I just watched a terrific episode of Death Valley Days.
Death Valley Days (1952-1970) was a syndicated anthology (rather than “continuing character”) western series airing at 7:30 P.M. – six-thirty Central Time – after the national news broadcast and before the high–powered, network “Prime Time” schedule kicked in. Basically, it was programming “filler.” But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t, occasionally, terrific.
Now that my television viewing options have narrowed – See: The post where I wrote how my TV viewing options have narrowed… okay, I’ll look it up… oh yeah, it’s called “I’m Learning More About Classical Music Than, To Be Honest, I Actually Wanted To” (12/7/2016) – I find myself watching more offerings on The Westerns Channel than I used to.
And I used to watch quite a few.
None of these old westerns, which currently include Laramie and Cheyenne – were considered “distinguished” in their heyday. Still – and I admit to favoring the genre so I am a bit of a pushover – what I have noticed is their reliable, professional storytelling ability.
These run-of-the-mill series – and others like them – may not have always told memorable stories. But, with remarkable frequency, they told the stories they did tell extremely competently. Those writers really knew what they were doing.
The suspense is suspenseful – in virtually every episode I have heard myself think, “Well, Cheyenne is certainly done for this time!” – and the resolution is invariably satisfying. He wasn’t.
Most impressively, a remarkability unnoticed by the layperson, every episode ended exactly on time.
Nicely done, anonymous westerns scriptwriters. I tip my sombrero to you. Or I will, as soon as I get one.
In each of its self-contained episodes, Death Valley Days recounted mythical stories of the Old West – tales of the “Lost Dutchman” mine, and “The Great Pinto Bean Gold Hunt.” The show’s original host was the “Old Ranger”, later replaced by Dale Robertson, later replaced by Ronald Reagan, who himself later replaced Jimmy Carter (who had nothing to do with Death Valley Days, I just thought mentioning him would somehow elevate the proceedings.)
Sponsored by “Twenty Mule Team Borax”, the “visual” accompanying Death Valley Days’ solo horn theme music showed a wagon pulled by across Death Valley by a team of twenty mules.
(Note of Personal Enthusiasm: There is a carved replica of that iconic team and wagon adorning a table in our living room. We found in in an antique store in Michigan City. It contains all twenty mules. And don’t think we didn’t count them. Nobody wants an eighteen-mule replica.)
Okay, the Death Valley Days episode, entitled… I don’t know what it’s entitled, written by… I don’t know who it was written by. Which is a shame. They deserve the acknowledgement.
Two men, one, a fun-loving cowboy, the other, a neophyte “Cavalry Dandy” vie for the attentions of a young lady newly arrived from the East.
To frighten the “Cavalry Dandy” riding alone back to the post, the fun-loving cowboy and his two equally fun-loving compadres, masquerading as Indians, pursue the “Cavalry Dandy”, screamin’ and holleriin’, and shootin’ crazily in the air.
The terrified “Cavalry Dandy” races to safety, feverishly reporting his experienced “Indian attack” to the post commander.
To corroborate the “Cavalry Dandy’s” report, and to cover up their shenanigans during which one of the compadres lost his horse, the fun-loving cowboy explains that the missing horse was, in fact, stolen by the marauding Indians.
Pursuant to the evidence before him, the post commander, fearing an imminent uprising, orders a preemptive assault on the Indian encampment.
To avert a bloodbath, the fun-loving cowboy rushes to the Indian encampment, explaining the “joke” that propelled things onto the wrong track and apologizing to the chief for initiating the commotion.
The chief demands an apology instead from the “Cavalry Dandy”, whose prejudiced ignorance has brought an attacking army to the Indians’ doorstep.
Moments before the impending battle, the fun-loving cowboy intercepts the “Cavalry Dandy”, coming clean about his practical joke. It was he and his compadres who had harassed him, not the Indians.
To prove to the stubborn “Cavalry Dandy” that it was them, the fun-loving cowboy and his equally fun-loving compadres reprise their shenanigans, screamin’ and hollerin’ and shootin’ crazily in the air.
Mistaking the reprised ruckus for Indians preparing for battle, the post commander orders an immediate charge on the Indian encampment.
Informed of the cavalry charging in their direction, the Indians take to their horses, prepared for battle.
But before a saber can be swung or an arrow unleashed, the “Cavalry Dandy” belatedly acknowledges his error, apologizing to the Indians for the unfortunate misunderstanding.
The confrontation is averted. The Indians go back to their teepees. The cavalry returns peacefully to the post.
And all that in twenty-four minutes.
No, wait. There’s more.
When called upon by the dueling suitors, the young lady newly arrived from the East announces her imminent departure back to the East, fearing being trapped in an Indian uprising that was never intended.
What a ripsnortin’ episode, huh? And for brevity’s sake, I left out a couple of imaginative twists and turns. The narrative veritably races along. I’ve seen plays and movies nowhere near as skillfully orchestrated.
We honor the best, while ignoring the reliably competent.
Understandable, I suppose.
But not right.