Sunday, October 6, 2019

Gunsmoke: Christopher Robinson's Top Ten Picks

By Christopher Robinson

The year was 1955. The network was CBS. A TV western adapted from a successful radio drama became one of the best and longest running shows ever. One of the first and grittiest “adult westerns” on the small screen, it remained highly rated among scores of other western shows and twenty seasons later went out as the last of its kind. It featured enduring characters and stories and brought James Arness to stardom in the iconic role of U.S. Marshall Matt Dillon. Although set in 19th Century Dodge City, Kansas, the stories frequently dealt with contemporary issues, addressing racism, civil rights, intolerance, human trafficking, capital punishment and rape(off screen and strictly implied). Often stories took on a downbeat realism where the good guys lost and bad men got away in the end.

If the TV Western deserves inclusion in the pantheon of the genre then perhaps Gunsmoke should be its ultimate paragon, owing to its unparalleled scope and timeless appeal. Such distinction would surely place it in high standing as a product of cinema’s slightly inferior cousin. Sadly, though, like other westerns it can be largely ignored by critics and fans who respect but do not appreciate the genre.

Even some of the most diversified movie buffs cannot get into westerns as much as they would like, finding them rooted in traditions they have no real connection to, in places they are too removed from. That shouldn’t preclude one from appreciating a quintessential American art form, though. Roy Rogers was from Cincinnati, Billy the Kid came from New York City and both The Sundance Kid and Tom Mix hailed from Pennsylvania. Even when noted or analyzed throughout various mediums, Gunsmoke seems to be myopically commended for its twenty-year run, never its greatness. Rather than exemplifying its importance, the series’ longevity always seems to eclipse it.

But we won’t let that put a burr in our saddles! Let’s celebrate with a look back at ten episodes that typify the exceptional writing, directing, and acting that made it a cultural phenomenon. Keep in mind, these lists are subjective and are in no way meant to diminish your own favorites. These choices are simply ten out of six-hundred and thirty-five, providing a handy starting point for greenhorns and a retrospective review for old hands. Enough jawin’.

Here they are:

#1 Matt Gets It

The fact that this wasn’t the first episode produced may explain why such an unlikely premise was used to begin a series. An introduction by none other than John Wayne precedes a tightly told story concerning Matt being gravely wounded after interfering in a gunfight between a sheriff and a formidable gunfighter.

“A man’ll draw his gun quicker to prove a point than he’ll draw on his logic.” Dodge City is panicked as Doc Adams(Milburn Stone)relentlessly works to save Matt’s life and, even then, we don’t see how the injured marshal can stop an opportunistic killer who proceeds to terrorize the now lawless town.

Charles Marquis Warren’s first story and second episode as a director set the tone and framework that future stories would inevitably follow. It introduced a recurring theme for the early episodes- Matt faces a significant challenge keeping Dodge safe, but he uses his skill and wits in an unexpected way to overcome that challenge.

#2 The Killer

If there was an unsung hero behind Gunsmoke, then that was John Meston, co-creator with Norman Macdonnell of the radio and television series and prolific writer of many episodes for several years. His richly layered scripts brought acclaim to the show and served as a template for future writers of the series even after he moved on.

In this stellar example of his work, a vicious but meticulous gunman named Crego (Charles Bronson) picks fights with strangers he knows he has an advantage over, gunning them down for the mere thrill. Doc relates to Matt how Crego has killed a meek farmer in the cruelest manner and it becomes obvious that the provoking and killing will go on unless a plan is devised. Matt cannot arrest the sadistic Crego as his shootings are technically in self-defense, so he goes on the offensive.

In many early stories Matt and right-hand man Chester Goode(Dennis Weaver) are something of a western Holmes and Watson, solving crises through careful observation and reason to properly convict and subdue villains. This time around, unethical tactics were required to see it through.

#3 Marshal Proudfoot

A memorably comical story has Chester’s uncle visiting Dodge under the false notion that his nephew is the town marshal and Dillon, his deputy. For a brief spell, Chester’s friends in town must keep the ruse going a little longer to save him some unnecessary humiliation. Soon though, the play-acting gets uncomfortably tangled with dire reality. This general storyline served as a clichéd trope, having been played out on other shows and even again on Gunsmoke(!) But it is the laughable way in which chaos unfolds in the finale which gives this version its distinct charm.

