‘Gunsmoke’ (Season 2): Keeping anarchy in the West at bay while gunning down network competition

Yes, yes…the wait is over.

By Paul Mavis

Onward and upward, friends, we persevere together as long as I keep the blue Johnnies at bay. A full 13 months later, after finally locating pro DVD producer/historian Andrew J. Klyde’s massive, beautifully-packaged 65th Anniversary boxed set (it was holding up our shed), I bring you the second season review for Gunsmoke, CBS’s legendary, iconic, twenty season Western series starring James Arness as Marshal Matt Dillon, Dennis Weaver as Chester, Amanda Blake as Miss Kitty, and Milburn Stone as Doc (at this rate, we should have the entire series reviewed by President Cryptkeeper’s 32nd selected term). If you haven’t already (good mental health actually does include avoidance), I recommend you read my Gunsmoke first season review; it covers the major themes and direction of the first few seasons there; plus, it bumps up my clicks by a factor of 2.

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Not much has changed here this second time out (the 1956-1957 season). Almost all the episodes are either written by or based on the original Gunsmoke radio scripts from John Meston, and the production—overall—continues to set a rather high bar compared to other Western shows on the dials back then (a trend in primetime that was ramping up across the Big Three). On a contemporary, anecdotal note: purely by chance, my youngest daughter (a high-schooler) watched with me two episodes from this season. To be clear: this does not happen. She never watches TV with me, and certainly nothing in black and white. She is of the TikTok generation. The concept of “television” to her is something fuzzy and faded from her earliest childhood; memories of watching something called Nickelodeon on “cable” occasionally surface, and then fade into nonsensical obscurity. She cannot watch anything that lasts more than 15 seconds. And yet…two minutes into the first episode, she put down her phone (a cataclysmic event akin to the Sixth Seal being unbroken, with the Sun and Moon darkening), and actually paid attention to it. I feared catatonia, but she was actually enjoying it, and when I recovered my faculties, I asked her why. She responded, “This is real.” When I probed further, she elaborated, “This seems more real than stuff out there. The people seem real, their problems. I wanted to know what happened to them.” And thus spake the child.

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Gunsmoke‘s second season opens with a satisfying entry, Cow Doctor, directed by fast-shooting newcomer Andrew V. McLaglen (who would eventually rack up more Gunsmoke episodes than any other director), from a script by John Dunkel. Doc and Matt are called out to Robert H. Harris’ ranch by his son, Tommy Kirk, who says his dad is sick. Doc and Matt can’t figure that out, because Harris hates doctors—and specifically Doc. When Doc learns it was all a trick to get him to treat Harris’ horse, Doc’s at first outraged, but then sickened when he learns that a woman in Dodge died from a cut arm while he was wasting time with Harris’ livestock. A confrontation follows, and Doc is the one now stabbed, and it’s up to Matt to save him.

Plenty of story twists keeps Cow Doctor interesting, including a sick Harris in the end needing Doc’s services after all, and wife Dorothy Adams threatening to kill Doc and Matt for trying to help. Matt performs surgery for what…the third time now? And there are several amusing little throwaway scenes here that are fast-becoming my favorite elements in these early Gunsmokes, such as a time-off-seeking Chester bringing along Miss Kitty to soften up Matt, and an injured Doc trying to get off a wagon without hurting himself. What Cow Doctor drives home most forcefully is the notion of how dedicated the lead characters are in terms of doing their duty, no matter their own personal feelings. A stabbed Doc would have every right—we might first think—not to treat a patient that harmed him, but he still does, because he took a sacred oath to do no harm (hear that, Wake Forest University School of Medicine?). And Matt, even though he threatens to forget he’s a lawman and kill Harris if Doc dies, doesn’t forget, and even forgives shotgun-toting Adams when she states she’s proud to have Doc in her house (a nice touch of realism in having Harris remain unrepentant). A credible start to the season.

A much stronger episode, Brush at Elkader, follows. A well-liked man in Dodge is shot down in cold blood, his final words being “Elkader,” which Matt eventually concludes is a reference to a nearby small town. Kitty witnessed the shooting, and although she didn’t see who did it, she tells Matt that the victim had told her that ranch owner Paul Lambert was after him. With Chester along as backup, Matt arrives in Elkader, and finds the townsfolk unwilling to help him. They’re terrified of Lambert, so it’s up to Matt to try and smoke out the killer, whom he’s never seen.

One of my all-time favorite television plotlines—the “uncooperative small town with a secret”—gets a tense workout here, courtesy of Les Crutchfield’s dispeptic script, and director Ted Post’s flair for dynamic lensing (when the victim is killed, Post puts the camera right behind the gun for a potent P.O.V.). Taking place mostly in the nighttime shadows (suitable for the scripter’s withering worldview), Brush at Elkader is a dark, downbeat outing that has little good to say about the general public out there: you can be a good guy that everyone likes, but that won’t stop you from getting gunned down in the street like a dog. And forget anyone helping the law to find your murderer (times don’t change, do they?).

Crutchfield skillfully uses Chester’s funny recurring bit about wanting to get something to eat in Elkader as a nice contrast to Matt’s increasing anger at the unhelpful townsfolk. Arness is quite good getting across Matt’s pissed-off swagger and bravado (Matt’s firm, “Do it,” command to the stable manager—who doesn’t want to take care of Matt’s and Chester’s horses—is topped when a frustrated Matt growls, “It’s about time I made a few people around here scared of me,”). But is there at least a reasonable motive for the killing? A dying, defiant Lambert simply states, “I never did like him much.” No wonder Matt calls him a “mad dog.” A disgusted Matt tells craven Gage Clarke, “Tell them [the townspeople] they can crawl out from under their rocks now.”

An O. Henry twist crossed with Ambrose Bierce’s malice, in one of the second season’s best episodes. In Gil Doud’s Custer, a traveling Matt and Chester come across Army deserter Brian G. Hutton, whom they suspect of having killed an old prospector. Although he has no direct proof (and critically, we never actually see Hutton kill him), Matt takes him back to Dodge—a prospect that doesn’t worry the cocky Hutton in the slightest. When the kid beats the rap in a jury trial, Matt shrugs and consoles himself that the Army, in the form of Major Richard Keith, will try him for desertion. Or will they…?

Custer is quite interesting on several levels, beginning with seeing future director Brian G. Hutton (Clint Eastwood blockbusters Where Eagles Dare and Kelly’s Heroes, the wild Elizabeth Taylor thriller, Night Watch) bring his snotty, sneering New York Actors Studio attitude to the Gunsmoke set; we’re not used to seeing such a young punk who’s so thoroughly unimpressed with Matt’s legal authority, or indeed, Matt’s sizeable physicality. Three funny scenes seems to be the standard now with these episodes: here we get Matt and Chester jawing over their breakfast; Kitty and Doc’s byplay about Hutton (Doc flatly states Matt should have just shot the kid—a strange thing for Doc to say, while Kitty seems disappointed Matt’s leaving again); and Chester bitching and grumbling about having to clean up the office (Chester needs to grouse more—it’s hilarious).

We also get a good look at Matt when things don’t go his way. When Hutton beats the murder rap, a seemingly resigned Matt offers, “The law’s the law, I guess,” but he knows better: “It’ll catch up with you. It always does,” he ominously warns Hutton. Best of all, the satisfying twist ending SPOILER, nicely executed by director Ted Post, has Hutton unknowingly riding off to his doom, along with the rest of Custer’s 7th Cavalry Regiment, as they march smartly to Garryowen (Matt even throws down some shade on Custer’s reputation—another indication of how, ahem, “racist” Gunsmoke was). Could have been an excellent future Twilight Zone episode.

Another season best, this time from future director Sam Peckinpah. The Round Up finds Dodge bracing itself for the end of the cattle round-ups. That means cowboys everywhere, drinking, gambling, fighting, whoring, and shooting up the place. The local businessmen, led by Jacques Aubuchon, want Matt to hire 20 deputies as a show of force. Matt refuses, saying such a move will only encourage more violence; he’ll handle what’s coming (and without the aid of Chester, who’s out with two sprained ankles). Aubuchon and the rest aren’t happy, so they cut cards to see who will shoot down Matt on Front Street. Luckily, Matt’s old adventurer friend, Michael Hinn (in a terrific performance) is in town, and despite Matt’s repeated refusals, offers to help keep the peace. Unfortunately, Matt does too good of a job….

