Wed 10 Sep 2014
WICHITA TOWN. NBC/Four Star Productions. 26 x 30m episodes, 30 Sept 1959 to 6 April 1960. Stars: Joel McCrea (Marshal Mike Dunbar), Jody McCrea (Deputy Ben Matheson). Townspeople: Robert Foulk, Frank Ferguson, Bob Anderson, George N. Neise.
This series has not been officially released on DVD. It is only available through what is generously called the grey market. I recently obtained several episodes in this fashion. The picture quality was only fair but watchable. Below are my notes on each episode as I watched them, not chronologically but in the order they appeared on the discs.
Episode 1. “The Night the Cowboys Roared.” 30 September 1959. Guest Cast: James Coburn, Tony Montenaro. Trail boss Mike Dunbar has just brought his herd of cattle up from Texas into Wichita, but the job having been completed, disclaims responsibility for the subsequent shoot-em-up ruckus caused by his former crew of cowhands. Until, that is, the small Mexican boy who has befriended him is accidentally shot and killed by a ricocheting bullet. Then he steps in and helps the deputy marshal Ben Matheson send the cowboys on their way. Deciding that he needs roots, Mike Dunbar decides to stay on when offered the job of marshal. He is clearly taking on the role of Wyatt Earp, without the name, and it is obvious who his new deputy is intended to be. James Coburn is his usual smart-aleck self as the loud-mouth leader of the cowhands, but the big friendly smile of 12-year-old Anthony C. Montenaro makes an even bigger impression, his first ever role in movies or on TV.
Episode 21. “The Frontiersman.” 2 March 1960. Guest Cast: Gene Evans, Mary Sinclair. This appears to have been produced separately as a pilot for a proposed series starring Evans, as a spinoff from Wichita Town. The version I watched is the pilot itself, with its own title and closing pitch to prospective sponsors. It was not picked up, however, and was broadcast as an episode of Wichita Town. The concept is a good one. The rough-hewn Evans plays Otis Stockett, whose goal is the fight the lawlessness of the frontier with education, with books and learning. When that fails, however, he’s handy with a fist, as he demonstrates in this pilot, then, as he admits in his closing argument, with a gun, but only if absolutely necessary. Joel McCrea appears only briefly.
Episode 11. “Death Watch.” 16 December 1959. Guest Cast: John Dehner, Phillip Pine, Tina Carver, Jean Howell. Ben is trapped in a cyclone cellar with a gambler, a dance hall girl, a dying man, and a killer — a man who thought he could earn a woman’s love by shooting and robbing the man who is dying. As a rarity, the gambler (John Dehner) is not a card shark, but a man who is sadder and wiser about the way the world works. While three people die during the course of this episode, it is talkier than a lot of other westerns, with Dehner taking top honors in that regard, a fine performance. Marshal Dunbar steps back and lets young Ben learn a lesson on his own.
Episode 19. “Brothers of the Knife.” 10 February 1960. Guest Cast: Abraham Sofaer, Anthony Caruso, Robert Carricart, David Whorf. This one felt as though it could be an episode of The Untouchables, as the Mafia tries to make a foothold in Wichita, where a sizable Italian population has made a new home. What the two men sent to enforce a protection racket don’t realize is that once men taste freedom, they will fight for it. Joel McCrea as Marshal Dunbar has little role beyond that of an onlooker. Jody McCrea does not appear in this one. An excellent episode that could only have benefited from having more than the 26 minutes allowed.
Episode 3. “Bullet for a Friend.” 14 October 1959. Guest Cast: Carlos Romero, Robert J. Wilke, James Griffith. On a day when both Marshal Dunbar and his deputy are out of town, two gunslingers come riding in. One is Rico Rodriquez (Carlos Romero), the uncle of Manuel, the young boy who was killed in Episode 1. The other is Johnny Burke (Wilke), who aims to kill a former partner of his, now a successful cattle-buyer in town. Things take an interesting twist when Rodriguez learns that Dunbar was a friend of his nephew, if only for a day, and he decides to do the marshal’s job for him. At the end of program Rodriguez is persuaded to stay on as a second deputy, but this is the first I’ve seen of him. McCrea is present for only the last two minutes, a funny way to be the star of a series, but this was an excellent episode.
Episode 5 “Drifting.” 28 October 1959. Guest Cast: John McIntire, John Larch. When Ben Matheson’s father (John McIntire) comes drifting into town, it is not to a warm welcome. It has been twelve years since he abandoned his son, and Ben finds it difficult to even talk to the bedraggled old man. The problem is that a gunslinger with a fancy saddle has also just come to town, and it is Ben’s father whose trail he is on. Dealing with the situation is what Ben has to do, and it’s his story all the way, and I enjoyed it. Joel McCrea shows up briefly only at the beginning and end.
Summary: Based on the episodes I’ve been able to see, this was a very enjoyable series. These were largely homespun tales, punctuated by spurts of sudden violence, usually toward the end. The acting was uniformly above average, especially on the part of the guest stars. Joel McCrea was fine, too, but perhaps one reason why this series is as forgotten as it is, is that Joel McCrea almost nearly wasn’t in it.