Sunday, July 25, 2010

The smell of gunsmoke

I bet you've never heard ol' Marshal Dillon say
Miss Kitty, have you ever thought of running away
Settlin' down, would you marry me?
If I asked you twice and begged you pretty please
She'd have said yes in a New York minute
They never tied the knot
His heart wasn't in it
He just stole a kiss as he rode away
He never hung his hat up at Kitty's place

-- “Should Have Been a Cowboy,” Toby Keith

If you’ve been reading this blog for a good while now, it shouldn’t come as any big secret that one of my all-time favorite television shows is the dean of boob tube westerns, Gunsmoke. With the addition of the Encore Westerns channel here at Rancho Yesteryear, the opportunity to see the black-and-white hour-long episodes—seasons seven through eleven—has made me a little recalcitrant in my classic movie watching. There’s just no getting around it—I’ve been gobbling up these little monochromatic gems like cocktail peanuts.

I’ll readily admit that the radio version of Gunsmoke is the best of all, but at the same time I can’t bring myself to really ever badmouth the television adaptation. The only thing I ever found disappointing about the TV Gunsmoke was how the series treated the Chester character; Dennis Weaver is a grand actor, but he took too many liberties with his radio namesake and I’ve always believed that he was the weakest link on the TV program. I’ve always been partial to Festus Haggen, Dodge City’s resident ne’er-do-well played by Ken Curtis—I always thought the Festus character (who first appeared in “Us Haggens,” a television episode penned by the radio Gunsmoke’s Les Crutchfield, and was then seen intermittently until he officially joined the show in its ninth season) was much closer in spirit to the original radio Chester.

I caught a dandy Festus outing a few nights ago entitled “Wishbone” (02/19/66), an episode that was reputedly Curtis’ favorite. In it, Festus comes to the rescue of his friendly nemesis Doc Adams (Milburn Stone), who’s been stranded in the middle of nowhere after being bit by a rattlesnake and his horse having run off in a panic. Festus is able to save Doc’s life by a combination of home remedies and making a wish on the wishbone from a chicken he and Doc were munching on as the episode began; it’s a wonderful examination of the complex relationship between the two men—Doc being the man of science who pooh-poohs that sort of superstitious nonsense from old wives, while Festus stubbornly clings to his simple country ways.

What really jolted me out of my jadedness was seeing the gentleman on the left turn up in this episode—none other than Steve Trevor hizzownself, Lyle Waggoner. (Yes, Lyle Waggoner in a western…will ceases never wonder.) The outlaw standing next to him is also a familiar TV face—Victor French, of Little House on the Prairie and Highway to Heaven fame.

Another interesting Gunsmoke installment I recently caught was “Bad Lady from Brookline”—in which a woman arrives in Dodge with her son via stagecoach…and finds the townsfolk strangely reticent when she inquires as to the whereabouts of her husband Calvin. I think you might recognize the individual who plays the woman from this screen cap:

Yep, the first thing I said was: “Son of a gun, that’s Betty Hutton”—surprised the heck out of me, because I thought by the time of this episode’s airing (05/01/65) I thought Hutton had packed it in as far as show business went. As Molly McConnell, Betty plays a woman who learns the hard truth from Marshal Dillon (James Arness) that the husband she’s been asking about is dead as the proverbial doornail, having accidentally been shot—but hubby’s former business partner, Sy Sherne (Claude Akins), is only too happy to inform Molly that it was Dillon who shot him. Molly decides that Matt hasn’t much longer to live, and purchases a gun in order to practice being proficient with the weapon…and dispatching our favorite marshal to Boot Hill in the process.

You’re probably wondering—hey, they’ve got Betty Hutton on hand…the least they could do is work in a few musical numbers. Well, writer Gustave Field doesn’t disappoint—Molly asks Miss Kitty (Amanda Blake) for a job at the Long Branch singing, and auditions with the old standard Silver Threads Among the Gold. Against Kitty’s better judgment, she hires Molly…but her rendition of Silver Threads doesn’t exactly wow ‘em in the Long Branch. It also doesn’t help matters much that Molly is dressed as if she’s the soloist in the church choir:

So Kitty lends her a dress, and gives her a few pointers on how to “sell” the song…the next thing you know, she’s layin’ ‘em in the aisles with Frankie and Johnny

Of course, Doctor, Lawyer, Indian Chief would have worked just as well.

In the episode “Honey Pot” (05/15/65), one of Matt’s old riding buddies ventures into Dodge, a drifter named Ben Stack (Rory Calhoun). Stack makes the acquaintance of a saloon gal named—I’m not making this up, by the way—Honey Dare (Joanna Moore), and a romance quickly develops between the two of them. Now, Stack is completely unaware that Honey is a married woman, manacled to a gambler (John Crawford) who unfortunately doesn’t treat Honey right; he has a nasty tendency to inappropriately smack her around. Stack spots the two of them walking down a dusty Dodge street one night and being the jealous type, calls Gambler Boy out—when the man reaches up to take off his coat for a round of fisticuffs, Ben shoots him because he was convinced the gambler was going for a gun.