Another “the people of Dodge are one step away from total lawlessness” episode, The Round Up benefits first from its straightforward approach to “civilized criminality”: you may disagree with Matt’s reasoning about hiring additional deputies (particularly when he winds up having his friend help out, anyway), but there’s no sympathizing with the businessmen who openly plot Matt’s murder to keep their cash registers ringing. As Matt states, if “a peace officer does his job right, he pleases nobody.” However, scripter Peckinpah makes clear that the businessmen who “run” Dodge would rather have anarchy and dollars in their pockets, rather than follow any moral or legal law (as Hinn tells Matt, “Even good men have a strange streak in ’em,”). Well-dressed Hinn is excellent essaying Matt’s adventurer friend, getting across a confident, savvy manner that SPOILER makes his shock death all the more potent…particularly at the hands of his friend, Matt Dillon (an ironic bookending: Matt once saved his life, and now he’s taken it).

Certainly this is Matt’s lowest moment in the series thus far: accidentally killing a friend in the course of zapping three other lowlifes, including Aubuchon. And he compounds his mistake (although the script doesn’t outright condemn him for it), becoming essentially a dictator who shuts down all of the businesses in a move that seems less about security and safety for the town, and more about memorializing his friend…while at the same time taking out his own failure on everyone else. When Matt pulls a “Wayne” and sweeps that bar of glasses and bottles with his rifle, he’s told, “You’ll have to pay for that, Marshall,” to which he replies, “I already have.” Certainly emotionally, as that huge final close-up of Matt, his face in agony at Hinn’s grave, suggests. However…no one makes him pay for assuming power he isn’t entitled to. A fascinating episode from director Ted Post that would have been even better with an hour running time.

And the hits keep on coming. Winston Miller’s Young Man with a Gun has Matt targeted for death by Colorado gunman Fredd Wayne. Why? Because Wayne wants to make a name for himself, and Matt’s reputation means something even out in CO. Matt refuses to be paranoid, even though Doc says Matt would be within his rights to shoot him down, eventually slaying the gunslinger. Unfortunately, Matt befriends Jack Diamond, a polite young kid who also happens to be Wayne’s brother. Now, Diamond practices endlessly with a six-shooter with the sole aim of killing Matt…and he’s not shy about telling the marshal straight up.

An episode about the rules of violence and the rules about being a man (and please…if you have a problem with that, don’t bother emailing me. You’re obviously on the wrong review site), Young Man with a Gun surprised me right out of the gate with its serious deviation from the standard “TV and Movie Western Hero Guidebook” that specifically states the hero never draws first. And yet, that’s precisely what Matt does here. While Matt feels Wayne is “as worthless as a coyote” (“I hate every one of your kind!” he emphatically states), and he gets support from no less than Doc, who actually suggests shooting Wayne through a window (“No one would think less of you,” Doc says, to which Matt replies, “I would….”), Matt keeps his cool. Until the showdown, that is, when he zaps Wayne first (the director, Christian Nyby, hedges his bet by showing Wayne’s hand already on his gun—but not drawing it). When the duel’s over, Doc compliments Matt on drawing first, saying, “Thought you were going to get noble,” to which Matt incredulously answers, “On a man like that?” That comes a good ten years before the “no rules” spaghetti Westerns of the 60s.

When Diamond starts making noises like a man (or what he thinks a man should sound like), both Kitty and Doc try and steer him in the right direction. First Kitty tells him he could simply thank Matt for buying him breakfast (“…like a grown man would,”) and later Doc schools Diamond that every tough guy he ever dug a bullet out of was, deep down, afraid of dying (Doc later turns contemptuous with the punk, exclaiming, “Who taught you that killing somebody is some kind of game?”). What scores heaviest in Young Man with a Gun is exactly the attitude of laid-back, forceful—and deadly if necessary—male confidence that is verboten in most movies and TV today (if you’re White, that is). Matt warns Diamond he’ll take him out if he challenges him, just like his brother. When Chester tells Matt—who is busy doing paperwork in the marshal’s office—that Diamond is practicing every day with his gun, he asks Matt, “What are you gonna do?” Matt simply replies, “What I said I would.” No hemming, no hawing. No tortured second-guessing on Matt’s part. A slightly surprised Chester confirms, “You mean that?” to which a completely unperturbed Matt replies, almost laughing, “Well I’m not gonna let him kill me.” Importantly, Matt doesn’t stop doing his paperwork during this exchange. Classic. That ballsy male confidence extends right down to the finale, SPOILER when Matt saves the kid’s life and then turns his back on the still-fuming punk, slowly walking away from the kid, daring him to shoot him in the back (of course he doesn’t). Check out badass Matt standing there on the boardwalk—he owns Dodge.

Indian White is yet another example of 1950s network drama that doesn’t fit the “all racist, all the time!” mold that today’s critics ignorantly lay on it. In this morally twisty outing from David Victor and Herbert Little, Jr., Marian Seldes comes to Fort Dodge to claim 12-year-old Peter J. Votrian as the son who was taken from her, by the Cheyenne, when he was two. Seldes eventually admits to Matt that she doesn’t think he’s really her son, but that he should be with his own kind—a notion Matt agrees with. Votrian, however, doesn’t agree with it at all. To this angry, violent boy, his people are the Cheyenne, and the Whites in town are cruel to him, calling him names (one adult man, Clegg Hoyt, even engages in a knife fight with the boy). Matt is sympathetic to Votrian’s problem, but when Fort Dodge’s C.O. believes Votrian can tell him where the Cheyenne war party is meeting, Matt comes face to face with the realization that he was wrong in supporting Seldes’ deception.

Although Indian White doesn’t explicitly implicate Matt, it’s clear his decision to support Seldes’ initial deception is the root cause of the story’s conflict. Matt’s simplistic, “He needs a good mother,” justification isn’t racist (switch the ethnicities and believe me, any script written today would support an Indian child being given back to their tribe, regardless of true parentage), it’s just woefully naive, since later on Matt has to repeatedly try and reassure everyone that it’s going to take time for Votrian and the people of Dodge to come to accept each other—something that doesn’t happen. Not only does the episode make it clear that Seldes’ White culture mothering isn’t enough for renamed “Dennis” (that name right there is enough to justify the kid’s rage…), it also points out that Votrian’s chief, Little Wolf (Abel Fernandez), not only believes in but acts on the supposed central tenet of our country: all men are free (the script stops short, of course, in questioning the Indian practice of abducting children, though).

Little Wolf lets Votrian decide his own fate because he believes he’s already a brave (a man), capable of his own decisions, and Votrian has no doubts where his loyalties lie (“White people not my people!” he yells at Matt). We get confirmation of the episode’s stance concerning rights and freedoms and the limits of each depending on who you are, when Doc actually sides with Little Wolf’s actions, when he states you can’t expect a people to just sit and take it when they’ve been uprooted from their own land. Moral redemption for Matt comes at the end, when spoiler he learns Votrian is indeed Seledes’ child, after all…but that he won’t tell her this fact. Regardless of how unfair the situation was that put Votrian in the hands of the Cheyenne in the first place, Matt realizes he’s better off with them. A fascinating episode.

…followed by a misfire with a silly ending. In Winston Miller’s How to Cure a Friend (which by the way can be found on the Season 4 Volume 1 DVD set of Gunsmoke—a corrected production mix-up), Matt isn’t exactly overjoyed to see his “friend” gambler/gunfighter Andrew Duggan arrive in Dodge. Chester may be surprised that Matt would call such a person a friend, but Matt saved his life in a gunfight, and that’s their connection. Not helping matters is that Duggan has acquired the reputation for cheating at cards. Matt doesn’t believe it, and vouches for Duggan…but that doesn’t set right with the people of Dodge, who think maybe Matt’s been buffaloed by the killer.

