Paramount // 1959 // 792 Minutes // Not Rated
Paramount // 1959 // 793 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Cynthia Boris (Retired) // October 7th, 2009
Finally, The Real Deal on DVD
Bonanza is one of the most well-known, beloved shows to ever grace the small screen. The cast members became legendary for their roles and the Cartwrights as a family have been both honored and parodied more times than anyone could count. And yet, with all this fame and notoriety, the entire series was never released officially on DVD, emphasis on the word "officially," until now.
Years ago, 31 episodes of the series were released into public domain and a number of small DVD companies produced sets with dozens of different combinations of these episodes for sale in discount stores. These episodes were drawn from the first two seasons of the series, and about half of those can be found on these First Season DVDs.
That means there's plenty here to talk about, so let's get right to it.
In the mid 1800s, miners in the area that is now Virginia City, Nevada, discovered The Comstock Lode, a rich deposit of silver ore in the mountains. People from all over the world flocked to the area to seek their fortune, settling what was, up until then, a barren piece of land in the West.
A few hours away, on the shores of Lake Tahoe, Ben Cartwright (Lorne Greene, Battlestar Galactica) made his fortune when he laid claim to the largest cattle ranch in the area. It was called The Ponderosa, and he ran it with the help of his three sons. Each of his sons was born of a different mother, the easy explanation for why they were all so different. Adam (Pernell Roberts, Trapper John, M.D.), the eldest, was born to a Boston-bred beauty, so he was the one with the brains and the culture. Next was Hoss (Dan Blocker), born to a hard-working Swede. He was built like an ox but was as gentle as a kitten. The youngest was Little Joe (Michael Landon, Little House on the Prairie), born to a wild woman of New Orleans. A hot-head with a lust for life, Joe was known for thinking with his heart and not his head.
Each week on Bonanza, one or more of the Cartwrights would fall in with the guest of the week for a story of adventure, romance, and sometimes just for laughs. They did this for 14 years, amassing a total of 430 episodes, making it one of the longest running prime-time dramas ever made. It was also the first western to be made in color, and that was a huge selling point for the series.
Like most shows of the era, the first season of Bonanza has a whopping 32 episodes (today's TV shows run closer to 22, and cable shows come in around 12). Because of this, the season has been divided into two volumes, both of which are being released at the same time.
As I mentioned, this is the first "official" release of the series, and it's loaded with some fine special features. The most impressive feature is the huge volume of behind the scenes photos in the various galleries. Generally, I'm not a fan of galleries on DVDs, they're a pain to navigate and they never have a counter, so you have no idea if there are five photos or 50 in the stack, but these galleries are worth the effort.
When you navigate to the submenu on each episode, you'll find that almost every one has a photo gallery attached. In the gallery, you'll find a mix of promo shots, episodic shots, and a large number of behind the scenes shots featuring directors, stunt men, the cast relaxing between shots, and more. I wish there was a caption listing for these photos because I'd love to know who all of these people are. Truly, an incredible collection of photos.
In addition, there are bonus galleries in the main special features portion on both volumes. These cover the cast as they went out on publicity tours, attended screenings, and donned their duds for promo photo shoots. I was particularly amused by a set of photos that show the cast members disembarking from an airplane completely in character from the top of their cowboy hats to the tips of their dusty boots. I'll bet that got old fast.
When you choose the episodes through the submenu, you'll see that many of them have an option for the original logos and bumpers. These short clips really take you back to the era, and I'm glad they went through the trouble to include them. A few episodes have their original weekly promos. They're horribly deteriorated, but they deserve to be included because they are so rare.
Another rarity is an episode of Fireside Theater called "Man of the Comstock." Creator David Dortort said this early script was the genesis of Bonanza, and you'll find it on Volume 1. There's also a tribute to Michael Landon, early concept sketches, and a short but interesting interview with Dortort where he explains the issues with the now famous Bonanza map.
Volume 2 has more photo galleries and promos along with an archival interviews with David Dortort, where he reminisces about each of the cast members and discusses the origins of the series.
From a production standpoint, Bonanza was top notch. The wardrobe and the sets are full of texture and color, and the range of both supporting character actors and big name stars will have you shouting, "where do I know him from," over and over again.