The curious episode title reflects the radio series, which spawned many of the TV series’ scripts. Chester’s surname was ‘Proudfoot’ on the radio version, as played by character actor Parley Baer. Early episode title cards were not featured onscreen and therefore named only for the reference of the production team, accounting for a few oddities in the catalogue.

#4 Chesterland

This semi-comical story demonstrated pathos and vulnerability that Dennis Weaver could bring to the role of Chester, making him enduringly sympathetic with the audience and arguably the show’s richest character. Scripted by series stalwart Kathleen Hite and directed by western workhorse Ted Post, this episode drifts between hilarity and heartbreak as Chester vows to resign from his duties with Matt and work fulltime at farming to support a life with his new fiancé, Miss Daisy(Sondra Blake).

After some homestead mishaps in a barren spread of ostensibly dry earth, he vows to live underground, soon finding his freshly-built dugout home unexpectedly flooded. In hopes of recouping his losses, he converts the site into a profitable water well with the help of Daisy, whose intentions seem less sincere as her tolerance and patience run out. Doc soon learns that Chester’s luck will be as scarce as the water in his well and he dreads telling his friend what he’s learned.

#5 With a Smile

Frequent series director Andrew McLaglen helmed this story that features James Best at his most sniveling, playing Dal Creed, a spoiled and reckless son of a respected town citizen(R.G. Armstrong). When Dal kills a woman, he is sentenced to hang in a neighboring town but cannot owe up to facing the penalty.

Knowing his prominent father has certain connections, he expects strings to be pulled, clearing him of the charge. When it becomes apparent that the law cannot be influenced and no pardon or reversal will be made, Dal exhibits cowardly and pathetic outbursts that shame his father. With the local sheriff’s help, a ruse is devised to remedy the sad affair.

Noteworthy for its significant ending, it may be the only instance in the series where Matt Dillon is truly in the dark regarding an outcome that the audience itself is made fully aware of.

Editor's Note: WMD apologizes, but we were unable to find the Gunsmoke "With a Smile" video for this article.

#6 Clayton Thaddeus Greenwood

In Greenwood, Oklahoma, a trio of rugged misfits terrorize a small town sheriff(Paul Fix) in his general store. Before they are through, their actions bring a fatal heart attack upon the aging man whose deputy son, Clayton or “Thad”(Roger Ewing), swears to bring the crooks to justice. Their trail takes Thad to Dodge, where Matt warns him that his warrant is out of its jurisdiction. A simultaneous cattle slaughter problem has Matt searching the prairie for wolf attacks that soon become suspicious with the arrival of Thad’s four enemies. They play it cool as matters heat up in town but the young lawman remains close by, aware of their every move.

It becomes apparent towards the end of the story, that Thad will be a regular in Dodge. As a “second lead” star, Ewing would help to rejuvenate the aging cast with a dose of youth. His tenure would be brief, starring in the final black and white season and the first of the color seasons. Later succeeded by Buck Taylor as Newly, Ewing, himself had replaced the one and only Burt Reynolds as Quint.

Editor's Note: WMD apologizes, but we were unable to find the Gunsmoke "Clayton Thaddeus Greenwood" video for this article.

#7 Mistaken Identity

In a tense and dramatic story that keeps you guessing, Albert Salmi plays an outlaw who drifts into Dodge after leaving a snake-bitten man (Hal Lynch) for dead on the prairie. Passing himself off as the injured man, he introduces himself to Dillon and company before learning that the other man is now in Dodge, recovering from amnesia in Doc’s office.

After futile attempts to kill the patient before he comes to and incriminates him, he takes a payoff from two corrupt deputies anxious to extradite Lynch and hang him in another town. A standout scene has Salmi using a drunken shenanigan to serve as a diversion to get Lynch out of the Long Branch Saloon unnoticed, as well as an alibi for himself.

Festus Haggen(Ken Curtis) played a crucial role in the series, but his absence in this episode serves the dark and moody tone well, with limited comedy relief. It also puts Sam the barkeep (Glenn Strange) into action as Matt deputizes him before the final shootout.

