Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by the week’s new releases or premieres. This week: In honor of Love Week, we’re revisiting our favorite television episodes featuring a marriage proposal.
Gunsmoke, “Poor Pearl” (season two, episode 13; originally aired 12/22/56)
“Poor Pearl” is right. The title saloon girl receives two marriage proposals in one day, the first from a nice loner she’s only known a few weeks and the second from a domineering ex who abandoned her without warning one day and just got back to town expecting to pick up where he left off. How’s a girl to choose?
The melancholy 1956 Christmas week episode of Gunsmoke is deceptively low-key at first, the better to zero in on the characters’ psychologies. There’s Pearl (Constance Ford), shell-shocked even before either of the men arrive. There’s Willie Calhoun (Denver Pyle, The Dukes Of Hazzard’s Uncle Jesse), the friendly farmer who comes to town each week for a shave, a bath, and a date with his beloved. He’s just off a run of bad luck, but ever since he met Pearl those four or five weeks ago, things have been looking up. Maybe he’s the good guy. And then there’s Webb Thorne (Michael Emmet), a man whose very name is so sinister, he doesn’t even need to throw his weight around. Willie freezes in his presence, and Pearl clams up just knowing he’s out there. Maybe he’s the bad guy.
But things aren’t so simple. Over the course of 25 minutes, writer Sam Peckinpah lays everything bare, starting with the obvious: Webb is a manipulative user, and Willie’s what we now call a “nice guy” who expects marriage simply because he wants it. This is a Jessica Jones story. It lives in the ruins. Silence scores much of the early-going, making you perk your ears up, and even the indelible romance cue is full of sorrow for its battered lovers. Ford and Pyle draw us in with their quiet, building up the boogeyman by showing us how much he scares them. And Peckinpah keeps things fraught with misunderstanding, like when Willie leaves Pearl to pack and Miss Kitty (Amanda Blake) mistakes their moody interaction for some kind of fight. Director Andrew V. McLaglen saves the visual excitement for the climax, first a perfectly framed narrative gut-punch it’d be a sin to spoil, then a nighttime showdown backed by trees quaking in the stormy winds, and for the final image, a crane shot looking down on a man alone in the moral abyss. Merry Christmas, viewers.
One of the best episodes of TV’s longest-running drama to date (20 seasons), “Poor Pearl” moves like a maelstrom. Kitty and Matt don’t see the two abuse stories in front of them, but Peckinpah does. In fact, Matt’s short-sightedness is played for dark comedy when he’s sitting in his office speculating about the situation while things go south outside. And that’s just the start of the spiral. Sidestepping simplistic suitor rivalry for a richer exploration of these unfortunate souls, “Poor Pearl” takes a dim view of romance in a town like Dodge. The realist underpinnings are that pioneer life in general and the options of a saloon girl in specific are limited, but the story’s played like romantic tragedy. The day Willie and Webb propose to Pearl turns out to be one of the worst days in all of their lives.
Availability: “Poor Pearl” is available on DVD and YouTube.