Paramount // 1956 // 526 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Dylan Charles (Retired) // January 28th, 2008
"Dodge, it sure is a wild camp. Like they say, it's still got the hair on it. When men come to meet there, likely as not it's to tear each other apart. They do it often enough. It's a good thing we've got somebody around to pick up the pieces."
Gunsmoke's first season got off to a good, if slightly uneven, start. It introduced a likable cast of characters who quickly gelled together. Scripts by the likes of Sam Peckinpah had a more progressive take on the Old West, with commentaries on racism and the treatment of the American Indian. Granted, the American Indian was often played by a white guy wearing a bad wig and three gallons of make-up slathered onto his face, but Gunsmoke was still trying to have more than the stereotypical cardboard cutout squaws and braves.
Now it just remains to be seen if the second season can not only continue the trend, but also up the ante.
In case you weren't alive or aware of the series during its twenty-year run, here are the basics: Matt Dillon (James Arness) is the U.S. marshal of Dodge City. His deputy/good buddy/sidekick is Chester Goode (Dennis Weaver, McCloud), who is goofy and not altogether too bright. Then there's Miss Kitty (Amanda Blake), who has an unspecified job at the local saloon. The last, most cantankerous member of the regular cast is Doc Adams (Milburn Stone). Together, they deal with the kinds of problems that are bound to arise in a small frontier city in the Old West.
This is only the first part of Season Two. For whatever reason Paramount has decided to split Season Two into volumes, rather than releasing it as a single set like they did with Season One. There are twenty episodes spread across three discs.
* "Cow Doctor": While Doc is out treating a cow, someone dies. Doc becomes cranky. Er, crankier.
* "Brush at Elkader": Matt goes to Elkader to find a killer, only to find the townspeople strangely unwilling to help him.
* "Custer": Matt and the U.S. Army have a tug-of-war over one of his prisoners when it turns out that not only is he wanted for murder, but also for desertion.
* "The Round Up": It's the end of the season, and that means only one thing: whole bushels of cowboys running through town, drinkin' and gamblin' their hard-earned pay. This is not Matt's favorite time of year.
* "Young Man with a Gun": Matt kills a gunslinger. No surprise there. But then that gunslinger's 16-year-old brother comes gunning for Matt and then we have a problem.
* "Indian White": Little boy is kidnapped by the Cheyenne. Ten years later, he's finally rescued and made to return to "civilization." There are some problems.
* "How to Cure a Friend": Two gamblers come to town hoping to clean up with a crooked poker game. They have plans for getting Matt out of the way.
* "Legal Revenge": Doc discovers a man who's been wounded with a sharp tool. The man claims that it was an accident with an axe, but something is not quite here in this cozy little homesteader's home.
* "The Mistake": A man is killed in Dodge and Matt nabs the man responsible. Or has he?
* "Greater Love": Doc is captured and taken hostage by stagecoach robbers when one of them is injured and needs doctorin'.
* "No Indians": The Pawnee are on the warpath and have been killing families around Dodge. But Matt begins to believe that the Pawnee were not involved and digs deeper.
* "Spring Term": A man is shot and killed, but he wasn't the target. Matt Dillon was and he races to find who wants to kill him and why.
* "Poor Pearl": Two men fight over the same woman and somehow Matt gets pulled into their tussle.
* "Cholera": A feud between two families becomes more complicated with an outbreak of cholera.
* "Pucket's New Year": A buffalo hunter is ditched by his skinner in the middle of a blizzard and wants Dillon to help him get revenge.
* "The Cover Up": A man is killed and Matt figures out who has done the killing. But even once the killer's in jail, the murders keep happening.
* "Sins of the Fathers": A mountain man and his Arapahoe wife come to Dodge. Unfortunately, some folks don't like the Arapahoe and decide to do something about it.
* "Kick Me": Two bank robbers from Tulsa decide to hide out in Dodge and it's up to the Marshall to smoke them out.
* "Executioner": When a farmer is killed in unfair gunfight, the brother will do anything to make sure that justice is served against the killer.
* "Gone Straight": Matt and Chester are sent out to arrest one of the members of Billy the Kid's gang.
Season Two doesn't quite start off with a bang. In fact, "Cow Doctor" is kind of a fizzle. But things quickly pick up and Season Two begins to shape up as being a more solid offering than the first season.
The first season had its share of problems, with a few clunkers like "Word of Honor" and an almost stiflingly maudlin tone. It just wasn't an episode of Gunsmoke if someone's spirit hadn't been broken by the end of the show. The second season is a bit lighter. I don't mean it's fluff or a comedy now, it's just not as bleak. There are far fewer instances of Marshal Dillon making children cry, for instance.
