The Adult Western

By the time the adult western emerged in radio—in the late 1940s and early 1950s—it could do little to revive the fortunes of radio. Clearly, television by this time was becoming the most popular medium of mass entertainment. This was an ironic development, since in the realistic, adult formulation radio presented the most sophisticated western dramas in its history. In these new tales was a blending of mature plots, fuller human characterizations, and sophisticated themes—all enacted according to serious dramatic standards and producing several significant series.

The realistic western first emerged in literature; and as early as 1939 in director John Ford's Stagecoach, it appeared in movies. In radio, however, it was not until after the Second World War that the style was developed, and not until 1952 that its highest achievement, Gunsmoke, was broadcast.

Despite its late entry into adult westerns, radio since the 1930s had been concerned with dramatic programs set in western surroundings and not necessarily intended for juveniles. Reminiscences of the Old West was a local program on KOA (Denver) in 1931-1935, which recreated stories from the history of Colorado and the West. When Under Western Skies graduated from a local series on KDKA (Pittsburgh) and became an NBC program in 1938, Variety praised the maturity of its stories and suggested that the series was creating a unique audience for adult radio plays of the West.

The most successful of these early western dramas, however, was Death Valley Days. This series began in 1930 and, under its later titles—Death Valley Sheriff and The Sheriff—it remained on radio until 1951. To broadcast historian John Dunning the Death Valley Days was a naturalistic drama where “Most of the shows were of pioneer life, of the Gold Rush, of the horrors of a sandstorm, the joys of Easter and Christmas in the camps….The format was memorable, underplayed, and suggestive of loneliness.”

But, these early series cannot properly be classed with the adult westerns which developed in the postwar era. They lacked continuing, mature characters who gave consistency to the later series. They also lacked believable action and realistic locales, and the intriguing psychological edginess that typified the genre in the 1950s. Sometimes comedies, sometimes dramas, these early series possessed neither the plausibility nor the depth that the adult western demanded.

The uneven nature of these early programs can be seen in the case of Death Valley Days. One episode from the mid-1930s told of Sam Bass, an infamous bank robber and killer. In a style more attuned to Gangbusters or other early detective series, it ponderously offered the point that crime does not pay. A second broadcast from the same period was a comedy-drama about two old prospectors and their argument over whether or not to purchase an "unlucky" white burro. After shattering their friendship over the issue, the old men were reconciled when the burro proved instrumental in saving the life of one of the men. Such programming caused the prominent radio critic, Robert J. Landry, to refer to the series as "a formula of tall tales of the old frontier." When Death Valley Days was restructured and retitled in 1945, it found its niche as a detective series relating stories of the modern sheriff of Death Valley, California.

The true adult radio western was a product of the realism in popular culture that developed during and after World War II. Following that conflict, America experienced a sustained period of national and personal introspection. Questions about the causes and brutalities of war led inexorably to inquiries about national shortcomings and even personal instabilities. The popular arts reveal the late 1940s and 1950s to have been a time of reevaluation in terms of psychology, racial and religious intolerance, economic inequity, and concern about national priorities. This was a more mature nation now. With increased responsibility in the world and expanded liability at home, Americans expressed a proclivity for more realistic creativity in their literature, cinema, and radio.

One of the first western series to attempt to meet the new requirements was Zane Grey Theatre, which was aired 1947-1948 on the Mutual network. Although the stories owed little debt to the author after whom the program was named, the writers introduced occasionally mature themes relevant to an older audience. In one broadcast, for example, the murderer, although apprehended in the end, was spared from hanging when the court found him criminally insane. Nevertheless, the series was unable to break fully with the clichés of the juvenile western format. The central character was Tex Thorne who—astride his trusty steed, Topaz, and accompanied by his sidekick, Sandy Fletcher—uttered such banalities as, "Don't throw lead at me unless you want your lead back with interest," and, "You're a woman—got a right to have a hunch." Tex once described his bachelor status as "footloose and following the tumbleweed; no woman is dabbin' a rope on my carcass."

Frontier Town, the first adult western, was a transcribed series which appeared in the late 1940s. Because it was recorded and was not affiliated with any specific network, the series never achieved the distribution and popularity it merited. Frontier Town concerned the adventures of a western lawyer, Chad Remington. As a hero, Remington was intelligent and serious in his approach to solving the problems he encountered in various frontier settlements. He combined physical strength and legal expertise and thereby presented a formidable opponent to antagonists. Although the series possessed one serious connection with the juvenile format—a comedic partner named Cherokee O'Bannion who spoke like W. C. Fields and was an Irish alcoholic—the themes, dialogue, and characterizations of Frontier Town clearly separated it from adolescent westerns.

