Case Number 11708

GUNSMOKE: THE FIRST SEASON

Paramount // 1955 // 1051 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Dylan Charles (Retired) // July 18th, 2007

The Charge

"A man will draw his gun quicker to prove a point than he'll draw on his logic. That's where I come in, whether they like it or not. When they draw their guns somebody's gotta be around, somebody on the law's side. And Lord knows they hate that."

Opening Statement

Gunsmoke ran for 20 years. Thatâs a long time in television. It started out as a radio program in 1952 and was adapted for the small screen in 1955. It started out as just a half-hour show, but in 1961, it would expand to a full hour. After the show stopped airing in 1976, a series of made-for-TV movies in the 1980s and 1990s put James Arness once again into the role of Marshall Matt Dillon.

But back in 1955 Gunsmoke was just getting the ball rolling.

Facts of the Case

Matt Dillon (James Arness) is the federal marshal charged with enforcing the law in Dodge City. With his slightly addled and very hobbled deputy Chester Goode (Dennis Weaver, McCloud), he must deal with the rough and tumble folks that are constantly coming through his town. Doc Adams (Milburn Stone) and Kitty (Amanda Blake) are often at his side, giving Dillon the guidance he needs to keep him out of Boot Hill.

There are 39 episodes, each running a little under half an hour.

* "Matt Gets It"
* "Hot Spell"
* "Word of Honor"
* "Home Surgery"
* "Obie Tater"
* "Night Visitor"
* "Smoking out the Nolans"
* "Kite's Reward"
* "The Hunter"
* "The Queue"
* "General Parcley Smith"
* "Magnus"
* "Reed Survives"
* "Professor Lute Bone"
* "No Handcuffs"
* "Reward for Matt"
* "Robin Hood"
* "Yorky"
* "20-20"
* "Reunion '78"
* "Helping Hand"
* "Tap Day for Kitty"
* "Indian Scout"
* "The Pest Hole"
* "Big Broad"
* "Hack Prine"
* "Cooter"
* "The Killer"
* "Doc's Revenge"
* "The Preacher"
* "How to Die for Nothing"
* "Dutch George"
* "Prairie Happy"
* "Chester's Mail Order Bride"
* "The Guitar"
* "Cara"
* "Mr. and Mrs. Amber"
* "Unknown Grave"
* "Alarm at Pleasant Valley"

The Evidence

I assumed, incorrectly, that Gunsmoke was going to be mostly campy good fun, a simple show that reveled in black-and-white situations and a complete glorification of the Old West. You know, one in which the lawmen are always good, the women virginal and pure, and the man in the black hat is always the bad guy. John Wayne's introduction in the first episode should have clued me in that things weren't going to turn out that way. He seemed hell-bent on making sure that folks were aware that this was a show for adults. He was right, by golly. There are some surprising nuances to Gunsmoke.
Early in the show's run, a lot of the episodes were adaptations of episodes that ran on the radio show. There are some scripts that are afflicted with typical Western clichés, such as "Word of Honor." You could make a fairly lethal drinking game based on this episode. Every time someone says the phrase "word of honor," take a drink; by the end of the half hour, you'll be under the table. The concept is taken to almost ludicrous extremes when Marshall Dillon manages to talk revenge-hungry men into putting themselves into jail because they gave their word of honor that they'd do whatever he'd say.

But then there are episodes like "Cooter" or "The Queue" that challenge the audience's expectations. These are complex stories that have no real easy resolution. Both of those episodes, by the way, were scripted by none other than Sam Peckinpah, who knew how to make the most of the show's setting and characters. His scripts are the best of the season, and he'd later go on to direct some episodes as well.

It takes a few episodes for the chemistry to gel between the main cast, but by the tenth episode or so, the boundaries and friendships are drawn up. Doc is about as cantankerous as they come, cynical and always bound to do what he thinks is right. Chester is fairly simple-minded and there's a fair amount of hero worship toward Marshal Dillon. Most of the humor in the show comes from him, with his recipe for coffee and attitudes on what exactly constitutes a civilized man (gamblin', drinkin', and attractin' the fairer sex topping the list).

Kitty is an interesting character, to say the least. She's not the sweet, innocent schoolmarm. Her exact job is undisclosed, but she spends an awful lot of time in the saloon and she has a room upstairs. Not once is her profession elaborated on. You have to read between the lines and seek out the double entendres they bury into the script. Not very deeply buried, mind you, but buried nonetheless in lines like, "You know, when you're used to handling Texas trailhands every night of the week, it takes more than a little talk to scare you." Kitty and Dillon banter with one another at times, threats of weddings at gunpoint and the like, but, like her job, most of it is left unsaid. She provides a strong female character in a cast overrun by men.

