S06Ep15 – “Be Not Forgetful Of Strangers”
Over the course of its 225 episode run, HAVE GUN – WILL TRAVEL produced two Christmas-themed episodes. The first was done right at the start, during the first season, whereas the second one came right at the end, in the final sixth year. It aired on December 22, 1962, just a few days shy of Christmas that year, and was written by Arthur Sarno Jr., about whom I could find very little. He wrote only this single episode of HAVE GUN, and only a couple of other teleplays, for such shows as MARCUS WELBY M.D. and THE YOUNG LAWYERS. He apparently started out as a publicist for film studios, and in that capacity he’s got a string of credits. But relatively little writing. That’s somewhat understandable as this isn’t especially a stand-out episode of the series. What makes it noteworthy at all is the Christmas theme–and even that feels like it delivers tropes as much as genuine emotions.
What’s interesting to me in this episode is the face that Paladin himself doesn’t come across all that well in it. While as always, he’s motivated to do the right thing, when at various points in the story the townspeople ask him what business any of this is of his, they’ve got a point. And Paladin is gruff and accusatory and looks down his nose at most of the people in this episode for most of its run-time, regardless of how genuinely good or bad they are behaving. We’ll chalk that up to the fact that he’d been on the road and exhausted by the trip, and so not at his best throughout the proceedings.
The episode opens on Christmas eve as Paladin rides into town. Rather than heading for the hotel (there’s the sign for one clearly in the background of one shot) he instead makes his way to the town’s Saloon, intending on getting himself a hot meal. The building is practically shaking with revelers in various stages of intoxication–entering the place, Paladin is forced to step over the prostrate form of a man passed out in the entranceway. No sooner has he gone two steps than he’s propositioned by Annie, a saloon girl, but Paladin isn’t interested in her charms at the moment. He’s looking for food, and he brusquely brushes her off. The bartender tells Paladin that all of his rooms are booked up and his kitchen has been cleaned out, but he might be able to find the Man in Black some stew, though he can’t vouch for how good it’ll be. Reacting to Paladin’s dark demeanor, the man tells him, “Y’know, mister, it wouldn’t do no harm if you was to get a little of that holiday spirit.” But Paladin is in no mood, and he growls at the man to bring him his stew.
Paladin elbows his way through the saloon to a table with an unoccupied seat where a man sits, presents stacked up in front of him. As he waits for the meal, Paladin converses briefly with this man, learning that his children are all grown and moved away now, and that he buys gifts of this sort every year as gifts but winds up keeping them for himself. Just after the saloonkeeper has brought Paladin his stew another man enters the room. He too is looking for a room, and when the bartender tells him that the place is booked up, the man grows agitated. As he and the bartender shove one another, he winds up landing in Paladin’s plate. As the barman goes back into the kitchen to replace Paladin’s dinner, the man humbly begs Paladin’s pardon, and the Man in Black is curious enough to follow him back outside to the front of the building.
Outside in the wagon, the cowboy has a wife who is pregnant and ready to give birth at any time. Realizing this, Paladin tells the man to bring his wife inside, and he will see about getting them a room. At the bar, he grabs the bartender, who insists that no rooms are available. “Well, I may just have to empty one for you!” bellows Paladin, just seconds before some of the merrymakers unknowingly accost the woman and he and the cowboy quickly punch them out. “She’s not going to have that baby in the street!” he insists. In what is perhaps the best shot in the episode, when the bartender asks Paladin just who he thinks he is, Paladin whips out his business card and thrusts it into the camera/the man’s face. Realizing that the Man in Black is a gunfighter to be feared, the saloonkeep says that he might be able to set them up in a store room in the back of the place.