Typical of the sophisticated dimensions explored in the program was the episode entitled "Forest Fire." The story dealt with social apathy and personal greed, as Remington was unable to convince the citizens of a small settlement that there was a danger of forest fires destroying their homes. When a fire did break out, the plot dealt with the vanities of several townspeople. One man stole the critical dynamite belonging to the fire fighters and was blown up when the dynamite caught fire. A second character, the local storekeeper, raised the price of his water buckets to profit from the plight of his neighbors. And in the strikingly mature conclusion, tensions were dissipated and the fire contained as the rains came and the entire town joined in a prayer of thanks.

Although at least forty-seven episodes of Frontier Town were recorded, the adult formula it introduced did not succeed in network radio until the appearance of Gunsmoke several years later. Network officials in the late 1940s seemed too heavily concerned with detective dramas and quiz shows to develop westerns. The western, moreover, was still strongly identified with children, and there was a sufficiency of series in this style. Even after a pilot program of Gunsmoke was aired on July 13, 1949—written by David Friedkin and Morton Fine, later creators of the powerful detective series, Broadway Is My Beat, and of the Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall adventure series, Bold Venture—neither the program nor the format seemed to impress executives at CBS. Not for three years would that network return to the series.

Gunsmoke the series premiered on April 26, 1952, as a calculated gamble. For producer-director Norman Macdonnell, and writer John Meston, it was an attempt to create on network radio a new type of show—a western for men and women. CBS made a substantial outlay of capital to develop and sustain it for eighteen months until a sponsor was found. Macdonnell admitted to a fan magazine that he was worried when Gunsmoke began. He and Meston had produced a unique western hero, Marshal Matt Dillon of Dodge City, Kansas. In Macdonnell's words, Dillon was "a simple, honest person grubbing out an existence amongst a prairie people and on a rugged land which unwillingly gives up enough sustenance for man to keep body and soul together."

Listeners and critics, however, immediately approved the new program. The reviewer for Variety wrote of the premier broadcast that the "series is presented with top thesping and scripting values that pull it way ahead of the pack of AM [radio] westerns." During its eight years on radio, moreover, Gunsmoke won many awards which attested professionally to its merit.

It was the success of Gunsmoke that led CBS and NBC to develop more adult westerns. By the end of the decade several distinctive, if short-lived, series had appeared. NBC produced The Six-Shooter (1953-1954) and Dr. Six-Gun (1954-1955); while CBS developed the genre more lavishly in Fort Laramie (1956), Frontier Gentleman (1958), Luke Slaughter of Tombstone (1958), and Have Gun, Will Travel (1958-1960). Although each of these series had its own idiosyncrasies, collectively they presented a picture of life on the frontier that was fuller, more explicit, and more believable than were earlier westerns.

The most impressive aspect of the adult programs was the aura of social doom which pervaded their stories. Mirroring fears in the minds of listeners living in a nation tense with internal Cold War conflicts and external military threats, these series created a social environment in which the line between civilization and barbarity was uncertain, a place where heroes were indispensable. Whether they were bona fide law men, military officers, mercenaries, or simple do-gooders, it was apparent that these champions were the principal forces protecting nascent American civilization from the savagery which surrounded it in the wilderness. And these were the ancestors of the men and women facing uncertainties of the Atomic Age.

Antagonists in these shows ranged from brutal bullies and indifferent lynchers to renegade Indians and men who murdered because they simply disliked their victims. In all of them, however, the motor force was destructive human passion unleashed by experience in the West. Gunsmoke was especially effective in portraying this explosive environment. In one episode, for example, two bullies, for amusement, sliced off the ear of a weak man's donkey. In another a widow avenged her murdered husband by killing with a rifle at close range each of the men who had mistakenly lynched him. This program was especially poignant as the woman, a respectable housewife and mother, dispassionately declared when captured, "I don't mind, I really don't mind at all." Gunsmoke also made effective use of shoot-outs and ambushes as a means to settle arguments. It was a savagely frank world where rhetoric was minimal and procedures were efficient. Norman Macdonnell aptly delineated that context when he remarked, “Everything was out in the open. There was no subterfuge, no neurosis, no artifices or superficiality. Life was straightforward, bone-simple and honest.”

Within towns and other pockets of society, the adult western portrayed a world in which harmony was generally absent. In this regard, Paladin, the mercenary hero of Have Gun, Will Travel, in the broadcast of October 11, 1959, described an Arizona settlement in a manner that questioned its right to be called civilized.

