Saturday, June 4, 2011

THE OTHER GUNSMOKE


by Jim Meals (James Clay) 

No doubt, the recent death of James Arness has caused many western fans to reflect on some fine memories. I recall growing up with two very good, but also very different versions of Gunsmoke.

The story goes that Gunsmoke began when CBS President Bill Paley asked for a western radio series with a main character modeled after Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe. Gunsmoke premiered on radio on April 26,1952 and the early episodes would seem to confirm this account. In the words of the show's producer, Norman Macdonnell, Matt Dillon was "..a lonely, sad, tragic man."

Dodge City was a dark place in the show's early years. Doc Adams was a ghoulish character who delighted in mutilated bodies. The only man Matt could really trust, Chester, was mentally very limited. As for Kitty, well, in the words of Macdonnell, "...Kitty is a prostitute plain and simple."

As the radio series progressed the characters softened to a degree. Doc lost his morbidity, but he remained an erratic individual given to drink and a bit lecherous. Chester became, in the words of Parley Baer, the actor who played him, “...a dependable nonthinker” and the relationship between Matt and Kitty became more affectionate, if also more vague. But the biggest change came in how all of these folks related to each other. After a year or so, they actually began to enjoy each other’s company.

When the TV version of Gunsmoke was in its early stages, a pilot was made using the radio cast. Of course, ultimately, a totally different cast was employed for the tube. Apparently, the pilot with the radio actors has been lost, a sad development for students of the western.

Comparing the TV and radio casts is a fool's errand but here goes: James Arness’ Matt Dillon was more in the traditional mode, while on radio, William Conrad portrayed Matt as a short-tempered, driven man. The Chandler influence never got completely scrubbed from the radio program. Milburn Stone’s Doc was a physician the AMA would heartily approve of, unlike Howard McNear’s radio version. Chester’s limp was a TV innovation which Dennis Weaver employed well. 

A long overdue tip of the hat is here given to Georgia Ellis. Her Kitty had depth, strength and vulnerability in a characterization that Amanda Blake found hard to match.

Gunsmoke left radio on June 18, 1961. The show’s departure left behind only two half hour radio dramas. Those two programs were both on CBS and both departed on September 30, 1962. The golden age of radio was officially over.

(Thanks to John Dunning’s The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio which was a help in preparing this article.)

3 comments:

Courtney Joyner said...

Just to add to the confusion, let's not forget the 1953 Audie Murphy film, GUNSMOKE, directed by sci-fi vet Nathan Juran (7th Voyage of Sinbad, etc.) This film was made at while the radio show's popularity was booming, but was based on a novel by Norman Fox, and had no connection with Matt, Kitty and the rest. Interesting that Universal would use this title, rather than actually make a "Gunsmoke" movie from the radio series; Jeff Chandler as Matt Dillon? Makes you think...
RIP Mr. James Arness.

Ron Scheer said...

Thanks for the background on the radio series. I always liked William Conrad's Matt Dillon. Perfect voice for the character. Great film actor (it's fun to watch him steal scenes in movies of that era); too portly, though, for TV. For me, James Arness still had some of the angst, but he brought warmth to the role.

Todd Mason said...

I'd say Conrad brought warmth to the role as well, but it was a tougher series, indeed, even as the characters became tighter-knit and slightly less desperate.

GUNSMOKE the western magazine also throws into the potential confusion. And it probably should be noted that the remaining CBS Radio dramatic series, after GUNSMOKE's cancellation, were SUSPENSE and YOURS TRULY, JOHNNY DOLLAR...they both ceased transmission the next year, 1962. After them, aside from some public-radio projects and BOB AND RAY and a few others doing short-form bits on NBC's MONITOR (and the remarkably sustained evangelical Christian series UNSHACKLED), I think original radio drama had to wait mostly till the end of the '60s to quietly flourish again...all told, there might've been more national hours of radio drama in the '70s than in the '60s...