And then there's Marshall Dillon. He doesn't like killing when he can avoid it, and prefers to throw folks into jail until trial. In "Hot Spell," he puts his life on the line to protect an innocent ex-con from a lynching, since he doesn't much care for vigilante justice. That's not to say he doesn't bend the law to take care of an issue. His favorite method involves running unsavories out of town with vague threats of "finding something" to arrest them on. He also has a mean backhand.

It's a strong cast that works well with one another and I can see that they'll really find their groove in seasons to come. At least until Dennis Weaver leaves in '64 to be replaced by Ken Curtis's Festus. After that, I'm sure things got shook all to hell.

The best episodes use Dillon, Chester, Kitty, and Doc as sounding boards for the wide variety of characters that come through Dodge on a weekly basis. Faithless preachers, cuckolded husbands, Bible-thumping farmers, articulate Chinese, and simple-minded folk all make their way through Dillon's jurisdiction. Dillon's methods for dealing with the problems that crop up are as entertaining as the stories themselves, with Dillon making a little boy cry at one point.

The guest cast usually includes some fairly impressive folks with each episode becoming a fun game of "Guess the Guest Star!" John Carradine, Robert Vaughn, and Charles Bronson appear in the first season. Numerous other folks appear that you might recognize from other shows, Westerns and otherwise, such as DeForest Kelley of Star Trek and Dan Blocker from Bonanza.

Gunsmoke can be a fairly grim show at times. Even if someone doesn't end up dying by the end, there's bound to be at least one broken spirit, whether it's an old gunfighter who's losing his sight or a farmer driven to desperate measures to do what it takes to survive in "Mr. and Mrs. Amber." But there are also moments of pure fun, such as whenever Doc gets his hackles up or Dillon gets that exasperated look that lets you know there's a tussle coming.

Gunsmoke does have its weaknesses, though. Its Achilles Heel, at least for this season, is the opening monologues delivered by James Arness atop Boot Hill. For the most part, the monologues have little or nothing to do with the plot of the show. They just reiterate what was said in last week's monologue: "I'm Marshall Dillon. This is Boot Hill. Bad people are buried here. That's a small, unconvincing model of Dodge City over there. Good-bye." Fade to black. Only Mr. Peckinpah bothers to tie the monologue with the plot of the current episode, but sometimes he has the good sense to just leave it off altogether.

Then there are the Indians. There have to be Indians, since this is a Western show after all. A few are obviously face-painted white folk in bad wigs. And they all adhere to the same stereotypes so common in the genre (Feather in headband? Check! War whoops? Check! Scalping? Check!), but Gunsmoke should be given credit: not all the Indians are bloodthirsty savages, nor are they always one-dimensional figures who ride in to kill whitey and then ride out again. In fact, in "The Hunter," Dillon gives a fairly impassioned speech about how white buffalo hunters nearly wiped out the herds on the plains. It's a pretty even balance between progressive ideas mixed with those same old myths.

I have mixed feelings about the treatment Paramount gave the set. On the one hand, it's beautiful. There are hardly any scratches or dust marks and it sounds great. It's just a really well-done transfer.

But there's only a small smattering of old ad spots to serve as extras. No documentaries, no commentaries, not even those little written biographies of the actors that are usually just cribbed from IMDb. James Arness is still around and I'm sure he has something to say about the show.

Then there's the unsettlingly little disclaimer on the box that states, "some episodes may be edited from their original network versions." I'm not too sure what it means.

Closing Statement

Gunsmoke is just an out-and-out fun show that manages to push its genre forward with complex characters and situations. It has some flaws, like when it descends into those same old, now-tired clichés. Plus Paramount really could have thrown a few more things onto the set. But for fans of Gunsmoke and even for folks like me who are newcomers, this is well worth picking up.

The Verdict

Judge Dylan says Marshal Dillon is innocent of both horse thievin' and cattle rustlin' and is free to go.

Review content copyright © 2007 Dylan Charles; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC

Scales of Justice
Video: 95
Audio: 90
Extras: 80
Acting: 90
Story: 90
Judgment: 95

Perp Profile
Studio: Paramount
Video Formats:
* Full Frame

Audio Formats:
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)

Subtitles:
* None

Running Time: 1051 Minutes
Release Year: 1955
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks
* Four Sponsor Spots

Accomplices
* IMDb
http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0047736/combined