We continue our countdown of my favorite 1970s Christmas TV episodes with 1971’s “P.S. Murry Christmas” from Gunsmoke.
Gunsmoke was one of the longest-running TV series of all-time (I believe it still holds the records for the most EPISODES of a live action primetime TV series, even if it has been passed in seasons by Law and Order: Special Victims Unit), so that’s why the first year I did this Christmas countdown for 1950s episodes, Gunsmoke was on THAT countdown, as well!
Of course, you couldn’t be much further apart than Season 1 Gunsmoke and here, Season 17 Gunsmoke. The two most noticeable changes, of course, is that the show eventually expanded from a half hour to an hour, and it also went into color over time. So a black and white half hour show in Season 1 was now a color hour-long show in Season 17.
Beyond that, though, the whole storytelling approach of the series changed over the years, as its star, James Arness (Marshal Matt Dillon), naturally did not want to do as much with the show over the years (especially after a serious knee injury affected his ability to do a lot of action stuff somewhere around Season 12). Notably, Arness never missed a SINGLE episode throughout the show’s run, but let’s just say that Matt’s appearances tended to be fairly brief in a number of episodes (in the syndication cuts of the episodes, there’s at least one episode that cuts Arness’ only scene right out of the episode).
The show got around the lack of Arness’ availability by giving his co-stars more to do, most famously, Ken Curtis’ Festus Hagen, who eventually became Marshal Dillon’s official Deputy (something that Dennis Weaver’s Chester never quite made it to), but also, by this point in the series, Buck Taylor’s Newly O’Brien. Longtime cast members Milburn Stone (as “Doc” Adams) and Amanda Blake (as Kitty Russell) got their spotlight episodes, as well, but when Arness wasn’t around, it was mostly Curtis and Taylor who took the lead. However, what the show REALLY did was just have the guest stars take the lead, with Festus and the others backing them up.
That’s precisely what happened in “P.S. Murry Christmas,” where the great Jack Elam plays Titus Spangler, the handyman at a local children’s orphanage, run by the seemingly cruel Emma Grundy (played by the always amazing Jeanette Nolan, who had actually received Gunsmoke’s only spinoff a few years earlier, for a short-lived series called Dirty Sally. Nolan appeared as a few other characters over the run on Gunsmoke, like a lot of other actors of her stature). Grundy raises some money for the orphans “for Christmas,” but she doesn’t actually use it for Christmas. She also fires Spangler after he sasses back a bit too many times, and almost costs the orphanage the money they were going to raise this year.
So the orphans ask Titus to take them with him, and he ultimately agrees, so they head off on the road, before getting waylaid and ending up in Dodge City. The orphans are a who’s who of early 1970s child actors, with the most famous being, naturally, two-time Academy Award winning actor, Jodie Foster. However, there is also a pre-Happy Days Erin Moran (wearing an awful blonde wig for no reason that I can imagine), a pre-Eight is Enough Willie Ames and a pre-Kelly’s Kids Todd Lookinland.
Anyhow, the citizens of Dodge are disgusted as Grundy, and throw a party for the kids (with Titus as Santa Claus) and Kitty comes up with a plan to ruin Grundy’s career by exposing the fact that Grundy drinks brandy on occasion (I know, silly thing to “expose” her with, but this was the 1800s, so an orphanage head drinking was a big deal). However, while sharing a brandy with her, Grundy opens up about how she is barely keeping the orphanage afloat, and she hopes that Kitty, a successful businesswoman, can help her. Kitty feels like a bum for assuming that Grundy didn’t do Christmas for the kids because she was a mean woman. Instead, it’s because she can’t afford it!
Anyhow, Kitty makes everything better, and the orphans all let Grundy know that they DO love and appreciate her, and it all ends nicely. Kitty even gives Matt a peck on the cheek, which is sadly, like, one of only two or three kisses the two share (despite the fact that they’re obviously having sex).
The name of the episode comes from the note Titus leaves for Grundy when he takes the kids.