gently discussing the surgery), quietly talking about and accepting facts that would make others freak out (I love De Santis worrying about Matt: “I’ll try to make it easy for you,” he kindly offers). Director Charles Marquis Warren builds the suspense expertly, giving the viewers a needed cathartic wrap-up in violence, as Matt shows up punk King (Matt’s detailed analysis of the shotgun drawdown is beautifully tough, with supremely confident Matt assuring the falsely cocky kid with a scattergun, “I know what I can do,”). Another tight, nicely modulated episode.

Another “triple Warren,” Obie Tater features Royal Dano (in a lovely performance) as loner Tater, rumored to have gold stashed away at his ranch. Three weeks after he’s dragged by outlaws in an effort to get him to spill, he tells Matt and happens to meet “saloon gal” Kathy Adams at the Longhorn…and promptly marries her (Miss Kitty, hilariously understated, simply exclaims, “Well that didn’t take long,”). Of course, the bride is not who she says she is, and the outlaws soon come back for Dano’s neck. For Obie Tater to work, we have to feel complete sympathy for the main character; otherwise, we’re liable to dismiss him for his dangerous naivete. Luckily, Royal Dano is in fine form, taking nice-but-sad Obie from solitude (when he mournfully intones, “I’ve always been alone,” you believe it), to happy and aware (I love how he knows exactly how Adams is playing him, without caring one bit. At first…), and then to devastated, as he takes in the full effect of what part he played in the final tragedy (he admits that she would never have stayed without the money, but realizes the gold itself wasn’t worth the price: “It never is,” he croaks). Victims in Gunsmoke are almost always given a chance to tell the audience they knew their own part in what ultimately went down.

Another “triple Warren,” but with one big problem. Little kid Peter Votrian hero-worships Matt, but his mother is worried that everyone in town is calling the kid a liar, since he invented imaginary friends after his father died. But what if Peter is telling the truth? What if there are “monsters” robbing and killing travelers through Dodge? Matt wants to believe him, but…. A familiar retread of the old Aesop’s Fable, The Boy Who Cried Wolf, I went along with this episode, aided in no small measure by good thesping from familiar faces Robert Foulk and Amzie Strickland (the “monsters” in question) and some particularly good camerawork (that opening attack was nicely lighted). But once the explanation was made for the “murders,” I stopped and wrote in my notes, “You mean no one reported being jumped and robbed out at that spooky barn? Not one person during all those months?” Major plot hole, and one you can’t afford with a story already well-worn.

Smoking Out the Nolans is, unfortunately, another episode easily sussed out in terms of plotlines and character motivations. Wealthy rancher John Larch (deceptively calm and reasonable) wants squatters Ainslie Pryor and Jeanne Bates out of his cabin and off his land, but they tell friend Matt Dillon they paid for the property. What’s Matt to do when the law and friends butt heads (in the Boot Hill opening, he says such an occurrence feels like a horse kicking him in the stomach). Viewers will see the end of this “triple Warren” a mile off, with the only really interesting element—Matt’s culpability in evicting the squatters—left largely unexplored and thus, frittered away. Miss Kitty and Doc get the best scene: they’re clearly goofing around and having a good time repeating each other’s lines while enjoying the evening on Doc’s stairs.

Kite’s Reward winds up with Matt believing he made a mistake in judgment that cost a good man his life—so much for the stereotype of the invincible cleft-chin and true heart cowboy hero who can do no wrong. Fast-on-the-draw gunslinger Adam Kennedy kills a man in Dodge, and Matt convinces him to give up his gun and try living a “decent” life. Working in Moss Grimmick’s (George Selk) stable, he finds a father figure and respectability in hard, clean living. But Joe Kite (James Griffith), a bounty hunter, arrives in town with information that Adam isn’t who he says he is, and Kite’s going to take him—dead or alive. I wish this had been an hour long episode, particularly to see how Matt deals with the knowledge that his actions—taking the boy’s gun away—ultimately resulted in his death.

I particularly liked scripter Meston’s balance of this desire to lead a “clean” life, with the necessary exercise of straight-up masculine intimidation and force when faced with a threat. When Adam is forced into a fistfight with a knife-wielding bully, he beats him, and we cut to a shot of stable owner Moss smiling. It’s that smile any father had back then when he saw his son stick up for himself with his own two fists (today, Adam would be arrested for assault, while the bully would receive free psychological counseling and syringes, I suppose, if he asked for them, while Moss would be reported to Social Services). And check out Arness completely intimidating Kite, quietly (and menacingly) telling him to get off his desk…and then refusing to move out of the way for Kite, making Kite walk around him. When Matt contemptuously tells him to go sit in the dark where he belongs; that he’s not a man, this is the kind of elemental male confidence and domination that used to be a hallmark of traditional masculinity (the kind of masculinity little boys like Tarantino like to put in their movies today to vicariously thrill the soy latte crowd with its now-verboten power). Also look for some well-played comedy scenes, including Matt and Doc squawking about bills: (Doc) “Government send you your pay?” (Matt) “Now what would I do with money?” “You owe me $20!” “$10!” “Interest!” “Where’d you learn doctoring: in a pawn shop?” “Doctors are human. We like to eat, too, you know.” “Try the stable.”