Tombstone was swarming with men, swaggering and boisterous men in groups, and men alone, lolling in the sun, sleeping off drunks. Along the walks the wagons and the horses were lined up solid. And it was almost impossible to guide my way through the moving crowds in the streets. But eventually I reached the Alhambra Saloon and a glass of cold beer.

This sense of despair and ennui was echoed by one character in a broadcast of Gunsmoke when he remarked that the essence of life on the prairie was "we do what we have to do." Such an attitude was also expressed by Captain Lee Quince, the hero of Fort Laramie, when he cynically maintained that life in the U. S. Cavalry was little more than "fifty cents a day and all the jerky you can eat."

These depressing moods were made acceptable because of the basic optimism of the central characters of adult westerns. Most would have agreed with the statement of Chad Remington on the premier broadcast of Frontier Town. According to him, "This is no backwoods we're living in any longer. It may be the frontier, but it's the frontier of civilization." Even moody Matt Dillon on Gunsmoke exuded confidence in the future when he lectured a group of settlers about to leave Kansas out of fear: "We have troubles now and then, sure, but it's not as bad as you think. And in a few years it'll be as safe here as it is in Ohio right now, or California. And it's gonna be a prosperous country."

At other times, hope was expressed in terms of the diversity of life possible and flourishing in the patches of civility in the West. In one broadcast of Dr. Six-Gun this was portrayed by a Jewish retired Army officer overcoming adversity to observe Yom Kippur on the frontier. In an episode of Luke Slaughter of Tombstone it was demonstrated by a refined young woman from the East arriving in wild Tombstone to marry a local bachelor. It could even be found in the appearance of "civilized" crimes, such as occurred when Marshal Dillon's deputy, Chester Proudfoot, encountered a woman who, through lonely-hearts advertisements, met, married, and murdered for their money a host of lonely men throughout the West.

The most consistently optimistic adult western was Frontier Gentleman. The series offered "slice of life" glimpses of frontier society as seen through its central character, J. B. Kendall, a reporter for the London Times touring the West in the 1870s. While desperadoes and hostile Indians were a part of Kendall's world, the show painted a picture of the frontier as a place filled with hard-working pioneers constructing a functional society in the wilderness. In one program this was seen in the rivalry of two small towns in the Dakota Territory for the services of a recently-arrived schoolteacher. In another show it was a local Texas production of Shakespeare's Othello, complete with drawls and improvised passages. There was even hope suggested when a convicted murderer awaiting execution spoke to Kendall of his many killings—including seven men—that began when at age ten he shot his father's horse. In a mood of self-doubt, the murderer remarked:

I'd like to ask you a favor, mister. You write what I'm telling you in that English paper of yours. You say maybe somebody sorrowed when I got my neck broke, huh? Make it up, maybe, like my wife or kid heard and they sorrowed. Day comes when a man gets to be alone. Ain't nothin' more to look at 'ceps what's inside. Huh, I sure hadn't oughta killed that horse.

Another mark of the adult western was the central character whose ambivalence gave him a realistic quality missing in earlier western series. Unlike the decisive and single-purposed spirit found in Straight Arrow, The Cisco Kid, or Hopalong Cassidy, characters like Bret Poncett, the hero of The Six-Shooter, stammered in speech as well as decisiveness. As portrayed by James Stewart, Poncett met circumstances which on occasion were unsolvable. In a typical episode he deterred a mob intent on evicting from town the wife of a mass murderer. Although the killer was executed in prison, and the mob was dispersed, Poncett was unable to convince the woman to reveal that it was she who had betrayed her spouse to the sheriff. Even though her father would not speak to her, and the townspeople despised her, the stubborn widow exasperated Poncett, and the story concluded on that note of indecision.

In Have Gun, Will Travel, the radio western explored one of the more interesting personalities to appear as a hero. Like his manifestation on TV a year earlier, Paladin on radio was a man of culture, refinement and impeccable taste who resided in elegance in a fine San Francisco hotel. By profession, however, he was a mercenary, a gun-for-hire whose decisive nature was offset by the ambivalence felt by listeners who were uneasy with a hired gunman as the central character. Paladin once explained his function in simple terms: "I have a certain talent with weapons. When people in trouble need such a talent, I hire it out to them." Paladin usually contracted with oppressed or exploited people to represent them before hostile elements of society. On those occasions when he was actually hired by an oppressor, he invariably changed sides in the dispute or was freed of the commitment when something disastrous happened to his evil employer. Nonetheless, the crassly commercial nature of Paladin's work made him generally incongruous with the champions of radio westerns. His characterization, however, was possible only in adult-oriented programming.

