In order to understand how television has changed through the years, one would have to consider the on-screen relationship between Marshal Matt Dillon (James Arness) and saloon owner Miss Kitty Russell (Amanda Blake) on the classic Western series "Gunsmoke," which ran on CBS from 1955 to 1975. When the series began, "Gunsmoke" was a fairly straightforward, intelligently made Western, that ran 30 minutes and was shot in black and white. As the popularity of the show continued to grow through the years, the show's running time expanded to 60 minutes a week and was eventually filmed in color. But it wasn't just the appearance of the show that changed, as the format and perspective of the show continued to grow as well. While Matt Dillon remained the central protagonist, and Dodge City remained the main setting for the series, later episodes would allow other members of the ensemble, or a guest star who either lived in Dodge City or had some tangential relationship with the core cast or locale, to take center stage. This allowed later seasons of "Gunsmoke" to push the boundaries of the weekly Western format and become more like an anthology series at times. In so doing, the characters and situations on "Gunsmoke" continued to evolve as the series explored deeper, more psychological and emotional territory than it had at the beginning. There was always much more than met the eye with this series.
Even though the show continued to evolve, and the characterizations developed more resonance, one aspect of the show that remained enigmatic at times was the nature of the relationship between Matt Dillon and Miss Kitty. It's been argued that they were lovers the entire time of the series, while others view the relationship more as a platonic friendship. James Arness and Amanda Blake wisely played their scenes together with restraint and warmth, yet infused with genuine sexual chemistry, so that it worked on multiple levels as both a friendship and a romance. Arness himself acknowledged in an interview before his death that the series intentionally kept their relationship alternately vague and unresolved because the producers felt that allowing them to have a full-blown on-screen relationship would drastically change the nature of the show. In its decision to not further develop the Matt/Kitty relationship, I don't think "Gunsmoke" was afraid of allowing the show a level of complexity so much as not wanting to make the show focused solely on them. I believe the producers of "Gunsmoke" wisely decided to allow it to remain an ensemble piece about the characters that pass through Dodge City and the surrounding environs.
However, if the show was made now, I have no doubt that the Matt/Kitty relationship would be the central thrust and focus of the entire series, at the expense of all the other elements that made it unique and successful. I think such a tactic would deprive the show of the air of mystery and wonderment that defines the relationship between Matt and Kitty. As fans of the show, we want to imagine that there is something deeper, more resonant going on underneath the surface that underscores the love and caring the exists between those characters. At the same time, I think "Gunsmoke" fans also appreciate how Matt and Kitty feel a genuine friendship and respect with one another that they wouldn't want to see ruined if they ended up having a full blown affair that brings with it all the complications that would entail such a relationship.
Through the years, the show gave us little glimpses and hints as to how Matt and Kitty feel for one another, but no other episode addresses it more directly than the epic, exciting three-part segment from 1971, "Gold Train: The Bullet." In it, Matt Dillon is shot in the back, with the bullet dangerously lodged near his spine. Doc (Milburn Stone) fears that he does not have the proper training to operate to remove the bullet, so he decides to have Matt transported by train to a surgeon in Denver, while lying face down in the freight car. Kitty, Festus (Ken Curtis) and Newly (Buck Taylor) also accompany Doc and Matt on their journey. During the trip. the train is hijacked by a band of outlaws determined to steal the U.S. Army gold shipment that is on board. The leader of the outlaws is Jack Sinclair (Eric Braeden) whose hand was wounded years earlier by Matt Dillon. In order to protect Matt from being killed by a vengeful Sinclair, Doc lies to the outlaws that Matt is a patient under his care who has died and that his name is Walters.
A shifty female prisoner being escorted by law enforcement officials back to Denver named Beth Tipton (Katherine Justice) correctly deduces Matt's identity and begins taunting Kitty that she'll reveal the truth to Sinclair if it will ensure that he will take her along with him once he is finished looting the train. At first, Kitty tries to play dumb and act as though she has nothing to do with the dead Mr. Walters in the freight car. Beth Tipton sees through Kitty's subterfuge and tells her that, when she saw the level of concern Kitty felt for Matt as he was being loaded onto the freight car, "I could tell that he was your man....They just said his name was Walters. That's very strange. When I got on the train, I heard the conductor say his name was Dillon. Marshal Dillon...If the name isn't Walters, then maybe he isn't dead either." Amanda Blake's low-key, poker faced reaction to this threat helps underscore Kitty's level of concern and love for Matt. By not overacting (and overreacting), Blake demonstrates the fear Kitty feels for Matt's safety, as well as her decisiveness in choosing to do what she can to prevent Beth Tipton from informing Sinclair as to his identity and presence on the train.