What’s most interesting about The Hunter, aside from a no-holds-barred performance from that great character actor, Peter Whitney (I love his huge, crazed laugh), is yet another example of how network television was far more enlightened concerning race relations than current historians would have you believe. Buffalo hunter Whitney is bound and determined to cross over into Indian territory and stage a hunt, a treaty-breaking action that Matt knows will trigger a fight between the Indians and the Army, which is running patrols along the border. Matt has uneasy history with Whitney, but when he proves incalcitrant, Matt must act. John Dunkel’s script has Matt first trying to ease Whitney into the fact that his old way of living on the frontier is over, and that the law must be obeyed.

Eventually, though, force is needed, at the hands of Whitney’s Indian son (Richard Gilden), who knifes him in the back (true to form, Matt tells “Golden Calf” he’ll have to be taken in, even though he saved his life). There’s no sympathy for Whitney here; it was “men like you [who] brought a stench to the Plains,” with whole herds of buffalo massacred and wasted for skins, not meat, he’s told. Funny talk for a supposedly racist TV show from the 1950s (if anything, network television is far more racist today in 2022 than it ever was in 1955; try and guess who’s openly getting stereotyped and maligned now…).

Here’s one, though, that will get the racist tag from ideologues. Written by future maverick director Sam Peckinpah, The Queue finds Chinese immigrant Keye Luke arriving in Dodge and being immediately set upon by town thugs Robert Gist and Devlin McCarthy, who believe he has gold stashed away in a treasure box. When they cut off his pigtail, Luke must either get it back, or kill them, to save his honor. Matt again proves to be welcoming to anyone who arrives in Dodge with good intentions; he doesn’t care that Gist and McCarthy bring up a past story about Chinese laborers killing 50 people (including their brother) and stealing all their gold. If Luke wasn’t one of them, and he obeys the law, he’s welcome to stay in Dodge. Even though Luke knows he’s a second-class citizen in America (he puts on a phony pidgin English act to reassure people’s expectations), he states, “I love this country,” and wants to bring his wife here. Clearly, Dodge City and welcoming Matt Dillon and America itself—imperfect as it may be—were still far better options than from where he first came.

So it’s entirely appropriate that Matt, the last bulwark for keeping law and order on the frontier, stops Luke from killing the men, with Matt using the once-revered, now-reviled E pluribus unum theory of America: “Chen, you said you wanted to bring your wife here. To make your home in this country. Well, if you do that you’ve got to live as an American, not as a Chinese. If you have to kill two men over a pigtail, you don’t belong in Dodge or any place else in this country.” Can you imagine that statement being made in an American TV show today? It’s an assertion that has nothing to do with race, but rather with nationality and a shared culture and respect for the American legal system, but that critical point would, I suspect, go over the heads of most critics today.

John Dunkel’s General Parsley Smith is a nicely-realized story about an inveterate liar, Raymond Bailey (the hilarious Mr. Drysdale in The Beverly Hillbillies), who claims to be a Confederate war hero…but who really was just a regimental butcher. He insists Dodge’s new banker, James O’Rear, is going to steal all the depositors’ money, but no one believes him, including Matt. Aside from the neat plotting and a solid performance from Bailey, I particularly liked the final pronouncement from Matt, when they discover Bailey was mortally wounded, even though he didn’t tell anyone: “He even lied about being hit.” It’s such a great line in context, at once defining Bailey as untrustworthy-to-the-end, while still elevating this fascinating character. Quick question, though: doesn’t Matt break his own rule about hustling people out of Dodge without cause, when he tells John Alderson to leave or else? What actual law did he break…or did I miss it?

One of my favorites this season, Magnus from John Meston, has Robert “The Man of a Thousand Voices” Easton visiting Dodge as Chester’s wild, uncivilized brother. During his Christmastime visit, Chester, at first horrified and embarrassed that Magnus has showed up on his doorstep, decides to help civilize his brother, so he can stay in town with him. A subplot has truly uncivilized townie James Anderson (the racist in To Kill a Mockingbird) declaring Miss Kitty wicked enough to kill.

I really didn’t need the overly-familiar, over-the-top Anderson subplot; the Chester/Magnus byplay was so good I wanted much more of it. Dennis Weaver gets a chance to lead his own episode here, and he’s marvelous, charmingly getting across all sorts of constantly-shifting emotions (embarrassment, pride, leeriness, even sadness when his brother decides to leave) with ease. It had to be difficult for such a talented actor to mostly take the backseat during these first few years of Gunsmoke. As for Easton, his Magnus character is so consistently amusing (“Chester…you have got sloppy fat!”), it’s a shame he wasn’t a reoccurring character.

Reed Survives, from scripter Les Crutchfield, is a horny little noir-flavored outing. A former bad girl flame of Matt’s, the sexy Lola Albright, is back in town and married, incongruously, to religious rancher John Carradine. She comes into town to tell Matt that her husband is trying to kill her, but soon it becomes obvious it’s the other way around, with the help of shady ranch hand, and lover, James Drury. What struck me most about Reed Survives—besides that hilarious checker game with Doc and Matt—is how un-“Matt Dillon”-like Matt Dillon comes off here. We understand when he sneers, “Does he have any reason?” when Albright tells him her husband is trying to kill her (must have been a bad breakup). However, we again wonder where he gets off telling Drury to leave town or else, when Drury has broken no laws. I guess we can chalk up Matt’s cynical laughing at the end of the story to his previous experience with Albright, but it’s strange to see upstanding Matt Dillon smiling about his former flame getting strangled, before throwing out a self-satisfied rejoinder to Drury (who is soon to see a gallows): “You shoulda kept on ridin.” Matt seems just a little too happy about the whole situation.

