By Peter Hummers on July 10, 2020
As Rod Serling realized during the Golden Age of TV, non-contemporary settings made a good way for TV writers to address topical issues that entertainment-seeking audiences in the day weren’t necessarily looking for. For that, viewers thought, there was the news. Naturally, new TV writers looked to expand their storytelling choices, for entertainment and/or airing issues in which they believed. Corny westerns for children were popular; they were about to grow up, and writers countered by also folding other, proven styles, such as hardboiled detective fiction, into the mix.
From 1952-1961, Gunsmoke was a radio series, simplistic but hardboiled; it sounded like most radio dramas of the day but was distinguished by its writing. William Conrad (The Killers) played the cynical marshall Matt Dillon, and radio episodes are available on the internet. When a TV version aired, radio listeners were unimpressed. “That radio fans considered the TV show a sham and its players impostors should surprise no one. That the TV show was not a sham is due in no small part to the continued strength of [writer and co-creator John] Meston’s scripts” (Dunning, On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio).
Indeed, it became the longest-running, primetime, live-action series of the 20th century, with good reason. The cast, led by James Arness (The Thing), who was recommended by John Wayne, was superb, the mise-en-scène reasonably authentic, but not so much that the audience couldn’t empathize with the characters, and the writing was excellent.
Matt Dillon spent his early years in foster care, knew the Bible, was a wayward, brawling cowboy, and was later mentored by a caring lawman; now he’s marshall of Dodge City, Kansas, in the 1870’s, on the edge of civilization. On the table was western adventure, but also intolerance, racism, sexism, and plain old murder: In one episode, a rancher disapproves of his daughter seeing one of his ranch hands; the rancher is killed, and his daughter shows up at the marshall’s office confessing to the crime. But when she hears her beau is seeing someone else, she escapes custody, finds and kills him. She tells Marshall Dillon that the ranch hand killed her father, and as they were in love, she would confess to it, as “they don’t hang women.”
As the marshall leads her away to await trial for two murders, she asks if he had ever seen a woman hanged. “No,” Dillon says, “I don’t think I ever have.” Gunsmoke was Deadwood before Deadwood was.
From 1955 to 1961, Gunsmoke was a half-hour show; then it went to an hour long, and from black-and-white to color in 1966. Here’s a representative scene.
I rewatched the first episode of this show with a friend; when it was over, she said, “We’ve come a long way.”
As dated as it was, Have Gun, Will Travel was no ordinary TV western, especially for the times. While contemporary westerns (save Gunsmoke) were all about towns not being “big enough for the two of us” and “head[ing] ’em off at the pass,” the first episode of Have Gun, Will Travel, “Three Bells to Perdido,” begins in a swanky hotel in San Francisco, sometime after the War Between the States, where a cultured gentleman (Richard Boone, The Alamo, The Shootist) is reading newspapers from across the country. He reads, in a voice-over, an article that describes a failed raid into Mexico to recover a rancher’s daughter, who had gone there with her gunfighter husband. He takes a card from his wallet that reads, HAVE GUN WILL TRAVEL, WIRE PALADIN, SAN FRANCISCO across the image of a chess knight piece, puts it in an envelope and addresses the envelope, handing it to a page. We never learn his name (twelve paladins were the foremost knights in Charlemagne’s court).
Next, we see “Paladin” enter a house near the Rio Grande, the house to which he had sent his card. He is dressed in black, with a black custom-made six-gun in a black holster. The father didn’t wire him, but his friend had. The father is unimpressed, and when he asks to see Paladin’s gun, turns it on him, turning to his friend. “Some gunfighter! He gave me his gun!” But when he turns back, Paladin is holding a small two-shot Derringer pistol to his head, and takes back his revolver. The father is skeptical, but Paladin gives him a speech about Greek phalanxes and Macedonian cavalry and improvisational tactics, which prompts the father to remark, “Sounds like West Point to me.”
It’s a plot that calls to mind hard-boiled private-eye stories from Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Paladin, who will get $1000 on completion of his job, rides into the outlaw town of Perdido (“lost, missing”) alone to retrieve the rancher’s daughter, who doesn’t want to go back. The writing is very sharp: Paladin, in an exchange with an antagonist, is told ominously that that they will meet again. Paladin, with his typical bright and polite disposition, replies, “I’d very much like that. As long as it’s in Perdido,” which is his way of saying, “I will see you lost.”
Here’s that first episode, on YouTube (26 minutes).
Next time, the story of a wealthy family who lost everything, and the one son who had no choice but to keep them all together (there’s money in the banana stand!); also Parks and Recreation.
(Pete Hummers is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to earn fees by linking Amazon.com and affiliate sites. This adds nothing to Amazon’s prices.)
Click here for more Stream On: What to watch on TV columns by Pete Hummers.