9 October 2007 | dougdoepke
Gunsmoke: The Early Years
Those of us old enough remember Gunsmoke as a cultural landmark. Not only did the show usher in the era of the adult Western, but it also brought to series TV some strong dramatic values not much in evidence at the time. Few of us ever expected the show would last as long as it did. Nonetheless, there are some good reasons for the longevity. Those reasons, I believe, are most noticeable during about a five-year period from 1956 through the early 60's, and are worth focusing on for fans of the series.
The first year (1955) was far from the best, but it did put in place several elements that would mature powerfully over the following period. Of course, there's the cast of those early years. Above all, there's James Arness as the Marshal. Once Arness gets into the role after an uneven start, he's simply superb as the show's long-time anchor. Dennis Weaver's Chester is memorably easy to parody, with his slow wits and distinctive down-home drawl. But Weaver's also a fine actor, who provided his character with a rare measure of pathos unequaled by other supporting players over the 20 year run. There was always the chance that Chester's "comic relief" would descend into buffoonery, but Weaver and the producers handled the risk well. Milburn Stone's Doc adds a lot of color to the core cast, but he also trafficked in a lot of self-conscious mannerisms for my taste. Nonetheless, he mixed well with the others, while his caustic bantering with the over-matched Chester could be both unforced and funny. And, of course, there's Amanda Blake's Kitty, the good-hearted saloon-keeper, who a led a rather implausibly chaste private life. But here we're dealing with the mores of the time. The fact is that Blake brings just the right emotional tone to a character that was more constrained than the others. The cast may not seem so special on paper, but on screen the chemistry was superb.
The 1955 entries opened with an unusual prologue-- Matt's little contemplative walk through Boot Hill where he pondered the fate of those mouldering in their graves.These reflective moments set an unusual tone for an action genre. Plus, they provided an extra dimension that took us outside the story by suggesting there are larger meanings within which the story would unfold. These were not heavy-handed messages, but rather subtle suggestions that moral lessons can be drawn from the stories that follow. The prologue was dropped after the first year, perhaps because the writers had exhausted the brief time frame. Nonetheless, the undercurrent continued for the next few years, especially in Matt's reactions to how some stories turned out. In "Brother Whelp" (1959), for example, he finds out the unexpected truth behind two brothers' rivalry over the same girl,. His perplexed reactions in the final few seconds indicate an attempt to come to grips with the strange ways of the world, ones that continue to elude his grasp. Thus, the episode ends on a subtly contemplative note, unusual for that day or any day. It's this inner dimension present at times during the early years that is often overlooked.
Above all, however, it was the superior scripts that distinguished the series during this period. The excellence, I believe, was largely due to one man-- John Meston, who appears to have served as head writer until 1965. Note how many of the best screen-plays were either penned by him or taken from his ideas. He came to the TV production from the radio version where I expect he honed his skills. Those skills are in real evidence from 1956 to the early 60's. (And I expect it's no accident that this is the same time-frame during which Norman Mac Donnell served as series producer-- the man responsible for assembling the production crew.) Meston's specialty was dramatic structure. His best scripts are tight, suspenseful, and about as realistic as constraints of the time would allow. At his best, there was a dark inkling of just how difficult life on the Kansas frontier was. It's those moments I like best when some sorry homesteader or drifter confronts moments of personal anguish in the face of never-ending hard work, hostile Indians, and unforgiving elements-- in short, those rare moments of historical truth. Few series of the time bothered with the actual plight of prairie sod-busters. But Meston sometimes did. He was also good at limning colorful characters, building suspense, and also, surprisingly for the day, giving women strong roles in a genre that traditionally downplayed them. Together with Mac Donnell, I believe these two are largely responsible for Gunsmoke's "golden age". Too bad, their behind-the-scenes contributions have never been duly recognized.
I haven't seen all the entries from this 5-year period, but I have seen the majority. So let me recommend a few that I think are worth catching up with. "The Guitar"(1955), easily the best of the first season, scripted by the legendary maverick, Sam Peckinpah, and no doubt the only entry of that period to implicate cast principals in a major crime!; "Ma Tennis" (1958), an original concept, superbly directed by Buzz Kulik, with a number of dramatic twists; "Jayhawkers" (1959), an effective glimpse of a Texas trail crew, with a surprising dramatic turn by Jack Elam; "Kangaroo" (1959) a fearsome entry, with hulking, Bible spouting Peter Whitney showing no mercy to even his sons; and,"The Cabin" (1958), an unusual noirish entry that somehow got past the censors.
None of this is to deny that later entries in the series lacked merit. However, I do think the series soon lost the edge and tightness of this peak period. I'm only sorry that copies are so difficult to obtain. Most are worth a look-see, even in our era of super-charged TV.