TV classics: Gunsmoke
USA 1955-75, 20 seasons, 635 episodes, approximately 25 minutes each (1955-61), then 50 minutes, CBS, black & white, then color (1966-75). Created by: Norman MacDonnell, John Meston. Cast: James Arness, Milburn Stone, Amanda Blake, Dennis Weaver, Ken Curtis, Burt Reynolds, Buck Taylor, Glenn Strange, Roger Erwing
Plot summary: Life can be tough in Dodge City, a typical town in American West, but Matt Dillon upholds the law against crooks and gangsters with a little help of his townspeople friends.
Review: Originally a radio show launched in 1952, Gunsmoke became the longest living Western program on television. Lasting a good twenty years, it was canceled by its network CBS in 1975 and replaced by two Mary Tyler Moore spin-offs. Although the show had been on the decline in ratings, the cast and crew were surprised to hear about the cancellation after they had survived a previous plug-pulling threat in 1967. Despite sagging ratings after switching from a half-hour to a full-hour show in 1961, Gunsmoke had won a faithful fanbase who continued to enjoy and support the program until it finally went off the air in the mid 1970s.
The program, like so many others of its era, was a continued success in reruns. It was also picked up again in a number of television movies in the late 1980s and early 90s, featuring Gunsmoke’s hero Matt Dillon (James Arness) after his retirement. In the first movie, Gunsmoke: Return to Dodge, he was supported by his on-screen love interest Kitty Russell (Amanda Blake) and their former co-stars Buck Taylor and Fran Ryan.
All in all, Gunsmoke was a show that picked up the legend of the American West and the myth of the frontier. In best Western tradition, the show offered an imperfect hero who was given a variety of excellent scripts over the years. Although criticized for not being as realistic and gloomy as the original radio show, the TV adaptation soon picked up a pace and life of its own. James Arness was a great pick for Marshall Matt Dillon who tried to uphold law and order in Dodge City. He was surrounded by a convincing cast of supporting characters, including Amanda Blake as saloon owner Miss Kitty. Although the background information on each character was meager, Gunsmoke also lived off the tension, animosities and amities of its recurring characters.
Thirty-seven years after its demise, the show is still a decent program to watch if not a joy. It’s not as light-hearted as The Adventures of Kit Carson used to be from 1951-55, nor as “soapy” as Big Valley from 1965-69. It continues to be a phenomenon of its own with a very genuine group of characters who lose and win as they live their lives in the prairie of the Wild West.
Available on DVD. Gunsmoke sample episode “Help Me, Kitty”