In another mold was the personality of Marshal Dillon of Gunsmoke. Dillon was a strong character whose strength was balanced by his solitude. As the hired defender of law and order, with a keen understanding of the human condition in the West, Dillon was visible and effective. As a social being, however, he was closed and protective. Even his small coterie of friends—Chester, Kitty the saloonkeeper, and Doc—did not penetrate his personal defenses. The best description of Dillon's character came from William Conrad who enacted the role throughout the life of the radio series.

Matt Dillon is neither hero nor villain, but a human being. The best of us are sometimes ashamed of our thoughts, and there are times when the worst of us can be proud of our deeds. Matt Dillon is no different. He is a law-enforcement officer who doesn't like killings. He hates the thought of bloodshed. He's underpaid, never liked the job, but knows it has to be done. At times he's wanted to quit—has quit. But like most people who know the difference between right and wrong—and recognizing that justice could be done by him, probably better than by anyone else available—he has always come back to his responsibility. Matt Dillon isn't perfect but he's willing to try.

Because they were directed toward mature audiences, adult westerns often delved into themes of violence and sex. In none of the juvenile westerns did a hero ever warn a rival, as Chad Remington told one desperado, "If you try to pick up that gun ... I'm promising you this much, I'll jump you and bang your head until it goes clean through that floor." Nor did a juvenile series ever describe a wounded man as did Bret Poncett when he remarked, "Art didn't get a second chance. The carbine slugs tore into his chest, knocked him off his horse. He just lay there. He was bleeding bad."

The West in the adult series was a violent place, and its untamed quality was only aggravated by the presence of human beings. It was an environment in which one of Paladin's enemies was brutally trampled by a stallion, and where Remington philosophized about "sudden death being almost a normal part of life on the frontier." One of the more noteworthy attempts to deal with the violence of the West occurred in a broadcast of Dr. Six-Gun. In the story, Dr. Ray Matson, the hero, tried unsuccessfully to enact a local gun-control ordinance. In a mood of frustration mixed with nationalism, he resigned himself to the inevitable:

"Let 'em carry their guns, someday they'll put 'em aside. It may not be as easy as takin' 'em away now. But in the long run, that's a pretty sound document, that Constitution. It's worth sewing up a few bullet holes for.

Sex was another theme absent from the classical series, but intimately a part of the adult western. As early as Frontier Town, sex was recognizable. In one show, a bar girl, termed by Remington "a young, so-called lady," was overheard rejecting a proposition for later that evening. She appeased her would-be customer, however, by promising him a date "some other night ... any other night." One broadcast of Have Gun, Will Travel concerned a frustrated married woman who lusted after Paladin. Although her ultimate pleasure was seeing jealous men kill one another because of her, her unsuccessful seduction of Paladin was demonstrative and sensual. And, of course, the character of Kitty Russell in Gunsmoke could exist only in the adult western. Ostensibly the manager of the Long Branch Saloon, Kitty was patterned after the prostitutes and madams who worked in saloons and brothels in actual frontier settlements. Her close relationship with Matt Dillon—at least that of a friend and confidant—also added a spicy flavor to the series.

Even if not exploiting sex, the adult western presented a franker attitude toward sexuality. In a broadcast of Frontier Gentlemen, for instance, J. B. Kendall spoke to a young woman about the death of her illegitimate child and of her liaison with a Civil War hero who fathered the child. One of the most impressive shows in the Fort Laramie series concerned the need for women in the fort to carry guns. The broadcast suggested that firearms were needed by adult females to fight off Indians who might attack the fort and its women when soldiers were away on maneuvers. The show advocated suicide rather than suffering sexual abuse from the invaders, for as one female veteran of the fort warned a newcomer, in previous raids some women were killed "and some [were] carried off by the Sioux—dying's easier."

In addition to violence and sexuality, adult westerns were impressive for their overt political themes. Certainly, they were often patriotic. The western by nature is Americana in its approximation of frontier history. Yet, more explicit pronouncements of support for the United States were not absent. This was especially true of three series: The Six-Shooter, Dr. Six-Gun, and Frontier Town. In the latter series, for example, patriotic references were noticeable in the remark of Cherokee O'Bannion, "In any book I've read, it's not supposed to be the cavalry—it's always the Marines who come to the rescue." It was also exhibited when Chad Remington chided a Basque shepherd who despaired at losing her flock to villains. To her comment that "I start to believe the whole thing is not worth it," Remington quickly retorted, "I've never heard a Basque talk that way before . . . and certainly never an American."

