Saturday, March 30, 2013

Marshal Dillon: "Never Pester Chester"

Today we are watching Marshal Dillon in "Never Pester Chester." There is a reason why Marshal is occasionally spelled with one "l" on this blog. This is how it appears on the original title. Technically, Marshal and Marshall are both correct spellings. The origin of Marshal is British, used to describe an official in the household of a king or prince, or an officer of the highest military rank. Marshall was used most often in the U.S., and since Marshal Dillon and Gunsmoke were American made television shows, it's a curious choice of words for the title!

This show, "New Pester Chester," begins with Matt Dillon (James Arness) shooting his gun on Main Street Dodge City, Kansas, rather than walking through the cemetery as he generally does in the Marshal Dillon episodes, so I'm assuming this is one of the later versions of the show. It was episode 10 of season three, filmed in 1957, two years into the series, which ran from 1955 to 1975, making it one of the longest running U.S. television series excluding news programs and soap operas.

This particular episode of Marshal Dillon focuses on the character of Chester, played by Dennis Weaver. Dennis Weaver (1924-2006), was born in Joplin, Missouri. He was a former track and field competitor from the University of Oklahoma who also had a rather remarkable career in film and television, spanning 53 years. He starred in Marshal Dillon/Gunsmoke for nine years and also starred in numerous other television series, such as Kentucky JonesGentle Ben, and the popular detective show McCloud.

Milburn Stone as Doc and Dennis Weaver as Chester in Marshal Dillon.

My two favorite Dennis Weaver film appearances had similar names. In 1966 he starred in Duel at Diablo as Willard Grange, a proud cowboy trying to come to terms with the fact that his wife was kidnapped by Apache and made the wife of the son of the chief. In 1971 he played David Mann in the television movie Duel, the grandfather film of the mysterious-truck-driver-chases-innocent-driver-on-deserted-roads genre. Weaver spent his later years in Ridgeway, Colorado, in a home that he proudly constructed from recyclable materials. He made his last television appearance in 2005, in the television series Wildfire. He died in Ridgeway in 2006 of complications from Cancer.

Back to the show. In this episode Marshall Dillon is tired. He is plum tuckered out, drowsing in his chair while Chester putters around the office, cleaning the oil lamp, dusting the furniture, and singing. Chester asks Dillon to join him for a beer, but the Marshall retires to his bed, instead. Chester assures the Marshall that he will watch the office so Dillon can rest.

As Dillon closes his eyes, Shiloh (Woodrow Chambliss) rushes into the jailhouse then pauses, staring back at the door as if he's confused about what to do. "Looks like trouble, Chester," Shiloh says. He explains that a couple of cowboys have been whoopin it up at the Long Branch. "Shiloh, that's what saloons are for," Dillon replies. Shiloh then explains that the men have moved the party into the street and are harassing the ladies of Dodge, which apparently Shiloh finds particularly offensive as it is made clear that he often complains about such things to Marshall Dillon. Marshall Dillon is frustrated by the complaint, and just plum tuckered out. Chester volunteers to handle the situation.

What happens next happens fast, as these things often do. Chester steps outside and finds the two cowboys behaving exactly as Shiloh explained--harassing the ladies. Trevitt (Tom Greenway) and Stobo (Buddy Baer) quickly turn their attention to Chester and within minutes, Stobo has lassoed Chester and is dragging him behind his horse out of Dodge to certain death. Trevitt jumps on his horse and races after Stobo while Shiloh runs for the Marshall.

Shiloh and Dillon scour the countryside looking for Chester, which is not a good sign. They have clearly traveled a long way to find him--surely he is dead by now. When they do find his body, Chester is so broken up that Dillon can't tell if he's still alive. They transport Chester to Doc's office, and Doc does the best he can to fix Chester up, but Chester's breathing is shallow, and Doc is unsure if Chester will actually live. "We're just gonna have to wait," Doc says, and promises not to leave Chester for a minute.

Dillon clearly blames himself for Chester's pain. "I should never have sent him out there," he says, looking down at the floor. This is one of the charms of these early episodes--the young, handsome, James Arness playing a young, overworked, struggling Marshall who is still capable of making an occasional mistake. Dillon pauses in the doorway, still staring at the floor. Doc asks where he's going. "I'm going to get those two men," he says with chilling conviction.

Dillon then visits Miss Kitty (Amanda Blake) who promises to spell Doc on occasion and watch over Chester. She also tells Dillon the names of the cowboys who were in the bar and the name of their cattle drive. Kitty asks Matt what he is going to do when he finds the men. If Chester lives, there's not much he can do according to the laws of the time, but he has to do something to punish these men! (Insert dramatic music here.)

In my opinion, this is a very important scene, and not only for the issue of punishment and restrictions on law enforcement. Miss Kitty is not directly involved in this story, so why does he visit her? I believe Dillon and Kitty are shown together to help viewers understand that this is how small Western towns worked. The people who lived in these towns were close. They shared intimately in all aspects of each other's lives. I believe this is why Gunsmoke was so popular, because the writers were careful to create characters that were real, characters that appear in every episode, and when viewers visited with these characters once a week they began to feel as if they, too, were part of this close-knit family in Dodge.

Dillon leaves to hunt down the cowboys, instructing Shiloh to take one of the Marshall's rifles and wait. He then visits the cattle outfit, the Crow Track outfit, and asks for the trail boss who tells him the men were paid off and sent on their way. He warns the Marshall to be careful. "Stobo is mean, and bigger than you are. Besides that, he's a Texan," Trail Boss says. This may sound funny to modern cowboys, but back in the day, Texas was a wild country, a big country, and like New Mexico, a place outlaws often used as a refuge from their past.

