While Matt Dillion’s presence is always missed when he’s not a part of the main action, his absence usually doesn’t dissipate the purely entertaining dramatic value of the episodes in the first volume of season twelve of Gunsmoke.
The Production: 4/5
Two momentous events climaxed the twelfth season of CBS’ western perennial Gunsmoke: it was the first season to be broadcast in color (all of the remaining series on CBS’ schedule went to color in the 1966-1967 season), and it was the lowest rated of the show’s twenty seasons on the air. In fact, its ratings had diminished so much that the network head honchos had it scheduled for cancellation, saved only by the wife of the CBS President who loved it. Afterwards, with a schedule switch from late Saturday to early Monday evenings at the start of its 13th season, the show returned to hit status where it remained for the remainder of its run.
While the switch to color didn’t have immediate payoff for the veteran western, its sinking ratings might have been more due to the absence of star James Arness from many of its episodes. When the program was a half hour, the episodes more often than not revolved around Matt Dillon with the supporting players occasionally appearing in a spotlight episode of their own but more likely than not appearing on the periphery of the action. Once the show switched to the hour format, however, the show become more centered on the stories of newcomers to town with Matt or his colleagues somehow becoming entwined in the stories of others. Three of the fifteen episodes in volume one of the season twelve set find Matt in the spotlight, and it’s no coincidence that they are by far the strongest episodes in this first half of the season. In the season premiere “Snap Decision,” Matt mistakenly kills an old friend who had gone bad and wrestles so fiercely with his conscience that he even resigns his job as marshal for the Kansas territory. In “The Jailer,” Matt and Miss Kitty Russell (Amanda Blake) are kidnapped by a vengeful widow (guest star Bette Davis) out to make Matt suffer in the same way her husband had suffered before he was hanged. And speaking of hanging, “The Hanging” finds Matt, best friend Doc Adams (Milburn Stone), and assistants Festus Haggen (Ken Curtis) and Thad Greenwood (Roger Ewing) preparing for a hanging in Dodge while the prisoner’s gang makes elaborate plans to either kill their confederate (who knows all their names but has so far kept silent about their roles in some killings during a bank robbery) or abduct him before the hanging can take place.
In addition to those highlights, the supporting cast of the show also gets episodes in which they play the leading roles. Doc Adams and several other survivors of a stagecoach attack are pinned down in a way station while bandits close in on their position, little realizing that one of their number is in league with the crooks. Thad Greenwood falls in love with a Quaker lass when he and an escaped prisoner (William Shatner) he has captured are taken in by the Quakers and kept under guard until they can figure out who’s the good guy and who’s the bad guy. And Miss Kitty must endure the boorish business attentions of the ex-heavyweight champion (Alan Hale) who’s determined to buy her saloon in one of the show’s few but often heavy-handed comic installments. But most of the stories find the guest-star heavy roster in the spotlight for their particular stories with only an assist from the Dodge City Marshal’s office. Some of those very strong stories include Darren McGavin as a hired gunman on Matt’s trail who gets sidetracked by an injury and falls in love with the Chinese woman (France Nuyen) who tends to his wounds. A bank robber (John Saxon) finally out of prison after eight years returns to his wife and family who have cultivated his farmland so much that he can’t find where he buried his stolen money. And a brutal drought in the area makes things tense for the citizens of Dodge.
The switch to color hasn’t brought forth any changes in the strong acting of the show’s core cast. James Arness’ Matt is as stalwart as ever, Amanda Blake’s Miss Kitty is as accommodating, Ken Curtis’ Festus is as gabby, Milburn Stone’s Doc is as cantankerous, and Roger Ewing’s Thad as innocent as ever, all agreeable characterizations whose company is always a pleasure. If the Long Branch Saloon doesn’t seem as expansive in color as it was in black and white and if the Dodge City street seems less realistic and more a combination of facades and painted backdrops (and in one memorable shot, the camera tilts up enough to show us the cyclorama backdrop and overhead arc lights), it’s still a thrill to see the familiar faces and surroundings in color. As for the guest stars, in addition to the ones already previously named, the fifteen episodes also offer Hank Patterson, Claude Akins, Michael Cole, Martin Landau, Denver Pyle, Bruce Dern, Tom Skerritt (in different roles in two distinct episodes), Julie Sommers, Warren Oates, Jim Davis, Michael Conrad, Carroll O’Connor, Kevin O’Neal, Clifton James, Ed Asner, Guy Raymond, John Ireland, Jon Voight, Karl Swenson, Ben Wright, Ben Johnson, Mike Kellin, and Henry Darrow.
Here are the fifteen episodes contained on four DVDs in this first volume of season twelve:
1 – Snap Decision
2 – The Goldtakers
3 – The Jailer
4 – The Mission
5 – The Good People
6 – Gunfighter R.I.P
7 – The Wrong Man
8 – Whispering Tree
9 – The Well
10 – Stage Stop
11 – The Newcomers
12 – Quaker Girl
13 – Moonstone
14 – Champion of the World
15 – The Hanging
3D Rating: NA
The program’s original 1.33:1 television aspect ratio is faithfully delivered in these bright, colorful transfers. Sharpness is outstanding in these shows with only an occasional nod to glamor photography for Amanda Blake. Color is really rich and solid with flesh tones very appealing. The transfers have obviously been remastered (one glance at the episode previews attached to many of the shows with their very soft look and faded color will be enough to understand the great amount of work which has gone into making these shows look so good), but there is still occasional speckling in some of the programs (“The Jailer” has the most obvious speckling), and the new color gunfight sequence that opens the show has some flicker and clouding. There is some slight edge enhancement to be seen occasionally and some aliasing, too, but nothing too distracting. Each episode has been divided into 7 chapters.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 mono sound mix offers a strong era-representative aural experience. Dialogue is always very easy to understand, and the background scores provided sometimes by masters like Jerry Goldsmith mix beautifully with the speech and sound effects. There is some occasional distortion in the mix, but engineers have done an excellent job removing age-related problems with hiss and crackle from the soundtracks.
Special Features: 1/5
Episodic Previews: thirteen of the fifteen episodes have attached to them in the menu a 1:04 promo preview which CBS used to advertise that episode the week before it aired.
While Matt Dillion’s presence is always missed when he’s not a part of the main action, his absence usually doesn’t dissipate the purely entertaining dramatic value of the episodes in the first volume of season twelve of Gunsmoke. Fans are in for a treat with these color episodes looking better than they have ever looked on home video. Recommended!