Friday, September 11, 2009

Gunsmoke -- "Get out of Dodge before I talk you to death" .

I shouldn't admit this, but on the night of the first moon landing in 1969, instead of viewing this momentous historical event, I was watching Gunsmoke. Yes I am embarrassed, but I need to illustrate the depth of my fan love for this western. In my defense I did manage to catch Neil Armstrong's walk on the moon.

Obviously I was a fan of Gunsmoke, and aside from my silly obsession, there were many elements that combined to create what some feel is the greatest television western series of all time. It had been a success as a radio drama for several years with William Conrad in the role of Marshal Dillon. When they decided to turn it into a television show they originally approached John Wayne, who rejected the offer in favor of his continuing motion picture career. But he did recommend that they hire James Arness, a young actor who played supporting roles in several of Wayne's films.Arness was hired and began a 20 year stint as the Marshal of Dodge City.

Television Westerns prior to Gunsmoke, like Hopalong Cassidy, were mainly television versions of the popular B- movie shoot -- 'em -- ups, lots of action, little plot. But Gunsmoke the television series would have the same qualities as the literate and character driven radio show. In other words, it would strive to be televisions first "adult" Western.

This was a western series that minimized massive cattle roundups, Indian attacks, and bloody gunfights and concentrated more on human interest and character development. Excellent writers, directors and actors worked together to produce the perfect hybrid of traditional Western elements and the distinct personalities who populated Dodge city and its environs. Many prominent guest stars portrayed characters who found themselves temporarily in Dodge and interacting with the local denizens in ways which often created conflicts that formed the basis for the ensuing drama. Instead of utilizing violence as a solution to these problems , the writers' goal was to create a dialogue among the various disputing parties that would dampen their anger and hostility and result in a peaceful outcome. As in real life happy endings were not guaranteed. Sometimes these healing conversations were presented with minimal or no interruption, creating one of the only annoying factors in an otherwise satisfying episode.

There is no doubt that the producers' shift in emphasis towards character development using literate scripts, good actors and creative directors turned what could have been just another Western into a landmark television series.


  1. This is one the best TV westerns that I have ever seen. James Arness nailed down the role of Matt Dillon.

  2. My parents were big fans of Gunsmoke (my Mom had a "thing" for James Arness), so our family always watched it. I believe it still holds the record as the longest-running, live-action, dramatic TV series. The secrets to its enduring run were an emphasis on strong stories (as you wrote) and a willingness to focus on the guest stars. Matt, Kitty, Doc, and the gang were often peripheral to the story, serving only to provide linkage (much as Tod and Buz did in many Route 66 episodes). As a result, Gunsmoke often played like a one-hour movie with a familiar setting. I'm surprised that more television series didn't adapt that winning format.

  3. Rick it ran for at least20 years . I belive sazball said in a post @CFU there is talk of a movie? I hope not.

  4. From the Hollywood Reporter: "the (CBS) movie unit is developing a feature reboot of 'Gunsmoke' and has hired “National Treasure: Book of Secrets” writer Gregory Poirier to pen the screenplay. The action-adventure will re-imagine Marshal Matt Dillon, the hero of the classic Western, for modern audiences. The story will serve as a prequel, exploring how the characters came to be that way. It will be set in the same American West as the original but will feature a contemporary look and modern action twists."

  5. NO !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!1

  6. "Gunsmoke" has my heart. I still turn to it for the warmth of the familiar and the inspiration of its creativity.

    I would like to hear what Doc Adams would have to say about the idea of a re-imagining for whatever is assumed to be the contemporary audience.

  7. when will today's Hollywood learn to leave well-enough alone? thanks for your great post on an untouchable classic!

  8. My favorite five episodes:

    (1) Mannon - There's a reason that the producer's of Gunsmoke chose this episode as the prequel for "The Return To Dodge"...the 1987 TV movie.

    (2) The Bobsy Twins - Ralph Moody and Morris Ankrum have a field day as two psychopath brothers from the sticks coming to Dodge City in search of "injuns" to slaughter.

    (3) How To Kill A Woman - Kudos to Pernell Roberts and Barry Atwater who play absolute enemies over the love of a woman long since dead.

    (4) The Gallows - Unusual and grim episode about Marshal Dillon's plight of taking in a prisoner who he believes killed a man by accident rather than in cold blood.

    (5) Anybody Can Kill A Marshal - Somebody's out to kill Dillon. It happens a great deal you say. Yes..but this one penned by Katleen Hite is special.

    Content posted by SGR.