Gunsmoke was the black-and-white version of a radio show that starred Bill Conrad as Dodge City Marshal Matt Dillon, circa 1873. Conrad was a fine actor with a voice that was used to great effect when he narrated Rocky & Bullwinkle and The Fugitive, but he was short and thick, and nobody’s idea of a lean, mean town tamer. James Arness, on the other hand, was six foot, seven inches—so tall, he barely had to act.
When the half-hour show began broadcasting on September 10, 1955, Arness’ Dillon was a simple character and hard to read—how did he really feel about Miss Kitty, who bitterly pined for him from the beginning and for 20 more TV years? Why did he keep Chester around, since his sidekick was less than one stiff leg and a twitch away from turning into Barney Fife? And why didn’t Dillon knock that crotchety Doc Adams through a cheap plywood wall every so often just for the hell of it?
If Dillon was anything, he was a genial papa who seemed to be either exasperated by idiots or saddened by the people who wound up on the business end of his smoking ’73 Colt. Dillon ruminated at the beginning of nearly every early episode as he walked among the graves on Boot Hill, and was troubled for a second at the end, before the final commercial and the credit roll.
Like the other TV Westerns, Gunsmoke also had a revolving door of terrific second-tier actors who would die in Dodge on Saturday, only to be reborn in the next frontier town, on the next night, on the next channel on the dial. The first season featured John Dehner, James Drury, Claude Akins, John Carradine, Robert Vaughn and a still green Charles Bronson as a punkier version of Jack Palance’s Jack Wilson from Shane. Strother Martin and Aaron Spelling are here as well, and they both play complete idiots.
This first batch of shows is interesting because we see how the creators found a way to work outside of the radio format. The earliest episodes could be watched with closed eyes—everything was made perfectly clear in the dialogue. As the season progressed, Charles Marquis Warren, who produced and directed the series, let more directors in and allowed new scripters like Sam Peckinpah to pull a few stories away from the radio vets. As a result, the show became flavorful and a little less cautious.
This collection is a case of be careful what you wish for. Fans have been clamoring for a season-by-season series of Gunsmoke, and this is the result. While the video quality is fine, the only extras are a few cigarette commercials, whereas the other Gunsmoke collections have had some wonderful additions and voice-over narrations. I guess, as Jimmy Hatlo used to say, “They’ll do it every time.”