Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Matt Dillon, U.S. Marshall, or Gunsmoke, the Early Days

James Arness in 1956, screenshot from the first season of Gunsmoke.

Tonight we are watching Marshal Dillon, and it's a real treat. Although it's half as long as Gunsmoke, each show opens with the trademark image of James Arness shooting down a bad guy on main street. I believe the bad guy in this scene may be the legendary firearms and knife expert Rodd Redwing.

The show then switches to U.S. Marshall Matt Dillon walking through the tombstones of Boot Hill Cemetery, reflecting on his job, the town of Dodge City, Kansas, and the people who have impacted his life during his time as their Marshall.

He opens the episode "Chester's Mail Order Bride," with, "Each time I come up here to Boot Hill, I think of all the men that Dodge has watched die. Some a coward's death, some standing up and in good style. More than a few of these, I've had a part in--I'm Matt Dillon, U.S. Marshall. But now, standing here looking out over the high plains, I remember that while Dodge is a pretty rough camp, sometimes, there's a lot of good to be found there."

Marshal Dillon was a half hour, black and white series that ran for six seasons, from 1955-1951, with the same cast as the Gunsmoke series. "Chester's Mail Order Bride" was episode 34 of the first season, first aired on CBS July 14, 1956.

The episode begins with Chester Goode, played by Dennis Weaver, who won a Best Supporting Actor Emmy for his role in Gunsmoke, and years later, numerous Best Actor Emmy nominations for his own Western series, McCloud. On this particular evening, however, Chester is drunk in the Long Branch. He's showing a picture of a woman to Sam, but it's not the Sam we all know and love. This is a temporary Sam played by Bert Rumsey, who is also a fine actor, but the actor who made Sam Noonan famous was Glenn Strange.

Dennis Weaver, 1960. Weaver played Chester in Gunsmoke

Chester argues drunkenly with his friend, Nate, the buffalo hunter, who says, "You know, I've taken quite a fancy to you little fella. I hate to have to do this," and with one swift punch he knocks Chester out cold as Miss Kathleen "Kitty" Russell (Amanda Blake) and Matt Dillon watch from the balcony.

I'd like to take a moment to point out the year this show was made--1956. At this point in time, legendary actor James Arness is only 33 years old, and he is one handsome fella. He's been acting since he was 24, including his legendary performance as The Thing in science fiction classic The Thing from Another World. Sadly, James Arness passed away in 2011, a terrible loss to his family, I'm sure, and to fans of Western films.

Amanda Blake, who plays Miss Kitty, is also a sweet young thing. In fact, she's a bit thin in these early shows. Personally, I believe she is much more attractive as the middle-aged bar owner in the later versions of Gunsmoke.

Amanda Blake, who was born Beverly Louise Neill, worked as a telephone operator when she was cast in Marshall Dillon. She was 27 when this episode was filmed. Amanda Blake was close friends with Glenn Strange, who played Sam in Gunsmoke, and deeply distressed by his death. Strange was a rancher, deputy sheriff and rodeo performer before beginning his acting career. He died of lung cancer in 1973. Amanda Blake, who smoked three packs of cigarettes a day, died of mouth cancer in 1989, seven years after testifying before the House of Representatives Subcommittee on the dangers of smoking.

Back to the show. In the next scene, Chester, Doc (the incomparable Milburn Stone) and Matt Dillon are in the Marshall's office and Doc is insisting that Chester spill the beans and explain who the woman is in the photo.

Chester explains that she is the woman he is supposed to marry. He's been writing long, romantic letters to her and they exchanged photographs. Unfortunately, in a moment of insecurity, Chester sent Mary a photo of Marshall Dillon instead of himself. Matt Dillon, whose character is slightly different in these early shows and a bit more playful, decides to torture Chester a bit and tells him that he, Matt Dillon, will meet the attractive young woman at the station.

"I think I might enjoy that," he says. Chester does not look pleased. In fact, he still looks a bit hungover in spite of the copious cups of coffee Doc has set in front of him.

Switch to the barber shop. Doc convinces Chester to prepare to meet his future bride by taking a bath and changing into a suit Doc obtained from the undertaker, a suit "that belonged to a fella who is now on Boot Hill."

Meanwhile, back at the, uh, train station, Matt Dillon is checking the women who depart from the train to see if they match the photo in his hand. Finally, a young woman who looks nothing like the photo introduces herself as Ann, the mail order bride, played by Mary Carver.

