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Thursday, September 3, 2009

BONANZA: THE OFFICIAL FIRST SEASON, VOL. 1 & 2 -- DVD review by porfle

One of my top five favorite TV westerns of all time, "Bonanza" certainly needs no introduction even for those who have never watched a single episode. If you fall into that category, then the release of BONANZA: THE OFFICIAL FIRST SEASON, VOLUMES 1 & 2 is the perfect introduction to the wild and wooly world of The Cartwrights--Ben, Adam, Hoss, and Little Joe--as they lord it over the rest of the world from the lofty majesty of their massive forest-bedecked Nevada ranch, the Ponderosa. And if you're already a fan, then you'll want to slap your brand on these little dogies before sundown.

Ben Cartwright, played by silver-haired, dulcet-voiced Canadian actor Lorne Greene, is one of those TV characters to whom marriage is the kiss of death for his hapless brides. As we join the Cartwright clan, Ben's already gone through three wives and sired a son by each. Soulful, taciturn Adam (Pernell Roberts), whose mother was a member of New England aristocracy, is the "cool" one who lets his gun do the talking while casting dark, sultry glances at any beauteous ladies within glancing distance.

Hoss (Dan Blocker), the gentle giant who's slow to anger but quick to finish off an entire hog before anyone else has even made it to the table, comes from sturdy Swedish stock. The youngest Cartwright is impetuous, girl-crazy action boy Little Joe (Michael Landon), a New Orleans-born hellion who's always leaping into trouble. Even their Chinese cook Hop Sing (Victor Sen Yung) is pee-oh'd.

These guys live in the coolest ranchhouse ever (which Adam designed and built) on the biggest spread in the northern hemisphere, and in these early episodes they're bitterly at odds with the devious Virginia City silver tycoons who covet their vast tracts of forest land with which to shore up their mine tunnels. In later seasons, Ben and his brood chill out considerably and become friendly, socializing members of the community who prefer reasoned diplomacy to gunplay. But when we first see them, they're coarse, boisterous wild men bristling with guns and running roughshod over the countryside. Just try cutting across the Ponderosa to get to where you're going a little faster--before you know it, you'll be staring down the barrels of four guns while the Cartwrights terrorize you like Hell's Angels on horseback.

In the VOLUME 1 pilot episode, "A Rose for Lotta" (9/12/1959), this very thing happens to none other than guest star Yvonne DeCarlo (Lily from "The Munsters"), a leggy actress who's been hired by those silver tycoons (including George MacCready and Willis Bouchey) to lure one of the Cartwrights into town so that he can be held hostage. The very sight of her speeding carriage throwing up Ponderosa dust in the distance sets our heroes' blood boiling and their bloodlust blazing, and they give chase with guns waving.

After roughing up her mousey driver (Ned Glass), tying him up, and tossing him in the back of Hop Sing's buckboard, Ben graciously instructs a willing Little Joe to escort the lady into town. The young Cartwright is set upon by ruffians but escapes, gleefully managing to create fiery havoc in the Chinese part of town. Meanwhile, Ben, Adam, and Hoss confront their wealthy foes in a local saloon, where Adam has a cool, melodramatic shootout with black-garbed gun-for-hire Langford Pool (a creepy Christopher Dark) complete with closeups of their twitchy eyes and sweating foreheads.

Even at home, these guys are off the hook. The episode begins with Adam and Little Joe talking trash about each other's moms, with Adam referring to Little Joe's dueling epee as "that New Orleans monkey pick you got handed down to you by your French Quarter mother", to which Joe responds with murder in his eyes, "I've never been able to see myself being kin to anything whelped out of a thin-nosed, blueblooded Boston yankee!"

A bareknuckled debate on the subject ensues right there in the livingroom (with Landon and Roberts doing most of their own stunts) before Hoss breaks it up by beating them both senseless with a few swipes of his ham fists. When Ben arrives on the scene with a blustery "Fire and brimstone!" we find that Lorne Greene's early interpretation of his character is decidedly larger-than-life. Roaring and bellowing with manic laughter at his sons' antics as though he's playing to the back row, Greene really pours it on here and sells this pilot with all he's got. To those used to the more sedate later episodes of the show, it's a pretty amazing sequence.

Before long, though, the Cartwrights begin to settle down and interact with their environment on a less hostile basis. (After all, it's hard to come up with interesting stories if you throw all of the guest stars off your land at gunpoint.) As Ben tells Adam: "Son, we can't ignore the rest of the world. We're the only stabilizing influence in the country." So he and the boys start using their influence to develop the town, help the poor, settle mining disputes, and try to keep the Indians and the settlers from killing each other.

The latter is forcefully depicted in "The Paiute War", in which a peaceful tribe is wrongfully blamed for some killings and the army is called in, resulting in a needless slaughter which horrifies the cavalry officer in charge. Definitely not your usual Cowboys vs. Indians stuff. Inadequate safety measures in a silver mine are a concern in "The Philip Diedesheimer Story", which sees Adam trapped in a cave-in while the mine's heartless owner (R.G. Armstrong) is more concerned with the bottom line than the lives of his workers.

The Cartwright curse rears its head again (and not for the last time) in "The Newcomers" when Hoss falls in love with a beautiful woman (Inger Stevens) who turns out to be dying of an incurable disease. In "Enter Mark Twain" the Cartwrights meet the soon-to-be-famous writer (Howard Duff), whose inflammatory political articles in the local newspaper spark a blazing gun battle in the streets of Virginia City. The scene in which the Cartwrights disarm a gunman and deliver him to the office of the crooked politician who hired him is cool as hell--they file imperiously out of the room like they own the place as Hoss empties the man's gun and flings it onto a desk without even looking.

