Wednesday, June 8, 2011
A Tribute To JAMES ARNESS (1923-2011)
Before I begin to talk about James Arness, I think a little backstory is needed, so bear with me.
As most who well know me know, though some of you do not, I've been collecting radio dramas now since 1986. I was at the local comic store on a Friday when new issues used to come out and saw Howard Chaykin's comic version of The Shadow. I bought the first issue and it had a nice backup feature by Anthony Tollin who wrote a history of The Shadow. That weekend I was at the mall and went into Sam Goody Records and saw audio tapes of The Shadow, Green Hornet, and The Lone Ranger hanging on the wall. I bought The Shadow one and went home and listened to one of the early episodes of Orson Welles in "Devil From The Deep" (which aired on 10/3/1937) and I was then hooked on old time radio! I went back the next day to the mall and bought the Green Hornet and Lone Ranger ones!
My love for audio dramas started when I was little and I had all the Power Records comic book and record sets and I listened to them so many times that I wore out the vinyl records and had to buy another. I'd play with my Mego Superhero figures and listen and reenact the story I heard. I'm still a fan of Power Records and have them all to this day. But with Old Time Radio I was introduced to a world of more sophisticated and serious actors who were doing all kinds of dramas ranging from westerns, scifi, mysteries, horror, and romance. This was a step up and a great transition from kids records where things were exaggerated but fun. Hollywood actors lent their skills to radio as TV wasn't around then and you got to hear Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes on the radio and then got to see him on the big screen that weekend as Sherlock Holmes as well. What a thrill that must have been back in the day! The audio effects and environmental sounds were incredible to me and I was able to listen and form my own pictures in my head as to what was going on. TV and movies still can't rival the power of a good audio drama and I think listening to mostly all the shows I now have in my collection for over 20 years (around 34,000 shows and still growing both on CD's tapes, and MP3's) has made me better as an artist since now I have to read a script and visualize what's going on and how to show it. I used to go to bed with my Sony Walkman and listen to a show. If I fell asleep during it, I'd listen again the next night, and the next night. But before sleep came to me, I listened and I kept changing my shots and working through my storytelling as a movie director would work through his camera moves. If I didn't like a shot in my head I hit the rewind button a few seconds and go back and reshoot. It may sound weird but many artists would agree with me on this working method.
One day in the mid-90's, after ten years of collecting, I got a new catalog to order old radio shows from and so that night I went through the pages and circled the ones I wanted. They had a sale going and I'd thought I'd try something new. I loved The Six Shooter starring Jimmy Stewart and so I saw a few tapes for what was hailed as "The Greatest of all Westerns"... Gunsmoke. If they hyped it like that, I figured it must be good. I ordered two audio tapes and that was four early episodes of the show from 1952. It even featured the very first show called "Billy The Kid." I got the tapes in a few weeks and one night as I was organizing my comics in their boxes, I put one of the tapes in my stereo and played it. It wasn't long before I stopped filing the comics and just sat there and listened to the show as the quality of the sound patterns and the time that they took to just let sounds play painted such a picture of Dodge City that it sounded incredible to my ears. The sound of spurs hitting the plankboards going into the Marshal's office or the piano playing in the distance as you stood across the street from the Long Branch Saloon was simply magnificent and added to the drama. For a lot of radio shows, the rule was to keep actors talking, but Gunsmoke (and radio director Norman MacDonnell) was after more and it exceeded on every level. You could feel the grit of Gunsmoke. The scripts were more adult in nature and the acting was first rate all around. The violence of the old west was portrayed as it was and some of the early scripts that were used on radio had to be changed when they did them on TV as they could never get past the TV censors at the time. John Meston was the voice of Gunsmoke and wrote most of the radio and then TV scripts. It was his stamp of authenticity that made this show what it was. If it's not on paper, it just doesn't work most of the time. Meston's scripts about morality were never in your face but accented the message he was trying to send to the audience. William Conrad stood tall as US Marshal Matt Dillon and his voice had such a presence that you knew he was the hero. Conrad had such great range with his voice that you could really say his voice was truly an instrument, and he knew how to use it from soft scenes to loud ones. With William Conrad as Matt Dillon, Parley Bear as Chester, Georgia Ellis as Kitty, and Howard McNear as Doc, this western show made me a fan and I soon would go on to collect the whole series run from 1952-1961 when radio was fazed out as sponsers then put all their money into the blossoming arena of Television.
