Artisan // 1959 // 480 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Dan Mancini (Retired) // October 22nd, 2003
Adam: "Let's go back to the Ponderosa, Pa. This isn't any of our
Ben: "We can't ignore the rest of the world. We're the only stabilizing influence in the country."
Bonanza was a staple of American television for a long time, its run of 14 seasons (1959-1973) and a whopping 430 episodes cementing it as a classic. One of the big daddies of the boom in television Westerns during the 1950s and 1960s (along with Gunsmoke), it was the first of the genre to be shot in color.
The show is set in Nevada in the 1860s, and follows the adventures of the Cartwright family. Owner of a 1,000 square mile stretch of land just north of Lake Tahoe called the Ponderosa, three-time widower Ben Cartwright (Lorne Greene, Battlestar Galactica) oversees his spread with his three sons Adam (Pernell Roberts, Trapper John, M.D.), Hoss (Dan Blocker), and Little Joe (Michael Landon, Little House on the Prairie).
Using the 1857 discovery of the Comstock Lode -- a massive silver deposit that brought droves of prospectors into western Nevada seeking their big bonanza -- as a backdrop, the show casts the Cartwrights as earthy conservationists protecting the natural beauty of the Ponderosa from the greed around them. Meanwhile, their tenuous friendship with the Paiute nation is constantly at risk because of the ecological abuse of the miners, with whom the Paiute are nearly always on the verge of war. As a rogue's gallery of colorful characters flow through the territory, seeking their fortunes, Ben, Adam, Hoss, and Little Joe are left with the task of doling out justice, protecting the land, and trying to mediate the conflicting interests of the prospectors and the Paiute.
The Best of Bonanza, Volume One, offers eight episodes of the series spread across two discs (each episode runs approximately 49 minutes). Five of the episodes are from the first season (though not presented in broadcast order), the other three are from seasons three, four, and five. My knowledge of the show is far from encyclopedic, but the episodes in this set are stand-outs (particularly "The Crucible"). And, as far as I can tell, none have been previously released on DVD (prior to this release, 30 episodes from seasons one and two, which had fallen into public domain, had received shoddy treatment in the digital realm in a number of releases from a variety of small companies).
The four episodes on disc one are all from season one (1959):
"Mr. Henry Comstock" -- An old-timer takes a shot at the Cartwrights, thinking they're interloping on a piece of the Ponderosa sold to him in a swindle by the legendary prospector Henry T.P. Comstock (Jack Carson). Mention of the ne'er-do-well's name causes Ben and the boys to reminisce about their previous encounters with him, including the discovery of the Comstock Lode.
"Death on Sun Mountain" -- The Paiute threaten war as prospectors thin out the herds of antelope, threatening the tribe with starvation. The Cartwrights discover an opportunistic merchant named Mark Burdette (Barry Sullivan, Queen Bee) is selling the antelope meat to the miners at inflated prices.
"The Saga of Annie O'Toole" -- Ben Cartwright is forced to arbitrate a claim dispute between a feisty Irish immigrant named Annie O'Toole (Ida Lupino, High Sierra) and a San Francisco shanghai artist named "Trapdoor" Spain. O'Toole's fiancé, Swede Lundberg (Alan Hale, Jr., Gilligan's Island), staked two claims then gave one to Annie and sold the other to Spain. Drunk at the time, he can't remember which plot of land he gave to whom.
"Paiute War" -- A weasely trader named Mike Wilson (Jack Warden, 12 Angry Men) kills two Paiute women, then frames Adam Cartwright. The Paiutes go on a rampage in response, and capture Adam. The rest of the Cartwright clan must step in, calm the situation, and get to the bottom of the women's deaths.
These are the episodes on disc two:
"Enter Mark Twain" (Season One, 1959) -- Played by Howard Duff (The Naked City), the famed writer visits Nevada. Meanwhile, the Ponderosa is nearly stolen by a corrupt politician.
