Classic Movies · Stuff You Should Know · Television

My Gun is Restless

restless-gun

What I initially believed to be the permanent acquisition of getTV to the House of Yesteryear beginning in December of last year turned out to be premature; we apparently were receiving a “freeview” month courtesy of the holiday season…and so, the morning of January 2 brought much disappointment.  (I never received a memo about this, though Andrew “Grover” Leal later revealed that he meant to tell me but became preoccupied with other duties. Despite this lapse, he will still retain his position here at Yesteryear, LLC—the board felt it was only proper.)  I wasn’t so bummed about losing the channel—getTV is gradually moving toward programming that’s fairly accessible on DVD and the like, such as All in the Family and Sanford and Son—as I was filled with dread that the content I DVR’d during that month would be lost due to DISH’s new policy of removing to access to programs you’ve already recorded if you no longer subscribe to the channel.  (For further reading, I refer you to The Singular Case of the Missing Buzzr Game Shows, covered in detail here.)

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John Payne, star of The Restless Gun

I lucked out with the episodes of The Restless Gun that I recorded en masse, however; they were still accessible even when the getTV freeview disappeared…which suggests to me that this ridiculous “DRM” policy of DISH’s is an arbitrary one at best.  I dutifully “burned” (get me—I’m a techie) what I was able to filch onto some blank DVD-Rs as filler for movies of ninety-minute length and because I prefer the TV shows in the dusty Thrilling Days of Yesteryear archives to be ad-free I watched all of the episodes in order to edit out the commercials.  (And believe me—getTV is most generous with the eHarmony pitches and that airbrush makeup thingy that was on every Restless Gun installment.)

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James Stewart, radio’s The Six Shooter

I briefly mentioned The Restless Gun in a post I did back in December 2011 (a review of Timeless Media’s The Classic TV Western Collection) but for those of you who have not been doing the assigned reading, the series ran for two seasons between 1957 and 1959, and was ostensibly a small screen version of the radio oater The Six Shooter, which starred James Stewart from 1953 to 1954.  Because I’m familiar with its radio origins (Shooter was an excellent series, demonstrating that Stewart was that rare movie actor who excelled at radio as well) I probably have more of an appreciation for Restless than my blogging colleague Stephen Bowie, who had a nice write-up on the show in September of 2010 at his Classic TV History blog.

Stephen’s piece is exceptional. though I have to take issue with his observation that “The Restless Gun is another one of those fifties westerns that centers a gunslinger who’s not really a gunslinger.”  I don’t consider either Britt Ponset (the Stewart incarnation) or Vint Bonner (the TV version, played by John Payne) to be gunslingers for the simple reason that neither man hired out his services in the manner of, say, the best-known TV assassin of them all: Paladin (Richard Boone) on Have Gun – Will Travel.  Ponset/Bonner were jacks-of-all-trades, amiable cowpokes who took on odd jobs ranging from cattle droving to cavalry scouting…and just happened to demonstrate a proficiency with a gun because that was a surefire way to stay alive back then.  (The title of the Stewart series refers to both the character and his firearm…but I’m guessing they discarded using the radio title to avoid paying creator Frank Burt his well-deserved royalties.)

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Edith Evanson and Jeanette Nolan in one of my favorite episodes of The Restless Gun, “The Sweet Sisters.”

The Restless Gun isn’t a bad TV oater (Bowie labels it a “mediocrity,” which I think is a tad harsh); I’d put it somewhere in-between Tombstone Territory (not good) and Have Gun – Will Travel (superb), and I think the show’s main asset is Payne himself.  “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,” Stephen notes in his post.  “Payne was more like a second-tier Sterling Hayden – which is not a bad thing to be.”  I think he’s spot-on in this observation, and I’d further posit that Payne’s former frothy musical comedy background gives him a boost in those Restless Gun episodes that are comic in nature, which to me are the strongest installments in the series.  A great example of this is “The Sweet Sisters,” which features TDOY fave Jeanette Nolan and Edith Evanson (as Our Lady of Great Caftan pointed out on Facebook, both of these women appear in 1953’s The Big Heat, which is a nice touch) as a pair of spinsters who moonlight as cattle rustlers.  You read that right; the sisters Sweet are vegetarians, and have embarked on a mission to rescue their bovine friends (they refer to them as “the cow people”) from their eventual appointment with the slaughterhouse.  It’s very funny stuff, and the scene where Payne’s Bonner and the sheriff (played by Frank Wilcox) stumble onto the ladies’ secret is priceless.