How to Cure a Friend starts off in one of the best fashions I’ve seen for a Gunsmoke episode: a long, lazy look at just a snapshot of Matt’s typical day. Snoozing on the boardwalk outside the jail, as Chester braids leather and natters on, the two are joined by Doc, who goes on and on about delivering baby number 8 for the Turner family. It’s a marvelous scene—I wish the whole episode had stayed right there on that porch—followed by an equally amusing one where Matt gets a haircut (…and some girly perfumed hair tonic he didn’t ask for). We then learn about Matt’s “friend,” Duggan, and get an interesting scene at the jail with Matt and Chester, where Matt shows up Chester’s notions of who and who isn’t a “criminal.” Had the episode ended right there, with Duggan never arriving, I would have put How to Cure a Friend as one of my favorite Gunsmoke episodes of this or any other season.

Unfortunately…Duggan does arrive, and the potentially interesting sidebar of whether or not Matt is considered by the town to be scared of the gunfighter, is dropped in favor of a standard card game sequence, where Matt calls out his friend. The finale, SPOILER where Matt shoots Duggan’s dealing hand and after a quick patch-up by Doc declares he’s still buddies with Matt (complete with smiles and drinking all around), is a ludicrous, too-quick wrap-up that totally negates the serious tone that came before it. It’s not believable for a second. A cheap, hacky way to end what could have been a great episode.

A suspenseful entry from scripter Sam Peckinpah, Legal Revenge stars Cloris Leachman as a scratchy wife who isn’t too pleased to have Doc come visit her ranch. Her “husband” Philip Bourneuf has a badly infected leg from an accident with an axe…but Doc isn’t buying that, thinking it’s a knife wound. From his “wife.” If only he saw Bourneuf holding a gun on her….

Legal Revenge‘s director Andrew V. McLaglen does a nice job of keeping you guessing just what, exactly, is the real relationship between Leachman and Bourneuf, aided by the pro actors. A couple of amusing side pieces help break up the tension, including Doc laughing (or is it actor Milburn Stone breaking character?) at Chester trying to get him to eat some “rare” German cheese (that whole sequence feels ad-libbed), and Matt, out on the range, chiding Chester for getting soft on city living (“three squares, sleeping in a bed, washing kinda regular…that kinda life will ruin ya,”). A particularly satisfying wrap-up, too, when Matt realizes what kind of woman Leachman really is.

Mistake indeed. In Gil Doud’s The Mistake, well-liked Dodge citizen Gene O’Donnell gets his head busted in, and manages to describe someone who closely resembles troublemaker Mike “Touch” Connors. Matt arrests him, despite any real evidence and Mannix‘s Connors’ alibi: he was at Doc’s for stomach cramps when O’Donnell got his top plate creased. So why won’t that alibi wash? Doc’s outta town…so Touch is skipping out, too.

Before anything else: how fine does Amanda Blake look in that riding skirt? I mean…right? As for the story proper, it’s one of Matt’s biggest blunders, starting with arresting Connors with no real proof (he’s more concerned about the convenience of keeping Connors there, instead of letting him go and checking with Doc when he returns). When Matt almost kills Connors, spoiler only to find out he is innocent, it’s time for Matt to eat crow. Big time. And Connors, to the credit of the realistic script, isn’t instant friends with Matt after the lawman offers, “I guess I owe you an apology. I was mistaken. I’m sorry for what’s happened,” (Connors, contemptuous and sneering, retorts, “Thanks…much obliged for your hospitality,”). Chester and Doc try and reassure him, but Matt’s honest when he states, “Yeah, but it was my mistake, and it was a bad one. I can’t wish myself out of it with a few words.” Lest the show be too hard on Matt, humanist supreme Doc has the final say: “Anybody can make a mistake. Anybody can. But it’s a rare man who don’t try to weasel out of it when he can.” Another Gunsmoke episode that emphatically shows the “perfect lawman” icon didn’t exist in the Old West…or at least on Gunsmoke.

Entertaining, but in the end, a little familiar and frankly…hard to swallow. In Winston Miller’s Greater Love, Matt engages the (paid) help of Indian friend Frank de Kova to find Doc, who has been taken prisoner by Claude Akins. Why? So Doc can fix up Akins’ wounded partner (didn’t we just have that same story last season?). Will Matt be able to save his friend? Not much to discuss with this one, mainly because the denouement is almost laughable (no, I don’t believe Claude Akins “finds Jesus” when he realizes he’s never had a friend like Doc has a friend, in Matt). Director Ted Post’s blocking of the finale is surprisingly hokey, considering how dynamic he’s been with similar set-ups.

What I do buy are the funny scenes with Matt and Miss Kitty (come on…we know why she’s so peeved at not “seeing” Matt for days now…), and particularly sourpuss Doc ragging on Matt and Chester relaxing in front of the jail (“You call this keeping the peace? This town is just getting on my nerves!”). When Matt jokes he’ll lock up Doc if he goes through with his plan to move to San Francisco, Doc snarls, “Good; you’ll have to feed me!” Chester helpfully offers, “I’ll cook for you,” to which Doc immediately pales and snaps, “Deal’s off!” Classic.

More “racist” content from those intolerant 1950s TV networks. In John Dunkel’s No Indians, Chester can’t get any action with pretty Fintan Meyler because she’s terrified of the recent rash of Pawnee raids. In Dodge, citizen Dick Rich is getting ready to leave the city, accusing Matt of being scared and hiding out—a charge Matt meets head-on, telling a gathering of angry, frightened citizens that it’s not his job to kill Indians—that’s for the Army. But when another settler family is massacred, including the children, Matt suspects a far more sinister plot.

The answer to this vicious episode’s mystery is right in the title. SPOILER Playing frontier Columbo, Matt examines the crime scene along with Army captain Herbert Rudley and immediately spots what’s wrong: no arrows used, and the children were killed and scalped, too. Matt states the boy was old enough to be kidnapped and “made a brave,” as was the usual Pawnee custom…but the scripter doesn’t have him say that the little girl would have been enslaved, too (two years before, The Searchers certainly made clear what happened to Natalie Wood by her Indian captors, but that wouldn’t even be hinted at yet on network TV). When Rudley expresses disbelief that White men could have done this horrific deed, Matt quite rightly brings up the Sand Creek massacre as an eloquent rebuttal.

Pushing the limits even further of what we’ve come to expect from Matt Dillon, U.S. Marshal, once Matt decides White men did this crime, and once he knows who’s involved (or more accurately, once he believes he knows who’s involved), he’s clear about what his plan of action will be: not the legal exercise of his peacekeeping powers, but rather straight-up Old Testament vengeance (“These aren’t men, Chester. They’re animals. It’s us or them. We’re going to ambush them!”). When Chester questions this very Ethan Edwards-like retributive justice, Matt’s cold-blooded rage is laid bare: “I’ll answer to the law—right now, I just want to see six dead men,” (he and Chester zap 4 of the 6). Proof of the crime (one of the creeps kept the little girl’s hair ribbon as a souvenir—a perverse story touch) “saves” Matt legally, and gives him a nice fade-out line (“You’re all gonna hang, and it’s this little ribbon that’s gonna hang you,”) but it was still murder first, then justice, for the lawman. Another superlative episode exploring the darker facets of Matt’s personality.

Another “killer from Matt’s past seeking revenge” story, from William F. Leicester. Spring Term finds someone who wears the same hat as Matt drilled on the streets of Dodge—clearly, the killer made a mistake. When Matt learns old nemesis Harry Townes is in Dodge, he knows he’s the killer. Now, he has to smoke him out, hoping to exploit his yellow streak by convincing Townes he’s a killer, not a lawman. Other than Matt playing tough (“Well, mister, killing you will be part self-defense and part pleasure,”), along with the sight of Matt pumping bullets into the killer long after he’s down and dead, there’s little in Spring Term that you haven’t already seen in other episodes these past season and a half. Good performances, though, help.

Solid performances from the guest stars, and an unexpected switch in audience sympathies help the next episode. In Poor Pearl, lonely farmer Denver Pyle (with just the right amount of stubborn insensitivity) isn’t afraid to be laughed at, coming into town every week to court saloon gal Constance Ford (another fine, shaded performance from this criminally underappreciated actress). Having made up his mind to marry her, Ford, appreciative of his gentlemanly (if unschooled) ardour, has to tell him no. She’s afraid former beau, faro dealer Michael Emmett, newly returned to Dodge, will shoot Pyle, as he threatened to shoot anyone who would get too close to Ford. Matt tries to mediate the situation, but when Ford chooses love and marriage with Emmett, the results are tragic.

