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Retro : A Sagebrush Bonanza : TROTTING OUT A SADDLE BAG OF TELEVISION'S LEGENDARY WESTERN HEROES FOR ONE VIDEO

July 10, 1994|DAVID WALSTAD | David Walstad is a Los Angeles-based writer

With Mel Gibson's "Maverick" and Kevin Costner's "Wyatt Earp" gunning for box-office gold, it's high noon for a refresher course in '50s and '60s TV Westerns. "TV's Western Heroes" from GoodTimes Home Video rounds up glimpses of more than 40 shoot-'em-ups that dominated the screen when Father knew best.

Besides scenes from standards like "Bonanza," "Wagon Train," "Gunsmoke" and "The Big Valley," clips from such rarely seen classics as "Have Gun Will Travel," "The Rebel" and "Lawman," mix with the more G-rated "Roy Rogers," "Rin Tin Tin," "Annie Oakley," "The Lone Ranger" and "Buffalo Bill Jr."

An enthusiastic Will ("Sugarfoot") Hutchins narrates the two-hour, $20 trot, taped at the Gene Autry Western Heritage Museum, which devotes a full wall to artifacts from these shows. Hutchins provides background details on the sagebrush sagas, and shares his own anecdotes.

Clips from commercials of Western heroes pitching for everything from bread, gasoline and toys to cigarettes might take you aback. Watch Hugh O'Brian as Wyatt Earp pitch Cheerios; Robert Culp ("Trackdown") as the deadly Texas Ranger selling Mobil; Gail Davis ("Annie Oakley") push Hostess cupcakes, and Clayton Moore demonstrate the Lone Ranger Rapidfire Revolver.

Before the surgeon general's 1964 warning about the dangers of smoking, it was acceptable for Dale Robertson ("Tales of Wells Fargo") to espouse the pleasures of Pall Mall; for Rory Calhoun ("The Texan") and Steve McQueen ("Wanted: Dead or Alive") to push a real man's smoke--Viceroy. "When it comes to choosing a cigarette, don't let anybody push you around," McQueen admonishes. Nick Adams ("The Rebel") insists on L&Ms; Culp promotes Lucky Strike.

"Gunsmoke's" James Arness and Amanda Blake, in Matt and Kitty wardrobe in the Long Branch saloon, impress viewers with the satisfaction of an L&M. "Live modern; change to L&M," Arness proclaims.

Changes in the oater's style and content over the years also is obvious. The Westerns of the late '40s to mid-'50s--("Roy Rogers," " Hopalong Cassidy," "The Cisco Kid," "Annie Oakley," "Gene Autry") had strong child-appeal. In the mid-to-late '50s early "adult" Westerns popped up with the likes of "The Life and Legend Wyatt Earp," "Gunsmoke," "Wagon Train" and "Bat Masterson." The Warner Bros. stable proffered "Sugarfoot," "Cheyenne," "Bronco," "Colt. 45," and "Lawman" along with "Maverick" in the mid-'50s to early '60s.

A mother lode of never-before or rarely seen footage brings John Wayne behind the scenes on a set visit to "Gunsmoke." Clint Eastwood and the "Rawhide" drovers appear in costume on a game show! Portions of a Dave Garroway special offer not only Gene Autry, "Annie Oakley" and "Maverick" stars but also an incredible display of marksmanship by a studio sharpshooter using live ammunition (surely a no-no today).

At a mid-'60s CBS affiliates presentation, tough-as-nails Robert Conrad's Jim West cocks his revolver on "Hogan's Heroes," as bumbling Sgt. Schultz (John Banner) urges him to remind viewers about the other great Friday series, "The Wild Wild West."

The talented cast of "F Troop" does an impromptu, mock gay version of their comedy Western--footage saved from a long-ago wrap party bloopers gag reel. And there's footage of "Gunsmoke's" Arness taking the bullet in the long-running main title showdown--instead of Marshal Dillon's opponent at the opposite end of the deserted street.

Interestingly, a few of the earliest Westerns, "The Cisco Kid" and "Sgt. Preston of the Yukon," were filmed in color, before color TV. "Bonanza" premiered gloriously in color in 1959 and "The Virginian" in 1962, but the majority continued or debuted in black and white until the mid-'60s, when the day of the TV Western was beginning to wane.

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