Doc gets to bluster and yell in Professor Lute Bone, from the team of David Victor and Herbert Little, Jr., when John Abbott comes to town with his patent medicine show. Chester is a firm believer in it…since it turns out to be laced with opium, while Strother Martin believes the Professor killed his father with the stuff (Doc almost lost a baby when the parents gave some to it). Some interesting byplay about “harmless deceptions” on the part of the Prof, who genuinely wants to help people with his medicine, with the excuse that the ends justify the means (sound familiar?), while Matt again enacts this strange ordering around of Chester (he tells him to get down from the Prof’s stage, when he’s shilling for the Prof), when we’ve never been told or shown that Matt is, in fact, Chester’s boss in any way. The ending is hard to swallow (the Prof burns his own wagon out of guilt and self-punishment?), while Matt pulls out the old, “I have to be here because of people like you,” bit to Prof. When the Prof earlier stated a time would come when neither he nor Matt would be needed, it really makes no sense (we’d always need lawmen in the West, particularly if the frontier was settled).

A hard-edged, violent outing from scripter Les Crutchfield, No Handcuffs has Vic Perrin chased to Dodge by deputy baddie Mort Mills, who needs to kill Perrin to cover up the corruption of rapist/killer sheriff Charles H. Gray. The top-notch cast of supporting players (English actor Cyril Delevanti shows up in another terrific performance as a frightened turnkey) puts this “bizarro-Dodge” story over. I particularly like how we’re shown what Dodge could have been like in the form of violent, corrupt, lawless Mingo, had the person with the power and the gun and the “law” behind them, simply decided to act on the side of evil, instead of good (you know…like so many of our big cities in America). Check out a pissed-off Matt bitch-slapping Gray and ripping off his star. Nice.

Reward for Matt, from David Victor and Herbert Little, Jr., presents a very interesting conflict: after Matt guns down murderous rancher Paul Newlan, his widow, Helen Wallace, swears vengeance on Matt, offering up a $1000 bounty on his head…with every clodhopper near Dodge coming out of the scrub to collect. The script makes no bones about Newlan being a killer of homesteaders, but rather curiously, we’re asked to be at least understanding towards his mindset (if not accept his methods), first with his own deathbed acknowledgement that he’s fully aware he’s outlived his own time, but more directly, Matt himself telling Kitty (and us) that we need to “make allowances for Newlan and his wife. They “stood against the prairie for so long,” we should understand their difficulty in accepting that their lawless world is over. Tough sell for murderers. The rest of the episode is a good example—many times repeated in Gunsmoke—where Matt, faced with killers in every shadow, must do his duty, without fear…for what else can he do (as he correctly states, for a man of his own moral convictions: “I can’t dig a hole and hide in it,”).

One of the best episodes this season, Robin Hood, from scripter Daniel B. Ullman, opens with the trial of accused stagecoach robber William Hopper (legman Paul Drake in TV’s Perry Mason). The bank manager swears it was him, but respectable ranching couple Barry Atwater and Nora Marlowe lie on the stand, describing two different fictional suspects. Hopper walks and proceeds to party and gamble in Dodge, while Matt fumes…particularly since no one—not even his close friends—believe him about Hopper. What’s most interesting about Robin Hood is the growing level of distrust Doc, Chester and even Miss Kitty have in Matt’s stance, which helps push him into doing something that’s questionable regardless of whether or not Hopper is guilty: calling in a “favor” with reformed gambler James McCallion (in a memorably quiet, watchful performance), whom Matt asks to “clean” out Hopper at the poker table.

That whole sequence feels like its taking Matt down a noir hole he’s not going to get out of; indeed, if this had been a big screen effort, no doubt Matt would take a fatal fall for stooping to his adversary’s level (and you know it didn’t sit well with McCallion, either, who asks Matt not to involve him any more in this kind of stunt). To counter Matt’s actions, we then see Atwater and Marlowe do worse—hide Hopper from Matt (the law) and lie about it. Unfortunately, they don’t have to pay for their transgressions against the law (there’s a sensational shoot-out in the cabin, without lights, illuminated only by gun muzzle flares), even earning a smile and a quip from Matt: “I just hope this time you recognize him.” I guess Matt can’t really not smile at them; after all, his behavior wasn’t all that out of line with theirs.

Potentially potent racial outing from scripter Sam Peckinpah. In Yorky, a White boy (Jeff Silver), raised by Indians, tries to steal a horse for his traditional “counting coup.” He’s shot by rancher Howard Petrie, and doctored by kindly Malcolm Atterbury, and once under Matt’s guidance, Yorky takes to living in Dodge. However, Petrie wants revenge, and Yorky, too, for that matter, since he accuses Petrie of killing Indians to get his horses in the first place. Yorky‘s script is all over the place, and the only thing I can think of is tampering and subsequent amelioration by the network censors, who were notably touchy about any script that dealt with race. Why is Matt giving Atterbury a hard time for his doctoring the boy (who tried to bite him, by the way)? It’s not like he does much better (check out a supremely unconcerned Matt sawing into that kid like a Christmas ham). If Matt’s happy about the kid becoming “civilized,” or in other words, living with “his own kind” (Whites), why does he do a 180 and approve of Yorky leaving to live with “his tribe?” And frankly, it’s a big stretch to believe Atterbury’s son, Dennis Cross, would kill him to save Matt. A confused mishmash of an episode.