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Peggie Castle in “Lady by Law.”

“Lady by Law” is another gem, a reworking of Pygmalion where Vint is saddled with the task of turning a dance hall gal (played by Peggie Castle, who was Payne’s treacherous spouse in 99 River Street) into a “lady” or else spend time doing his boardin’ with the warden (Bonner had gallantly come to the woman’s defense during a disagreement in the saloon where she’s employed).  There are also a few chuckles to be found in “The Last Gray Man,” in which an ex-Confederate soldier (Henry Hull, who appeared on Gun three times in a guest star capacity during the show’s second season) refuses to relinquish a cache of pilfered gold until he receives an apology from the Union Army.  In addition, I enjoyed “Better Than a Cannon”—a blacksmith (Bern Hoffman) believes himself to be a baron and takes Bonner prisoner when Vint is deputized to confront the new royal about a toll gate he’s stationed on a well-traveled road (oh, and the cannon he has on the property).

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John Payne…and John Payne in “Dead Ringer.”

Not all of the Restless Gun episodes work (there were more than a few that were a chore to sit through, notably “The Lady and the Gun” and “Dead Ringer”–the latter reviving the old “I-have-a-lookalike” trope) but installments like “A Trial for Jennymay” were most entertaining, particularly because of its proto-feminist angle: a woman is accused of being an “unfit mother”…and is defended by the town’s schoolteacher (a lovely turn by character veteran Ellen Corby).  I also liked this episode because the print that aired on getTV was positively pristine; there are a few episodes here and there on the channel that are in great shape (“The Way Back,” “Four Lives”) but the bulk of getTV’s prints look as if they’ve really been through the wringer (I remember a first season episode, “Aunt Emma,” that didn’t even have an ending!).  The entirety of The Restless Gun has been released to DVD (including its original pilot on The Schlitz Playhouse of Stars) but since I don’t own the collection I can’t vouch for the visual quality (as always, the comments section awaits).

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5 thoughts on “My Gun is Restless

  1. I have more than once on the old blog referred to John Payne as “perfect”. Perhaps in a more critical frame of mind I might have come up with a “second tier” or “poor man’s” comparison, but it never occurs to me. When I watch John Payne I think like a girl!

    When we first starting getting TCM back in 2009, I was pins on needles every time I watched something for fear it would disappear as suddenly as it appeared. There’d been no announcement from the cable company one way or the other. I’m pretty calm nowadays. Perhaps they’ve lulled me into contentment.

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    1. Well, I liked Stephen’s statement re: Payne being more convincing as a tough guy than Dick Powell — not to slam Dick, but he works better in roles attuned to the “Richard Diamond” character he played on radio. Payne could tap into a real reservoir of anger, particularly in 99 RIVER STREET.

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  2. I like Restless, but agree that in the collection I have (the pre-complete series edition that Millhouse or whatever it’s called released first) it’s uneven and inconsistent. I can’t recall the episode but vividly picture one episode that was excellent and shot like a western noir. Payne certainly slides into the role easily and is very likeable. It’s too bad the tap to pre-1970s tv series has dried up, with just the occasional spurt of curio (like that odd Frank Converse series Blue Coronet ?)… It’s been a while since a post here so I send my best wishes and hope all is well in Rancho neighbourhood!

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    1. I am in complete agreement with you re: the dearth of classic TV DVDs being released of late (I grabbed that CORONET BLUE set when it was on sale at ClassicFlix) and I apologize for the posts drying up. I’ve been tres occupied with a few irons in the fire but hope to rectify this soon.

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