Goldhil Home Media // 1978 // 1060 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Bill Treadway (Retired) // March 23rd, 2004
Timeless family values of love, courage and friendship.
The fourth season of the popular 1977-83 television series Little House on the Prairie debuts on DVD for the first time. Does the series still stand the test of time or will it fade away? Let us journey onward with this review.
When we last left the Ingalls clan in Season Three, they left the "Gold Country" of California for the safe haven of Walnut Grove, Minnesota. After returning home, Charles (Michael Landon, Bonanza, Highway to Heaven) provides for his family the only way he knows how: hard work. Caroline (Karen Grassle) runs the house and continues to be the pillar of strength. Mary (Melissa Sue Anderson, Happy Birthday to Me) is working towards becoming a teacher until tragedy strikes towards the end of the season. Laura (Melissa Gilbert) is still the spunky tomboy who likes to go froggin' in the lake and play baseball with her best friend Andrew Garvey, son of Jonathan (Merlin Olsen, who would act in Landon's next TV series for NBC, Father Murphy).
The Birth of a Classic Series
It all began in 1972, in the home of executive producer Ed Friendly. His teenage daughter was home sick and he dropped in to visit her. He noticed her reading one of Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House novels -- novels Friendly's wife had been trying to convince him to option for more than 15 years. While flying to New York the day after, Friendly took along one of the books as reading material. By touchdown, he was convinced to turn Wilder's novels into a television series.
After the script for the pilot was finished, Friendly offered his friend Michael Landon a chance to direct it. Landon loved the script, but in addition to directing, he also wanted to play Charles Ingalls. Owing NBC a new weekly series but with the two sides disagreeing on what show to make, Landon asked if he could submit Little House on the Prairie to fulfill that commitment. Friendly gave his blessing to Landon's pitch. NBC loved the script and greenlit the project. In March 1974, the pilot episode of Little House on the Prairie aired and became a smash hit. Thus, the weekly series was born and lasted for nine seasons, plus a handful of made-for-TV movies.
What made Little House on the Prairie so appealing to viewers? First, the show is based on real events and history always holds a fascination with people. Second, the landscape of television was considerably different in 1974. Audiences were more receptive and patient to follow scripted television -- reality TV had yet to rear its ugly head. Third, Little House was a family show, wholesome and sweet. Families then were more inclined to tune in together. (It doesn't happen as often anymore, unfortunately.)
Michael Landon knew how to put together a quality television program. As the program's star, producer, and sometime writer/director, he was miraculously able to balance all four duties and do flawless work in all areas. The key to his success was simplicity. Not obsessed with artistic touches and flourishes, Landon's simple, low-key approach to the program is one reason why it works. That doesn't mean the show skimps on gorgeous visuals; each episode is crammed with breathtaking scenery, all filmed on authentic, unspoiled locations.
The acting is the other major peg in the show's success. All the performances are exactly what they should be and nothing more; if the program were made today, it would be loaded with overpriced, undertalented stars. By using a cast combining unknowns and moderately familiar actors, Little House achieves a perfect balance. Landon's work as Charles Ingalls seems phoned-in, but a closer look will reveal that it is a subtle performance of great stature and power. Karen Grassle's Caroline is rare for her time: the matriarch who is actually an intelligent, kind woman instead of the ditzy June Cleaver model Hollywood loved to barf up on screen before. Melissa Gilbert's work as Laura is quite good for a child actor, natural and heartfelt. But Melissa Sue Anderson, who plays Mary Ingalls, gives the standout performance. Mary is given lots to do in the fourth season and Anderson has some difficult scenes to play, often brimming with emotion. She pulls these off flawlessly. I have always wondered what happened to her since I have always felt that she was a promising young actress. (And another one of my secret crushes...but that's another review.)
Season Four of Little House was even better than all previous seasons. Strong stories and scripts complemented the superb acting and direction beautifully. All 22 episodes from the 1977-78 season have been compiled onto six discs. On a scale of zero to five stars:
* "Castoffs" (Air date: September 12, 1977)
Laura's dog Jack dies, resulting in some apprehension when Charles brings a new dog, Bandit, into the Ingalls home.
* "Times of Change" (Air date: September 19, 1977)
Charles has been chosen to represent Walnut Grove at the Grange Convention in Chicago. Mary tags along, in hopes of reigniting her love for John, Jr.
* "My Ellen" (Air date: September 26, 1977)
Ellen, a schoolmate and friend of Laura and Mary, drowns in the local river, leaving her mother devastated.
* "The Handyman" (Air date: October 3, 1977)
Caroline hires a handyman to finish building the new kitchen Charles began before being called away on business. Mary becomes convinced that her mother is having an affair.
