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CHRISTOPHER TAYLOR'S BOOKS

Friday, May 17, 2013

OLD TIME RADIO: GUNSMOKE

"Around Dodge City and the territory out west there's just one way to handle all the killers and the spoilers, and that's with a US Marshal and the smell of ... Gunsmoke!"

Doc, Marshall Dillon, Miss Kitty, and Chester
In the 1940s, CBS chairman William S. Paley was a big fan of the Philip Marlowe radio show, and directed his programming chief, Hubell Robinson to develop a western version of the detective show. Philip Marlowe was a hard boiled detective show, and what Paley wanted was a hardboiled western with a lawman as the star.
The result was Gunsmoke, with Matt Dillon as the main character, a US Marshall with his main office in Dodge City.  It was a huge hit, almost immediately popular with fans for a variety of reasons.  One of the main ones is that it was a western targeted at grown ups rather than the typical radio western fare which was for kids (The Lone Ranger, Cisco Kid) and it was the first western for adults.  Another reason it was popular was the quality of writing, which sets is apart from almost every show in every era, on any format.
Gunsmoke holds up extremely well to this day by being gritty, historically accurate, well-acted, well-written, and intelligent.  The setting, actions, language, characters and so on are all mature and clever.  Another bonus was that the main characters stayed with the same actors for the entire run.  
Matt Dillon was played by William Conrad, who was brilliant in the part.  In fact, had he been a more slender man he would have been in the TV show, but he always was a heavy man and was passed over for the more classically western type with James Arness (brother of Mission Impossible's Peter Graves).  John Wayne was actually offered the Dillon part for the show, but he declined, focusing on film.  Conrad's voice was powerful and commanding, and he had a lot of range and created a very likable, honorable, and trustworthy character.
Gunsmoke won piles of awards and accolades, especially for its historical accuracy.  The treatment of groups such as American Indians and Mexicans was balanced and thoughtful - some were good, some weren't and all were just people.  Co-Creator and producer John Meston was a sort of deconstructionist, but he was not interested in tearing down the legend so much as historical accuracy.
So the stories often turned stereotypes and typical western patterns on their head, and the result was a more accurate type of show that actually has a more plausible, more reasonable feel these days.  Something that surprised me was how incredibly fast and deadly Dillon was.  I always got the impression that he was not so much a gunman as a good lawman, but he was both.  Matt Dillon was given respect like Bill Hickock and John Wesley Hardin in the show, but he was never cocky or certain, always careful to avoid a gunfight if he could.  And he was strictly law and order, even to his own detriment.
Gunsmoke's cast was excellent as well, and many of them show up on other radio shows because of their skill and voices such as Parley Baer (doc) who got more work than Michael Caine in his heyday.  I've listened to more than fifty of the radio episodes online and even the weakest shows are very well done.
The radio show Gunsmoke ran for nine years from 1952 to 1961, with over 400 episodes.  In 1955 the TV show started up, and it ran for 20 years until it was canceled in 1975.
This show is seriously a gem, something everyone would love to listen to.  If I could, I'd get an animator and put them on Youtube now because I think people would really get a kick out of them (including the old cigarette and public service ads).

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