David Victor and Herbert Little, Jr. come up with a solid entry, 20-20, when Matt’s old mentor, elderly ex-lawman Wilton Graff, arrives in Dodge…and almost shoots Matt. Laughing it off as a joke, Graff doesn’t fool Matt, who knows something is wrong with his friend. Soon, dirt farmer Martin Kingsley arrives, looking to gun Graff for killing his kid brother—something that Matt can’t believe happened for no good reason. This kind of episode only works if we buy the gravitas of the actor portraying Matt’s mentor, which happens, thankfully, with the always-good Wilton Graff. There’s a beautiful little scene where Matt tells Graff he’s the reason Matt went into law enforcement, because of the way Graff handled himself, what people said about him, with Graff appropriately polite but distant in response (Arness’ sincere delivery is perfect). The mechanics of the final shoot-out may be a bit clunky (I didn’t buy the whole candle/muzzle shot thing), but Graff’s smooth, technically assured performance makes it all palatable.

Reunion 78, from Harold Swanton, brings in some Civil War background to anchor this fairly standard story of a young man seeking to settle a years-long score with a seemingly upstanding, popular member of a community. Val Dufour rides into Dodge and begins drinking with brash, popular barbed wire drummer, Maurice Manson. Dufour starts a nasty fight, but it’s Manson who ultimately pays his bail and even apologizes. Why? Because he knows that Dufour knows that he (Manson) is really “Bloody” Bill Ashley, one of Quantrill’s Raiders, who killed Dufour’s father and carried off (and we assumed raped) his mother, back in Lawrence, Kansas, in 1863. Rather abruptly wrapped up but not badly done at all, 20-20 also benefits from sexy Marion Brash as saloon gal Miss Belle. At the episode’s opening, Chester is jawing with her, goofily exclaiming, “I think you’re just after my money,” to which she replies, “I’ll see you on payday.” That’s about as close as you’re going to get in Gunsmoke to the producers admitting those saloon gals—and that includes Miss Kitty—are prostitutes.

Helping Hand, from David Victor and Herbert Little, Jr., finds Brett Halsey in good form as a weasley punk who at first gets Matt’s sympathy when he’s pursued by cattle rancher Ken L. Smith, who wants him hung for rustling. Halsey cries that everyone always gives him a hard time, and at first, others are sympathetic, too (Doc tells Matt they both perform “preventative medicine,” and that Matt letting the kid go was a good thing). But soon, everyone gets wise to Halsey’s lies…except Matt. Here’s a good episode where Matt proves to be a poor judge of character…and admits it, saying at the end (regarding Halsey’s redemption), “It was too late from the beginning. I should have known that,” (it’s also a bracer to see Matt openly wanting to kill, when, after being shot by Halsey, Matt growls, “He’s mine!”). The best moment in the episode comes at the beginning, when Matt enters the Long Horn, looking for Halsey. Kitty answers that he’s in her room. Matt takes a beat, smirks, and says, “Just askin,” (Matt knows the score with Kitty…).

John Dunkel’s Tap Day for Kitty at last has a few more scenes for the talented Amanda Blake. John Dehner is back, this time as a creepy old coot who’s come into town to get city clothes and a new wife…as soon as he finds her. Saloon gals Evelyn Scott and Dorothy Schuyler make fun of him, with Kitty shutting them down for being impolite (and not just because it’s bad for business). Of course, Dehner takes this concern the wrong way and tells everyone Miss Kitty will be his bride, but when Kitty and then Matt say no, Dehner says he’ll kill anyone who stops him. That is, if he isn’t killed first by an unknown assailant.

Tap Day for Kitty walks a fine line between comedy (“You shut up, mister!” a peeved Kitty says to a laughing Matt, when this all goes down), and drama (Matt is openly suspicious of Kitty when Dehner is almost killed—the knowledge of which obviously hurts Kitty). What follows is a spiffy little mystery, wrapped up perhaps a little too neatly and kindly (considering how off-putting the Dehner character was). But it is nice to see beautiful Amanda Blake alternately act fiery and hurt (it took too long for her to get her own episode, frankly).

Indian Scout, from John Dunkel, is another racially-tinged story that’s too vague for it’s own good. Indian scout Eduard Franz is the only survivor of a Comanche ambush of an entire U.S. Calvary patrol, and everyone thinks it’s because he led them into it. Their reasoning? He’s married to an Indian woman, and he lived among her tribe. DeForest Kelley holds Franz responsible for his brother’s death, but when he’s killed, all fingers point to Franz. Indian Scout worms its way out of its intriguing premise by letting us know that Franz literally did nothing during the Indian raid: he ran away and hid. Cowardice was his choice, an action that every non-offended Gunsmoke viewer could hate. It’s a cop-out for a story that promised to be about a man torn between two cultures, but Franz does what he can with the compromised character.

Another Doc grouser. David Victor and Herbert Little, Jr.’s The Pest Hole has typhoid hitting Dodge, along with all the usual townspeople and businessmen pointing fingers at “the Other” to begin the blame game: first it’s “Bedino’s Café,” and then the German picnickers. Okay, did I miss where someone punished the guys who killed Bedino (I did get up for a sandwich and a beer during this one, but I was listening)? Speaking of drunks, Doc gets plastered in the street after treating more dead people. And be honest: did any of that experiment by Doc with the cooking make sense to you? And is it just me or did Matt seem entirely blasé about the fact that Chester had just unwillingly contracted a deadly disease? He’s almost laughing! Oh, and by the way: I don’t need Matt, a federal marshal, telling me in the opening narration that he’s needed to save myself from me (two years on and we’re still seeing the results of that kind of thinking). A misfire.