After clearing out a makeshift bed for the woman to lie on, Paladin heads back into the main room, and asks the Bartender where he might be able to find a doctor. The barkeep brings him over to the man passed out in the doorway, and tells Paladin that their doctor is a temperate man all year ’round, except for when he takes his vacation on Christmas. The man is dead drunk and no amount of coffee is going to rouse him or make him of any use. Paladin breaks up the carousing momentarily in order to ask for help from the people assembled there, but they are all of no mind to break up their merry-making. Paladin grows cold as one man says that if the woman dies, she won’t be the only woman to have ever done that, and he frighteningly tells the man, “Friend, in just a few minutes you could be sleeping a lot more soundly than your doctor!“which quiets the crowd–but only for a moment. Paladin will find no assistance here.
Paladin is summoned to the store room by the cowboy. His wife’s pain is getting more unbearable, and Paladin must report that no help is coming. he also says that this is an awful place for the woman to have to go through childbirth, to which she replies. “I don’t mind those men out there. My father and brothers were like that. Their lives are hard, and they have to be hard, too–or die.” As the contractions get more severe, Paladin returns to the bar to get whiskey, clean clothes and hot water from the bartender. When the man seems recalcitrant, Paladin grabs him by the collar and sneers at him, “Now the good Lord gave you two hands, one to take with and one to give with and you’d better start giving.” As he heads back to the store room, one of the partyers throws a pine cone at Paladin’s back. The Man in Black turns and fires, shooting the cigar out of the man’s mouth. He tells the crowd that if they’re not going to help, the least they can do is to keep quiet. But the bartender replies, “You’re singing psalms to a dead horse, mister.“
Paladin turns his attention to Annie, the girl from the opening of the episode, asking for her help. At first she refuses, but as Paladin presses her, making her sympathize with the plight of the girl giving birth, she eventually relents, though she’s afraid that the bartender, Jake, won’t like her going off shift in the middle of such a rush. But she agrees to try to help. “Angels can do no more“, comments Paladin quietly. Jake does show up with the towels and the hot water, and he complains to Paladin that this whole thing is costing him money. But Paladin is unmoved, and ushers him out of the room once again.
Just then, one of the partiers bursts into the room looking for Annie. Paladin has hit his limit, and in addition to beating the man up, he pulls him back out into the main room and hurls him through the front window. Impressed with paladin’s prowess, one of the men in the crowd steps forward to shake his hand in fellowship. But Paladin isn’t buying, he’s on a crusade now. “Fun? There’s a woman in that other room fighting for her life. You people out here are behaving like a pack of animals, what kind of fun are you having?” But this man isn’t going to stand for such treatment any longer, and neither is the mob behind him–he insists that Paladin apologize, or else he’ll draw on him. “Well, you’re welcome to try” hisses Paladin as he adopts his gunfighter’s stance.
The crowd parts as the two men face off and the tension mounts. But before either gunman can make a move, the silence is broken by the cry of a baby, and the moment is broken. The ordeal is over. Standing over the newborn and his mother, Paladin is thanked for his assistance by the cowboy., who says he will never forget this night. “Though I speak with the tongues of men and angels and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass or tinkling cymbals.” quotes Paladin in response. Annie is similarly moved. “Up until now I never cared much for Christmas. It was just a time to be lonely. But when I put that baby in her arms, it was like I gave her something.“
At this point, the assembled revelers appear in the doorway. They’ve been considering paladin’s words, and they’ve taken up a collection for the newborn and his mother. In addition, the old man from Paladin’s table presents the child with his gifts. “They might not be a-appropriate-like, but it’s all I got. Ma’am, you did me a big favor. I got somebody to give them to.” As the rest of the group piles in to share the moment, Paladin asks the barkeep to send his coat on to the Carlton Hotel in San Francisco, and he takes his leave.
Wrapping himself in a blanket, the Man in Black says a final Merry Christmas to the still-sleeping doctor then heads up and mounts his horse. As he rides out of town, his attention is caught by a sign on the Livery Stable, which identifies the little town as Bethlehem, Texas (of course). And on that final note, Paladin wends his way out of the village, still cold, hungry and tired but with this celebratory episode behind him.