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Review - Gunsmoke 50th Anniversary vols. 1 & 2 (DVD-2005)
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Gunsmoke 50th Anniversary Vols. 1 & 2 (DVD-2005)

Paramount Home Video

Reviewed by Dennis Kwiatkowski

One of the most beloved series in the history of television, Gunsmoke, starring James Arness as Matt Dillon, now makes its debut on DVD in a special two volume 50th Anniversary Edition set.

Billed as the first adult western when the show premiered in 1955, the first episode broadcast was introduced by no less an iconic personage than John Wayne (and that introduction is included in this set).

Gunsmoke was characterized by strong acting, strong writing, splendid photography and entertaining stories. The series ran for an unprecedented 20 years in prime time starting with black and white half hour shows and expanding later to sixty minutes and eventually, to color. The 29 episodes in this DVD set are drawn from 19 of those seasons. In actuality, more than 600 episodes were filmed during the show’s run.

James Arness had acted in a number of films, among them, the 1950’s science fiction classic The Thing from Another World (he played The Thing) and the underrated giant ants film, Them) before he was cast as Dodge City marshal Matt Dillon. The 6 foot 7 inch easygoing actor brought stature, presence and integrity to his portrayal. The central cast included his sidekick deputy, Chester, played by Dennis Weaver. When Weaver left the series after nine seasons, he was replaced by the character of Festus played by Ken Curtis. Love interest came in the form of saloon owner, Kitty Russell, brought to life by Amanda Blake –a role implicitly adult yet ambiguously unspecified. And the irascible but loveable town doctor, Doc Adams, was played with distinction by Milburn Stone. The remarkable rapport between the cast members both on and off-screen is one probable reason for the show’s longevity.

The set also highlights the many famous guest stars that appeared on the show. Jon Voight’s impressive portrayal of a man falsely accused of a crime aired just before the release of Voight’s other cowboy movie, Midnight Cowboy. William Shatner’s splendid turn as a villain ran concurrent with his first season as Captain Kirk on Star Trek. And Betty Davis’ celebrated villainess in another episode is yet another great guest-spot highlight. Music for the various shows was provided by the cream of Hollywood’s great composers and the archetypal Gunsmoke theme music was written by Rex Koury.

Extras in the set include audio introductions to each episode by Arness, still going strong at age 83 (and also an audio commentary by Arness for two of the episodes). Other audio commentaries are provided largely by the show’s guest stars. The excellent supplementals also include home movies taken on the set by Dennis Weaver, gag and blooper reels, photo galleries, reminiscences by celebrities, Emmy awards won by the show and it’s principals, rare historical television footage, and revealing interviews with Amanda Blake and others as to the reasons for the show’s success.

The individual episodes in the two volume set are well chosen but, of course, many, many more in the series would qualify for future releases. Picture and sound quality are good if sometimes variable. But this is one of the most watchable television series you may encounter on DVD. This reviewer also remembers that, late in the show’s run, John Wayne, at an awards ceremony, presented an award to James Arness and said to the audience: “I recommended Jim Arness for the role of Matt Dillon, and look at him—he’s become a bigger star than me!” The unassuming Arness simply replied: “Taller, maybe.” That kind of humble decency helps sum up the appeal of Gunsmoke. For any fan of the western genre, or indeed, of television series, the two volume DVD Gunsmoke 50th Anniversary Edition is not only a must see. It is a must own set.

2005 Dennis Kwiatkowski/ Celluloid Dreams

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