I recommend this one to all the feminists out there. In David Victor and Herbert Little, Jr.’s The Big Broad (yep, it’s called that), ornery, tough ball-breaker Dee J. Thompson arrives in Dodge and immediately starts pushing men around, including a cowed Chester (she eventually decks him!). And yet every time she commits an assault…or shooting, she falls back on the excuse that she’s a woman, knowing that no jury would stand for putting a woman in jail. Matt’s wise to her con, but when big oaf Joel Ashley takes a shine to her and starts charming the buckskin off her, her milquetoast companion, Terry Becker, decides it’s time to assert himself.

What a great, weird episode. Combining laughs and heartstrings, along with a completely successful attempt to keep the viewer totally in the dark as to where the story is going, The Big Broad scores as one of the season’s best efforts. How many women in 1950s television got away with punching a male character (Chester), with no repercussions (after all, Chester shouldn’t have made that crack about wearing leather underwear)? Matt’s genuinely perplexed attitude towards Thompson (and perhaps women in general)—”You can’t out-talk them; you can’t hit ’em…what can you do?”—might go a ways towards explaining his relationship with Kitty, before he lays it out: you want to be thought of as a woman, start acting like one (say that today and watch the tiny fists fly). How strange is it, then, when The Big Broad turns from comedy into a surprisingly touching romance, with a wholly satisfying denouement I won’t spoil except with Matt’s absolutely hilarious, classic one-line fade-out: “What’s the matter; you never see anybody in love?” As good as it gets this season.

Hack Prine, from scripter John Meston, is credited as Gunsmoke‘s pilot, although it was actually the 26th episode aired (the sets look different; Matt’s dyed hair is a little inkier; Matt and Kitty seem a tad friendlier). Matt has trouble with a pair of criminal brothers, as well as some of Dodge’s businessmen, who are tired of Matt’s version of law and order (in other words, they only want law and order when it suits their needs). But his biggest problem comes when those men hire genuinely frightening Leo Gordon, a former friend during Matt’s more…”carefree” days, shall we say, to come and kill the lawman.

A thoroughly standard “old friend from former wilder days comes to kill law-abiding friend” Western story is elevated by the presence of beady-eyed, beetle-browed psycho, Leo Gordon, who could do this kind of role better than anyone in Hollywood. Marlon Brando may have talked a good game about “the Method,” but Gordon actually lived the schizophrenic role of ex-con (he did a nickel in San Quentin for armed robbery, getting creased in the gut for his troubles) and prolific, successful writer/actor. That means, when he rolls out that dialogue in that beautifully strong, clear, threatening voice, and his shiny blue marble eyes glitter crazily, you absolutely believe he’s a killer. Too bad he’s not on screen all the time; I didn’t need the brothers subplot at all (and I would have liked to hear more about Matt’s perhaps shady background—why else was Gordon “surprised” that Matt was now a lawman?).

Sam Peckinpah returns with Cooter, where cheating coward gambler Vinton Hayworth keeps gunslinger friend Brett King at his side at all times, to deal with any trouble. When Robert Vaughn is shot dead by King, Matt can’t prove that Hayworth instigated the fight, but Hayworth makes a mistake when he hires mentally challenged Strother Martin (Doc suggests he suffered some brain injury) as his new sidekick, hoping to get Martin to kill Matt. Cleanly and simply laid out by writer Peckinpah, Cooter moves swiftly through its well-paced set-up (thanks to new director Robert Stevenson, of all those marvelous Disney live-action movies), aided by the pro actors (Martin is particularly effective, getting across a strange, dreamy hesitation to his delivery that occasionally slips back into total perception). Again, we have another story where Matt has to accept the limitations of what he can do for someone; when Chester tries to tell him what happened to Martin wasn’t his fault, Matt sadly replies, “No, no…but that doesn’t make me feel better.”

Director Robert Stevenson is back with a nasty offering from John Dunkel: The Killer. Charles Bronson kills, in cold blood, a fellow traveler he met up with on the trail, and then comes to Dodge to cause further trouble…but only with people he knows can’t fight back. Matt wants to stop him, but can’t…within the law, that is. The Killer is an interesting Gunsmoke in that you have to ask yourself at the end did Matt commit murder (and by extension, implicate Chester in that crime)? Matt begins the story defending Bronson, saying there’s nothing he can do about him because there’s no proof he shot the traveler. However, when Matt realizes the killings are only going to continue, he plainly states he’s going to kill him (“I’m doing this one on my own,” could be taken as outside the law). Is it murder setting up Bronson to shoot Matt when Matt turns his back on the killer, with Chester unknowingly primed to warn Matt (and thus giving Matt the edge in the shootout)? It’s an interesting discussion you can have after the episode…with no clear-cut answer.

