Thursday, March 16, 2017

lay of the land

A Gentleman's Guide to Unruly Cowhands and Proper Gunplay in Dodge City

Not all western fans are made alike, and some of us are, I suppose, less likely. Yes, city boys (and bleeding hearts) love cowboys, too—we just don’t vote for them.  The point I'm so clumsily trying to make here is that I'd venture to guess I'm not your typical western fan, if there is such a thing.  I've never wanted or owned a gun, but I love a good old fashioned shoot-'em-up, and that would of course include television's longest-running horse opera, GUNSMOKE (1955-1975).  So here's my guide, an outsider's guide (if you will), to the rootin' tootin', rough and tumble landscape on the other side of your cranky grandpa's TV screen, GUNSMOKE.

A few things to remember while visiting Dodge City, Kansas, and the good folks down at the Long Branch Saloon:

*If you’re new in Dodge, stop by and acquaint yourself with Doc Adams on your way to the saloon.  If it’s an ordinary night at the Long Branch, you might well be in need of a doctor before it’s over.  Also, if you can't find Doc in his office, he's likely wetting his whiskers down at the saloon.

 *If you must get involved in gunplay, be sure it isn’t against Marshal Dillon.  A good many men have died suddenly in the streets of Dodge City, but Matt Dillon’s got a singular knack for avoiding flying lead.  Well, at least the particularly dangerous kind. Sure, Matt's been shot down like a dog more times than we can count, but he's of a rare, ornery breed of men death wants little to do withprotagonists.

The late James Arness, forever Marshal Matt Dillon

*If gunplay is absolutely necessary (for instance, the obliging party calls you “lily-livered”), make sure your opponent draws first.  Otherwise, Marshal Dillon could have you strung up on murder charges.  On that note, you’re going to want to buy your rival a drink or two before the ol’ do-si-do, as well.  Get the strongest stuff in the house if you’ve the mind and bankroll to.  Smile and wish him luck as you mark a clean, neat spot over his heart.

       *If you’ve got bad manners and a predilection for plucky redheads, avoid the Long Branch Saloon altogether.  Just keep on walkin', friend.
Amanda Blake as Miss Kitty, America's other favorite redhead

Dennis Weaver in the role that made him famous, Chester Goode.
    *If you go by the name of Chester, Festus, Newly, Thad, or Quinn, and it happens to be sunny outside, there’s a better than average chance Doc Adams will be extracting a bullet or two from your grubby hide before supper.  Don’t worry, though, they’ll probably just wing you some.  Such are the travails of donning a deputy’s badge in this dusty, perilous corner of TV Land.
"Matthew, that Pack Landers is the type of feller you gotta walk upwind of even if there ain't no breeze a blowin'." -Festus Haggen 
*Now remembertrouble travels in packs.  If you see a rowdy band of drunken vaqueros, with perhaps an intemperate Jack Elam or seething Cameron Mitchell stirring the pot, it would be best to give them a wide berth. Cowboys in groups tend to show off more, and not in an especially amusing or friendly way.


*Speaking of Jack Elam, always heed the eye's warning!  If a cowhand or desperado looks a little loco, like he may blow a gasket or set a barn cat on fire, break eye contact immediatelylest you find yourself forever lost in his buggy visage.

*And the number one unspoken rule of killing in Dodge City, seemingly unbeknownst to just about everyone who winds up on the winning end of a dust-upknow your enemy. Does he have a half-dozen kill-crazy younger brothers who look up to him?  A boozy, despondent girlfriend tucked away someplace unseen near the end of the bar? A pa even meaner than he is?  Don't you know that 90% of all western plots ultimately boil down to revenge?!  


*Now, there is a long-running debate as to whether or not the Long Branch Saloon was also a brothel.  The notion that no respectable woman (except proprietor, Miss Kitty) would be employed there is a long-recurring theme on the show.  But it was early television, and so prostitution as a topic was avoided altogether. These women were dance partnershostesses, if you willhired to keep the booze flowing and the cowboys happy.  Despite history and the idea that what they're depicting with these gals is open to interpretation, no money is ever exchanged for sex on GUNSMOKE. On the contrary, Miss Kitty is a fine, upstanding woman (and not a walking contradiction); so much so, in fact, that if one were to accuse her of running a cathouse, the shock just might kill her.

    *Speaking of Miss Kitty, she's not really on the market, fellas, though every now and then they toss her a bone to get Matt jealous. You see, theirs is a strange, tragic dance of inexplicable two-way friend-zoning, though with a deep mutual love (well, I tried...), one of television's greatest unrequited romancesand why they're doomed to remain single throughout the show's 20 year duration.  
    To quote trail-worn deputy and squinty-eyed raconteur, Festus Haggen (the great Ken Curtis), their love, though seemingly preordained, had "no more chance than a grasshopper in a hen house".  


       And, well, I suppose that about covers it.  Now, if you do carry a firearm down Front Street, be prepared to use it.  Oh, and get your horse stabled and rested while the getting's good.  After all, time's a tricky matter in moody old Dodge City.