To further complicate matters, Ben saves Matt’s life not too long after from some peckerwood (Charles Maxwell) with an axe to grind comes close to ambushing our marshal (Ben steps out and takes the bullet meant for him), and while it’s touch-and-go at first, Ben eventually recovers from his wounds and is soon as fit as a fiddle to start sparking Honey again. The young lovers, however, are not as discreet as they should be—Matt pieces it together and realizes that Ben was responsible for shooting Honey’s hub…and while there’s a bit o’business where Dillon is prepared to resign as marshal because he can’t face having to arrest his old chum, everything eventually comes out in the wash.

“Honey Pot” isn’t a particularly remarkable Gunsmoke installment but there are a number of things that make it worth giving it the once-over; it’s one of the last episodes of the TV show written by co-creator John Meston (the notoriously reliable IMDb credits it to Clyde Ware, but that’s not what it says in the credits)—the man generally acknowledged to be the person responsible for the TV version of the radio oater not spectacularly falling on its face. Also, there are a number of familiar character faces in this one:

Hank “Mr. Ziffel” Patterson (Patterson was in quite a number of Gunsmokes, usually as the hired hand at the stables, which he plays here)…

Dick Wessel, who was a supporting player in most of the Columbia two-reel comedies…

…and the baddest serial villain of them all, Roy Barcroft...also a semi-regular. (I’ve also seen Barcroft in a comic episode of Have Gun – Will Travel [“The Long Weekend”]—he was practically unrecognizable as a miner who ventures into town once a year to let his hair down and usually ends up trashing the place…prompting the townsfolk to hire Paladin to keep the miner in line.)

That, of course, is Harry Bartell—an actor who also made sporadic appearances on the TV Gunsmoke…but on the radio version, he was on practically every week…

…and that gentleman might have scored the radio gig in lieu of William Conrad; Howard Culver played Dillon in a 1949 Gunsmoke audition that was heavily favored with the CBS Radio brass. Unfortunately, Culver was working for Mutual doing their Straight Arrow series at the time—and his contract stipulated that he couldn’t do any other western but that one. (Culver's consolation prize was that he became a semi-regular on the TV version, playing the hotel clerk at the Dodge House.)

Encore Westerns also runs the Gunsmoke movies CBS cranked out in the early 1990s and I caught one of them the other day, Gunsmoke: To the Last Man (1992). This one features Arness reprising the role of Dillon and chasing after a gang of cattle rustlers who also happen to be engaged in a blood feud with a rival family. You’ll enjoy these films if you’re a Gunsmoke fan—and the best thing about Last Man is that is features Pat Hingle as Dillon’s nemesis, a retired colonel who heads up a vigilante group that ends up hanging a young man who’s befriended Matt. Hingle could be considered a Gunsmoke semi-regular, having played the part of Dr. John Chapman in half a dozen episodes in 1971, filling in for a temporarily absent Milburn Stone.

The neatest thing about these televised western repeats is that the same character actors show up on all of them (playing different parts, of course)…and in some instances, on the same day. I watched a Virginian repeat, “Without Mercy” (02/15/67), which starred James Gregory as a stern rancher who’s not too crazy about Stacy Grainger (Don Quine) making time with his daughter. An hour and fifteen minutes later, Gregory’s on a Gunsmoke rerun entitled “The New Society” (05/22/65).

When I was attending Marshall University in 1982 and 1983, my friends and I would often play cards at late hours and one of the things we liked to do was watch Gunsmoke reruns, which were usually telecast over the independent WVAH-TV around midnight. We would sit and talk trash about various subjects, but the one thing that we could all commonly agree on was that Matt Dillon was The Man and we’d relish watching some young snot-nose who clearly was unaware that challenging the Marshal was the worst thing anybody could possibly entertain thoughts of doing. The episodes run by WVAH were the color ones telecast from 1966 and on—but because the TV set in my room was a black-and-white it somehow made the episodes better.

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Unca Jeffy said...

My mother and father watched Gunsmoke religiously when I was a wee lad. The hour long drama was too much for my young brain to digest, but I remember perking up and paying intense attention whenever Festus would walk in and take over a scene.

Festus was the show for me!

Toby O'B said...

When I was at UConn back in the mid-70s, the ritual was to watch 'Maverick' (and then 'The Three Stooges') in the two hours leading up to dinner.

Classes? Study? What are these strange words you speak?

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

Classes? Study? What are these strange words you speak?

Tell me about it...had it not been for those damn Gunsmoke reruns I would have graduated earlier from college and working a respectable job today.

Oh, well...whaddya gonna do...stuff happens.

Pam said...

My father's brush with fame? His 1st grade (maybe 2nd grade) girlfriend was the lovely Beverly Neill (aka Amanda Blake).

This has nothing to do with your post. I just thought I'd share.

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

His 1st grade (maybe 2nd grade) girlfriend was the lovely Beverly Neill (aka Amanda Blake).

That is so cool! You have so many show bidness stories that I have not heard.

(I guess at that age, it's safe to say your Pop never hung his hat at Kitty's place, either...)