Jeff Kallman's excellent The Easy Ace: A Journal of Classic Radio
is a wonderful place to spend hours on end, rediscovering the Golden Age of Radio
as it's meant to be discovered and celebrated. Article after article
is filled with a wonderful new vignette about Golden Age Radio History.
---The Digital Deli Online.

[I]n his matchless on-this-day approach to chronicling “yesteryear,”
he easily aces out a less organized mind like mine,
which promptly lapsed into a more idiosyncratic mode of relating the past.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

" . . . and the smell of gunsmoke": The Way It Was, 26 April

1952---Despite (even defiant of) the beginning of the end of old-time radio drama, Gunsmoke premieres as a regular series on CBS, with mellifluous William Conrad as federal marshal Matt Dillon, almost three years after it was auditioned for the first time.

Yet, for all that it is written and acted with an intelligence rare among radio (and, in due course, televison) Westerns, what many critics and historians will seem to remember most about the show was its sound, for which Tom Hanley and Ray Kemper were responsible. Kemper in due course would tell the critic Leonard Maltin that he and his sonic partner credited producer Norman MacDonald with refusing to allow any "cheating" in creating and deploying the striking, realistic sound---right down to the rumbling hooves, spurs on the floorboards, and gunshots---that helped separate Gunsmoke from its predecessors and successors. (It is, in truth, ridiculous to suggest the show has peers among the horse operas.)

If you walk from Point A to Point B and then you have to return, you should walk the same amount of steps. Most directors simply wouldn't allow it. They would say, 'Turn around and walk back,' and you'd go two steps and that's it, they're into the script again. And you couldn't convince them it was important to return the same amount of steps. Norm MacDonald, if you had a particular distance to walk, gave you the time to walk back again. Once in a great while we'd cheat if we were hurting for time, but most of the time he gave us all the time we needed.

---Ray Kemper, to Leonard Maltin, The Great American Broadcast. (New York: Dutton, 1997.

When Marshal Dillon went out on the plains, you didn't need a narrator to know what was happening. You heard the faraway prairie wind and the dry squeak of Matt's pants against saddle leather . . . When Matt opened his jail cell door, you heard every key drop on the ring. When he walked the streets of Dodge, his spurs rang with a dull clink-clink, missing occasionally, and the hollow boardwalk echoed back as the nails creaked. Buckboards passed, and you heard them behind the dialogue, along with muted shouts of kids playing in an alley, and from the next block the inevitable dog was barking.

---John Dunning, from Tune In Yesterday. (New York: Prentice Hall, 1976.)

Still, the realistic, painstakingly produced sound is far from the sole reason why Gunsmoke will be remembered and respected far beyond its predecessors or successors---including, even, its comparatively tame television interpretation.

In radio, I think the show was more authentic. The original characters were more extreme. They've mellowed with age---maybe they mellowed too much. They didn't used to be quite so warm. Kitty was more of a madam, Doc was more of an abortionist, and Matt smoked big black cigars, drank rye whiskey, and very often a man rode into town who could shoot faster and straighter than Matt Dillon.

---Norman MacDonnell, comparing the radio and television versions of Gunsmoke, as cited by Gerald Nachman, in Raised on Radio. (New York: Pantheon Books, 1998.)

With the writing produced mostly by Les Crutchfield, John Meston, and Marian Clark, Gunsmoke co-stars Parley Baer as Chester, Georgia Ellis as Kitty Russell, and Howard McNear as Doc, until the western rides off radio and into the sunset in 1961---still leaving the listener's nose catching as close to the smell of gunsmoke as radio drama could bring.


1937: THE MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION---Adaptation of the rather soap operatic 1935 film, based upon the Lloyd C. Douglas novel about a reckless and gravely injured playboy---blaming himself for his doctors' being unable to reach and save a renowned surgeon---swapping the high life for medical school, falling in love with the surgeon's widow, and obsessing on restoring her eyesight---the loss of which he caused in the first place in another accident, on tonight's edition of Lux Radio Theater. (CBS.)

Robert Merrick: Robert Taylor. Helen Phillips: Irene Dunne. Otto Kruger: Pedro de Cordova. Writers: Sarah Y. Mason, Victor Heerman, George O'Neil.


1890---Edgar Kennedy (actor: Screen Guild Theater, Radio Reader's Digest), Monterey, California.
1905---Cecilia Parker (actress: Good News of 1939, Mail Call, Lux Radio Theater), Fort William, Ontario.
1906---A.L. Alexander (moderator: Goodwill Court, later known as The Court of Human Relations), Winthrop, Massachussetts.
1912---John McGovern (actor: The O'Neills), unknown.
1916---Vic Perrin (actor: One Man's Family, Fort Laramie), Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin; Frances Robinson (actress: Richard Diamond, Private Detective, Let George Do It), Fort Wandsworth, New York.
1918---Helen Burgess (actress: Lux Radio Theater), Portland, Oregon.


Anonymous Ron Sayles said...

Gunsmoke, arguably the best show radio ever produced. It is by far and away my favorite show. Not just the sound effects, which were the best radio had to offer, but the acting and the stories, supreme. It is one show that I can listen to over and over and not tire of it.

5:19 AM  
Blogger Jeff Kallman said...

Ron---I'm not sure I'd call it the absolute best radio show ever produced, but I'd probably call it the single best western and one of the three best dramas of any kind or focus. The sound gets the focus because it was so painstakingly realistic, but the writing was probably the best there was for a western. Consider, too, that Gunsmoke's masterminds had a huge advantage---almost thirty years' radio behind them, a wealth of learning what not to do and how not to do it, too.

12:57 AM  
Blogger The Great Gildersleeve said...

Superb entry Jeff...Gunsmoke a favourite of mine. Great cast too. Also interesting that a couple of rehersal tapes got out into the public domain...

I'm sure that I must've seen the original Gunsmoke tv series but probably was too young to appreciate it and I do know it was relaunched for a short time maybe in the 70's or was it the 80's with James Arness but though I watched it I don't remember it being a long return and not sure it even had a conclusion.

I'm sure that I once read that the radio cast were more than unhappy that when it moved to television, they were not given the chance to appear and that a new company of actors was to be used instead.

1:48 PM  
Blogger Jeff Kallman said...

Gildy---The TV series still airs in syndicated reruns on the U.S. cable network TV Land. It's also quite true that the radio cast were a bit miffed not even to be considered for the television show, which is decent as television westerns go but not even close to the writing, sonic, and thespian quality of the radio show. The radio show was just that much more believable.---Jeff

1:10 AM  

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