More striking, however, was the politically liberal stance taken by several series on the issue of human rights. Reflecting, perhaps, the national concern with civil rights precipitated when President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent federal troops into the South to enforce school integration, several series in the late 1950s took up civil rights themes by focusing on the oppression and exploitation of American Indians. In all adult westerns Indians were portrayed more fairly than in the juvenile series. Most were shown to be peaceful, and those who killed white settlers were pictured as exceptions rather than the rule. For example, in a broadcast of Frontier Gentleman, a small band of marauding Indians was quickly labeled "renegade," and its eradication by Kendall and the U. S. Cavalry was not construed as a loss to peace-loving Indians.

Related to this sentiment was the more general theme of brotherhood which was also a part of the adult western. Even a pet raven in Dr. Six-Gun shrieked that "all men are brothers." And a sensitive broadcast of Fort Laramie dealt with the growing trust between white and red men. In it, while investigating reports of Indian raids, Captain Quince encountered a Jesuit priest who taught reading to a small band of Sioux braves. When Quince met one of those braves, the Indian was impressed that the officer did not shoot him. The priest was thus able to draw a lesson in brotherhood, suggesting to Quince, "Maybe that's the way it begins, with one red man and one white man trusting each other."

In a similar vein of tolerance and understanding, Luke Slaughter of Tombstone probed traditional prejudices in the program of April 20, 1958. In a frank political discussion, Slaughter—a former cavalry officer who was now a cattle rancher in the Arizona Territory--defended the Apaches against the barbs of a local bigot.

    Easterner: War paint? I understood that the treaties with the Apaches were working out nicely.
    Slaughter: They are, when the white men live up to them.
    Bigot: Well, that is practically treason against your own race, Slaughter.
    Slaughter: If it's treason to compare some members of my own race with Indians like Cochise and Margano, well, I'm guilty. Tell us a little more about what you plan to do, Mr. Fell.
    Easterner: Well, I want to paint the strong Indian faces, their customs, the way they live. The people back East have some amazing misconceptions about them.
    Bigot: Yes, so has Slaughter. He trusts 'em.
    Slaughter: We're trying to understand them.

On occasion, these series were also sensitive to the fate of the Indians since the onslaught of white settlers and exploiters. Marshal Dillon, for example, justified the ignoble actions of Indian warriors when he explained to Chester that the cause of their problems was their great loss to expanding white Americans.

An Indian's no different from anybody else with too much to drink. No, the problem's deeper than that.... Well, the Indians have lost a lot. They're a conquered people. That doesn't sit well with many men.... There are times when it makes him mad.

The adult western also respected Indian traditions and cultural values. This was demonstrated aptly in the episode of Have Gun, Will Travel aired on February 22, 1959, as an Indian rancher, Joe Whitehorse, revealed to Paladin his special love for the land.

When I walk out of my house, onto my own land, [it] gives me a good feeling. I love this place. It has given me pain, but there is something ... this is mine, this handful of earth here, this is mine.

In this broadcast, Paladin strongly asserted his egalitarian politics by siding with Whitehorse against local white racists. These neighbors taunted Whitehorse with epithets such as, "I don't aim to raise my children next to some savage," "You Indians have reservations ... that's where you belong," and, "I got no respect for a critter knows he ain't wanted, but hangs on anyway." In the end, Paladin settled the confrontation in favor of the Indian and his pregnant wife. The libertarian implications of the program were made most apparent when Paladin offered his mercenary fee of $2,000 to the Whitehorse family with an apology for white racism: "Please accept it for your child, with my apologies for this imperfect world we have to offer him, and my hopes for a better one in his lifetime."

In American popular culture the western has had immense success. It was an irony, however, that radio did not develop the genre fully until creative broadcasting was in ebb. Several reasons help account for this condition. Among them were the reluctance of sponsors to underwrite a western for primarily adult audiences, network economics which mitigated against sustaining series, the lack of creativity among script writers who chose to remain with proven formats rather than experiment, and the general inertia in radio programming which over the decades created patterns of imitation and variation rather than produce the widest possible range of shows for listeners; tastes.

When the mature western did appear, its full impact could not be calculated. By this time statistical ratings were low relative to the figures generated by programming in the 1940s. Many adult westerns also appeared on Saturdays, a day not intended to attract an optimal audience. And by the 1950s, a growing number of Americans were viewing television and were oblivious to innovations in radio drama. Nonetheless, the adult western enjoyed popularity and respect with those who still cared for innovative radio productions. Interestingly, even into the early 1960s, long after the classical /juvenile series had left the air, several adult westerns were still being broadcast. Thus, one is left with only speculation about the probable impact of the adult western if programs like Gunsmoke, Frontier Gentleman, and Have Gun, Will Travel had emerged in the late 1930s or early 1940s.