Scripted by Sam Peckinpah (from what else, a John Meston story), Poor Pearl‘s chief interest is how deftly it switches the audience’s sympathy away from kindly, awkward farmer Denver Pyle. Countless similar stories have primed us to anticipate some kind of showdown between simple, sincere Pyle and smooth, handsome rat Emmett, with the viewers rooting for Pyle—and “true love”—to win out. However, the script makes it clear from the beginning that Pyle’s uneducated sincerity doesn’t equate to truly understanding what love means; he can’t hear or understand Ford when she makes it plain she won’t marry him, regardless of what her reasons are. And his simplicity, which we’re first encouraged to admire, turns ugly when he digs in and refuses to accept the situation (by the end, his cowardly character is truly reprehensible).

As for Emmett, he may have run out on Ford, but he excuses that as trying to run away from her…which he couldn’t do. He actually does love her, and brings back a ring to prove it, to which she responds immediately (director Andrew V. McLaglen cuts to a lonely shot from Ford’s window of Pyle leaving town as we hear Ford crying and professing her love for Emmett). Contrast Matt’s blasé disinterest in cutting Pyle any slack because he let his emotions for a woman “get the best of him,” (“It won’t save him from hanging,” Matt casually tosses off), as opposed to today’s sensibilities, which look for any extenuating circumstances to “humanize” a killer and thereby ameliorate their actions.

Les Crutchfield’s Cholera will have you scratching your head. Homesteaders Bartlett Robinson and Peg Hillias are sitting on water-rich land that wealthy land owner Paul Fix—who doesn’t hold with the Homestead Act—wants, and he’s not above threatening the couple or even sabotaging their team rig (which would result in their deaths). When their boy comes down with dreaded cholera, the homesteaders send for Doc, but he’s been kidnapped by Fix’s men, John Smith and Stuart Whitman.

Cholera is yet another episode (from, what else, a John Meston radio script) that features two frequent early Gunsmoke themes: a wealthy, no-rules landowner who resents the coming civilization represented by Matt’s law-and-order structure, and the notion that there are forever more people coming out West, and that they’re going to clash with the original land barons who want to keep the land sparsely populated. Despite that solid dramatic framework, Cholera‘s nasty twist SPOILER!—frontier mother Hillias deliberately poisons and kills Fix’s son as retaliation—works totally against the episode’s supposed message. How are we supposed to take seriously Matt’s moral condemnation of Fix’s tactics, when zero accountability for Hillias’ heinous act is offered? An obviously flawed episode.

Quite a few laughs over the serious undertone of Pucket’s New Year. While out on the cold prairie, Matt and Chester discover old mule skinner Edgar Stehli, who was left for dead in his teamless wagon by his partner, Grant Withers, when a big freeze came up. Taken back to Dodge, Stehli loses his foot to frostbite; his days of independence out on the prairie, are over. Ornery old Stehli, however, isn’t having any of that.

It’s impossible not to laugh at the “ornery old coot” shtick that veteran character actor Edgar Stehli employs for this outing. Whether he’s squinting malevolently, hooting, “I’m a man…not a duuude!” or joyfully imploring, “I hope we get held up!” when assessing his new job riding shotgun for the bank stage, Stehli’s enthusiastic mugging is quite amusing. However, those laughs don’t hide the sadness of the situation, where we witness the final degradation of what was once a completely free individual (you’re not laughing when he almost cries, “You took away my manhood!” after losing his foot).

In fact, it’s rather surprising how flippant and short Matt is when dealing with Stehli’s character (maybe Stehli wouldn’t be so pissed-off if Matt quit referring to him as “old timer” in such a condescending way). Laughing at Stehli at first, Matt then takes seriously his role as chief representative of the coming “taming of the West” by irritably commanding Stehli to quit acting like he’s an animal and to settle down (“You live in a town now—get a job!”). Stehli’s character gets to go back out on the prairie, but it’s for wages now, not a lifestyle; scripter John Meston seems to think that’s okay. You may not.

Lots of killing in this one, with a good twist. In The Cover Up, Gunsmoke continues its strong condemnation of men who abuse women; here, brutish cattle rancher Tyler McVey has made his wife, former saloon gal Vivi Janiss, old before her time. She’s in town when squatter Roy Engel comes to Dodge, looking to kill Amish settler Ted Marcuse (who refuses to defend himself, despite Matt’s pleas). When Marcuse turns up dead, Engel is the natural suspect, but he’s shot, too, and his dying declaration is that rancher McVey killed him. So is McVey off the hook, when another murder takes place while he’s under arrest?

If you read “feminist pop culture critics” today (and god help you if you do…), the general consensus among those in that group—at least those who wished to be known exclusively by that particular moniker (you can find a lot of them with my other friends at the odious OFCS site)—is that women have only been given a fair shake on television since, um…last Tuesday, and that we’ve only just begun. The Cover Up is one of hundreds of examples from that time period that show up that argument for what it truly is (it’s a bit technical, but the semiotically-oriented term for that particular ideological polemic is “caca”). No one sees McVey as anything but a lowly p.o.s.; the note of scorn and outright disgust in Matt’s voice when he lays this last one on McVey—”How could she have loved a man like you?”—makes it clear that a real man like Matt sees someone like McVey as not a man, and everyone agrees. Janiss’s final fate—nicely ironic—is harsh, but ultimately fair; killing in Dodge is (usually) met with equal punishment, regardless of the mitigating circumstances.

Potentially rewarding…but punches are pulled. In Sins of the Father, big mountain man Peter Whitney passes through Dodge with his Arapaho wife, Angie Dickinson, who just happens to be the educated daughter of the chief that, years ago, had led deadly raids against Dodge. Dodge House weakling Gage Clarke wants them out of the hotel, but Matt apologizes to the couple and tells Clarke to stop causing trouble, advice he ignores as he tries to stir up trouble with the frightened townspeople. When Dickinson is kidnapped and abused by two men, she takes it upon herself to exact revenge.

Sins of the Father, written by John Dunkel, is yet another Gunsmoke episode that comes down squarely on the side of racial equality…but not too strongly as to offend the network suits’ sensibilities. Today, just having Angie Dickinson in brownface would automatically qualify the episode as racist (we live in some strange times…), but Sins of the Father is admirable in how it refuses to even discuss the previous raids her father perpetrated on Dodge.

According to Matt and his friends, that’s past history, and has zero to do with Dickinson today. It’s also quite satisfying to have Dickinson, not her husband, be the agent of her own revenge, even if the method of her detection—everyone’s walk is a distinctive sound pattern—is vaguely goofy (better not have a stone in your boot when walking by her room).

Where Sins of the Father falters and weakens is in the final scene where weasel Clarke apologizes for his bigoted actions (“I don’t feel very proud,” he merely offers), before Dickinson absolves him of any guilt or blame. That’s a little hard to take, a far too noble cliché that frankly comes off as unbelievable, even if her forgiving nature does dovetail thematically with the episode’s central message. Watch for one of the best comedic exchanges here, this time between Doc and Chester, as they endlessly detail Matt simply coming down the street (evidently the cool weather makes Doc “sassy,”).

Kick Me, from Endre Bohem and Louis Vittes, starts out well enough when reliably weasely Robert H. Harris kills his bank-robbing double-crossing partner Paul Lambert, who planned on skipping out with all the dough, as well as with Harris’ much put-upon wife, Julie Van Zandt. Harris, in another Gunsmoke swipe at unmanly men who trade in degrading women and minorities, married Van Zandt fully knowing she only wanted to escape the poverty of working in a dress shop (he states “women are like dogs—they need to be taught to heel!”). Now he’s going to make her pay for her betrayal with Lambert, but not before he humiliates Matt’s Indian guide friend, Tobeel (Frank DeKova). Despite the promising start, Kick Me becomes increasingly silly and predictable, with the viewer way ahead of the script as it unsurprisingly unfolds. A detective story where we already know the answers, and where we already know how everyone is going to act.

A particularly good entry that further explores the sometimes overwhelming duty Matt has to the law. In Gil Doud’s Executioner, nice guy brothers Michael Hinn and Robert Keys return to their ranch to find cold, sneering killer Liam Sullivan tending his horse with their feed. Unprovoked, Sullivan goads Keys into a fight and kills him, and taunts his grieving brother to look him up in Dodge if he wants to do something about it (he warns him to “practice awhile” with a gun before he tries anything). Matt, who knows Sullivan is a killer from years before, is powerless to do anything: Keys drew first, and the law’s the law. But Hinn doesn’t agree (nor does Kitty), and he’s going to get Sullivan…even if he has to manipulate events to get Matt to kill him.

