Gunsmoke: Season 9
When we were kids in the fifties one of the most popular form of plat was ‘Cowboys and Indians’. I supposed in the retrospective afforded by hindsight today’s politically correct environment it would be called cattle movement specialists and Native Americans’; that is if the game would be permitted due to the reliance on violence. It was the age of the western, one of the truly American born genres in history. Themes pertaining to the expansion of the Great American West provided everything necessary for a compelling story; drama, excitement, greed, good versus evil and even romance. There have been many incarnations of the western in film and television but one stands out untouchable in the annals of television at least; ‘Gunsmoke’. There have been only four shows that have lasted twenty years; ‘Law & Order (Prime)’, ‘The Simpsons’ and ‘Gunsmoke’ with a potential case made for BBC’s ‘Doctor Who’. Of this list only one managed to retain the original primary cast for the duration, the series examined here, ‘Gunsmoke’. After a respectable nine year run on the radio in 1955 it made the then popular migration to television. There it was a staple of the programming schedule for CBS until 1975. Paramount has been steadily working through this extensive catalogue of 635 episodes splitting to each individual season into two volumes each containing approximately 18 episodes. Back in those days a television season wasn’t limited to 13 or 26 episodes; a season typically ran for 36 weeks with reruns dominating the summer months.in the case of the nine seasons here Paramount has released both volumes simultaneously.
This season was originally broadcast in 1963, one of the most turbulent times in American history. In the height of the Cold War just after the Cuban Missile crisis and covering the dark days of the President Kennedy assassination. The people of the country were inundated by bad news, frightening prospects and a bleak future. What they want after a day at work out in the world was some escapism. There were plenty of TV series that offered frivolous escapism so when they craved something of substance that still permitted them stories that challenged them emotionally there was ‘Gunsmoke’. By the time this season aired it had already built a solid reputation backed by nine years of exceptionally expertly crafted and solidly executed stories. While most TV show would make a Faustian bargain to avoid a cancellation notice ‘Gunsmoke’ had not even reached its mid-point.
The three central characters, as always, were present. Matt Dillon (James Arness), the United States Marshall for the district. Headquartered in the frontier town of Dodge City, Marshal Dillon was the arbiter of the law and bastion of justice. He stood tall, more some than his 6’7" frame. He was a pillar of the community respected by the townsfolk and feared by the outlaw element. His best friend and sage advisors was the town doctor, Galen Adams, M.D. (Milburn Stone). He was the archetypical old west saw bones, a curmudgeon with dedication and skill in his profession. He has pulled pounds of lead out of the Marshal and kept people alike, good guys and bad; it was his job to heal not judge. Lastly there was Miss Kitty Russell (Amanda Blake) owner and proprietress of the Lone Branch Salon. She was a savvy business woman and closest friend of the Marshal. Together they were the triumvirate of Doge City, doing their upmost to tame the Wild West.
Over the years the Marshall has been associated with a number of sidekicks, a mandatory trope of almost every incarnation of the western. In this season Marshal Dillon had a pair. First was Festus Haggen (Ken Curtis) he had the distinction of being the only sidekick formerly serving as Dillon’s Deputy. The others rode with him in an unofficial capacity. This tradition of the non-deputy was retained here with the second associate, Quint Asper (Burt Reynolds). Officially he was the town’s Blacksmith, a job of low social ranking but crucial to life and survival in the west. Making him even more of an outcast is his mixed racial heritage, a ‘half breed ’white father and Native American mother. His parentage was rarely stated in such polite wording. One of the major distinctions of ‘Gunsmoke’ among the westerns of that time is the intrinsic respect shown to the Native American culture. Sure, there were episodes in most seasons were the Indian was depicted as the antagonistic but they were usually motivated by the common foibles of humanity, greed, lust and power, not as a result of a racial stereotype. The white settlers and Natives were both portrayed as inherently honest groups with the normal few with antisocial predictions. Quint fit into this mold; a man torn between two opposing cultures rejected by both. The trust that Dillon affords this man demonstrates the inherent sense of fairness he had; a trait that made him a trait Marshal and a noble man.
The ninth season was part of the hour long, black and white tenure of the series. In many markets it aired on Monday nights at the start of prime time then, 7:30 pm. ET. What is most impressive about the series and undoubtedly a major contributing factor to its longevity is not only fully fulfilled all of the requisite elements of a western but it was fundamentally a police procedural series. This combination opened the potential story lines to include the normal slate of crimes prone to the human conditions but presenting them against the setting of the push to civilize the great western frontier. Marshall Dillon has to cope with horse theft, which is not just an analogue to a stolen car back in that period it was depriving a man his means to earn a living; a much more serious transgression. It was nuances like this that provided the series with an edge that differentiated it from the myriad of shows that are ore representative of that category. The ability to show the challenges these frontiersmen routinely faced. Most came to raise families and carve out a new life for themselves but with such opportunities there are always criminals looking for an easier way to make money. ‘Gunsmoke’ was a mature series that while completely suitable for the entire family, contains aspects of drama best appreciated by the adults. The kids want the gun play and horse chases and although they did get that here the heart of the series is the human drama it presented. Dillon was deadly with his six shooter but would much rather find a peaceful way to resolve a situation.