Saturday, March 25, 2017

Maverick: "Gun-Shy"

 (This blog post is part of the Favourite TV Show Episode Blogathon hosted by A Shroud of Thoughts)

Bret Maverick has another unfortunate encounter
with Marshal Mort Dooley
It was in the 1955-1956 season that three adult Western television shows debuted on American television: The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, Gunsmoke, and Cheyenne. All three shows proved highly successful, so much so that they inevitably led to many, many more Western TV shows on the broadcast networks. In most cases the heroes of these Westerns were either brave, stalwart lawmen or brave, stalwart drifters (who often differed from lawmen simply in that they weren't professionals). It was in 1957 that a show debuted that would break the mould of television Westerns at the time. Maverick centred on the Maverick brothers, Brett (played by James Garner) and Bart (played by Jack Kelly). The Mavericks were gamblers by profession and preferred to get out of situations using their wits rather than guns or fists. In fact, they generally avoided fighting entirely when it was possible. While they were honest for the most part, they were not below using deception against those who were not particularly honest themselves. The Mavericks were a sharp contrast to the many lawmen, gunfighters, and drifters that populated most Westerns on American television at the time.

Given the Maverick brothers were a near total inversion of the archetypal Western hero, it should come as no surprise that the show was often humorous in tone. It was not unusual for the show to send up various Western conventions and even cliches from other genres in its episodes (for example, "A Cure for Johnny Rain" spoofed popular police procedural Dragnet, right down to its narration). It was then perhaps inevitable that Maverick would parody one of the oldest and arguably the most popular Westerns then on television: Gunsmoke. "Gun-Shy" was an absolutely merciless parody of Gunsmoke, poking fun at the various formulas the show had already developed by 1959. It was written by Marion Hargrove, who contributed several scripts to Maverick over the years. He had begun his career as a novelist, his bestselling  See Here, Private Hargrove having been published in 1944. He had a knack for comedy, and would later write the screenplay for The Music Man (1962) and co-write Boys' Night Out (1962).

"Gun-Shy" finds Bret Maverick in Elwood, Kansas, where he is trying to find a hidden Confederate treasure. Unfortunately, while the local marshal will tolerate visiting cowboys who get drunk ("..that's what the town's here for"), he has absolutely no use for "thieves and criminals". Sadly for Bret, the marshal lumps professional gamblers in with "thieves and criminals". Bret must then try to find the treasure, all the while avoiding the watchful eye of the marshal.

In the process we are presented with an at times brutal send-up of Gunsmoke. None of the regular characters are spared. Mort Dooley (played by Ben Gage) is the marshal in town, who owns "37.5 percent of the Weeping Willow saloon". Not only is he known for his skill with a gun, but he is more than willing to use it. Clyde Diefendorfer (played by Walker Edmiston) is Mort's none too bright deputy who talks with a hick accent and talks rather often. Doc Stucke is the town's undertaker. Miss Amy (played by Kathleen O'Malley) runs the Weeping Willow saloon and is often admonishing Mort to "be careful". Anyone who has seen even a few episodes of Gunsmoke will readily recognise the characters as somewhat exaggerated parodies of Marshal Matt Dillon, Chester, Doc Adams, and Miss Kitty.

"Gun-Shy" doesn't simply take aim at the lead characters of Gunsmoke, but the show's conventions themselves. Just as many early Gunsmoke episodes began with Matt Dillon delivering narration from Boot Hill, so too does "Gun-Shy" feature Mort Dooley delivering narration from Boot Hill, although in Mort's case he appears to have just buried one of the many men he has shot. The famous opening of Gunsmoke in which Matt Dillon faces down a gunfighter on the streets of Dodge is also spoofed. At one point, when Mort Dooley decides he has had more than enough of Bret Maverick, he decides to shoot him in a scene that copies the opening of Gunsmoke almost exactly, except for the fact that Bret Maverick is fortunately out of range of Mort's six shooter. In another scene Mort and Doc discuss things that have absolutely no bearing on the episode, something that occurred from time to time on Gunsmoke. "Gun-Shy" even takes a poke at another popular Western that aired on CBS. In one scene Doc mentions to Mort "...that gunfighter who came into town passing out business cards to everybody," a clear reference to the popular Western Have Gun--Will Travel.

While "Gun-Shy" is an extremely effective parody of Gunsmoke, one does not have to be familiar with Gunsmoke to enjoy the episode. In fact, the parodies of the Gunsmoke characters are actually peripheral to the story of Bret trying to find buried Confederate treasure. Much to Bret's chagrin he is not the only one who is trying to find the treasure, as a pair of colourful, if somewhat dodgy characters named Freddie Hawkins and Kenneth P. Badger are also trying to find it. Hawkins was played by the legendary Reginald Owen, then as now perhaps best known for playing Scrooge in MGM's A Christmas Carol. Badger was played by Gage Clarke, who had played Superintendent of Schools Mr. Bascomb on the classic sitcom Mister Peepers. The two are responsible for many of the laughs during the episode.

"Gun-Shy" would not be the last time Maverick spoofed another TV show. As mentioned earlier, "A Cure for Johnny Rain" lampooned Dragnet. Later Maverick would parody Bonanza in the episode "Three Queens Full". Nor would "Gun-Shy" be the last time that Maverick took pokes at one of CBS's Westerns. In the episode "Hadley's Hunters", a bartender offers a weaponless Bart a sawed-off shotgun called "a  Mule's Foot or something like that" left behind by a bounty hunter, a clear reference to the CBS Western Wanted: Dead or Alive (on the show bounty hunter Josh Randall, played by Steve McQueen, used a rifle with a shortened barrel called a "Mare's Leg"). "Hadley's Hunters" also featured cameos from the lead characters of every Warner Bros. Western TV show, and even Edd Byrnes from 77 Sunset Strip (I always thought he must have been Kookie's grandfather...).

"Gun-Shy" is not necessarily the best episode of Maverick (that would probably be "Shady Deal at Sunny Acres"), but it certainly numbers among the very best of a show that was well known for the quality of its episodes.While it is most effective as a wicked lampoon of the TV show Gunsmoke, even those unfamiliar with that show will appreciate the episode for its humour and a rather interesting plot. Quite simply, "Gun-Shy" is a prime example of why Maverick was one of the best television shows ever aired.


Caftan Woman said...

What you say is true in that the parody of Gunsmoke was indeed merciless. I love Gunsmoke wholeheartedly, but even I had to giggle at the ribbing, especially "Be careful, Mort". I always imagine that that line came first and Hargrove then wrote everything else around it. Maverick was a groundbreaker when it came to TV westerns, but not a deal breaker. Westerns would remain, but none would come close to Maverick's irreverence.

Hal said...

This is probably my second favorite episode behind Shady Deal at Sunny Acres, and would likely rank as my favorite if both Maverick brothers were included. As it is, I think it is perfectly scripted. Huggins apparently did a little uncredited work on Hargrove's script, but between the two they came up with just the right tone. And the actors were perfectly cast. Ben Gage was brought back to parody Arness a few more times, but never as effectively as he did here. One of television's finest hours.

Michaela said...

Yet another reminder that I need to watch Maverick! I absolutely love The Rockford Files and James Garner, so I've been wanting to see Maverick for a few years now. I think it may just become my project for the summer after reading your post.

Phyl said...

I love Maverick!! I haven't seen this one though (me and my brothers stopped halfway through season two because none of us wanted to watch the next Bart episode but we didn't want to skip it either - a lame excuse I know). I always enjoy parady episodes:)