“Wyatt Earp, Wyatt Earp … brave, courageous and bold. Long live his name, and
long live his glory, and long may his story be told.”
For the 225 episodes of The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, these were the lyrics sung by the Ken Cristy Chorus at the opening of each 30 minute black-and-white Western. The same barbershop quartet hummed and oohed background music for the show from September 1955 to June 1961, helping establish the mood mythologizing an actual figure in stories far, far different from the historical record.
In the 39 adventures broadcast in the second season, finally available on DVD, the narrator tells us it’s 1876 and Wyatt Earp has been hired to clean up the cattledrive towns of first Wichita and then Dodge City. Earp, played by the very capable Hugh O’Brian, is an archetype of late ’50s (1950s, that is) morality. He doesn’t drink, swear, avoids violence, and is not exactly chasing saloon girls, except the very chaste Abbie Crandall (Gloria Talbott). Not exactly the gambler, brothel bouncer, jailbreaker, or bigamist of history.
But, hey, this is entertainment and The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp was one of the better oaters of the period. For one matter, there’s a framework unifying the series with returning characters and story arcs that deepen the relationships between the townsfolk of Wichita and Dodge, both who want civilization and those who don’t. For example, Paul Brinegar plays Jim ‘Dog’ Kelly, a saloon owner in love with Dora Hand (Margaret Hayes). She’s sold her dance hall and wants a respectable life outside of the indecency of downtown nightlife. They want to marry, but . . .
Other actual personages who get the network TV whitewash include Bat Masterson, played by the young Mason Alan Dinehart III, and not Gene Barry, the actor who starred in Masterson’s own series. Lloyd Corrigan played dime novelist Ned Buntline, a writer who made the real Wyatt Earp a household name. (In the show, Earp carried a Buntline Special, a pistol with a twelve-inch barrel, which resulted in many young viewers seeking out a toy modeled on the gun. The real Earp likely never carried one.) Then there’s Douglas Fowley as Doc Holliday of O.K. Corral fame, but these stories are set long before that legendary gunfight.
All 39 episodes are collected in a nicely packaged 5-DVD set suitable for anyone who treasures the Golden Age of TV Westerns. Educational it isn’t, except it now being an example of a time long lost—the time of innocent television, that is. Long may the stories be told!