The one thing that set the show apart from other westerns is the emphasis on the guest and not the stars. You'll see it right away in the opening credits. Each week, a different one of the four main cast members is rotated to the first position. I dare say there are few actors on TV today who allow their credit position to be usurped once every four weeks. Though there doesn't appear to be a direct correlation to the credit positioning, Bonanza episodes do tend to rely on only one or two of the main characters per week, pushing the other two into the background. This is also highly unusual with a cast of this size. By doing this, they allowed the guest star and the story to move to the forefront of the episode with the Cartwrights acting as a thread that connects the episode to the thru line of the show. Don't like one episode? Skip to the next. Bonanza episodes vary wildly in both tone and character prominence. Some of their best are the pure comedy episodes that might appear only a week after a story about a devastating mental illness. When it came to weekly storytelling, Bonanza was ahead of its time.
Bonanza: The Official First Season, Volume 1:
* "A Rose for Lotta"
Yvonne DeCarlo stars in this pilot episode as a titillating diva hired to deliver a Cartwright into the hands of the enemy. The episode gives you all the backstory, but the tone is way off, so don't judge the series by this one. In the pilot, Ben is a bible-spouting, rip-roaring, blowhard with nary a good quality. There's an "us against the world" mentality that is very unbecoming, and the entire story is overacted. The relationship between Adam and Lotta is very unusual as our leading man threatens to break her arm one moment but pulls her in for a lusty lip lock later in the show.
Attached to this episode is a rarely seen ending that was cut after the initial airing (not surprisingly) where the Cartwrights mount up and ride off singing the Bonanza theme. It's almost embarrassingly awful and that's what makes it so fun.
•"Death on Sun Mountain"
Filmed several months after the pilot, this episode is much more indicative of the show's overall tone. The plot revolves around a businessman who decides to capitalize on the desperation of the families who came in search of silver, by killing all of the wild game in the area and selling it for inflated prices. Price gouging? Yeah, I think we can all relate to that plot.
Hoss takes center stage in this story about a group of travelers looking to introduce hydraulic mining into the area. This episode is all about conservation and using environmentally friendly means of working the land -- another concept that is very much in fashion today. Inger Stevens stars as a sickly woman who becomes the object of Hoss' affection.
•"The Paiute War"
This is the show's first big action episode that has the normally peaceful Paiute Indians battling the California militia when a miner lies and claims he was attacked by members of the tribe. Jack Warden stars as the unscrupulous villain who brought all of this on when he decided to manhandle two Indian women from a neighboring tribe. Like street gangs retaliating, the violence escalates until Adam gets caught in the middle, leaving Ben to find a solution and fast. The directing on this one is unusual, particularly during the battle that uses artistic camera angles for impact rather than an abundance of blood.
•"Enter Mark Twain"
Howard Duff plays the title character in what is one of many stories to feature real characters from history. In this case, it's Mark Twain whose literary commentaries fly above the heads of most of the newspaper readers in Virginia City.
•"The Julia Bulette Story"
This episode is based on another true story, but it was softened a little for network TV. In real life, Julia was a well-known prostitute in Virginia City who became something of a folk hero when she was murdered by one of her lovers. In the episode, she's toned down to be the hard-working owner of a pleasure palace who can't get no respect until she pitches in to help during a fever epidemic. This episode is centered on Little Joe with Julia becoming the first woman to inspire the phrase, "fall for a Cartwright, buy a tombstone."
•"The Saga of Annie O'Toole"
Ida Lupino stars in the first completely comic episode that has Adam in the lead. Annie is as Irish as it gets. She has a heart of gold and a will of iron. When her father dies, she decides to take over a plot of land in the mining country that was given to her by her fiancé (Alan Hale Jr.). There, she goes into the restaurant business (with Adam's help) but the dream falls apart when it's revealed that another man has a claim on the same piece of land. Ida Lupino steals the show!