Reinforcing the frequent Gunsmoke theme that Matt’s dedication to the law (well…most of the time) is the only thing keeping anarchy in the West at bay, Executioner again makes clear that Matt dislikes having to kill people (“I’ve never liked it, whoever I’ve had to face,” he tells Chester, when discussing showdowns in the street), and that he won’t kill people for his or anyone else’s revenge (when Kitty states Key’s death was murder, and that she doesn’t care what the law says, Matt replies, “Well…I have to care, Kitty,”). What makes Executioner interesting is essentially powerless Hinn manipulating Matt into doing his killing for him. He can’t best Sullivan, so he plays Matt, asking Matt if he ever gets scared (“I don’t have the privilege of being afraid,” Matt offers), before he creates a situation where Matt must step in (there’s a great shot of Matt, having done his duty, walking alone down the mean streets of Dodge). Matt’s no dope, though; he realizes what Hinn achieved, ruefully telling Doc, “[Hinn] made an executioner of me. I didn’t like that. But right or wrong…you’ve got to admire how he did it.” Nicely layered episode.

Well, like I wrote earlier…”most” of the time. In Les Crutchfield’s Gone Straight, Matt is tasked with serving a Tascosa writ (which makes no sense, because Tascosa is in Texas, not anywhere near Dodge, Kansas) brought about by Ward Wood, of the New Mexico Stock Raisers Association (again: why are they bothering Matt in Kansas?). The crime? Cattle-rustling. The problem? Several men fit the description of the rustler, including genuinely reformed bad/good guys Carl Betz and Tige Andrews. What’s Matt going to do?

SPOILER!He’s going to break the law—that’s what he’s going to do. Gone Straight isn’t a terribly interesting outing, with a predictable ending we’d expect in most series: Matt’s going to cover up Betz’s real identity because Matt believes justice has already been served. Fine…but that’s not how it usually works for Matt, so if you’re going to change things up, you had better come up with a unique (or at least entertaining) reason why Matt would do this. Which they fail to do here in Gone Straight.

A series best. John Meston’s Bloody Hands opens with some ferocious action: Matt zaps three bank robbers in a cabin (graphically choreographed by director Andrew V. McLaglen), with the lone survivor, Lawrence Dobkin, telling Chester and Doc that “butcher” Matt is “the bloodiest lawman I ever saw…think he was killing hogs.” Uh oh. That hits home with Matt, who proceeds to suffer an existential crisis of epic proportions…even to the point where he resigns.

An extremely well-directed Freudian nightmare, Bloody Hands moves from the graphic violence of its opener to an increasingly dark, dream-like, stylized exploration of Matt’s psychological breakdown. When Matt realizes that there’s “always another man to kill,” he begins a downward spiral, physically and mentally (McLaglen pulls off a sweet dolly-in, tight on Matt’s haggard, tired face, when he intones, “Nothing could wake me tonight. Nothing,”). But of course something does wake him—his conscience—as he has screaming nightmares, yelling, “Don’t make me kill ya! Don’t do it!”, to Chester’s great concern (an unseeing Matt almost kills Chester by accident when he wakes up). After Matt guns an armed Dobkin in his cell (McLaglen frames this beautifully, with Matt looking like he’s behind the bars—which he certainly is, at least psychologically), Matt hangs up his manhood gun (calling Dr. Freud!). He resigns, no less, backing down from a challenge from Dobkin’s killer friend, Russell Johnson (Matt admits what’s only been suggested in previous episodes: he’s always hated his job).

But he can’t escape his duty to himself. Now a civilian, he’s chided by both Kitty and Doc for being lazy, with Chester (in a notable performance by Dennis Weaver) laying on Matt the kind of inescapable moral dilemma Matt usually lays on everyone else: “It’s men like Stanger and Brand, ’cause they got to be stopped! That’s all. They gotta be! I’d do it if I could, but I can’t. I just ain’t good enough. Most men ain’t, but you are. It’s kinda too bad for ya that ya are…but that’s the way it is and there ain’t a thing in the world you can do about it.” Talk about fatalism (and a further hat-tip to modernism: we don’t get to see Matt actually go back and square up Johnson’s latest crime—we don’t need to. The point of the episode is Matt’s personal reincarnation). A bracing, wholly satisfying entry.

A sad, downbeat outing. Skid Row, from Gil Doud, opens with a brutal fight between Kitty and Chester, and town letch, Guinn ‘Big Boy’ Williams (jeez…what did he whisper to Kitty to get her so spitting mad? Listen to her genuinely growl, “I’m gonna claw your eyes out!”). Matt tells Williams to get out of Dodge or he’ll kill him (it must have been nasty), but in the meantime, Matt meets Susan Morrow. She’s come from Connecticut, looking for her fiance, farmer Joseph Sargent; she hasn’t heard from him in over a year. What she doesn’t know—if Matt can help it—is that Sargent is a coward who let the unforgiving land beat him. He’s a quitter, and so he ignored Morrow, rationalizing she’d be better off without him. Matt and Doc try and help Sargent face his responsibilities, but when Morrow’s attacked by Williams, the true results of their efforts are shown.

Skid Row, well directed by Ted Post, nicely undercuts our expectations, brought on by countless other similar tales we’ve seen or read of a coward who finally finds the strength to change. Here, in far more realistic fashion, SPOILER! we see how hard it is for people to overcome their own fear and self-image. Matt sympathetically offers to Sargent that everyone acts like a coward at one time or another in their life, but it doesn’t have to last. However, those are just words to Sargent. Even his final act of taking on Williams isn’t brave—he wanted to die in the fight. Matt’s resigned, fatalistic, knowing last words to Doc—”Well…we tried, Doc. It just wasn’t there,”—certainly mean more coming from a character who has to face his fears every day, and beat them.

If for nothing else, it’s amusing to see an old-school take on the corrosive power of manipulative femininity in John Meston’s Sweet and Sour (because no such thing exists anymore in today’s television). When credible dopes Matt and Chester come to the aid of oh-so-innocently carnal Karen Sharpe, they incur the wrath of bully John Alderson. Worse, once they all get back to Dodge, Matt tries to get Kitty to hire Sharpe. Kitty, who can spot a man-baiting troublemaker from 50 paces, declines…but then hires her just to show credulous clods Matt and Chester that she was right all along. Unfortunately, Kitty turns out to be right.

The biggest problem with Sweet and Sour is, attractive and sexy as she is, I’m not sure best friends would instantly kill each other over Karen Sharpe (maybe Ann B. Davis…). And if I don’t buy that central premise (not that some women, just for fun, can use their sexuality to manipulate men—because of course some can. And do)…what’s left? There’s a funny bit when Doc calls Chester a sybarite (uncomprehending Chester doesn’t like it), and we learn for the first time here, that Kitty is half-owner of the Long Branch (with Bill Pence as a partner). So, just to get it straight: back in these so-called uninformed and intolerant times of 1950s network TV, the smartest, most wise, and most financially successful person on Gunsmoke…is a woman.

A central performance from familiar TV face Harry Bartell carries this one. In John Meston’s Cain, mild-mannered, exceedingly polite musician Bartell only has a few months to live, according to Doc. He’s on his way to Arizona, where the climate may help his condition. Charming everyone at the Long Branch with his kindly ways and his guitar playing (he knocks out a lovely Beautiful Dreamer), Bartell surprises Matt and the gang when he calmly informs them he’s going to kill smoothie Mark Roberts, whom he apparently never met before. Despite warnings from Matt, and shooting lessons from Chester, Bartell is determined to go ahead with his plan. But why?

Don’t look too close at the storyline for Cain, because there’s really nothing there, and as for the “big reveal,” it’s certainly nothing we haven’t before seen or heard. What makes Cain work, rather, is the sensitive, quiet performance of Harry Bartell as the guitar-strumming, soft-spoken musician who inexplicably turns into a killer. Or at least…a killer by clever, indirect design. How he achieves his aim is a nice twist, but we’ve seen it before, as well, even in this series (Roberts, his fate sealed, cynically offers that Bartell should have been a gambler, to which Matt wisely responds, “Maybe he was,”). Bartell is one of those actors who plugged away on TV for decades, always reliably, and who could really shine if given a good part to play. That happens here.