It was an uncanny coincidence that, years later, both actors Salmi and Lynch would commit suicide by gunshot in separate incidents, with Salmi doing so after killing his wife.

Editor's Note: WMD apologizes, but we were unable to find the Gunsmoke "Mistaken Identity" video for this article.

#8 Mannon

‘This time… it’s personal!’ That tagline of many an Eighties action flick could have summed up this, one of the most harrowing and dramatic episodes of the run. A gentlemanly but cold-hearted killer named Will Mannon(Steve Forrest) shoots Festus on the outskirts of town and immediately makes a notorious entrance into Dodge, riding Festus’s mule, Ruth, down Front Street. Deputy Newly O’Brien and the citizens of Dodge realize Mannon is the feared gunslinger who marauded and murdered in Captain Quantrill’s Raiders, never a bunch to get a positive reputation in a western. Mannon exploits the fact that Matt is out of town, taking full advantage of Dodge’s money and liquor supply.

Consequently, he waits with Kitty Russell(Amanda Blake), the Long Branch’s proprietor, for the famed marshal to return so he can kill him and subsequently rule the town. His audacity is bolstered by the notion that even Matt cannot outdraw him(see: Matt Gets It). In Festus’s words, “If you was to take a snake’s tongue, grease it and tie it to a bolt of lightning, you couldn’t get nothin’ as fast as his gun hand.” In the ensuing events, Kitty is beaten and molested by Mannon before his tense meeting with Matt Dillon comes.

The episode was memorable enough to be incorporated eighteen years later as a back story for the TV reunion movie, Return to Dodge. Mannon paradoxically returns to even the score with Matt, who has since retired. Flashbacks were utilized to blend the episode with the new story creating a poignant connection between the events separated by the interim.

Editor's Note: WMD apologizes, but we were unable to find the Gunsmoke "Mannon" video for this article.

#9 The Fourth Victim

A serial killer terrorizes Dodge, gunning down one prominent resident after another. The motive is unknown but Matt determines that individuals have been targeted for their connection to a trial of some sort several years earlier. That only leads to more questions than answers when it becomes apparent that he cannot stop an unknown and inscrutable sniper who strikes at different moments and locations. Clues to the killer’s identity become the crucial elements as time runs out. Will there be a fourth victim, who could it be and, most critically, can Matt save them in time? The story’s crafty finale, though logistically ludicrous, is nevertheless a gem worthy of treasuring.

This is one of the only episodes in which a former series character is spoken of and briefly commented on regarding where they have gone.

#10 Island in the Desert (two parts)

When Festus stays behind after bringing an outlaw, Gard(William Watson) into a town on the edge of a vast desert, he ends up tracking him after the escaped prisoner kills the town’s sheriff. The trail takes him into the unforgiving desert where Gard injures Festus and takes off again, letting the elements overcome him until he is tended to by an eccentric hermit named Snow(Strother Martin) who lives in a habitable patch surrounded by endless stretches of heat and desolation in all directions.

Snow has found time to prospect gold and has acquired enough to journey to a nearby town called Ten Strike. There he has longed to settle a score with a fellow prospector who left him crippled and lost. Matt and Newly set out to locate Festus by which time Snow has departed to find the town using the weakened deputy as his new “pack mule” to haul water along the way. Soon the pair confront Gard, stranded on foot, who eventually overtakes them until Snow uses his pet rattler to turn the tables once more. The climax sees them enter Ten Strike where Snow’s delusion sets in amidst his broken dreams and hard luck.

Fine performances highlight the story particularly that of Martin whose delightfully maniacal role is the key to the entire episode. It’s curious, incidentally, how someone can manage such social charm despite years of solitude and isolation in a desert. Perhaps rattlesnakes make the finest companions.

Editor's Note: WMD apologizes, but we were unable to find the Gunsmoke "Island in the Desert" video for this article.


And so sums up the summaries. Feel free to share your favorites with us. If you’re new to Gunsmoke, you’ve got some television to watch. Already a fan? Keep tuning in. Everybody else? Well, everybody else can…
Get out of Dodge!


Dennis Weaver Talks About Getting The Part of Chester in Gunsmoke!

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