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Gunsmoke thoughts

Saturday 11/12/22

Something remarkable about the Gunsmoke radio program (1952-61) is that the four main characters--Matt Dillon (William Conrad), Chester Proudfoot (Parley Baer), Doc Adams (Howard McNear), and Kitty Russell (Georgia Ellis)--are all outstanding people. They're also quite different from each other, and the relationships they have with each other are different from relationship to relationship. And yet Gunsmoke is a show that is often bleak, tragic; it's unremitting.


I would say that the best radio programs are Gunsmoke, the Bob Bailey Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar five-parters, Quiet, Please, and Orson Welles's early shows with the Mercury Theatre. For the modern listener, there is the issue that most of the surviving Quiet, Please episodes are in inferior sound. I read a comment the other day where a listener said they enjoyed that, as it made them feel more antiquated and creepier. I understand the sentiment. Consider this audience recording of the Grateful Dead in Providence in 1974. The soundboard exists, but I can see favoring this tape.


A key to Gunsmoke is how its situates you not just in a place, but in an emotional state or states, and within the contours of relationships.


I've heard Conrad's Matt Dillon described as an anti-hero. Sometimes you just have to do what you have to do. That it is unpleasant is not your fault; that you handle it regardless speaks to what you which most others are not. There is nothing "anti" about that; rather, that is what it means to be a hero.


Listening to Gunsmoke, one picks up the rhythms of the argot. This show has a language all it's own. The double negatives, the use of ain't; it all acquires a curious, primal poetry. Sort of like what Twain was capable of, though that was a different parlance, and his cadences were his own.


This is one of the most moving and gentle of all Gunsmoke episodes, called "Little Girl." William Conrad is excellent here. The girl puts matters and questions to him squarely. Not to be confrontational. Not to put him on the spot. She has reasons to ask what she asks, and ask of him what she asks. But he's in a tough situation, and a lot of the interconnectedness of the episode comes down to his responses. Even when it's just "yeah." Conrad gets a lot of millage out of a "yeah" in the show. Listen for it. He has a knack for not saying "yeah" the same way twice; there's a different shading. You have to listen a lot to notice, which is to say, you have to know him, as one would a person in life. Know any of these people.