Now, I am very much aware that I am much too particular when it comes to the writing in these shows. Most of the Gunsmoke episodes were penned by talented radio and television writer John Meston whose work I greatly admire. Nevertheless, the following scene is clearly troublesome. As Dillon prepares to leave the camp, the trail boss's son tells Dillon he heard the two ousted cowboys were headed west along the Arkansas to Texas, perhaps Waco. He complains to the Marshall that Stobo kicked him. At this point, Dillon says something very strange. He tells the boy to "take my advice. Go home and learn how to fight your own battles, son." Considering everything that has already been said about Stobo, I think the writers messed this one up a bit. Matt Dillon would never tell a young man to learn to fight his own battles when he tells everyone else in town to turn to him when there is a conflict, and considering he's on a mission of revenge for the harm done to Chester, he certainly would have understood that fighting Stobo would not be the appropriate situation for a young boy to learn how to "fight your own battle."

Dillon finds Trevitt at a campfire. Trevitt, no longer the tough guy, asks the stranger (Dillon) not to hurt him. Marshall Dillon explains that he's a friend of the man who was dragged out of town and Trevitt explains that it was the other man, Stobo, who did the dirty deed. Dillon then ties Trevitt up with his rope. Trevitt explains that he is no longer with Stobo, they had a "row" and Trevitt was headed back to the Crow Track. He begs the Marshall to let him go, but Dillon insists on sending him to jail. He tosses Trevitt on top of the saddle, lying on his belly, and explains that the horse will return to Dodge on its own. Trevitt begs the Marshall to shoot him, knowing he may die on the ride if the horse does not return and no one finds him. Dillon offers to tie the man up to the back of the horse and allow the horse to drag him instead.

The Marshall then rides into Stobo's camp--yet another scene that is useful for comparing the younger Marshall Dillon to the older Marshall Dillon. Dillon allows Stobo to take his gun, which is clearly a strategic move. He then asks Stobo to feed him before shooting him. Stobo laughingly agrees. Dillon reaches for the pan of frying meat and throws the meat, pan, and oil at Stobo's face leaving a deep, dark burn on the man's cheek. This Marshall Dillon is a vengeful man. Dillon ties Stobo to his saddle and takes him into Dodge.

Shiloh has already found Trevitt and locked him in a cell. Dillon leaves Stobo with Shiloh so he can check on Chester, who is still struggling to breathe. Doc remarks how the whole town is talking about the way Dillon sent Trevitt back, apparently a bit surprised by Dillon's vengeful behavior. Dillon ignores the remark and offers to spell Doc so he can rest, but Doc insists on watching over Chester, so Dillon returns to the jailhouse.

Shiloh informs the Marshall that Stobo is complaining of the burns, a situation that can be rectified with a hanging, Dillon replies. Trevitt points out that if Chester doesn't die, the Marshall is obligated to set the two men free. Shiloh tells the two men to shut up and pours Dillon coffee. Shiloh also tells the Marshall that Stobo is mean, but he feels a bit sorry for Trevitt. Dillon snaps that Shiloh should go do his crying somewhere else. Again, this is a very different Marshall Dillon, an angry, less-controlled Marshall.

Then Shiloh replies, "Don't take it out on me, Marshall. I didn't send Chester to do my job!"


As Dillon apologizes to Shiloh, Doc rushes in to tell him Chester is recovering. He will be in pain for some time, but he will survive. Dillon stands with his hands on his desk, his head down. Here we see another Marshall Dillon, a man filled with a mix of remorse and gratitude.

Dillon takes Trevitt outside of the jailhouse, tells him to get on his horse and leave town. Then he unlocks Stobo's cell and tells him to step out the back door. Stobo's burn is clearly seen as he follows the Marshall. The burn covers the entire left side of his face. Stobo continues to talk. "We were just teaching him a lesson," he says. Wrong answer. The Marshall removes his gun belt and Stobo realizes he intends to fight him. Stobo thinks this is a joke.

Stobo, as you'll recall, is played by veteran actor Buddy Baer, younger brother of heavyweight champion Max Baer. Baer was the same height as James Arness, 6'6, but he wore lifts in his shoes during this episode to make him seem taller. He also weighed at least 100 pounds more than Arness. "I'll tear your throat out," he tells Dillon in the alley. He also indicates that he had beaten Trevitt earlier, presumably for objecting to the abuse of Chester.

Dillon punches Stobo and the fight begins. Of course, it's a typical John Wayne fist fight where the men pause between punches, giving their opponents a good shot. Stobo is the bigger body, but Dillon is the bigger man and Stobo is quickly subdued. Dillon instructs Shiloh to tell Stobo to get out of town "when he comes to," then Dillon heads for Doc's office.

Doc tells Dillon that Chester is fine and tries to check Dillon's facial cuts and bruises, but Dillon is in a hurry to visit Chester. Chester is clearly distraught and expresses his belief that he somehow failed the Marshall by allowing the cowboys to "get the drop" on him and drag him away. Chester's character also shows a tremendous depth of emotion in this episode compared to later episodes. As the show moved on through the years, in my opinion, the episodes focused more on exciting story lines, whereas the earlier episodes focused on establishing a bond with the characters, yet another reason for the longevity of this series.

Chester suggests that it might be best if he just goes off somewhere as he no longer thinks he is helpful to the Marshall. "Stop thinkin, will ya?" Dillon replies. "Let me tell you something, all right? I need you here, that's all, because outside of Doc here, you're the only man in Dodge I can trust. That's all." Clearly, Dillon is fumbling for words. He then tells Chester he is no good to the Marshall all bandaged up in the Doc's office. Chester assures him the Doc said he would heal quickly. "You better hurry up. That's all I got to say," Dillon replies.

Another interesting note about Dillon's character--he certainly seems more comfortable sharing his emotions with men than he does with the women in town, like Miss Kitty! Stay tuned...

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