The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp: The Complete Season One, 1955–1956
2009, Infinity Entertainment Group and Falcon Picture Group, five disks, 15 hours, $39.98.
Wyatt Earp was about more than just Dodge City and Tombstone. Just ask Kevin Costner. Or else watch the first season of this ABC series that ran from 1955 to 1961, with Hugh O’Brian in the title role and Stuart N. Lake, author of Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal (1931), listed as a consultant. Not until the last of these 35 half-hour episodes does O’Brian’s Earp move to Dodge City. In the first episode he becomes marshal of Ellsworth, Kan., where he handles the Thompson brothers and teaches fuzzy-faced Bat Masterson how to be a lawman. In episode five he leaves Ellsworth for Wichita, Kan., where he has dealings with the likes of John Wesley Hardin, Ned Buntline (of enormous Colt Buntline Special revolver fame) and detective Allen Pinkerton. O’Brian’s flawless Wyatt operated in Dodge from 1956 until 1959—even as Matt Dillon (James Arness) was doing the same on Gunsmoke—and then concluded the series in Tombstone (with the famous O.K. Corral shootout, of course). Those storied days will appear in future digitally restored and remastered DVDs, although the complete series (226 episodes) has already appeared elsewhere on DVD.
O’Brian, although he looks and dresses the part, is not the best Earp ever to appear on the big or little screen, but neither is he the worst. The long list of Hollywood Earps includes, among others, Costner, Kurt Russell, James Garner, Henry Fonda, Burt Lancaster, Randolph Scott, Joel McCrea, James Stewart, George O’Brien, Harris Yulin and Leo Gordon. How much the old TV show tracks real history is also debatable, which is a common complaint about Lake’s book and every Earp film ever made. The Life and Legend theme song about brave, courageous and bold Wyatt Earp is ingrained in the minds of many 1950s baby boomers and, indeed, remains as catchy as a goldfish in a glass bowl. Not as memorable, but just as amusing, is the background humming used regularly instead of orchestra music or singing to keep the drama flowing. Closing your eyes as you listen to the humming can be as hilarious as closing your eyes to appreciate the sound affects of a Three Stooges short. Not that the series can’t be enjoyed with eyes wide open.
Originally published in the August 2009 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.