A pair of snap decisions get Gunsmoke: The Twelfth Season off to a dire but dynamic start. The first one causes Matt Dillon (James Arness, McClain’s Law) to kill an old friend. The second causes him to resign his commission as U.S.Marshall and turn his badge over to Marshall Clint Tucker (Claude Akins, Movin’ On), who duly takes on the Dodge City beat. Haggard, haunted and brow-beaten by guilt, Dillon shows a different face to his friends, giving Arness, the actor, a welcome chance to flex some different muscles.
Less original stories involve poor Kitty Russell (Amanda Blake, Betrayal) being kidnapped–again. In the episode’s defense, the stakes couldn’t be higher, as she’s nabbed the skeeziest young villain in all of Westerndom, Bruce Dern (The Hateful Eight), and he’s doing the bidding of his bloodthirsty mother, played by no less than eleven time Oscar nominee (and two time winner), Miss Bette Davis (Dangerous, Jezebel). Worth the price of admission? You bet.
For my money, the best of the lot is a multi-level, mid season story called “Saturday Night” (written by Clyde Ware, Coward of the County), featuring standout performers from two future Western TV series legends: Leif Erickson (High Chaparral) and Victor French (Little House on the Prairie).
In fact, the 29 episodes presented here are positively littered with guest appearances from big and little screen legends, including: Michael Cole (The Mod Squad), Kim Darby (True Grit), Diane Ladd (Rambling Rose), David Canary (Bonanza), Diana Muldaur (L.A. Law), Butch Patrick (The Munsters), Ben Johnson (Oscar winner for The Last Picture Show), Martin Landau (Oscar winner for Ed Wood), Julie Sommars (Matlock), Lois Nettleton (In the Heat of the Night), Sid Haig (Beware! The Blob), France Nuyen (The Joy Luck Club), Warren Oates (Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia), Darren McGavin (A Christmas Story), Carroll O’Connor (All in the Family), Edward Asner (Lou Grant), Jon Voight (Oscar winner for Coming Home), Tom Skerritt (Fuzz), Alan Hale (Gilligan’s Island) and William Shatner (Star Trek).
Paramount delivers yet again, bringing Gunsmoke: The Twelfth Season out for home consumption in a sterling set of full-frame transfers. The twelfth was the veteran horse opera’s first color season, finally giving viewers a chance to experience the limpid blue pools of Matt Dillon’s eyes and that pleasure has been extended to this collection. A solid Dolby Digital 2.0 mono track accompanies, but English subtitles are available for those who need extra help decipherin’. Bonus features are limited to Episodic Previews (“Next on Gunsmoke“) for some–not all–episodes. The faded, sandy quality of these spots serves to further highlight the quality of the episodes transferred, but little else.
Sure, some of the story lines here seem a might familiar, as they tend to get on such a long-running series, but there’s something to be said for consistency, and for better or worse, Gunsmoke–the longest-running Western in TV history–had that in spades. Saddle up with confidence, Podners.