Scripter John Dunkel delivers a punchy episode, Doc’s Revenge, for new series director Ted Post (who could direct anything well, from war movies to sci-fi to action to Westerns). When Doc sees three men arrive in town, including Chris Alcaide, Doc confronts the strangely passive Alcaide, before Doc’s face clouds over and he flatly declares, “I’m gonna kill a man.” Matt tries to stop Doc, telling him his position in town demands he set a higher moral standard, as well as the fact that as the only doctor within 400 miles, a lot of lives depend on him, like it or not. When Alcaid is shot in the back, naturally everyone suspects him, but that would be too easy…. We get some tragic background on Doc’s love life here (that should be enough of a clue to you as to what’s going on here), while Milburn Stone gets another juicy episode to snarl and squint and sound off about about all the things he doesn’t like about people and the world.

An episode filled with contemplative musings from conflicted characters. In The Preacher, from John Dunkel, Reverend Royal Dano has lost his faith, and now only wishes, apparently, to get pushed around by anyone who wants to, including boxing champ blowhard Chuck Connors. Matt calls out bully Connors, stating he only picks fights with people not holstering a gun (like a reverse of the previous Charles Bronson episode, The Killer), before pistol whipping him. Connors eventually kidnaps Dano to lure Matt out in the scrub, where he’s going to beat both of them to death.

What’s most striking about The Preacher are all the characters expressing real doubt about their lives and their beliefs, even when they’re doing the right thing. Dano, a pacifist, wonders why men are always fighting, always hating each other, to which Matt simply responds, “Maybe because no one ever taught them better.” And yet, Matt, the keeper of law and order, questions his own actions when discussing with Kitty pistol whipping Connors (“I sure hate doing that to a man,” he says, even though Connors thoroughly deserved it). When Kitty suggests an existentially-divided Matt get out of the sheriffing business (how could Matt miss that suggestion from the lovely, caring—and shall we say fully trained—Miss Kitty?), he can only offer, “What would I do? I’m too lazy to work for a living.” Is he kidding, as it seems when he says this…or does he really feel trapped? Even wise old Doc doesn’t feel up to his reputation. When Matt asks him to speak with the faithless preacher, Doc sputters, “I’m just an ignorant country doctor. I don’t know what to say to him!” One of the season’s best episodes, with a very cool fistfight, full of strange, off-putting closeups, between Arness and Connors.

Matt backs down, smartly, in this tense Sam Peckinpah offering. How to Die for Nothing (a spaghetti Western title if I ever heard one) begins simply: two Texas cattle drive cowboys arrive in town drunk, looking to shoot it up. Matt tells them to give up their guns, and he’s forced to shoot one in self-defense (watch Matt expertly twirl his pistol back into its holster, in a flourish of totally confident, show-offy male violence. Wonderful). The survivor, James Nolan, tells Matt the kid’s brother, Mort Mills, is going to seek revenge, but not in a fair fight. He’s going to shoot Matt in the back if he can. What follows is Matt getting increasingly suspicious of who might be gunning for him, before he’s forced to lock up Mills…while some in the town question his right to do so. Soon, the Texas drovers, led by ruthless Lawrence Dobkin, arrive in town to take back Mills, even if that means killing Matt.

One of the most tense outings this season, from director Ted Post, How to Die for Nothing is a perfect mini movie, showing Matt move from reasonable lawman to suspicious self-survivor, to accepting his own limitations (after backing down in the face of 14 men with guns, and releasing Mills from jail, Matt says simply to Chester, “I tried to do the only thing I could. It didn’t work,”), to ballsy killer, laying out Mills in the tight, claustrophobic hotel hallway. Also of interest is the notion—a theme that frequently runs through this first season—that others in Dodge don’t like Matt’s version of law and order, only this time there’s a big question mark as to whether or not one of those solid citizens (weasely hotel owner Maurice Manson) actually aided a killer to eliminate Matt (seems likely to me…). Mort Mills, always good, is truly menacing here, giving one of this season’s best villain performances with his low growl, unnerving stare, and perpetual sneer.

Dutch George from director Robert Stevenson and scripter John Dunkel, has the always-entertaining Robert Middleton show up in Dodge after stealing young gunslinger Tom Pittman’s horse. Middleton was a boyhood hero of Matt’s, apparently, but sadly (for Middleton, at least), they’re on opposite sides of the law now. Matt is confident, though, that Middleton will make a mistake at some point. Good detail in this one, including the info that Matt used to follow Middleton around as a kid, and that Matt apparently learned well from him (Matt can tell how many hours someone is ahead of him on the trail, just by the state of their tracks). Good balance between the older thief who can slip out of any situation, and the new young buck, who grew up with the Indians, who’s far more savvy about survival than his looks indicate (Pittman was indeed a promising young actor, unfortunately killed in a car accident just a few years after this episode). Their characters would have made a great team in their own Western series.

David Victor and Herbert Little, Jr. next offered up Prairie Happy, where Matt and Chester discover there’s an unfounded rumor that the Pawnee are going to attack Dodge. Eventually, it’s learned that old coot Robert Ellenstein is behind it all, but why? A good little exercise in paranoia, the best parts of Prairie Happy are the little asides that seem to come from nowhere, like level-headed survivors Matt and Kitty laughing about the so-called “invasion,” or Matt flat-out telling sh*t-stirrer Dabs Greer he’s not going to do anything like shooting Indian women, if Matt says he’s not. Of all the racially-tinged episodes that have already been attempted, this one is the most successful, at least in terms of identifying a clear villain who sparks the otherwise tolerant citizens to panic, playing on their old fears and prejudices (the script makes a specific point of saying Ellenstein tried to turn the Indians against the Whites first—and failed—before he did the opposite).