•"The Philip Diedesheimer Story"
From comedy to tragedy, this true story is all about the dangers of mining. After a mine collapse kills five men, Adam helps engineer Diedesheimer (a real character from history) to devise a square set system for bracing that will prevent a future collapse. Only problem is, the bracing is a lot more expensive than the current way of doing things and the mine owners are reluctant to put safety ahead of cost. An excellent episode.
•"Mr. Henry Comstock"
It's supposed to be a fun episode that looks back at the founding of Virginia City, but it falls flat. Not a favorite.
•"The Magnificent Adah"
Ruth Roman stars as daring actress (she strips down to nothing but a leotard in her play) who might become wife number four unless Adam and his brothers can prove she's no good for Ben. The scene of Hoss and Joe sneaking out to catch the "naughty" show at the theater is delightful, and it's nice to see Lorne Greene taking the lead in this love story.
•"The Truckee Strip
It's Romeo and Juliet all over again when Joe falls for the daughter of a neighbor who is in a land dispute with Ben. James Coburn guests stars.
•"The Hanging Posse"
When a local woman is murdered, the woman's husband puts together a posse bent on hanging three men who may done the deed. But Adam takes the moral high ground, saying the men need to brought back to stand trial, and he's ready to defend his choice with bullets, leaving Little Joe to decide if it's worth killing neighbors to save three murderers who will likely be hanged anyway.
During a back robbery, Ben kills one man and then is shot himself. The townspeople are initially grateful for his help, that is until the robbers come back for vengeance. Hoss and Ben star in this tense tale.
Fay Spain and Buddy Ebsen star in another tale of a Cartwright in love with the wrong woman. Adam is the suitor this time and he's romancing a salon girl despite his father's objections and the fact that she'll date any man who looks her way. One of my favorites.
•"The Last Hunt"
Hoss and Joe star in this obligatory "deliver the baby" episode that has them birthing an Indian child during a snowstorm.
•"El Toro Grande"
One of many episodes that feature Hoss and Joe getting into comical mischief, this one revolves around a trip to purchase a prized bull. Joe ends up in a rapier duel, Hoss wrestles a bear and that's just the beginning of their troubles.
Bonanza: The Official First Season, Volume 2
* "The Outcast"
A young Jack Lord (Hawaii Five-O) stars as Clay in this episode about suffering for the sins of the father. Susan Oliver is an outcast after her father and brother are hung for murder. Now Clay is offering her a new life, but his intentions are far from good. A stellar guest cast makes this one work.
Talk of the coming Civil War divides Southern-born Little Joe and his Northern-born brother Adam after a stranger comes to town looking to raise funds for the Confederacy. Nice brother moments puts this one high on my list.
Time for more comic misadventures when Hoss and Joe are mistaken for a pair of notorious outlaws who just happen to be played by Dan Blocker and Michael Landon.
•"The Fear Merchants"
The Cartwright's faithful chef Hop Sing (Victor Sen Yung) is beaten up by a band of thugs working for the newest mayoral candidate. The man's platform? Virginia City is for white folks, and he's not about to rest until every last Chinaman is run out of town. A poignant episode about prejudice and the mob mentality.
•"The Spanish Grant"
A Spanish noblewoman claims to own part of The Ponderosa, but Adam suspects there is much more to her story, and he's going to do what he can to uncover her secrets.
•"Blood on the Land"
When a sheepherder insists on running his flock across Cartwright land, Adam wants to call in the law, but Ben decides to take matters into his own hands. It's a bad decision that ends up with Adam being taken hostage, leaving Ben reeling over the idea that his selfish actions may cause the death of his eldest son.
When a brutal US Marshall takes a Ponderosa ranch hand into custody, Adam and Hoss fear that their friend won't live to make trial in Los Angeles. In order to ensure his safety, the brothers decide to ride along, but it's a long way between here and there. Claude Akins stars as the surly Marshall in this tense story loaded with twists and turns.
Lloyd Nolan plays a vengeful police inspector who stoops to trumping up charges against Little Joe in order to force Ben to face murder charges back in New Orleans. The episode plot is oddly similar to "Desert Justice," which aired only a week earlier. It should be more exciting with Ben's life on the line but it doesn't play as well.