Aside from the occasional comedy episode, these stories are thoughtful morality plays that mix hardbitten Western action with intense human drama. "The Truckee Strip" (which marks the first appearance of Joseph Messerli's famous end-credits watercolor paintings) is a Romeo-and-Juliet tale in which Little Joe falls in love with the daughter (Adrienne Hayes) of a rancher with whom Ben has had a long, bitter feud over a patch of land. Little Joe's growing disgust with the endless fighting and collateral damage leads him to pull a gun on his father at one point, which in turn prompts Ben to question his own unwavering convictions. Here, as well as in many subsequent episodes, it's interesting to see these characters grow and develop beyond their original one-dimensional qualities.

The show is consistently well-written and directed, with some early scripts by future "Star Trek" story editor Gene L. Coon and Christian Nyby (THE THING) directing several of them. The first television Western filmed in color, it's visually sumptuous and makes good use of sweeping outdoor locations. The sets and costumes have an authentic feel even though there's a storybook quality to them as well. Each episode is enhanced by a robust score by the prolific David Rose.



The first episode of VOLUME 2, "The Outcast", guest-starring a young Jack Lord and Susan Oliver, begins the tradition of announcing each episode's title with a musical fanfare. This set also continues the show's attention to racial issues with "The Fear Merchants", expanding Hop Sing's character beyond the usual stereotype as he and his people are menaced by violent bigotry in Virginia City. When a man (Frank Ferguson) accidentally shoots his daughter during an argument, a Chinese boy is accused of the deed and the Cartwrights are deputized to protect him from a lynch mob stirred up by a hatemongering mayoral candidate (Gene Evans).

This bunch contains some of my favorite episodes from the public domain DVDs I've bought over the years, only now in near-pristine condition. "Blood on the Land" features Everett Sloan as a ruthless old sheep farmer who stakes a claim on Ponderosa land and is willing to go to war with the Cartwrights to keep it. One of my favorites,"Desert Justice", boasts a great performance by Claude Akins as a hardcore U.S. Marshall bent on bringing one of the Cartwrights' ranch hands in for murder, even if it means killing anyone who gets in his way.

"The Stranger" marks the Cartwrights' growing acceptance by the citizens of Virginia City, as Ben is proposed as the new governor of the state of Nevada until a lawman from New Orleans (Lloyd Nolan) shows up with a warrant for his arrest on a murder charge. An especially exciting episode, "San Francisco Holiday", finds the Cartwrights and Hop Sing in the titular city where some of their ranch hands are shanghaied. Ed Wood regular Tor Johnson guest stars.

One of the series' best comedy episodes is "The Gunmen", in which Hoss and Little Joe (who are so much fun together that they'll be teamed many times) are mistaken for lookalike outlaws, the notorious Slade brothers, and must convince the terrified denizens of a small Texas town that they've got the wrong guys. The opening scene in which Landon and Blocker, as the Slades, gun down an entire saloon full of men in cold blood, is pretty startling.

The impressive roster of guest stars in volume one includes Ida Lupino, James Coburn, Ruth Roman, Barry Sullivan, R.G. Armstrong, Harry Carey Jr., John Beal, Mala Powers, Buddy Ebsen, Fay Spain, Alan Hale Jr., Anthony Caruso, Michael Forest, Jack Warden, Jane Greer, Alexander Scourby, Don Megowan, Hal Smith, Whitney Blake, Arthur Hunnicutt, Bill Quinn, Mort Mills, Barbara Luna, Raymond Bailey, Jose Gonzales-Gonzales, and Ralph Moody. Peter Coe of HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN and THE MUMMY'S CURSE makes a surprising appearance as an Indian.

Volume two's more familiar faces include Vic Morrow, Gene Evans, Christopher Dark (as yet another sleazy hired gun), Patricia Medina, Joan Staley, Sebastian Cabot, Hazel Court, Bert Freed, Ellen Corby, John Anderson, Philip Ahn, Frank Ferguson, Helen Westcott, Cameron Mitchell, Henry Hull, Paul Picerni, Stafford Repp, Gloria Talbott, Grant Williams, Richard Devon, Nestor Paiva, Kathleen Crowley, James Hong, Richard Deacon, Merry Anders, Don Dubbins, Rhys Williams, Gregory Walcott, and Morgan Woodward.

Both volumes are in original 4.3 full-screen with English mono sound. Each set contains four discs with four episodes per disc. Volume one bonus features include extensive photo galleries for most episodes, some episodic promos, original NBC logo, bumpers, and RCA spots for the pilot, Joe Messerli's original sketches for the closing credits paintings, and creator-producer David Dortort's 2002 personal recollections of Michael Landon, Dan Blocker, and the creation of that iconic flaming Ponderosa map through which the stars ride in the opening titles. There's also a wonderfully cornball half-hour 1953 "Fireside Theater" segment with Bruce Bennett called "Man of the Comstock", written by Dortort, which was sort of a forerunner to "Bonanza." Lastly, we get to see a bizarre alternate ending to the pilot in which the Cartwrights ride off singing the "Bonanza" theme song! (And not too well, either.)

Volume two contains more photo galleries and episodic promos, original NBC logo, bumpers, and RCA spots for "The Avenger", and David Dortort's reminiscences about Lorne Greene, Pernell Roberts, Victor Sen Yung, and how the Ponderosa got its name.

BONANZA: THE OFFICIAL FIRST SEASON, VOLUMES 1 & 2 are available seperately or together. For fans of the classic television Western, this rock-solid, robust series is great entertainment and is rightfully remembered as one of the finest shows of all time.

Buy it at Amazon.com:
Volume One
Volume Two
Volumes One and Two
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