Chester’s Mail Order Bride, from David Victor and Herbert Little, Jr., plays mostly like a comedy, when Chester engages the Cupid’s Messenger Agency to send him a wife—a practice that amuses Matt but enrages romantic Doc. Unfortunately, Chester sent Matt’s picture instead of his own…a deception his future bride, Mary Carver (who’s an absolute delight here) did as well. Funny enough…they’re both disappointed with each other’s real faces, but they soon discover they may just love each other, anyway. That is, until Matt talks Chester out of it all. Had Chester’s Mail Order Bride come as the final episode for the Dennis Weaver character, it would have made a terrific send-off, with its charming honesty about attraction and love perfectly suited to the two quirky lead actors. Unfortunately, the producers must have felt it was too soon to marry off Chester (or just wrong for his character), so Matt points out the West isn’t romantic, and Chester will be sentencing her to a life of drudgery, making her “old and flinty and poor at 30.” So much for true love, Matt.

At first a sad…then rather shocking episode from scripter Sam Peckinpah. In The Guitar, two seemingly friendly drunks (Jacques Aubuchon and Charles H. Gray) buddy up to Aaron Spelling, a loner who only has a guitar and his burro to his name. When they discover he fought for the Yankees in the War Between the States, the drinking and kidding become more serious, because they plan on hanging him. The patrons of the Longhorn stop that, and take up a collection for the wandering Spelling, but will they be there when the drunks plot further harm?

One of the my all-time favorite Gunsmoke episodes, directed by newcomer to the series, Harry Horner, The Guitar is perfectly structured in terms of getting the audience on sad little Spelling’s side (“Well…my burro’s company,” the loner offers), creating increasing tension as the outwardly friendly drunks make it clear to everyone but Spelling that they mean to do him harm. After we think the threat is over, we’re treated to a musical interlude (um…where’d he get that amp on his gee-tar?), a moment that utterly charms the Longhorn patrons who take up a collection for the loner.

In a mixture of Fritz Lang (that marvelous shot of the saloon patrons’ legs running out of the bar—we don’t see their faces) and a macabre O. Henry twist (SPOILER that astounding shot of legs hanging, where we think it’s Spelling but the camera pulls back to reveal it’s two sets of legs: the drunks), The Guitar turns perverse…because clearly, Chester and Doc were either directly involved with the lynching, or they know who is and they lie to Matt about what happened (Doc, in a wonderfully nasty bit of self-pleasure, offers up at the sight of the two dead men: “I wonder if they enjoyed the hanging they wanted?”). I guess that shot of only the unidentifiable legs of the patrons chasing the drunks lets Chester and Doc off the hook (not really), but I’m still shocked the CBS censors let this fly. A remarkable episode.

Cara, from David Victor and Herbert Little, Jr., gives us another peek at Matt’s life before Dodge. Fallen woman—and old Matt flame—Jorja Curtright has come to Dodge to look up her old love. Embarrassed at her situation, she attempts suicide (rather feebly, observes Doc). Matt is…not really all that moved, but he agrees to help his former love by asking a clearly pissed-off Kitty to take her in as a saloon gal (as Curtright stated, she’s done it before). Unfortunately, Matt learns from a visiting sheriff (Charles Webster), that a murderous gang of bank robbers is likely headed to Dodge, and their point man who sets up their jobs, is actually a woman. A woman that Matt immediately knows is Cara.

That last part is the most important, and Cara‘s best element: Matt knows right away it’s Cara. If the episode had played dumb and kept Matt in the dark until the very end, it would be just another “lost love isn’t what she seems” story. Instead, Matt’s faint, but obvious, melancholy about seeing Cara again is turned into confirming he was right all along in ditching her. As she states herself at the end, she couldn’t help falling for the wrong man, just as Matt gets confirmation he fell for the wrong woman 14 years before. A familiar story made quite a bit better by this different focus. Oh, and check out Matt when Kitty abruptly comes up to him and asks if he has $20 dollars. Matt deliberately checks out her body (to her disgust) before he says maybe. Classic.

Another extremely dark, uncompromising story from Victor and Little, Jr.. Mr. and Mrs. Amber opens with starving, half-mad dirt farmer Paul Richards (intense, as expected), mysteriously asking Matt if a murder victim can be credited, too, by their actions, with their own murder, before he lams out. Matt, concerned about Richards and his desperate wife, Gloria McGehee, pays for the seed Richards tried to steal from store owner Dabs Greer, along with some provisions, but fate, in the guise of McGehee’s religious zealot brother Ainslie Pryor, proves too much for Matt in saving the couple.

What’s most interesting about Mr. and Mrs. Amber is its relentless downbeat tone. Not only are the perils of being a dirt farmer on the frontier forcefully brought out (basically: anything and everything can go wrong…and it usually does), but the notion of wrong personal choices (Richards isn’t a farmer, and doesn’t want to be, but his wife nagged him into it and now pride has taken over) and the unforgiving intractableness of some religious zealots (her brother seems only to want to see her die for her past “sin” of being a saloon gal) make Mr. and Mrs. Amber oppressively grim. Even the ending leaves no room for understanding or growth: her brother defiantly tells Matt he won’t feel guilty for what happened, as he rides out of Dodge. A harsh, rather merciless episode.

