Sunday, July 29, 2007

Tall in the saddle

For 20 years --- 20 years! --- he rode tall in the saddle.

He roamed the streets of Dodge City, first on Saturday nights, then later early on Monday nights, in the time slot vacated by "Gilligan's Island."

And now Marshal Matt Dillon and "Gunsmoke" are back on DVD.

I love old westerns. I love the purity of them, the feel of them, the simple, uncomplicated morality of them.

I like "Gunsmoke" because it's far and away the best acted, best written show of its kind ever presented on American television.

The program began in 1952 as a radio series on CBS. Gritty, realistic, "Gunsmoke" was an immediate hit and ran for nine years.

In 1955, CBS brought a slightly more tame version of the show to television. Depending on whom you believe, the part of Matt Dillon was initially offered to John Wayne, who didn't want to commit to the rigors of a weekly TV series. (The radio version's Dillon, actor William Conrad, was thought too portly to play the Marshal on television).

Wayne recommended his pal James Arness for the part. It was perfect. The program went on to have the longest run of any dramatic series with continuing characters in the history of television.

I watched some of the first season episodes late last night in the new Season 1 set from CBS/Paramount. The episodes are remastered, sharper than ever, and lean and mean in the program's early 30 minute format.

If you like this kind of thing, you'll be pleased to discover that "Gunsmoke" has aged well, if you overlook the primitive set design of the early shows. (Tombstones blow in the wind as Dillon walks up to Boot Hill to contemplate the meaning of justice.)

Maybe westerns were simply the reality TV-esque fad of their day. At one point, there were 30 of 'em on the major networks at the same time.

Today there are none, zero, zilch. It's too bad. Watching the tall, tough hero face down the bad guys in the middle of the street is something that never goes out of style.

The only thing I still can't figure out is why, oh, why, Dillon never settled down with Miss Kitty...

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