Monday, October 13, 2014

Old time radio, Gunsmoke

William Conrad
I grew up on radio in the 1940s and early 1950s, and I have come to think of these years before TV as a golden age of storytelling. It did not require the cheap tricks of TV to hold an audience’s attention, just voices, sound effects, and a little music between scenes.

For me, CBS radio’s long-running series, Gunsmoke (1952–1961), is the best example. It opened the listener’s imagination to a gritty, sweaty, dusty Old West that the TV series approximated but never quite matched. It had a tone and attitude that was often moody and downbeat. Its central character, U.S. Marshal Matt Dillon, was a weary officer of the law, drawn more directly from the school of hardboiled crime fiction than he was the handsome, patiently congenial and family-friendly man behind the badge TV gave us.

The two Dillons. I like James Arness’s Dillon. He is a likable guy, a basically easy-going man with a ready smile, yet always ready when needed to use his authority in the service of law and order.

William Conrad’s Dillon, if he ever smiled, was archly cynical about the general population in, around, and passing through Dodge. Because of his line of work, he is constantly brought in contact with men of low caliber morals and deficiencies of character. We get the idea that for a man sworn to uphold the law, it’s a lonely and dangerous job.

James Arness
Cast along with him is the often-ingenuous deputy Chester (Parley Baer), who lacks Dillon’s hard-won knowledge of the way of the world. On radio, his occasional diffidence was used to contrast even more sharply with Dillon’s grim determination to rid the frontier of its “killers and spoilers.” 

Conrad’s Dillon can stand up to them because he knows they are as ignorant as they are bad, and in the end will get what’s coming to them one way or another. We also learn early on that he has a reputation for being good with a gun and is willing to kill if he has to. (The TV series reminded us of this in each week’s opening walk down.)

Conrad, with his low, gruff voice, portrayed Dillon as irritabile and quick tempered, indulging often in heavy-handed irony. In the opening episode, when a man is kept against his will in the jail, he complains, “I’m a human being.” Dillon replies, “For a peace officer, that’s grounds enough for suspicion.”

Meanwhile, the newspaper editor glories in the number of copies he’ll sell after a nasty bank robbery, and Doc Adams jokes how a couple autopsies and treating gunshot wounds will improve his cash flow. Dillon objects to how people attempt to profit from other people’s misfortune and reminds Doc that there’s nothing humorous about death. Alas, neither pays much heed to him.

Family listening to radio
The TV series was well-written, but the radio series also turned out a first-rate story week after week. The first dozen or so episodes focus chiefly on Dillon and Chester with brief appearances by regulars Kitty (Georgia Ellis) and Doc Adams (Howard McNair). The role of Kitty, by the way, suggests rather strongly that she runs a stable of prostitutes and is not quite the respectable saloon owning entrepreneur we saw on TV. The first episode actually provides a love interest for Matt in the person of another man’s wife.  

What to listen for. The entire series of 480 episodes is currently available at Internet Archive. Listen first of all for the quality of each script. It’s intelligent, quick-moving, adult, and inspired by the best pulp fiction. Note how the first episode begins and ends with Dillon dictating the copy for a wanted poster.

Appreciate also the multilayered storyline, with a bank robbery, two fatalities, the arrest of a suspect, a drunken lynch mob intent on hanging him, and a runaway boy with aspirations of being a gunslinger, who turns out to be a young Billy “the Kid” Bonney.

Notice the expertly complex and realistic use of sound effects, from crowd scenes and horses being ridden to subtler suggestions of ambience. In some episodes, you can follow a conversation as characters walk across different surfaces from what is recognizably indoors to the outdoors. In others, there is effective and suspenseful uses of silence.  Listen here. 

For more of Tuesday's Overlooked Movies, TV and other stuff, click on over to Todd Mason's blog, Sweet Freedom.

Image credits: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Alter and Row, eds., Unbridled Spirits


16 comments:

  1. I enjoy listening to these episodes when they turn up on XM's OTR channel. It was an excellent show, but so were some of the other westerns. The Six-Shooter is a favorite of mine, but Have Gun, Will Travel is also excellent. They reused some of the radio scripts for the TV series of the latter and probably did for Gunsmoke, too.

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    1. I believe you are right, Bill, in the latter case.

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  2. As William Conrad shows, the voice in radio makes the difference. As I recall, he had his own TV series later, but I didn't much care for him.

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    1. I missed a lot of his TV work, but I enjoyed him in noir films (THE KILLERS, THE RACKET).

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  3. Ron, while I have been downloading and reading books from Archive, I have never tried audio and video. I think I'd like listening to some of the radio series of "Gunsmoke" which would be a first experience for me. I used to listen to news on radio, particularly BBC and All India Radio, the news readers on the latter always beginning with the line "The news read by so and so..." in a deep voice. The news stories were well edited and to the point.

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  4. One of the early radio episodes was adapted into a 1957 movie that starred both William Conrad and Anthony Quinn. The movie kept the title of radio version-"The Ride Back." Conrad played the sheriff (not as Matt Dillon) and Quinn is the fugitive he hunts down. It's a very good and underrated Western film. I been trying to locate a version of the original 1952 radio episode for years, but I have come up empty. It seems to be one of the missing episodes from the "Gunsmoke" series.

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    1. Thanks for the added info. A recent review of the movie makes it sound like a real gem: http://jeffarnoldblog.blogspot.com/2013/06/the-ride-back-united-artists-1957.html

      Vaughn Monroe even recorded a song for it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KjGl005_kqM

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  5. I grew up on the era of radio drama and there was never, not a single moment, that I thought television's Gunsmoke successfully rivaled the radio version, nor do I believe that Arness was Conrad's equal as an actor. On television, Bill Conrd has several series, including Nero Wolfe, likeable but unsuccessful, and Jake and the Fatman, a hit, and also likeable. Now I do believe John Wayne would have been better then Arness but in a few years, Conrad's lack of average guy good looks would not have worked against him.

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  6. Never listened to the radio show but was a big fan of the TV series. Interesting that the radio episodes were grittier. Gunsmoke was generally grittier than shows like Bonanza.

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    1. Go on over to Internet Archive and sample a show.

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  7. At a conference once I heard a expert on this series speak. You would have thought the TV version never existed.

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    1. The tv series really wasn't up to the quality of the radio series.

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  8. Loved those radio dramas I've heard and will have to check out your Gunsmoke.
    Sometime in the early 70s I was playing some place in Ont. on Halloween Eve when they played the original "War of the Worlds" (O. Wells). My dad had told be about hearing it in rural Ont. on its debut and how it scared everyone. Having heard the original - and even knowing what it was - I can understand the initial reaction.
    The several attempts at follow-up on film just didn't have it.

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    1. My father enjoyed telling me of this, too.

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  9. I have listened to quite a few of these, most enjoyable. My all time favorite Gunsmoke's though are the half hour black and whites, love them all. As far as radio I am now listening to the detective series, Harry Nile, fun stuff. Seems like radio can bring out things that don't need to be seen to carry a great story.

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  10. Finally managed to listen to the first 4 episodes. Great stuff. Does anyone agree that William Conrad's voice sounds uncannily like the Duke's? Could that have been the reason he was cast in this radio part? Did they ask Wayne and was he not available/interested?

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