In Unmarked Grave, from Victor and Little, Jr. again, Matt shows remarkable patience with distraught mother Helen Kleeb (Miss Mamie!). She discovers her son was killed by a deputy sheriff and that he’s buried in an unmarked grave up on Boot Hill. She transfers her grief and then her unjustified anger towards Matt over to punk outlaw Ron Hagerthy. A member of William Hopper’s bank robbing gang, Hagerthy is brought into Dodge by dying sheriff Than Wyenn. Hopper plans on coming to Dodge to kill Hagerthy (he’s the only gang member witnesses can identify), and Kleeb seems bent on helping Hagerthy, even if it kills Matt.

A solid, dense story of revenge and misplaced grievances, Unmarked Grave is surprisingly packed with incident for such a short outing. Something is always going on: a dying sheriff completes his final duty with his dying breath; a punk outlaw bitches about his upbringing with no understanding that it doesn’t excuse his behavior; a grieving mother blames the law and her own past circumstances (the Civil War destroyed her “peaceful” plantation and ruined her son’s future) to the point where she blindly supports a surrogate son who’s a killer; a relentless outlaw doesn’t care whom he pushes around as he openly challenges Matt to bring out the kid (so he can kill him); and Matt, showing tremendous reserve, doesn’t plug the mother when she almost gets him killed a few times. Only at the end, when she sees what’s actually involved in law enforcement, and when she sees what could be a reenactment of what happened to her own son, does she realize Matt was right all along (“I was wrong. You have your duty…a terrible duty,” she sadly states). A busy, satisfying episode.

And finally…Alarm at Pleasant Valley, from John Dunkel, offers a thoroughly traditional Western story about a homesteader family who must decide whether to flee or fight when a small band of renegade Kiowa Indians attack their spread. Lew Brown, now the head of the family after his settler father died three days prior to the attack, wants to spare his pregnant wife Dorothy Schuyler from the coming attack, while his ornery, tough-as-leather settler mother, Helen Wallace, who grew up with Indian attacks in Ohio, wants to stay and fight (she doesn’t think her son is up to the memory of his father). Matt and Chester, who happen upon Brown’s site, can’t convince Brown to stay…until they’re all forced to fight.

Alarm at Pleasant Valley is the kind of TV Western episode knee-jerk critics like to point at and say is racist, without actually listening to the show or doing any subsequent research. Audience surrogate Chester may be repeating the falsehood about alcohol abuse and Native Americans that would have been held by someone on the frontier back in the 1870s, but he’s clearly blaming one side and not the other (“Indians can be as peaceful as anybody, then some ornery White with a cheap jug of red eye….”). Matt, too, emphasizes that this small band of attackers are renegades; that the Kiowa in general have been peaceful for some time (if you start with the notion that the White homesteaders are “invading” the Kiowa land, look up the history of the warrior Kiowa people: they also “migrated” into other Native territory and subsequently fought with other Native tribes). Of course that kind messaging isn’t allowed today. If you need further proof that Alarm at Pleasant Valley isn’t sided against the Native warriors, you need only look at how poorly the U.S. Cavalry—that traditional “knight in shining armor” trope in so many traditional Western movies—is portrayed here: uptight, unaware, ineffectual soldiers who can’t even get to the scene of trouble on time (it’s wonderfully strange to see Bonanza‘s Dan Blocker show up in Gunsmoke as the pissy, oblivious cavalry lieutenant).

Placed on a slow night for CBS (Saturdays at 10pm), Gunsmoke did not crack the Nielsen Top 30 for the overall year…although it was steadily gaining in the ratings as the 1955-1956 TV season rounded out. CBS’s Saturday night lineup of offerings like The Gene Autry Show, Beat the Clock, Stage Show, Two for the Money, Gunsmoke‘s weak sitcom lead-in It’s Always Jan, and Damon Runyon Theater just couldn’t compete against NBC (ABC had Lawrence Welk…and that’s it). The only hit CBS had that night was Jackie Gleason’s “classic 39” experiment, The Honeymooners, which began the season as the second-most popular show on television, but was in freefall by the end of the year. NBC, though, had four shows in the Nielsens that night, including The Perry Como Show (which was responsible for bleeding The Honeymooners), Art Linkletter’s People are Funny, The George Gobel Show (the 15th most popular show on television and Gunsmoke‘s direct competition), and Your Hit Parade. Next year, things would be very different for Gunsmoke….


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7 thoughts on “‘Gunsmoke’ (Season 1): The iconic 20-year Western begins”

  1. Great analysis of a hit Western! THE RIFLEMAN, probably my favorite overall Western (followed by BONANZA), also had an episode called “The Queue” with a plot somewhat similar to this series’ episode by the same name. Victor Sen Yung (Hop Sing from BONANZA) played a Chinese immigrant who with his son is trying to establish a laundry business in the face of heavy bigotry. Of course Lucas McCain makes the bigots pay for their actions.


  2. Very enjoyable! It’s amazing how young everybody looks. Amanda Blake really was pretty before the series switched to color and they began making her up like Bozo the clown. I’d love to buy the set but $179 is a little too rich for my blood. I’ll have to put it on my list for Santa!


  3. OK…I am annoyed ….Kitty owned the Longbranch…..for the third time I just read it called the Longhorn….where was the editing for this story.


    1. OK…I am annoyed. This is a season one review, but Miss Kitty didn’t become the half-owner of the Long Branch (two words) until episode 36 in season two. Where was the editing for your comment?


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