For some reason, it was a year or two after I got intially started with Gunsmoke that I found out there had also been a TV show as well! I kind of started the way it was really introduced, from radio to TV. I got a catalogue from Time Life one day (the ones that sell all the old TV shows) and it had Gunsmoke across the front cover. I was blown away! They made this into a TV show... and it was on for 20 years?! How could I have not known about it? Well, I was mid-20s and some things you do find out about decades after they are gone. I ordered the first tape and watched the first 4 shows! I was thrilled how well they adapted the radio scripts to TV format and the cast once again, though different, was first rate! In the first episode that aired called "Matt Gets It" I was introduced to James Arness who played Marshal Matt Dillon and who then gets shot down on Front Street in the early scenes! He survived his wounds and got better with the help of Doc Adams to only go back and kill the bad guy who gunned him down in the end. That first episode was good enough to hold me as it was character driven and I watched the other 3 that night. It wasn't long before I subscribed and got a new tape every month, and sometimes bought several tapes if I had some extra money. The first 156 shows or so used all radio scripts and it was fun to see how it was visually shown as I had pictured them differently from their radio counterparts.
I think most Gunsmoke fans will say that the first 10 years of Gunsmoke on TV was it's "golden age". Those early half-hour shows were my personal favorites and they could pack more story and drama into a half-hour than MOST of the one-hour TV shows that are on today. Watch the episode "Never Pester Chester" and you'll see what I mean. I also loved the medium of black and white as well since it seemed to focus your attention on the characters and drama more than color allows. Orson Welles has said this about black and white film as well. When they moved into color, and Festus replaced Chester, it carried on for another 10 seasons! Fans note that in the first ten seasons, Marshal Dillon was almost in every scene and so after 10 years they changed the dynamic and focused more on the people of Dodge (or people coming into Dodge) and their stories and the Marshal would show up in the middle and the end to help out if he could and tie it all together. This allowed Arness to have more family time as well since he didn't have to be on the set every day. Gunsmoke focused mainly on character development and kept an economy of dialogue to it so that you saw what you needed to and could form your own backstories in some cases without being distracted from the main plot. It never wrote down to the audience and in 20 seasons it only produced 4 bad shows. James Arness stood tall for 20 years (and with the spin-off Gunsmoke TV movies that he made in the late 80's and early 90's) and was a real man's man for the entire run and his life. If you were in the Long Branch Saloon and some kind of fight was brewing as some dude you didn't want to mess with was taunting you, you'd be praying Marshal Dillon would walk through the door and save your ass. And he did it with style. Not the kind of style that Paladin would use on Have Gun, Will Travel but a style that was true to Arness and how he lived his life. I can see how he was a role model for the youth of the time in the 50s and early 60s and how families loved the show. It's popularity spawned a bunch of books, comics and toys; many that I have in my personal collection as well.
James Arness had some great moments on the show and Dennis Weaver who played Chester was so incredible that he could save a slightly weaker script by having a great scene at the end of it that would turn it into a superb show. He deserved his Emmy for Best Supporting Actor in 1959. His acting was genuine and sincere and he worked well with Arness who had the same sensibilities. The main difference between the radio version of Dillon and the TV version of Dillon was that both actors played it differently though some aspects were in both. Both had the commanding presence and tone of authority, but with the radio version Dillon would make mistakes and people would sometimes die or the bad guys would get away. When Arness played the part, he played it that Dillon was always right and he would somehow know that they bad guys took the right path down a crooked road instead of the left one. Both actors were successful, and I think Arness' choice to do it the way he did was correct, hence we wouldn't be talking about the show today. The good things always stand the test of time.
And so... to James Arness, I thank you for work and standing in the middle of Front Street in Dodge City and facing down our fears for us. A double-edged dagger for Arness as well as many actors would never have played a character for as long as he did for fear of being typecast. In the end, Arness became an icon and was the star of the GREATEST Western TV show ever produced, and that's certainly not a bad thing. In fact, I'm sure Marshal Dillon is walking the clouds right now keeping the universe safe... it's how he would have wanted it. (Cue the opening Gunsmoke music)