Paramount // 1959 // 523 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge James A. Stewart (Retired) // December 22nd, 2010
"I haven't shut both eyes for as far back as I can remember. You're not the first man who's tried to kill me." -- Marshal Matt Dillon
That's not an insomnia research subject talking. Marshal Matt Dillon (James Arness, The Thing from Another World), as generations of TV viewers know, is the U.S. marshal protecting Dodge City, Kansas, sometime vaguely in the late 1800s.
I sort of remember having seen Gunsmoke, since it lasted until 1975 for a twenty-season run that's still tied with Law and Order for longevity. What I saw here was better than I remember. Those episodes from my childhood were in color, but Gunsmoke: The Fourth Season: Volume 2 is in black-and-white from 1959. The episodes are also half an hour long.
The twenty episodes from the back half of Season 4 are on three discs:
* "Love of a Good Woman"
Dillon's aiming for a showdown with a man he sent to jail, but Doc (Milburn Stone, Invaders from Mars) figures the man has "brain fever." Perhaps the loving care of Doc's friend, a Civil War nurse, will be a better prescription than a bullet.
A trail boss (Jack Elam, Support Your Local Sheriff!) asks Dillon for help in dealing with violent Jayhawkers.
* "Kitty's Rebellion"
An old friend of Miss Kitty's is shocked to find her running a saloon. Kitty (Amanda Blake, Counterstrike Meets Scotland Yard) is annoyed with him, but she doesn't want to shoot him -- unlike the menfolk of Dodge.
Frogmouth Kate's reluctant love object goes on the lam -- and "wild, killing crazy" -- after she's shot.
* "Doc Quits"
Doc feels responsible for a patient's death, just as a new doctor hangs up his shingle. When the new doc steals a wealthy patient, Doc takes off.
* "The Bear"
Mike Blocker (Denver Pyle, The Dukes of Hazzard) is good-natured until he deals with his bride's jealous rival on his wedding day.
* "The Coward"
A shadowy figure shoots a visitor to Dillon's office. Was he gunning for the Marshal?
* "The F.U."
That great title goes with an episode in which Dillon and Chester (Dennis Weaver, McCloud) board a train looking for a suspect -- and are out of town during a $25,000 bank robbery.
A beautiful woman brings luck to the gambling table -- only it's bad, since there's a shootout. Dillon asks her to leave town.
A woman with a half-Cheyenne daughter is rescued from lowlifes by Dillon, only to find she's got problems with her husband and the townspeople.
* "Renegade White"
Bodies that turn up in Dodge lead to a man running guns to Native Americans.
* "Murder Warrant"
Dillon mixes gunfire with clever legal tricks to help a Dodge man escape extradition on a bum murder rap.
* "Change of Heart"
A rancher's brother (Ken Curtis, who later played Festus on Gunsmoke) doesn't like his plan to marry a saloon girl -- or does he?
* "Buffalo Hunter"
Two strange deaths on a buffalo skinning crew leave Dillon thinking that the boss is a murderer.
* "The Choice"
Matt helps a young man who's handy with a gun find a job riding shotgun on a stagecoach.
* "There Never Was a Horse"
A drunken farmer isn't quite enough of a challenge for Kin Creed, so the gunfighter wants to push Dillon into a duel.
* "Print Asper"
An illiterate farmer discovers that a shady lawyer (Ted Knight, The Mary Tyler Moore Show) stole his ranch. Naturally, he's the top suspect when the lawyer is shot -- twice.
* "The Constable"
The town fathers hire a constable to keep a little less of the peace and a little more of the business from "frisky" cowboys. Dillon says he's staying out of it, but you don't really believe that, do you?
* "Blue Horse"
Dillon has a broken leg and a prisoner who's a handful. Cheyenne sub-chief Blue Horse turns up; fortunately, he's an old friend of Dillon's.
Dillon and Chester discover that the Cheyenne have rifles and are ready for an uprising.
Sponsor Spots: James Arness peddles L&M cigarettes and Remington shavers in vintage ads.
There are convenient plot twists aplenty -- note the way the killer tries again just at the right time to clear the ex-con in "Love of a Good Woman" -- to move these half-hour episodes along, and a few of those gunfights feel obligatory. Still, Gunsmoke has some clever stories -- note The Twilight Zone irony of "Sky" and the humor of "Murder Warrant" -- and interesting guest turns.
James Arness' performance as Matt Dillon looks standard at first, but it grows on you and starts to show nuances. He's good at calmly talking people down in most episodes, but the best one ("The Coward") finds him scared -- enough to shoot an innocent man by mistake, and almost shoot deputy Chester Goode -- after learning of a threat on his life. With twisty writing and a good performance, Arness makes Dillon's devotion to justice a little less predictable than you'd expect.
He's supported well by Amanda Blake as saloonkeeper Miss Kitty, who mixes a self-deprecating humor with a head that may be cooler than Dillon's in a crisis (offering free drinks to calm angry cowboys works better than whipping out a gun, and no one dies), and Milburn Stone as Doc Adams, who's grumpy but equally levelheaded. Dennis Weaver doesn't do badly as limping deputy Chester Goode, but he doesn't get much to do in the episodes in this batch; moving on to McCloud was definitely a good career move.
There's an occasional fleck or hint of grain but the prints here look good. CBS took care of a vintage asset.
Judge Dylan Charles points out in his reviews of the first two seasons that these shows aren't camp; they're solid dramatic stories. Ironically, that could be the dealbreaker for viewers who didn't get tuned in to Westerns when they were younger. Those with a taste for modern drama might find these stories superfluous.
If you're a fan of the series, snagging a set of these is a must. Western fans who don't count Marshal Dillon among their favorites should also give these a look. I still prefer the dodgy wanderers (like Maverick or Rawhide) to the law, but these stories are good. From Judge Dylan Charles' reviews, I'd reckon that anywhere after the uneven first season is a good place to start.
Some of you might be wishing they'd skipped to the '60s and the color episodes that you remember, but give these a try. My memory's a little fuzzy, but from this sampling, it looks like Gunsmoke's best days were in these early episodes.
Not guilty, but let Marshal Dillon get a good night's sleep once in a while.
Review content copyright © 2010 James A. Stewart; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 523 Minutes
Release Year: 1959
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
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