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Saturday, May 9, 2009


Back when westerns were the number one genre on TV, the number one western was "Gunsmoke." For twenty seasons--1955 to 1975--viewers could tune in every week to watch Marshall Matt Dillon keep law and order in the wild and woolly streets of Dodge City, Kansas, and now, with the release of the 3-disc DVD collection GUNSMOKE: THE THIRD SEASON, VOLUME 2, we can relive 20 half-hour episodes worth of that excitement all over again. As John Wayne, in his original on-air introduction to the show, described it: "It's honest, it's adult, it's realistic."

Originally a successful radio show, "Gunsmoke" made the move to television along with its creators, producer Norman MacDonnell and writer John Meston, who maintained a high level of quality and authenticity during these early episodes. The mood is often somber, with adult-oriented stories and strong characters, and when there's violence, it has an impact beyond the standard shoot-'em-up. Marshall Dillon tries to avoid using his gun whenever possible, save to whack people over the head with it before they can clear leather.

Several episodes begin with him taking a wistful stroll through Boot Hill, looking back on all the lives that have been wasted through unnecessary violence. Tough as nails and quick on the draw, with scarcely a personal life outside his duties as a lawman, Dillon never allows his job to rob him of his humanity. Writer John Meston took great pains to present the character in an honest and realistic fashion, eschewing the cliches of the standard western hero who seemed forever unfazed by the violence and death that were a part of his everyday life.

Despite the show's more mature focus, however, it still retains some of the appeal of the old Saturday matinee westerns like the ones rising star John Wayne used to churn out back in the 30s. James Arness, who plays Matt Dillon, even resembles the young Wayne with his towering 6'7" frame and easygoing yet highly-capable demeanor. (Wayne was offered the part but suggested his friend Arness instead.)

Matt still possesses incorruptible virtues, infallible common sense, and an unbeatable fast draw, but is more three-dimensional and complex than his earlier counterparts. The combination of these two styles, not too kid-oriented and not too adult, makes for a pleasing blend.

The supporting cast is one of the finest ever. Dennis Weaver plays Chester Goode, the down-to-earth, fiercely loyal deputy with the famous limp. As the gruff old Doc Adams, Milburn Stone is one of the most skilled actors ever to appear in series television, and the show's occasional moments of unforced comedy relief usually involve some good-natured needling between him and Chester.

Much of their spare time is spent at the Longbranch Saloon, where half-owner Miss Kitty provides a constant supply of free drinks and moral support. (For western heroes, these guys really do guzzle a lot of whiskey.)

Pretty Amanda Blake is very appealing in the role, a strong, dependable female presence who enjoys equal status in the group. The fact that Miss Kitty is basically the madame of Dodge City's leading whorehouse doesn't seem to bother Matt, Doc, or Chester, so it never bothered viewers much, either. (As a kid, I always thought all those saloon gals were there just so the lonesome cowpokes could chat with them and buy them free drinks!)

As in most classic TV shows of the period, there's an abundance of familiar faces in guest roles. Some of the ones appearing in this DVD set are Corey Allen ("Buzz" in REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE), Strother Martin, Jeanette Nolan (who would later star in the spin-off series "Dirty Sally"), Vaughn Taylor, Werner Klemperer, Jack Weston, Phyllis Coates, Murray Hamilton, Wayne Morris, June Lockhart, Harry Dean Stanton, Claude Akins, Patricia Barry, Gail Kobe, John Dehner, Ross Martin, Virginia Gregg, Ken Lynch, Simon Oakland, Ruta Lee, Timothy Carey, and Jack Cassidy.

The episodes in this set look great, with beautiful, sharp black-and-white photography. DVD image and sound quality are fine. In addition to the 20 episodes, there's a brief montage of commercial spots which include Arness, Stone, and Blake puffing on L & M cigarettes ("Live modern--smoke L & M!" the announcer advises us) and Arness showing us a putty impression of his pesky facial stubble before taking an electric razor to it.

Over its two-decade run, "Gunsmoke" evolved from a simple half-hour western adventure to the more complex hour-long adult drama of its later years. GUNSMOKE: THE THIRD SEASON, VOLUME 2 finds the series in my favorite stage of this progression, with an ideal combination of both sensibilities. It's just serious enough to enjoy for its compelling characters and intriguing stories, and just enough of a good old-fashioned western yarn to erupt into smoke-filled gunplay at any moment.


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