But Gunsmoke still takes chances with the stories it tells. "The Mistake" has Marshall Dillon, well, making a mistake. In "The Round Up," Dillon is completely rattled and, for the first time, we see him lose control. Because the show is willing to show Dillon as a flawed human being, it makes the show that much more interesting. Gunsmoke could have quickly become a formulaic exercise in tedium, with Dillon saving the day each episode while Chester talks about how hungry he is. But instead it's constantly challenging itself and the audience.
Last season was very Dillon and Chester-centric; while there are still episodes that focus solely on them, Doc and Kitty are utilized more frequently and it's rare that one or the other doesn't show up. Their relationships are starting to tighten up now and become more solid. "Greater Love" is a powerful (if a little heavy-handed) episode showing the bond between Doc and Matt. They even manage to develop Matt's and Kitty's relationship even further during the same episode. Meaning, there's more banter that never really goes anywhere while Kitty rolls her eyes at Matt's complete blindness toward the fairer sex. He might be a good lawman, but he's a thick as two planks as far as Kitty is concerned.
During the last season, we pretty much had to rely on Sam Peckinpah to provide the truly wonderful stories. His scripts were usually above and beyond the rest of the pack. This season, it's harder to pick out a Sam Peckinpah script from the others. This is not because he's gotten worse, but because the rest of the show has caught up with him. "Executioner" and "No Indians" are standout stories that show that the series is becoming more even in its storytelling.
Even the dreaded monologues that start off each episode have been improved. Last season, they were vaguely general introductions, now they actually have something to do with the episode they're introducing. I still wish they'd been stricken completely, but the improvement makes them bearable rather than something to just fast-forward through.
There are of course, problems. Like Indians. Gunsmoke does so much to say, "Indians are not evil savage villains." And then makes the audience sit through an episode of "Me Indian! You White Devil!" "Indian White" perfectly captures this bizarre bipolarism. We have the little kid who was raised by the Cheyenne, who talks like Tonto if Tonto was suffering from a lobotomy. He's a cringe-worthy collection of stereotypes. But then we get Matt's speech about how awfully the Cheyenne have been treated. In "Sins of the Father," an Arapahoe woman is unfairly mistreated merely because she is an Arapahoe. She's even eloquent! But she's also a white actress painted up to look like a Native American.
Gunsmoke indulges in the stereotypes of the age it was made, but it deserves a lot of credit for spreading a very pro-American Indian message in a day when that message wasn't very common on the big and little screens.
There are other quirks of Gunsmoke that reveal its age, like its tendency to dawdle. Gunsmoke likes to wander around and explore the interactions between the characters in completely irrelevant ways. In the middle of an episode, amidst the gunfighting and cattle rustling, it'll take a moment to have a lengthy scene about how much Chester likes bacon. And Chester does love his bacon.
Whether or not this bothers you will depend upon your disposition. I happen to enjoy these little deviations from the main storyline as it gives us a chance to learn more about the characters and why they happen to hang out with one another.
And now we reach the point where I start getting grumpy. Not about the show, mind you, but about the way the show was treated. The special features are limited to yet more sponsor spots. The sponsor spots are nice little relics from a day when cigarettes were delightful little treats that could be advertised on the air. But we did this last season and got a whole little bevy of these ads last time. Still we get no commentaries, documentaries, or even cast pages that are just lifted straight from IMDb.
And then there's the fact that the second season was split asunder. Vol. 1, my eye! But perhaps it's a way to let the fans buy the seasons without spending too much money in one great lump sum. Except I just checked the price of the first season versus the second, and there's only a two- dollar difference.
Lastly, the transfers have a problem that pops up on occasion; a distinctive little color smear that happens on the occasions that there are a lot of little fine lines on the screen. This can be just a little distracting at times.
All in all, Gunsmoke is a great show that's managed to hold up over the years. Its progressive message from the first season continues. The stories have increased in quality and the unevenness has been smoothed out. Paramount's treatment of Gunsmoke, on the other hand, is mystifying, with transfer errors and a lack of features. Hopefully Vol. 2 will not be burdened with these same problems.
Gunsmoke has escaped the hangman's noose yet again and has been found not guilty.
Review content copyright © 2008 Dylan Charles; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 526 Minutes
Release Year: 1956
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Sponsor Spots
* DVD Verdict Review - Gunsmoke: The First Season
* DVD Verdict Review - The Gunsmoke Movie Collection