Bureaucrat, from William F. Leicester, certainly counters those earlier Gunsmoke moments where one wonders if Matt is laying too heavy of a hand to his duties. Here, the U.S. War Department sends D.C. hard-ass John Hoyt—Matt’s superior—to either fire up Matt to crack the whip on lawbreakers, or be dismissed. When a cattle drive arrives outside Dodge, Matt welcomes them—but also warns them to behave in town. That’s not good enough for Hoyt, who wants Matt to have them—and indeed all of Dodge’s citizens—check their guns…a decree that doesn’t go down well at all with the spikey individuals who populate this frontier town.

Along with the familiar Gunsmoke preoccupation with defining what it means to be a man, it’s easy to see Bureaucrat‘s rather timeless reminder that Americans don’t like being told what to do with their guns, particularly when those edicts come from Washington. When Dodge revolts against Hoyt’s no-guns rule, Matt and Hoyt almost buy it when the townspeople decide they have more guns than the lawmakers; Matt very wisely backs off when he sees he’s completely outgunned. Had Hoyt listened to Matt from the start, and not treated everyone like potential criminals, it never would have reached the boiling point of Hoyt being threatened with tar and feathering. Indeed, Matt initially argues that by taking away everyone’s guns, it would only be sending a message that he (and by extension, the law itself), is afraid of the citizenry (sound familiar, folks?). If only townsman Ken Lynch’s final words to Hoyt—”Tell Washington we got our own ways…they work for us!”–were the episode’s last words. However, to no doubt satisfy the CBS suits, Matt makes a point of complimenting Hoyt for not scaring easily, and for “acting like a man,” during the showdown. Badmouthing the feds only goes so far on CBS in 1957.

Radical feminism on the plains…in 1957, no less! In Last Fling, miserable sodbusting s.o.b.s Florenz Ames and Frank DeKova get tossed out of the Long Branch when Ames tries to put the moves on Kitty. When he manhandles her, she threatens to shoot him next time (“I’ll learn you some manners!” she spits). Fed up with his life, Ames goes home to his poor, beaten wife Anne O’Neal and steals all their money, stating he’s leaving her for good. When Ames winds up shot, he claims Kitty did it, an accusation Matt must take seriously. That is…until Kitty is shot through her window. Who did it?

Yet another Gunsmoke episode that forcefully sides with battered frontier women, John Meston’s Last Fling sets up the potentially interesting sidebar of Matt having to arrest Kitty (he’s sorry…but he has to take Ames’ accusation seriously and investigate), before that’s dropped in favor of portraying one of Gunsmoke‘s most reprehensible male figures. Ames, not afraid to go overboard in portraying a failed farmer who takes out his own shortcomings on his wife, creates a male Western character no one at home would want to emulate. Slobbering, leering, pushing around women, stealing money from them, laughing about beating them up, Ames’ character is just waiting for a reckoning, and it’s entirely satisfying SPOILER that it comes from his put-upon wife. Even though she shot Kitty out of jealousy (“A woman can be jealous…even if she hates the man,”), we feel for her when we learn she bore 13 children for Ames, and was beaten each time, when she lost 11 of them. Surely what she does to Ames is far more gratifying—more accurately embodying true justice—than the “civilized” methods we have today of dealing with men like him.

Gunsmoke‘s parade of rats continues. In Chester’s Murder, a drunken, rowdy—and unarmed—Chester almost gets himself killed in the Long Branch when love rival Tom Greenway draws down on him. Matt arrests Greenway, but he makes the mistake of having Chester take him out the alley to the jail…where Greenway is promptly killed, and Chester allegedly conked on the head. Unfortunately, nobody believes him, and Doc can’t find a bump on his noggin. Town weasel and sh*tstirrer Gage Clarke wants Chester locked up, and smooth gambler Murray Hamilton warns Matt that trouble is brewing in town, where people think he’s playing favorites with Chester. Matt does his duty (he has no choice), but of course Chester is innocent.

I’m behind any episode that lets Dennis Weaver breathe a bit, and he does quite well here, first getting a little stroppy in the bar, and then acting alternately doomed or whiny (I love how strong, silent Matt refuses to indulge his friend’s emotionalism, which, towards the end, makes him akin to a whipped dog). I wish more had been given to one of my favorite character actors, Murray Hamilton, but he’s always fun to watch, as well (once you see that smarmy, smirking face…you don’t need to be Columbo to figure things out). As for the series’ ongoing focus on weak men, you don’t get a more withering putdown than Matt’s sneering assessment of Hamilton: “You know what I think of a man who hides behind a woman?” Matt’s look of disgust says the rest.

Nietzsche with a Brownie. John Dunkel’s The Photographer finds the citizens of Dodge absolutely astounded at the arrival of Eastern seaboard photographer Sebastian Cabot. Shining them on with proclamations that the people back East see the settlers as heroes, he’s not at all shy about demanding portraits of the citizens, in whatever manner he deigns necessary (“I’m a man of ideas. I get what I want!”). Matt warns Cabot about his arrogant ways, particularly when it comes to the Cheyenne who have come to Dodge to trade skins (“They’re not as harmless as they look and they don’t understand people like you,”). But Cabot isn’t listening; he’s willing to go all the way to get what he wants.

An unusual episode (with a few tweaks it could have made an excellent Twilight Zone outing), The Photographer balances its smart look at an obsessed ubermensch Cabot with some quite humorous asides. The opening scene in particular is loose and amusing, as the citizens of Dodge marvel at their first exposure (sorry) to photography. Chester’s technical explanation of its workings is typical (“Weeellll…this here is the box,” before he gives up), while Amanda Blake scores some very big laughs, posing with “grubby” Ned Glass (the look of…distaste on her face is priceless). Of course, Matt’s not interested in getting his picture taken, nor is he impressed with Cabot (when Cabot needles him about only carrying one gun, Matt cracks, “I keep the other hand free to blow my nose when I’m working,”). By the time the principles are in Indian country, and Cabot is shouting about “great men doing anything they want, even killing,” The Photographer has morphed into a fascinating little psychological murder mystery that’s a welcome change of pace from all the wife beaters and gamblers and plow-broke farmers we’ve been seeing here lately.

Speaking again of wife-beaters…. In John Meston’s Wrong Man, cowardly little wimp Don Keefer proudly comes into Dodge to claim his $1K reward for shooting wanted outlaw Bob Hulburt. Matt is suspicious of Keefer, particularly since he shot Hulburt in the back, but Keefer’s wife Catherine McLeod backs up his story…and gets a slap in front of Matt, to boot. There’s only one problem: Keefer really killed Jake Haney, the partner of Robert Griffin (Haney’s picture was mistakenly attached to Hulburt’s wanted poster), and Griffin is going to kill whoever killed his partner and friend. So little punk Keefer has to kill Griffin to stay alive.

Yet another meditation on weakling men who push around and abuse—both physically and psychologically—their frightened wives. Watching these similarly-themed episodes from over 60 years ago makes you wonder where newer critics and viewers—who think television drama began with a very special episode of Friends—get this notion that classic TV didn’t highlight issues that now only seem to be credited to newer productions. Oh…that’s right: it’s because those writers have never actually watched the older shows they blithely attack and dismiss in their pieces (“I don’t need to watch Gunsmoke: if it’s from 1950s America, it has to be racist and anti-women!”…said every OFCS member ever).

Matt again is used as the barometer of what constitutes a real man (he tells McLeod straight: no woman needs a man like that for a husband), while pragmatic Kitty, dismissive of the law, flatly tells Matt to let Griffin kill Keefer (she’s no dummy). When McLeod finally lets into Keefer, it’s a rewarding viewer moment, topped by the finale where, SPOILER after Keefer shoots himself in a struggle to kill her, the newly-liberated McLeod vows to burn her house down, and let him rot above ground. Not exactly a June Cleaver moment.

