[16 December 2008]
McClatchy-Tribune News Service (MCT)
During the 1950s and early 1960s, dozens of Westerns galloped across the primetime plains of network television. Two of the best were “Gunsmoke” and “Rawhide,” both of which aired on CBS.
Paramount Home Video is currently releasing all episodes of the two shows in chronological order on DVD. The prints are outstanding and it’s a great way to watch them because there are no commercial interruptions.
The latest editions to arrive are “Gunsmoke: The Third Season, Volume 1” (1957-58, $37.99) with 19 half-hour episodes on three discs and “Rawhide: The Third Season, Volume 2” (1961, $40.99) with 15 one-hour episodes on four discs.
“Gunsmoke” premiered Sept. 10, 1955, and remained on the air for 20 consecutive seasons which makes it the longest-running series with continuing characters in the history of television. James Arness plays Matt Dillon, the towering, no-nonsense marshal of Dodge City. Other key regular cast members include Milburn Stone as Doc Adams, Amanda Blake as Kitty Russell, owner of the Long Brach Saloon, and Dennis Weaver as Chester Goode, Dillon’s limping, good-hearted deputy.
The interaction between these four is one of the many appealing aspects of the show. Doc and Chester always seem to be picking at each other as they exchange a variety of often funny verbal barbs. Matt and Kitty ... well, the suspicion is that they are more than just friends.
“Gunsmoke” was noted for showcasing some of the meanest and most cold-bloodied outlaws to ever strap on six-shooters. The stories were decidedly adult in tone and sometimes the endings were not of the “happily ever after” variety.
Arness, who got the job at John Wayne’s suggestion, is perfect as Dillon, who takes guff from no one. And don’t ever mess with his friends. In one episode of the newest collection, Chester is nearly dragged to death by a pair of wandering cowboys. After making sure his friend will survive, a grim and determined Dillon takes off in relentless pursuit of the culprits, which is bad news for them.
During its run, “Gunsmoke” finished in the top ten 13 seasons and was ranked No. 1 in 1958-59-60-61. It has stood the test time and remains one of the best television shows ever. The first two seasons are still available from Paramount.
“Rawhide” might not have matched the lengthy run of “Gunsmoke” but the series still packs a punch. It is best noted, of course, for launching the career of Clint Eastwood. The show premiered Jan. 1, 1959, and aired until Jan. 4, 1966, making it three times in the top 20 and ranking sixth during the 1960-61 season.
Eric Fleming plays trail boss Gil Favor and Eastwood is his ramrod, Rowdy Yates. Each season they drive a herd of cattle cross country from San Antonio to Missouri. Regular members of the crew are Sheb Wooley as scout Pete Nolan, Steve Raines as Jim Quince, James Murdock as Mushy and Paul Brinegar as the ever-complaining Wishbone, who is in charge of the chuckwagon
During the dusty trail drives, Favor and company often encounter trouble along the way as well as an assortment of characters, both good and bad. Those who watch the series season-by-season can see Eastwood mature as an actor (although there is never a hint that he would go on to become a two-time Oscar-winning film director).
“Rawhide” is among the top 10 TV Western series of all time. The theme song (“Rolling, rolling, rolling. Keep those dogies rolling…”) is sung by Frankie Laine. Still available are seasons one and two as well as “Season Three: Volume One.”
If you’re sick of unfunny sitcoms and outlandish reality shows and long again for wide open spaces and the sound of thundering hoofbeats, then doses of “Gunsmoke” and “Rawhide” are just what you need.