"The Crucible" (Season Three, 1962) -- After being robbed and left for dead in the desert, Adam runs into a weathered prospector named Peter Kane (Lee Marvin, The Dirty Dozen) who at first saves his life. Kane proves to be a cynic of the highest order, though, torturing and nearly killing Adam in an attempt to prove that even the most morally upright man can be driven to murder.
"Any Friend of Walter's" (Season Four, 1963) -- Silly slapstick and goofball humor ensue when Hoss meets a clownish prospector named Obie (Arthur Hunnicutt, The Red Badge of Courage) and his equally ridiculous dog, Walter.
"Bullet for a Bride" (Season Five, 1964) -- Little Joe (the series' heartthrob) asks Tess Caldwell to marry him after accidentally blinding her (it's the least he could do, right?). When her eyesight returns, her old man (Denver Pyle, The Dukes of Hazzard) gets worried the young Cartwright will call the wedding off, severing the Caldwells' ties to the wealthiest family in the territory, so he urges his daughter to keep her sight a secret.
Bonanza is an old-fashioned, mostly cornball television Western. Plots are frequently predictable, acting is hammy (especially among the show's weekly guest stars), Indians are white actors with painted faces, and scenes jump back and forth from locations in the Great Outdoors of California and Nevada to painfully obvious sets. But for fans of the show (or that era of television), it's all part of the fun. If anything about the show doesn't feel dated, it's the conservationist bent always at the center of things. Sure, the Cartwrights are macho men of the land, but they're all about appreciating the natural beauty around them, not subjugating it to their whims and desires. It's almost like a Western as envisioned by Aaron Sorkin. Okay, not really.
Despite my previous comments about the show's acting, it's only hammy in the best sense of family-friendly television melodramas. The leads themselves are perfectly cast and deliver sufficient charm. I've never considered Lorne Greene a particularly dynamic actor, but he does ooze a certain authority (it probably has something to do with his rich baritone), and I can't imagine anyone better suited to playing Ben Cartwright. It is, after all, the role that made him famous. And Dan Blocker is Hoss...period. Sure, he was in some B-movies, and he would have had Sterling Hayden's role in Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye if he hadn't died just prior to the film going into production (Altman directed a number of episodes of Bonanza, though none in this set), but he's Hoss. Even people who've never heard the name Dan Blocker know that. And, for those of us who came up in and after the 1970s, it's weird to think Michael Landon had a high-profile career before Little House on the Prairie, that for an older generation it was difficult to separate him from the character of Little Joe. The young Landon is spot-on as the cocky, mischievous, ornately-coifed youngest Cartwright, frequently having to be bailed out of his own folly by his hulking brother. Greene, Blocker, and Landon are the bedrock of the show, and they're good enough to sell Bonanza whatever its faults otherwise.
Look, Bonanza was designed to be light entertainment, and that's what it is. It was produced at a time when people weren't looking for television to be enlightening or cinematic. I'll spare you a load of cultural analysis. If you are or were a fan of the show, and just the thought of it conjures warm childhood memories, you'll be pleased to hear it looks beautiful on this two-disc set from Artisan. I'm not sure if they got their hands on the episodes' original 35mm elements, but the full screen transfers sport mostly vibrant colors and next to nothing in the way of nicks or scratches. There's some grain in isolated establishing shots, and some longer shots lack definition, but close-ups are astounding considering the age of the show. I didn't see any negative effects from edge enhancements.
Audio is clean, which is about as much as one can ask of a 44-year-old television show.
There are no extras but, to paraphrase Shakespeare, the show's the thing (see, I managed to sneak a little high culture in after all).
If you're a fan of Bonanza who's been settling for crappy public domain releases and broadcast television reruns, this is the DVD set you've been waiting for. The episodes are the cream of the crop from the best seasons of the series' run, and they're beautifully presented.
Sure, complete season packages might've been nice, but based on the serpentine complexities involved in obtaining rights to various seasons and episodes, that's likely an unreasonable expectation.
Review content copyright © 2003 Dan Mancini; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 480 Minutes
Release Year: 1959
MPAA Rating: Not Rated