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DVD: The Virginian

Submitted by admin on May 25, 2010 – 1:49 pmNo Comment
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The Virginian, Season One, offers above average entertainment. Considering the complete first season contains 30 episodes that run around 75-minutes each that amounts to nearly 40 hours of viewing pleasure. Besides that fact consider that The Virginian is based on a prototype western novel that features a lead character with no name, thus his nom de plume Virginian. When the television version premiered in the early 60s there had already been silent films and two sound films that had portrayed this character, and with top actors of the time like Gary Cooper (1929) and Joel McCrea (1946). Over it’s nine-season run The Virginian would evolve with different actors while the central character played by James Drury remained constant.

Drury, a Houston resident, spoke to Free Press Houston by phone about the show coming out on DVD after 48 years. The thing about the 60s was that there would have been viewers who had been alive to see the transition from the old west to the new west in the late 19th century. The western was a staple of the then fairly new medium of television. Drury recounted how “on any given week there was 15-plus hours of westerns on television, whether it was The Virginian or The High Chaparral or The Big Valley.” Drury recalled how he would come home from work and see plot elements in other westerns on TV that he had been shooting that day on his own show.

“The 90-minute format allowed us to tell stories that need to be told in a big way,” added Drury. The Virginian was the trail boss while his sidekicks Trampas (Doug McClure) and Steve Hill (Gary Clarke) rode heard. “In the original novel [by American author Owen Wister published in 1902] Trampas was an outlaw and The Virginian even ended up hanging Steve because he’d stolen a horse.” McClure along with Drury lasted the entire nine seasons while other reoccurring characters came and went. Clarke, for instance, was on three seasons and went on to write several episode of Get Smart (the popular spy spoof created by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry).

The hour-and-a-half format allowed the show the creative freedom to explore lengthy stories and attract name talent. Drury reels off some of the actors who appeared like “Bette Davis, George C. Scott, and Lee Marvin.” The Virginian also attracted directors like William Witney (a Tarantino favorite) and Sam Fuller. Drury noted that Fuller, who also wrote the episode he directed, “did a great job adding lots of facets to the villain character played by Marvin.”

The show would shoot an episode on a mixture of stage sets and actual locations. “I was raised on a ranch so I could ride a horse with ease,” stated Drury, a fact that adds to the show’s realism. Drury eventually had the clout to get things done his way. “Universal wanted to cut cost in one episode by getting rid of a Chapman crane so I walked off the set. We got the crane.” In another instance, and this is related in an interview on the extras DVD, Drury got Universal to quit running the tour bus past their set after the modern vehicle ruined an expensive shot by driving through the background of a complicated one-take explosion.

More often than not the show’s plots involve strange psychological currents like in the Witney episode where a young woman kills animals (shooting them, burning them in barns) or the Bette Davis appearance where she basically drives herself mad with guilt after lying in court, sending Trampas to jail and splitting the loot with the real killer. Every episode has a guest star and you rarely see actors going through the eye of the needle like George C. Scott or Brian Keith do here.

The 10-DVD package comes in a bound book, itself in a fancy tin box. “Other shows have had their day in the sun and now it’s our turn,”said Drury.

- Michael Bergeron

The Virginian intro

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