Appellate Judge James A. Stewart might have survived the West. They did have coffee, after all.
Our reviews of The Gunsmoke Movie Collection (published December 8th, 2004), Gunsmoke: The Fifth Season, Volume 1 (published October 20th, 2011), Gunsmoke: The Fifth Season, Volume 2 (published December 17th, 2011), Gunsmoke: The First Season (published July 18th, 2007), Gunsmoke: The Fourth Season, Volume 2 (published December 22nd, 2010), Gunsmoke: The Second Season, Volume 1 (published January 28th, 2008), Gunsmoke: The Seventh Season, Volume 2 (published March 31st, 2013), Gunsmoke: The Sixth Season, Volume 1 (published August 31st, 2012), and Gunsmoke: The Sixth Season, Volume 2 (published December 16th, 2012) are also available.
"I don't think they've got it planned for me to reach old age."—U.S. Marshal Matt Dillon
Actually, Matt Dillon lasted a long time for a TV Western hero—twenty years—and you can still see Gunsmoke in reruns. The show lasted until 1975, but the DVD releases have only reached the 1961-62 season. This season is the first to give Gunsmoke a full hour each week to tell its stories of life—er, death, mostly—in the frontier town of Dodge City, Kansas.
Facts of the Case
Gunsmoke: The Seventh Season, Volume 1 features the first seventeen episodes spread over five discs.
• "Old Yellow Boots"—When a charming outlaw begins courting a spinster, bodies start turning up—the work of two hired guns.
• "Miss Kitty"—Miss Kitty (Amanda Blake, High Society) slips out of Dodge in the dead of night and returns with a young boy. She's not the mother, of course, but Kitty is still protecting the boy from his abusive outlaw father.
• "Harpe's Blood"—Pa promises his dying wife to raise his two sons "hard and strict," but that could lead to trouble when one meets a lady.
• "Long, Long Trail"—How do you get to Fort Wallace? A soon-to-be Army bride strides into Dillon's office to ask, and won't be put off. However, there could be a detour if she falls in love with the marshal.
• "The Squaw"—A widower decides to stop hanging out at the Long Branch and remarry. That causes problems for his son, who's dealing with both the insults hurled at his father's Arapahoe bride and his own lustful feelings for her.
• "Chesterland"—Chester (Dennis Weaver, McCloud), Dillon's bumbling deputy, has a fiancee! Now all he's got to do is turn a bum piece of land into a farm that can support a family.
• "Indian Ford"—Dillon (James Arness, The Thing from Another World) goes with a cavalry man to ransom a Dodge woman who's spotted with Arapohoes. She comes along, reluctantly, but one Arapahoe man follows them back to Dodge.
• "Apprentice Doc"—Doc (Milburn Stone, The Atomic City) sets out to help an outlaw trade his life of crime in for a life of medicine. However, the man's former partners are coming to Dodge to make sure he and Doc can't finger them for a bank robbery.
• "Marry Me"—As Doc shares his concerns about a cholera epidemic, mountain men kidnap Miss Kitty for a bride. Directed by Dennis Weaver.
• "A Man a Day"—Chester's dating again, but he and Dillon have other concerns: robbers who want Dillon to leave the bank unattended have vowed to kill "a man a day" in Dodge—and have suggested they'll make an exception for Dillon's beloved Miss Kitty.
• "Lacey"—After Lacey's Papa catches her and her beau kissing in the barn, Papa turns up dead and she confesses. Dillon isn't so sure.
• "Cody's Code"—Cody is building a house so he can provide a good home for his fiancee, who's quitting her job at the saloon. A shooting and a fugitive (Wayne Rogers, M*A*S*H) could present a problem.
If you fall in love in Dodge, your life expectancy falls to less than an hour. While you expect that sometimes in a Western, quite a few of the stories in the first half of Gunsmoke's Season Seven are about some form of tragic romance. It seems especially heavy in the first few episodes; four of the first five show a woman bringing about a man's downfall, playing him against a rival, urging him on to violence, or deserting him when the chips are down. That sameness at the start, coupled with the generally tragic nature of Gunsmoke (there's only one episode where all the guest characters are alive at the end of the story), wasn't very encouraging as I started watching the first season of hour-long stories.
However, starting with "All That," a humorous tale about a con, the rhythm of the episodes perks up a bit. There are still things that don't work as well at twice the length—some episodes are built around twists that you'll spot in five minutes—but other episodes, like "Apprentice Doc" and "Cody's Code," use the extra time to build characterizations, and "A Man A Day" keeps suspense up for a full hour. I'll note that guest stars are usually the center of attention; even Matt Dillon only gets showcased as a character in maybe two episodes.
What shapes up in Gunsmoke is a dystopian West: homesteaders farm land that can't raise a crop, the comforts of life (other than coffee) are rare, violence is everywhere (with a too-heavy dose of implied attempted rape), and drinking helps men (women don't seem welcome in the saloons, except as saloon girls) through it all.
As Matt Dillon, James Arness tempers a tough character with compassion: making peace in the wake of a cavalry man itching for a confrontation with the Arapahoe or unilaterally extending the time on an eviction notice. While he seems to have a great knowledge of human nature, Dillon is still dense when it comes to Miss Kitty, who ignores all other suitors (not just crazed mountain men) in hopes that Dillon will notice her. However, you might see him almost coming to realize that whenever Kitty's in danger. He puts up with bickering and grumbling from Dennis Weaver's Chester and Milburn Stone's Doc, knowing full well that they'll be backing him up in a fight. All in all, the twisty Western tales are starting to expand into a rather grim picture.
The picture quality is a little off at times: there's noticeable grain and occasional lines, but nothing that makes it unwatchable. Some episode promos and sponsor spots (including one for L&M Cigarettes) are thrown in as extras.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
One of the episodes in this set, "The Do-Badder," features a do-gooder whose advice usually leads to someone getting shot or something like that. Some viewers might even think that of Matt Dillon; there are times when it seems like he's just standing around with his best buryin' shovel. If you're one of those viewers, Gunsmoke probably isn't the show for you. Even if you're not, you might occasionally hanker for a glimpse of some alternate universe where James Arness quit instead of Dennis Weaver, and goofy Chester Goode became marshal.
As for the usual half-season versus full-season argument with the CBS library, I noticed Rawhide offered both options the last time around. If you've been collecting these Gunsmoke DVD sets, you might wait and see if you can pick up the whole season at once later.
Gunsmoke: The Seventh Season, Volume 1 has some stories that could have easily been told in half the air time, but others that use the extra half-hour to advantage. The season's not bad, but it gets off to a slow start. I don't expect fans will be deterred, but I wouldn't recommend this as anyone's first Gunsmoke set.
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