Dillon quietly transports Mary to Miss Kitty and Ann is confused by her fiance's behavior. Miss Kitty shows her to a room and when Ann complains about how quiet "Chester" was on the drive, Kitty explains, "It will all become clear to you in a moment." Just then, the real Chester knocks on the door and enters the room. At first, Chester and Ann are both offended that the other used a fake photograph in their correspondence, but in the next scene, Chester is in the Long Branch announcing to Doc, Kitty and Matt that he is, indeed, engaged to marry Ann. Doc, of course, starts to grumble and shake his head, but whatever he is about to say is silenced with a glance from Miss Kitty.

Milburn Stone, or Doc, was well-acquainted with the real Dodge City as a Kansas native. He received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for his contributions to the Western film genre through his role as Doc on Gunsmoke.

Milburn Stone, the man who never seemed to grow older, back in 1959. 
Stone played "Doc" in Gunsmoke

Chester is in his suit again, in the Marshall's office, brushing his hair, talking to Nate, the buffalo hunter (Fred Carson) about the engagement party Miss Kitty is throwing at The Dodge House. The conversation is interrupted by a stranger, Mr. Brady, and Chester and Nate leave Matt Dillon to his business. Mr. Brady tells Marshall Dillon he is looking for a young woman who ran away from home--Ann Smithwright.

Matt Dillon is next seen explaining to Chester that Ann comes from a wealthy family back East. Ann's father is a judge, and her mother had a heart attack when she discovered Ann had run away. She is only 17, and she came to the West looking for excitement. Matt Dillon, always the realist, points out that it's likely the young woman will be greatly disappointed when she finds out the "excitement" of the West includes wildfires, shootouts, drought, and great tragedy. Chester, always the dreamer, responds with his own feelings about the West and the thrill of homesteading. Dillon reminds Chester that homesteading is a life of hard work, poverty, and great sorrow, and tells him his young bride, like the other "nesters," or wives of homesteaders, will be old before her time.

At the Dodge House, the townsfolk are dancing. Matt Dillon is at the door with a wooden barrel, collecting gun belts and tossing them inside. Chester is upstairs, talking to Ann as he fumbles with his hat in his hands. "I've had to do some decidin' and I just hope that I've decided right, for both of us," he says.

Downstairs, Miss Kitty tells Matt Dillon she is worried. "You act as if this is your engagement party," he comments. "Just playin it safe," she says, "in case I don't get one of my own." As you'll recall, Matt and Kitty eventually become an "item," but at this point in time, their relationship seems to be one of friendly teasing and occasional flirtations.

A few minutes later, Chester interrupts the dancing at the engagement party for an announcement.
He thanks his friends, then tells the crowd that he has decided to send Ann back to her parents in Philadelphia so she can finish school. "I think that's where she belongs. I talked it over with Ann, and she pretty much agrees with me. Besides, I could no more be a homesteader than Ann could." He then tells the crowd the engagement is off.

Nathan the buffalo hunter, is angry for Chester and decides to kill the messenger, Mr. Brady. Matt Dillon stops him. "Nate, now you listen to me," he says. "Brady here had nothing to do with this. Chester and Ann decided what was best for them, and I think that took a lot of courage. Now do you want to spoil it all?" Miss Kitty breaks up the discussion as only Miss Kitty can, by grabbing Nate's arm and leading him back onto the dance floor. Chester kisses Ann goodbye at the door and she leaves with Mr. Brady.

Buffalo at Terry Bison Ranch near the Colorado/Wyoming border. Photo by Darla Sue Dollman Nate is a buffalo hunter in this episode of Matt Dillon. 
(Okay, you've got me. I just wanted to show off my buffalo pictures.) 

"Nobody's fault, but my own," Chester says as Matt Dillon walks up behind him. "Never should have learned how to write," he says. Matt pats him on the shoulder and Chester limps into the next room. Chester's limp, by the way, was the creative contribution of Dennis Weaver who was looking for a way to make his character unique in the show. Stay tuned...


Anonymous said...

My wife and I have been having a running argument about the Matt Dillon earlier series. So you have settled this argument. She accepts your statements as to when it began to be Gunsmoke. I was in Japan (Air Force) and later Korea for a short time when the series began. I argued that someone inserted the Gunsmoke shootout when it was later offered on MEtv. She insisted that I didn't see it since I wasn't in the states at the time. I had also remembered watching Marshal Dillon on another (maybe TVland) channel and the Gunsmoke shootout wasn't included.

I enjoyed your insight on the series. It was very enlightening. Thank you very much.

Darla Sue Dollman said...

The shootout was indeed part of the show and Rod Redwing, who taught most of Hollywood's Western stars how to shoot various weapons and perform his own stunts (but experienced extreme prejudice due to his Native American status) was the other man in the shootout--that fascinates me just as much as there's very little information about Redwing, but in his time, he was the most sought after stuntman and instructor due to his knowledge and expertise.