Today in History: Gunsmoke Premiers on Television

It’s a Saturday night in mid-September, 1955. Dinner dishes have been cleared away, people in their comfortable homes are settling in for the evening. For entertainment, some turn to their trusty radio, still not sure about that expensive picture-box, the television. Those with television sets aren’t too sure this new-fangled thing is all that great, either. Skeptically, many of them want to see what CBS has done with their favorite, hard-boiled-detective-meets-the-old-west program.

It’s been on the radio since April of ’52. William Conrad has been the only Marshal Matt Dillon they’ve known and the only one many needed to know. That skinny Arness kid, he’s all wrong for the part. Who cares if John Wayne introduced him. Just listen to him, I tell ya — where’s the grit in his voice? Where’s the loneliness of a true 1870s lawman in the untamed Dodge City?

And, look. It’s the very first episode and the first bad guy who shows up outguns that Arness kid and lays him out for most of the episode. Sure, Arness’ Dillon comes back at the end and takes care of him, but honestly… I can’t see this show making it more than a few weeks. Why, I bet in 20 years we’ll still be listening to William Conrad doing the proper Marshall Dillon on the radio and we’ll all remember James Arness as the giant carrot from outer space and nothing more.

Looking back from the vantage point of 53 years a few things are pretty clear: TV supplanted radio, Arness eclipsed Conrad, Gunsmoke lasted all 20 of those years, and Miss Kitty would have been a lot more of a help to Marshall Dillon if she’d been carrying a gun.

American culture has a very complicated, often contradictory, attitude towards women and guns. Guns are seen as a sign of masculinity; however (according to the Google at least), there seems to be some fascination with the idea of women with guns. On the one hand this reflects the cultural struggle many American men have with women and power. On the other, the National Rifle Association and firearms companies are actively marketing to women.

(And at the far extreme, there’s even a parody, reverse-sexist role-playing game called Macho Women with Guns that is just as outlandish as it sounds.)

Author Laura Browder takes a look at women and firearms throughout American history in her book “Her Best Shot: Women and Guns in America“. Browder traces appearances of armed women through autobiographies, advertising, journalism, novels, and political tracts. “Her Best Shot” is also populated with a varied cast of well-armed women from the American Revolution to the present, including Annie Oakley, Ma Barker, Bonnie Parker (of Bonnie and Clyde fame) and Patty Hearst.

Browder’s discussed this and more with NPR this past May.

Her Best Shot” demonstrates how armed women both challenge and reinforce the ideas that link guns, manhood, and American identity together.

I’m sure both Marshall Dillon’s would agree.

— Tom

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