A misfire. Big Girl Lost, from John Meston, tells the unlikely story of Philadelphia “dude” Michael Pate arriving in Dodge, looking for ex-fiance, Gloria McGehee. It seems the relationship originally broke up when his family found out her father was a ship’s captain (that’s how snooty they were). Now, he wants to try again, but McGehee, who works at the Long Branch as a prostitute saloon gal, doesn’t want him to know. When Pate orders Matt to tell him where she’s hiding, he vows to kill Matt when the marshal refuses to help, going so far as to hire mentally challenged Gerald Milton to shoot Matt.

I didn’t buy Big Girl Lost from the start. Pate’s unmotivated search for McGehee is matched in arbitrariness by McGehee’s unwillingness to reveal to Pate what she does for a living (why would she care at this point?). Nor did I accept Pate threatening Matt with death, an over-the-top story construct that isn’t aided by Pate’s rather strange performance—and Milton’s over-acted one—here (McGehee can’t do anything with her silly role, either). A potentially interesting element—Matt suggests Pate is smart to get someone else to do his dirty work—is unfortunately left as just an aside. The only one who comes out on top is Weaver. In the opening scene, he’s humming through a comb…till Matt tells him to knock it off. Classic.

After that dud, What the Whiskey Drummer Heard, from Gil Doud, is a significant rebound. Strange little whiskey drummer Vic Perrin arrives in Dodge and promptly warns Matt that the marshal has been marked for death. Supposedly, Perrin overheard two men discussing it, with $300 exchanged for the deed. Perhaps it’s his weird manner, but Matt takes Perrin’s words to heart, and a week after hearing about the threat, Matt is on edge, walking the streets of Dodge at night, wondering if he’s going to take a bullet. Sure enough, someone does shoot at Matt, who takes the opportunity to play possum in the hopes of smoking out whoever might brag about the deed. Unfortunately, too many people start taking credit for the “kill.”

A grim, anxious little murder mystery without the murder, What the Whiskey Drummer Heard‘s chief benefit isn’t the story itself, which you’ve seen before. What distinguishes it is the reveal, SPOILER, where we learn the killer is Perrin…and he offers absolutely no reason for his crimes. And that’s “crimes” plural: he’s a serial killer. When Matt confronts the dying Perrin, he admits, “I killed lots of men. Important men. I told them about it first, and then I killed them.” When again asked why, he only offers, ‘I don’t know…I had to. I just had to do it.” There’s something chillingly modern and blank about this episode, a story of anxiety and death that has no motivation or cause, where someone as stable and seemingly impervious as Matt wanders the streets at night, waiting for his own death, and even the killer doesn’t know why he does what he does, playing with his victims like a cat before killing them for no reason whatsoever. Perrin, a terrific actor known for his work on Dragnet, is perfectly cast here. An unsettling episode in the more predictable Gunsmoke world.

John Meston continues delineating the mistreatment of frontier women in Cheap Labor. Cowardly bully Robert F. Simon doesn’t want his plowhorse sister Peggy Webber to talk to any man, for fear she might leave, and take away his sibling “cheap labor.” Ex-gunfighter Andrew Duggan, however, isn’t afraid of Simon, and he’s interested in Webber not as a day laborer, but as a romantic partner. When a showdown between Simon and Duggan becomes inevitable, Matt Dillon steps aside and lets nature take its course.

Andrew Duggan’s turn as calm, collected, and (mostly) anti-violence ex-gunfighter Fos Capper is a welcome element to Cheap Labor. I’ve never been a fan of Webber’s tremulous acting (when she shows up on Dragnet I skip out), but Duggan’s one of my favorite supporting actors, and he’s well-cast as the smooth, confident Capper (watch him tell Webber she’s been in the shade too long, and that she needs space and air to breathe—dude’s got game). Simon, who did comedic authority figures so well, is excellent, too, as the cowardly brother who SPOILER runs away like a dog when he actually has to fight a man who’s not afraid of him. Perhaps the best element of Cheap Labor is Matt willingly giving up his gun to Capper, so he can duel it out with Simon (although you can take it that he knew on some level Simon would chicken out). It’s a nice sideways move for Matt to exercise some justice outside the legal system. And Chester’s tentative love interest, Susan Morrow as Melanie, is back again; in a funny contrast to player Duggan, cosmically ill-at-ease Chester’s method of wooing a woman is relatively simple: offer a cash loan.

Dreary. In John Meston’s Moon, crooked dealer Phillip Pine thinks he has card player Tom Palmer on the hook for some serious dough. Unfortunately, Pine is ultimately suspected of cheating, and has the tables turned, with Palmer hiring burly Stafford Repp to keep an eye on him: no crooked dealing to win back the money he lost to Palmer. So how can Pine leave town with single mother Rebecca Welles, with no grub stake? An episode not worth examining too closely, Moon is a prime example of the kind of anonymous, bland network offering that didn’t usually show up on something as well produced as Gunsmoke. The story is thoroughly predictable; the dialogue isn’t challenging, either; and the performers are listless (Pine in particular fails to bring anything to his character; it’s a thoroughly surface, uninteresting performance). Entirely forgettable.

In Who Lives By the Sword, we get a similar set-up to the previous Executioner episode. Harold J. Stone is a nasty gunfighter who “kinda enjoys” killing people, such as the two nice brothers he baits into drawing on him in the Long Branch. Legally, there’s nothing Matt can do, since Kitty called both encounters fair game, but Matt decides to mete out some justice of his own, beating Stone in the street so badly he takes a week to physically recover. However, it looks like Stone will never mentally recover: due to Matt’s treatment, he loses his nerve.

An interesting (if not entirely successful) outing from Meston, Who Lives By the Sword‘s look at what can happen to a killer when his self-image is on the receiving end of a humiliating experience, is tempered by Harold J. Stone’s too-facile switch to trembling coward (I love Stone…but this isn’t his kind of role). More importantly, the absence of the fight itself critically wounds the episode. We have to see the severity of the beating, as well as transformation of Stone during it, to believe he actually gets spooked by it. Oftentimes, less is more, and events that happen off screen can have more impact in our imagination…but not here.

I suspect we don’t see the fight because it would make Matt look bad to the audience. Stone’s an unrepentant killer, but legally, Matt has no cause to dish out any kind of punishment to him, particularly a protracted pummeling that almost kills Stone. Without this catalytic event shown, we just don’t buy Stone’s devolution to a coward. It is interesting to hear Matt, however, state plainly, at the finale, that he’s clear with his own conscience, that he isn’t afraid to die. Frankly, I’d be more interested in a story that focused on how Matt dealt with his own feelings about the beating, rather than what’s presented.

In the strange, half-comedic/half-serious Uncle Oliver, from John Meston, wily Earl Hodgins and his seemingly simple nephew, Paul Wexler, arrive in Dodge to set up a job for Wexler. Unfortunately for Chester, they decide his will do, even after Matt says he’s fine with his current deputy. So it’s suggested—out loud—that they kill Chester. When Chester actually is shot at in an alley, it’s up to Matt to try and capture the attacker…but who really did it?

I always enjoy the Gunsmoke episodes that could cross over into other darker, stranger anthology series (like The Twilight Zone), and Uncle Oliver certainly has that feel of breaking away from the traditional Western story lines that dominate the series. Hodgins and Wexler are such an odd, effective pairing (both visually and in thesping), they help sell the nicely twisted story (don’t you get the feeling that squirrelly people like those two weren’t so unusual back then on the frontier?). Old pro Hodgins in particular is adept at keeping us guessing about Uncle Oliver: is he lying or telling the truth? Is he dumb…or smart as a fox? Chester not cleaning the stovepipe is a classic, and check out Doc’s filthy double entendre when he talks about how he met a girl once at a taffy pull (“Right away…treated me like I was something on a stick!”). Doc gets one by the censor!

Meston’s Daddy-O tells us what we already know: Kitty just bought half the Long Branch (this episode must have aired well outside production order). What we didn’t know is that Kitty’s long-lost father, smoothie John Dehner, is coming to Dodge. While Doc and Chester laugh (rather unkindly) about what a surprise it will be for him when he sees what Kitty does for a living, that’s precisely the reaction Dehner has; he doesn’t think a lady should be a madame running a bar. So, Daddy-O proposes Kitty sell her stake and return with him to New Orleans to run his successful freight company. But is he on the level?