Later, when Kitty notices Beth chatting with Sinclair, the fiery redhead confronts the unscrupulous woman, in order to learn whether Beth has revealed what she knows, and finally admits her true feelings for Matt and the nature of her relationship with him. Kitty warns Beth that revealing Matt's identity and whereabouts on the train will cause him to get killed. Beth glibly replies, "So what?" An outraged Kitty strikes Beth across the face and says "Don't you try buckin' me, honey. As tough as you think you are, I'm a lot tougher. You're right. He IS my man. And I'll do anything to keep him alive, even to killing the likes of you." Again, Blake underplays what could have been a melodramatic moment by having Kitty issue her threat to Beth in a restrained, yet determined, manner. In so doing, Blake brings a sense of assurance and authority to the character that demonstrates Kitty's ability to hold her own against dangerous adversaries even in times of crisis.
But no other scene in this three-parter underscores Matt and Kitty's relationship better than a quiet, lengthy monologue and soliloquy that she has later on. Matt has started to lose feeling in his legs due to the bullet, and Kitty tries to convince Doc to operate immediately. Doc refuses to operate on Matt for fear that his lack of experience with spinal injuries will either cripple or kill Matt. A resigned and exhausted Kitty goes back inside the freight car, sits next to Matt's unconscious body and reminisces about the day she first met him. Blake's amazing monologue has always blown me away and I'm surprised it hasn't been acknowledged or written about more often by television fans and critics.
Leaning back against the wall, while looking straight off into the distance, Kitty recalls her arrival in Dodge City: "Seventeen years ago this month. I'll never forget that first day as long as I live. It was raining. And I was cold and hungry and miserable. When I stepped off that stagecoach, and saw those ugly buildings, all those muddy streets, I hated Dodge City. I was down to my last forty dollars and it couldn't have taken me much further. But you couldn't have paid me to stay in Dodge. I waded over to the cafe and was hurrying through breakfast so I could get back on the stage. Then a man came in and he sat down across the room from me. He was the biggest man I have ever seen in my life. And he also ate the biggest breakfast I've ever seen in my life. He was so busy polishing off all his eggs and ham and biscuits and he didn't even notice me. But I noticed him. I noticed him so much that I decided to stay for awhile. And stay I did, despite of the fact that I found out that the big man wore a big badge and he didn't think he had any right to get involved in any kind of permanent relationship. Oh, we REALLY fought some battles about that. Seems to me that I left three or four times, just swearin' up and down that, under any circumstances, was I gonna see him or his damn badge again. I always came back. And, once, he even came to get me. Now, here we are. After 17 years, and that's got to be the LONGEST, non-permanent relationship in history. But I wouldn't change one day of it...not one day." In response to Kitty's heartfelt remembrance, Matt regains consciousness, struggles to raise his torso while wincing in pain, turns partway towards Kitty, and says (while not looking directly at her), "I noticed that day, Kitty. I noticed."
James Arness, in the aforementioned interview, indicated that fans frequently wrote to the show's producers complaining that the relationship between Matt and Miss Kitty remained low-key and unresolved. The fans wanted the producers to finally bring the relationship to fruition, perhaps to even allow them to get married on-screen. However, I think it's because the show hasn't beat viewers over the head with the romantic aspects of their relationship that Kitty's monologue in the "Gold Train: The Bullet" episode, and Matt's acknowledgement of it, carries such weight and resonance. We've already seen, in the 17 years leading up to this episode, the warmth and respect that these characters have for one another (while they are involved in story lines that aren't always, directly or indirectly, about their relationship) that we don't need to see or hear about it all the time. Even if the moments concerning their relationship mentioned by Kitty sometimes took place off-screen, Kitty's monologue still feels believable because we already sensed something was going on between them that her reminiscence simply helps to fill in the gaps as to what we know. As such, when it came time for "Gunsmoke" to really address Matt and Kitty's love for one another, it never feels forced or artificial, and the result is that it carries tremendous feeling and impact. The scene, and Kitty's genuine love and concern for Matt throughout this particular three-part episode, would not have worked as well if their relationship was a constant, heavy-handed element in the series.
What makes Kitty's monologue carry even more resonance is our knowledge that Matt and Kitty don't end up together in the long run. Amanda Blake left the series in 1974 when she decided not to appear in the 20th and final season of "Gunsmoke," and in the reunion movie "Gunsmoke: Return to Dodge" (1987), Matt and Kitty are reunited, but ultimately part for good at the end of that story. In subsequent "Gunsmoke" reunion movies that feature Matt Dillon (which were made after Blake died in 1989), Kitty is nowhere to be found. I think stories that involve an unresolved romantic longing between individuals always carry with it more impact than ones that end conventionally. (Look at "Gone with the Wind" if you doubt what I'm saying.) Even though I would have liked to have seen Matt and Kitty spend the rest of their lives together, I'm still satisfied knowing that they had a special friendship that lasted through the years, and that they had a positive impact on each other's lives that we were fortunate to have witnessed and experienced.