"My name's Wayne. Some of you may have seen me before. I hope so. I've been kicking around Hollywood a long time. I've made a lot of pictures out here. All kinds. Some of them have been westerns, and that's what I'm here to tell you about tonight. A western. A new television show called 'Gunsmoke.' "
And so with John Wayne's benediction, U.S. Marshal Matt Dillon, Miss Kitty and the good citizens of Dodge City set off on their two-decade ride across TV land.
Before "Gunsmoke" became a comfy institution, it fought hard for its TV turf. The show's dramatic early success often is credited to its adult subject matter, unheard of in TV westerns of the early 1950s. (The series "is honest, it's adult, it's realistic," the Duke cautioned the first audience.)
Paramount Home Entertainment took heat from the "Gunsmoke" crowd last year when it released two fine "50th Anniversary" DVDs, with episodes from almost all of the show's 20 seasons. The townsfolk wanted the show by season. Especially season 1.
On July 17, Par and CBS Home Entertainment hand over the loot via "Gunsmoke: The First Season." With 39 episodes spread across six discs, the set comes with only one extra -- disc 1's presentation of four vintage commercials with the cast, including Doc puffing away for L&M cigarettes. The video and audio are similar to the other "Gunsmoke" discs.
In season one, "Gunsmoke" writers such as Sam Peckinpah and series co-creator John Meston had the freedom to tell tales of rape, slavery, thrill kills, child abuse and, of course, prostitution. A long way from Zorro and the Lone Ranger.
Marshal Dillon (James Arness) opened the early shows with a visit to wind-swept Boot Hill, looking down on Dodge City, Kan. -- the "Gomorrah of the Plains." There, the 6-foot-6 lawman delivered an existentialist's sermon on killing and being killed. Many of the men buried there he gunned down, no regrets.
Miss Kitty, played by Amanda Blake for 19 seasons, ended up a well-rounded pillar of the community, but back in season 1 she was a prostitute who dallied with the marshal on the side. The beautiful young Kitty worked the Long Branch Saloon, low-cut and good-to-go. Primetime viewers could see her girls in the background, escorting cowboys up the stairs.
"Gunsmoke" went on to become the longest-running TV series in history, but few of its seasons hit the highs of the first rough-riding year. This is great news for anyone who enjoys westerns -- or is in bad need of an L&M.