Another poke in the eye to feminist TV critics who write that television wasn’t “evolved” until, say…last month. Anyone who’s watched television for more than a week will know how Daddy-O plays out, particularly when Kitty’s too-charming father is played by that king of TV weasels, the brilliant John Dehner. Of course he’s scamming her! And of course she’s not leaving with him. However, what is different is how thoroughly independent and self-determined Kitty is in her reasoning. Right from the beginning, John Meston’s script has Kitty not entirely thrilled to see her father—and with good reason. He left her mother and her when she was a baby. Why would she immediately welcome him back?

She’s also not happy with his predicating his disapproval of her livelihood based on whether or not she’s a “lady” (I love Blake’s cynical, “Am I?” when he says she is one). When she initially rejects his proposal, she lays it down as hard as any man: “You’re too late. I’m not quitting for you or anybody else. I’ve had it too rough to give up everything now that I’ve got a chance to live decently and to be somebody… You offer me help the first time in my life I don’t need it.” She hardly needs a “white knight” to save her. And when she does confirm his game, she gives her worst insult: “You’re just another man to me! And a crook, besides.” People who write about television today would swear such dialogue simply didn’t happen back then on network shows. Guess they’re not actually watching the shows, but rather just parroting back what they believe TV was back then.

In David Victor and Herbert Little Jr.’s The Man Who Would Be Marshal, Army Major Herbert Rudley has been given the go-ahead by the War Department to become a U.S. Marshal…and he wants to buy Matt’s job. He’s looking for some excitement, and he knows Dodge can provide it. Matt (incredibly easy-going in this outing) takes this outrageous suggestion in stride, and offers Rudley his job, if he can follow Matt around for a week. What Rudley discovers is a lot of boredom, and a look inside himself.

If you can accept that Matt’s closer to Sheriff Andy Taylor than Marshal Dillon in this episode, it’s an entertaining one, particularly when it shows what we suspected all along: how dull 90% of his job is in Dodge. Matt’s laid-back approach to policing is amusing (“No use going looking for trouble…usually catches up with you, anyways,”) when you think about some of the previous season 1 and 2 episodes, but it suits Arness’ essential genialness well. Rudley is perfectly cast as the stiff, officious, slightly clueless would-be martinet, who has to learn when to apply pressure, and when to back off. Just don’t look too close at the script’s coincidences (in particular, the whole “it was just an accident” shooting of June Carter).

A fine meditation on respect unearned and then earned…at the heaviest cost. At the beginning of Liar from Blackhawk, Chester is at the Long Branch, drunk and full of beans (Kitty amusingly says, “Who’s been pushing your swing?”), but when gunslinger Denver Pyle horns in and manhandles Kitty, Chester is ready to draw down. Matt stops the gunfight, but nobody’s heard of Pyle, who claims to be a famous gunslinger who killed three men in one draw in Blackhawk. Matt’s not buying that story; he thinks Pyle’s a liar. When Pyle barely manages to kill a drunk who challenges him, he decides he’s had enough; he hands over his guns to Matt. However, for real gunslinger John Doucette is in town…and there ain’t room for the both of them in Dodge.

Certainly the most interesting aspect of Liar from Blackhawk isn’t the Denver Pyle main plot (we’ve seen that “the liar forced to actually act out his lie” countless times before), but rather the very clever twist at the end, SPOILER, where true gunslinger Doucette is suddenly thrust into Pyle’s world of fears and anxieties, believing he’ll be viewed as a coward and laughed at, for killing an unarmed Pyle. It’s a potentially fascinating turn of events that would have made a great hour long episode, if explored further. Still, the pro cast is hard to beat here, with Pyle (who, as fans know, was this close to playing Matt Dillon) hitting just the right notes as a cowardly braggart trying to rise up to his own self-deception. And remember, unless you don’t want to end up sick like Chester, don’t buy chili beans for a dime.

And finally…future director Sam Peckinpah knocks out Jealousy, a rather ridiculous end to the season. Card dealer Than Wyenn doesn’t like how Matt solves the cheating dispute that ended with a knife in Wyenn’s hand: Matt throws them both out of town. So when Matt’s old friend Jack Kelly arrives in town to run a faro game at the Long Branch, Matt warns Kelly not to hire Wyenn…to no avail. When Wyenn sees Matt and Kelly’s pretty wife, Joan Tetzel, talking, he has an idea for revenge: lie to jealous Kelly about Matt and her. It works…all too well.

A standard revenge tale is made laughable by a resolution that doesn’t fit at all with what we’ve seen of Matt Dillon and how he runs Dodge. Now, had Peckinpah gone off in another direction and actually had Matt and Tetzel become attracted to each other, that might have put an interesting spin on the story (certainly Arness and Tetzel seem like they enjoy each other’s company). It would also go a long way towards explaining the silly finale, when SPOILER Matt just ups and lets Tetzel walk out of Dodge with her husband after shooting and nearly killing Wyenn. Why? We’re never told, but certainly this egregious breach of the law, even if it didn’t bother Matt (which it would have in past episodes), would be picked up by other citizens in Dodge, where Matt would then be known to play favorites and to pick and choose what laws to enforce. When Matt didn’t enforce the law in previous episodes, it’s because he deemed the perps “animals,” unworthy of being considered “under the law.” So…is Tetzel an animal, or just a pretty woman Matt’s attracted to? It’s frankly a marginal episode with a nonsensical ending—something quite unusual for Gunsmoke.

In a stunning leap forward, Gunsmoke, which hadn’t even cracked the Nielsen Top Thirty in its premiere bow, landed as the seventh most popular show in America for this 1956-1957 season. Still in its Saturday 10:00pm timeslot (again reinforcing the idea that this series was first and foremost an “adult” Western not intended for kids), CBS’ counterprogramming against formidable NBC rival, The George Gobel Show, finally paid off. The comedy variety show starring “Lonesome George” Gobel, was a solid 15th in the ratings the previous year. This season, Matt Dillon and friends knocked Gobel out of the Nielsen Top Thirty altogether (Ogden Nash and Dagmar didn’t offer a serious threat on Masquerade Party over on ABC). The following year, NBC, in a failed effort to save him, moved Gobel out of Matt Dillon’s gunsights, to Tuesdays. He never recovered his previous level of popularity. Gunsmoke had claimed its first victim.


Read more of Paul’s TV reviews here. Read Paul’s film reviews at our sister website, Movies & Drinks.

5 thoughts on “‘Gunsmoke’ (Season 2): Keeping anarchy in the West at bay while gunning down network competition”

  1. Some random thoughts: This review page(s) is a keeper. I never missed Gunsmoke on the radio with the great William Conrad as Matt and Parley Baer Chester. On television, the same for the half hours, and I was intrigued by the hour-long episodes for a few weeks. But — while it was not as appalling as Bonanza, and better than The Virginian, it was too soapy at least for this guy.

    As for real: It is no t ral it is a televison program. I suppose real is code language for liking it, and that is fine. I did and do, at least in this form. A word about
    Angie Dickinson — anythign she does works for me, practically the only performance in Rio Bravo, among the leads, that has any charm. On the other hand, I hate Rio Bravo, and she is still alive. Love that part too.

    Thanks for the fun.


  2. Excellent review, Paul! (And I clicked on the season one link as you requested, just for good measure.) Considering how many of these early shows are based on the radio series and closely follow it, are you familiar with the radio version enough to have any thoughts on how Conrad played Matt as opposed to Arness? Do they handle the same material pretty much the same, or do you notice differences between the two?


    1. Thank you, Mitchell! Not first-hand knowledge. My research indicated the radio scripts were far more serious, far more “adult” if you will–such as openly acknowledging Kitty was a prostitute and not just a “saloon gal”–but I’ve only heard a few of the actual radio shows, as those were featured on a Gunsmoke “Directors Collection” disc I reviewed years ago. While of course Conrad’s voice was beautifully rich and stentorian, I do remember it being slightly disconcerting, actually, to hear him as Marshal Dillon…I keep expecting him to interject some Cold War hipster joke involving Bullwinkle J. Moose and Rocket J. Squirrel in the middle of the Dodge.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I thought the radio series, was marvelous, the best western along with Hawk Larrabe, at least as played by Elliot Lewis. The television version of Gunsmoke was the best of its kind until Have Gun Will Travel came along, at which point, it had competition.


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