Sunday, June 21, 2015

1950's TV Westerns

Over the past week I've been checking out sample episodes of several 1950's TV westerns that I've never had the chance to see before Encore's Western Channels made it a painfully simple push-button matter. Until now the only one of these shows that I had been exposed to was the excellent Have Gun, Will Travel because that show was championed years ago by a dear friend, Jack Daves. From what I've seen so far HGWT remains the top of the heap but I'm willing to see more. Many more! In my childhood I had seen a number of the of the 1960's color westerns like The Big Valley and Bonanza in reruns but most of the early half-hour format black & white shows are a blind spot I've been itching to scratch for a while.

First up was Matt Dillon which turns out to be an alternate titling of the first six seasons of Gunsmoke from 1955 to 1961. The show was shown under this title in syndication for some reason and that seems to be the version Encore has for broadcast. After 1961 the show switched to hour length shows and then to color in 1966. I had caught some color episodes as a kid but had not been too impressed then but I found the half hour variety more interesting. That may be because in the ensuing years I've become a big fan of the original radio version of Gunsmoke with Marshall Dillon played by the awesome William Conrad. The black & white shows feel more like the radio show and therefore seem more to my taste. As an added bonus one of the guest stars in the first Matt Dillon episode I saw (Cow Doctor) was the young Tommy Kirk proving that he was one hell of an actor - possibly from birth! This show was made in 1956 and Kirk hit the big time that year playing one of the Hardy Boys for Disney and his career was off and running.

Next up was The Life & Legend of Wyatt Earp which does its best to standardize and formalize the events of the Earp family of lawmen into easily digestible chunks of occasional brushes with the Clanton gang. Without any knowledge of the historical reality of the situation I suspect the show could be taken as pretty good on its merits and I enjoyed it on that level. But the simplification of the ongoing conflicts between the two groups seems a little too clean for me to watch more than a couple of episodes. The cast is quite good though lead by Hugh O'Brian as Wyatt and solid character actor John Anderson as Virgil Earp.

Last up was the one I had the most interest in - Bat Masterson. I've heard this show talked about as being in the same league as Have Gun, Will Travel and after one episode I can see how they might be compared. As in that show the protagonist dresses very well in expensive clothing and fancies himself a gentleman and acts a bit like a dandy. But Bat Masterson prefers to use his cane rather than a gun to get himself out of trouble, hence the nickname "Bat". Masterson also is played as a suave ladies' man who seems to use his travels around the old West as a chance to sample the women of the area as well as seek out adventure. Charismatic Gene Barry plays Bat with a twinkle in his eye and a sharp wit that keeps him ahead of the show's antagonists. The show I caught features James Best as a perpetually pissed young hoodlum who is turned around by Bat in a rather clever bit of outmaneuvering - he makes the man's fiancĂ© the town Sheriff!  Good stuff! I really like this show so far and will have to see more of them in the next few weeks for some uncomplicated western thrills.


Nick Rentz said...

Some of my favorites are The Rifleman, The Virginian, Wanted Dead or Alive and The Rebel. I need to see HGWT because I really like Richard Boone.

Rod Barnett said...

I have seen The Rifleman and liked it and I have a Wanted Dead or Alive on deck. Don't know The Rebel. I'll have to seek it out.

Nick Rentz said...

The Rebel has Nick Adams in it. Metv plays it every Saturday as part of an all day Western marathon. I don't know if you get Metv and/or the schedules are the same.