September 19, 2010
“I’m not a gun!” snarls Vint Bonner at one point in the episode “Cheyenne Express.”
I guess he forgot the name of his own show.
The Restless Gun is another one of those fifties westerns that centers a gunslinger who’s not really a gunslinger. Gunslingers were supposed to be the bad guys and, four and a half decades before Deadwood, a bad guy couldn’t be the protagonist of a TV show. Have Gun – Will Travel and Wanted: Dead or Alive, with their fractured titles, were the important entries in this peculiar subgenre, the ones that maintained a measure of ambiguity about how heroic their heroes were. If you’ve never heard of The Restless Gun . . . well, it’s not because it doesn’t have a colon or an em-dash in the title.
The Restless Gun bobs to the top of the screener pile now because of the reactions to the obit for producer David Dortort that I tossed off last week. Several readers posted comments seconding my indifference toward Bonanza but suggesting that Dortort’s second creation, The High Chaparral, might be worth a look. I didn’t have any High Chaparrals handy, but I did have Timeless Media’s twenty-three episode volume of The Restless Gun, which Dortort produced during the two TV seasons that immediately preceded Bonanza.
The Restless Gun marked Dortort’s transition from promising screenwriter to cagey TV mogul, but I suspect Dortort was basically . . . wait for it . . . a hired gun. He didn’t create show, he didn’t produce the pilot, and he contributed original scripts infrequently. The Restless Gun probably owes its mediocrity more to MCA, the company that “packaged” the series and produced it through its television arm Revue Productions, than to Dortort.
The pedigree of The Restless Gun is convoluted. It originated as a pilot broadcast on Schlitz Playhouse, produced by Revue staffer Richard Lewis and written by N. B. Stone, Jr. (teleplay) and Les Crutchfield (story). When The Restless Gun went to series, Stone and Crutchfield’s names were nowhere to be seen, but the end titles contained a prominent credit that read “Based on characters created by Frank Burt.” Burt’s name had gone unmentioned on the pilot. The redoubtable Boyd Magers reveals the missing piece: that The Restless Gun was actually based on a short-lived radio series called The Six Shooter, which starred James Stewart. In the pilot, the hero retained his name from radio, Britt Ponset, but in the series he became Vint Bonner. I don’t know exactly what happened between the pilot and the series, but I’ll bet that Burt wasn’t at all happy about seeing his name left off the former, and that some serious legal wrangling ensued.
You’ll also note that Burt still didn’t end up with a pure “Created by” credit. Well into the sixties, after Revue had become Universal Television, MCA worked energetically to deprive pilot writers of creator credits and the royalties that came with them.
The star of The Restless Gun was John Payne, whose deal with MCA made him one of the first TV stars to snag a vanity executive producer credit. Critics often tag Payne as a second-tier Dick Powell – both were song-and-dance men turned film noir heroes – but even in his noir phase Powell never had the anger and self-contempt that Payne could pull out of himself. Payne was more like a second-tier Sterling Hayden – which is not a bad thing to be. But while Payne is watchable in The Restless Gun, he’s rarely inspired.
If Payne looks mildly sedated as he wanders through The Restless Gun, it could be the scripts that put him in that state. The writing relies on familiar, calculated clichés that pander to the audience. “Thicker Than Water,” by Kenneth Gamet, guest stars Claude Akins as a card sharp whose catchphrase is, “If you’re looking for sympathy, it’s in the dictionary.” I’ll cut any script that gives Claude Akins the chance to say that line (twice!) a lot of slack. But then Akins turns out to be the absentee dad of a ten year-old boy who thinks his father is dead and . . . well, you can probably fill in the rest.
Another episode, “Man and Boy,” has Bonner trying to convince a sheriff that a wanted killer is actually the lawman’s son. Payne and Emile Meyer, playing the sheriff, step through these well-trod paces with a modest amount of conviction – and then the ending pulls a ridiculous cop-out. Dortort, he of the Cartwright dynasty, may have had a fixation on father-son relationships, but he certainly wasn’t interested in the Freudian psychology that could have given them some dramatic shading.
Dortort’s own teleplay for “The Lady and the Gun” is unusual in that it places Bonner in no physical jeopardy at all. It’s too slight to be of lasting interest, but “The Lady and the Gun,” wherein Bonner gets his heart broken by a woman (Mala Powers) who has no use for marriage, has a tricky ending and some dexterous dialogue. The low stakes and the surfeit of gunplay look ahead to Bonanza, but I’m not sure how much of the script is Dortort’s. On certain episodes, including this one, Frank Burt’s credit expands to “Based on a story and characters created by.” I’m guessing that means those episodes were rewrites of old radio scripts that Burt (who was a major contributor to Dragnet, and a good writer) penned for The Six Shooter. So what to do? It’s hard to draw a bead on Dortort as a writer because didn’t write very much, and when he did, he usually shared credit with someone else. Maybe that’s a verdict in itself.
There is one pretty good episode of The Restless Gun that illustrates how adventurous and complex the show could have been, had Dortort wanted it that way. It’s called “Cheyenne Express,” and I’m convinced its virtues are entirely attributable to the writer, Christopher Knopf. But Knopf, and his impressive body of work, are a subject I plan to tackle another time and in another format. So for now I’ll leave you to discover “Cheyenne Express” (yes, it’s in the DVD set) on your own.