•"Escape to the Ponderosa"
It's a question of who do you trust when a sadistic Army officer hunts down three escaped prisoners. And this makes three episodes in a row about a rogue lawman dealing out his own brand of justice. I say, it's time for a comedy.
But no. Adam and Ben are accused of murder (again!), but this time they're already in jail waiting to be hanged. Their only hope is a lone avenger (Vic Morrow) who makes it his business to save the innocent from the gallows. According to the episode guide, this was a backdoor pilot for a spin-off that never materialized.
•"The Last Trophy"
Another naughty woman takes up residence on the Ponderosa. This time it's Lady Dunsford (Hazel Court) who is looking for a young, brave man like Adam to replace her weak, cowardly husband. Steamy stuff.
•"San Francisco Holiday"
It's one misadventure after another when the family heads to San Francisco for a little R and R after a long cattle drive. Not a favorite.
Does business come before friendship? That's the question when an unscrupulous miner (aren't they all) coaxes a neighbor into voiding the water-rights agreement he has with Ben in order to allow a mining venture that will likely poison the local water supply.
•"Feet of Clay"
If you think Dan Blocker is nothing but two-tons of fun, you have to watch this heart-wrenching episode. Hoss befriends young Billy who comes to stay on The Ponderosa after the death of his mother. Billy's father, whom Billy idolizes, is supposed to be in prison, but he escapes, and when he comes for his son, Hoss has no choice but to kill him in self-defense. The scene where Billy reacts to what Hoss has done will bring tears to your eyes. He may be the center of most of the comic episodes, but this one proves Dan Blocker can act.
This quirky episode should have been played for laughs but it wasn't. It's all about a gypsy girl who has been banished from her tribe because her people think she's a witch. And guess what, Joe falls in love with her. A strange episode.
•"Death at Dawn"
The season ends on a dramatic high note that's all about doing the right thing. Farmer Perkins murders a shopkeeper in front of the man's wife, sure that he'll get away with it because of his association with the town's crime boss. Despite the dangers, the wife testifies against Perkins and he's sent to jail to await a hanging at dawn. With most of the town too afraid to get involved, Adam, Hoss, and Little Joe are charged with watching over the prisoner. They expect Perkins' pals to try and break him out, but instead they go for an ace in the hole. They kidnap Ben and announce that they'll hang him at dawn if Perkins isn't set free.
Near the end of the episode, Joe and Hoss side against Adam who says they must uphold the law. It's a tense and emotion-filled scene that brings an exciting end to an excellent first season.
Bonanza: The Official First Season has four discs per volume and they're housed in flippers inside a plastic snapcase. Sadly, the episode guide (which is nicely written) is printed on the backside of the slipcover, so it's hard to read in spots.
The navigation screens take full advantage of the fancy, brocade Bonanza style, with animated film clips playing inside the burned out map on the main screens. Paramount, I applaud the attention to detail. It adds to the experience.
My biggest concern was the audio and video, but I needn't have worried. The audio is mono, but it's clear all the way through. The video is incredible considering that this was one of the earliest examples of color TV. For a western, there's a lot of rich colors in Bonanza, and they pop off the screen better than they ever did when the show first aired. There are a few dusty spots, a crackle here and there, but overall the episodes are clear and bright and free of debris.
Bonanza is a western only because it's set in the west in the 1800s. It's really more of a family drama with storylines that still work on TV today. Yes there are Indians and barroom brawls and horses and guns, but at the heart of it, Bonanza is about people and relationships. It's about being brothers, about being a good son and it's about the choices people make when temptation or bad luck comes their way. You don't have to be a fan of the western genre to enjoy Bonanza. It is a TV classic that everyone should see at least once.
This court finds Bonanza not guilty.
Review content copyright © 2009 Cynthia Boris; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2016 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice, Bonanza
Perp Profile, Bonanza
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 792 Minutes
Release Year: 1959
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Distinguishing Marks, Bonanza
* Photo Galleries
* Concept Art
Scales of Justice, Bonanza
Perp Profile, Bonanza
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 793 Minutes
Release Year: 1959
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Distinguishing Marks, Bonanza
* Photo Galleries
* Bonanza Brand
* Scenery of the Ponderosa