Remembering Classic Old Time Radio Westerns

Westerns have always been a part of American popular mythology and entertainment. Westerns were an important genre of the early pulp novels. They became a staple of movies from the time of the earliest silent films, and their relatively low production cost kept them a favorite of the studios. When TV advanced enough to take advantage of outdoor shots, Westerns became a favorite of the small screen, as well.

Westerns on the radio were mostly Radio Cereal Serials, on going after school sagas for the youth audience. Westerns for grown ups took off during the 1950s. There had been Westerns on the radio that were more serious than the kiddie Westerns, but Gunsmoke, premiering in 1952, was the first Western specifically for a grown-up audience.

The audiences for these grown-up Westerns were the younger brothers and sisters of the Greatest Generation who had fought the Second World War. The Hard Boiled, noirish detectives had been immensely popular immediately after the war, but audiences were ready for something new. Gunsmoke was inspired when CBS chief, William Paley, called for a Hardboiled Western series; a Philip Marlowe with horses.

Gunsmoke was created by the writing and directing team of John Meston and Norman MacDonnell. The pair created a rather gritty adult portrayal of the frontier where traditional black and white notions of right and wrong were often blurry. The popularity of Gunsmoke made the the program incredibly attractive to CBS’s Television division, and director MacDonnell held reservations, feeling the show was “perfect for radio” and would lose its authenticity to the constraints of Television. In the end, TV Gunsmoke was “taken away” from MacDonnell (Meston stayed on as head writer), first airing in 1955. Meston and MacDonnell kept Gunsmoke on the radio until 1961, making it one of the most enduring radio dramas (and arguably one of the best of the entire Golden Age of Radio).

After Gunsmoke started on TV, MacDonnell and Meston followed up on the radio with Fort Laramie. Where Gunsmoke was a story about a single lawman facing questions of right and wrong with his interpretation of the law, the hero of Fort Laramie, Captain Lee Quince, had to reconcile right and wrong with his duty. In his own way, Quince was as tormented and tortured as Marshal Matt Dillon.

Quince was convincingly played by an up and coming young actor, Raymond Burr. Burr was a hard working movie player, chiefly in Noir roles. He appeared with Elizabeth Taylor in A Place In The Sun (1951) and played the suspected murderer in Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954) starring James Stewart and Grace Kelly. Just before taking the role of Lee Quince, Burr was edited into the seminal Japanese monster film, Godzilla, King of the Monsters.

Fort Laramie was a military drama along the lines of John Ford’s “Calvary Trilogy”,  Fort Apache (1948), She Wore A Yellow Ribbon (1949), and Rio Grande (1950). Burr was by no means John Wayne, but he did a very creditable job of playing an officer on the frontier, struggling to maintain his sense of right and wrong while answering his call to duty.

Captain Lee Quince faced the demands of settlers moving into the Western Frontier while striving to respect the culture and honor of the Red man. He recognized that he had a mission to carry out the orders of his superiors, but was fiercely loyal to the troopers under his command. It is a tribute to the talents of Meston, MacDonnell, and the CBS Radio production team to realize that it is difficult to listen to Fort Laramie without seeing visions of the troops, riding through Monument Valley, ala John Ford.

Fort Laramie only lasted a single season. There were 41 episodes broadcast from January to October 1956, and the show continued to be popular over AFRTS for many years. For the 1957 season, Burr moved on to the role for which he would be most closely identified, the TV version of Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason.

See also: Where Did All the Radio Westerns Go?

This entry was posted in Gunsmoke, Western and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.