Gunsmoke: Pussycats (CBS, 1953)
In its popular if slightly lesser-quality television incarnation, the enduring images of Gunsmoke include that of no-nonsense Matt Dillon, played by semi-rigid James Arness as a man who seemed as though even a single drop of sentiment would reduce him to dust in spite of having consumed a fresh cup of abominably overbrewed black coffee. And that’s a shame because, in his original radio incarnation, as played by stentorian William Conrad, Dillon was vulnerable enough in the right or at least the unexpected circumstances, a vulnerability hinted often enough in the radio original’s unforgettable prelude: It’s a chancy job, and it makes a man watchful—and a little lonely.
A little lonely and, when he least expects it, a little bewildered by his inability to resolve human nature in its least engaging forms, which is precisely what makes Dillon at birth such a fascinating and humane character. It’s also what makes his eventual television incarnation—for which none of the radio cast was considered, as if no pre-electrification U.S. marshal in these United States should be allowed a portrait anything less than sculpted Marlboro Man plaster of Paris in horse sweat—such a disappointment, though its viewers, most of whom probably knew the radio original better than they knew the Constitution (and that generation probably knew it, even if by rote alone, better than most which succeeded them), would never have said so while watching.
He will experience the aforesaid bewilderment tonight, when long, tall Jack Farrow (Tom Tully), with too many years under his skin and too big a chip on his shoulder, waits with his equally ornery wife (Michael Ann Barrett) in the Texas Trail to ambush the former confederates from whom they lifted a stagecoach haul. That leaves the former confederates dead in a glass-shattering shootout, and that also leaves Matt a troubling revelation before he heads for a fateful railroad showdown.
For such an elementally straightforward western that holds its protagonist short enough of becoming the near-emotionless automaton (well, he would be called an automaton in the modern world) of his television transformation, the unexpected introspection (unexpected by the show’s usual fans, that is) enhances rather than erodes the show’s already formidable power and diminishes him not once. Even if you come away wondering just what the hell they were thinking (or drinking) when naming the episode “Pussycats,” since there’s nothing necessarily catlike to be found anywhere, not even with the ornery wife, this is one very vivid reason among numerous others why Gunsmoke became—and remains—the real signature among old-time radio Westerns. And just about any other Western you can think of.
Chester: Parley Baer. Kitty: Georgia Ellis. Doc: Howard McNear. Additional cast: John Dehner, Lawrence Dobkin, Jack Kruschen. Announcer: George Walsh. Music: Rex Khoury. Sound: Ray Kemper, Tom Hanley. Director: Norman Macdonnell. Writer:
FURTHER CHANNEL SURFING . . .
The Burns & Allen Show: George the Genius; or, Keeping Rita Hayworth Company (CBS, 1944)—Gracie (Allen) bumps into Rita Hayworth—freshly married to Orson Welles—and Hayworth, afraid to spend the night at home alone with Welles away on business, invites Gracie to spend the night . . . putting Gracie into a quandary, because her genius (George Burns) is also afraid to sleep at home alone. Additional cast: Elvia Allman, Mel Blanc, Jimmy Cash, Bill Goodwin (announcer), Lawrence Nash. Music: Felix Mills Orchestra. Writers: Paul Henning, George Burns, possibly Hal Block.
You Bet Your Life: The Secret Word is “Coat” (NBC, 1951)—A doctor and a housewife, a door-to-door bakery salesman and another housewife, and a dollmaker and an eight-year-old girl strike for a shot at a then-high $4,500 grand prize pot, once Groucho Marx gets finished with his usual deft drollery. Announcer: George Fenneman. Director: John Guedel.