* "The Wolves" (Air date: October 17, 1977)
Laura and Andrew find a mother wolf and her cubs in the woods and bring them back to the Garvey farm. Unfortunately, some wild dogs get wind of it.
* "The Creeper of Walnut Grove" (Air date: October 24, 1977)
A mysterious figure is stealing things from the citizens of Walnut Grove. Laura and Andrew decide to catch the culprit. However, things are not what they seem.
* "To Run and Hide" (Air date: October 31, 1977)
Unable to save a patient, Doc Baker decides to retire for good.
* "The Aftermath" (Air date: November 7, 1977)
The James brothers hide out in Walnut Grove, where they befriend an unsuspecting Mary.
* "The High Cost of Being Right" (Air date: November 14, 1977)
Jonathan Garvey loses his barn and crops to a fire, leaving his wife Alice to go back to work.
* "The Fighter" (Air date: November 21, 1977)
After knocking out Joe Kagan (Moses Gunn) in a boxing match, Charles looks after him and helps him heal his emotional and physical wounds. One of the extended episodes used to fill a ninety-minute slot, this episode is one of the best in the entire series.
* "Meet Me at the Fair" (Air date: November 28, 1977)
A more lighthearted episode; the Ingallses go to the fair where Mary falls for a balloonist, Laura gets the ultimate revenge against Nellie, and Carrie stows away in a balloon.
* "Here Comes the Brides" (Air date: December 5, 1977)
Adam Simms and his son Luke move to Walnut Grove and fall for Miss Beadle and Nellie Oleson, respectively.
* "Freedom Flight" (Air date: December 12, 1977)
Indians come to Walnut Grove seeking help for their ill chief. Charles and Doc Baker are willing to help, but hostile townspeople led by racist MacGregor retaliate.
* "The Rivals" (Air date: January 9, 1978))
Laura finds herself attracted to Jimmy Hill, but he doesn't reciprocate. Charles and Jonathan compete with another duo for a freighting contract.
* "Whisper Country" (Air date: January 16, 1978))
Mary begins her teaching career in Whisper Country, a community under the control of a god-fearing religious zealot named Miss Peal.
* "I Remember, I Remember" (Air date: January 23, 1978))
While waiting for Charles to arrive home from work for their anniversary, Caroline remembers the time she and her husband first met.
* "Be My Friend" (Air date: January 30, 1978))
Laura finds a series of bottles that lead her to an abandoned baby.
* "The Inheritance" (Air date: February 6, 1978))
Charles inherits his late Uncle Ned's estate and discovers that being rich isn't quite as thrilling as it seems.
* "The Stranger" (Air date: February 20, 1978))
Mr. Oleson's nephew Peter Lundstrom comes to visit. Oleson ends up sending Peter to stay with Charles to work off a debt. He discovers that life can be good after all.
* "A Most Precious Gift" (Air date: February 27, 1978))
Caroline is pregnant with her fifth child and deliberates on whether it is the son they always wanted.
* "I'll Be Waving As You Drive Away, Part One" (Air date: March 6,
Mary goes blind after scarlet fever causes permanent damage to the nerves in her eyes. Charles and Caroline decide to send Mary to the School for the Blind in Iowa.
* "I'll Be Waving As You Drive Away, Part Two" (Air date: March
Mary learns to become proficient at functioning as a blind person. She also grows closer to her teacher Adam Kendall.
Judge's Note: Both parts of "I'll Be Waving As You Drive Away" have been edited into one double-length episode; hence the digipak saying the set includes 21 episodes. In actuality, there are 21 and the review reflects the original airings. The two-part episode is also available as a single-disc release.
Goldhil presents the episodes in their original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The full frame transfers vary in quality. Some look pristine, even better than the original airings. Most look good, but with a noticeable difference in quality. A few (three episodes) look mediocre, with lots of scratches and specks. Colors range from beautiful to subdued, depending on the episode you are watching. There are also some glitches -- jumpiness, ghosting, and sudden blackness (only a second or so long) in some of the prints. Goldhil is not to blame for this. They have done the best they possibly could under the circumstances (some of the prints used are not the original masters, but copies). In fact, the episodes do look better than the reruns that air on the Hallmark Channel (especially "Whisper Country," which looks horrible on TV but terrific here.)
Audio is also a mixed bag. Some sound absolutely terrific, as clear and crisp as they did in their heyday. Others suffer the ravages of time, with muffled music and crackling sounds on the soundtrack. Still, you can easily understand the dialogue at all times. I have heard much, much worse.
My main gripe against the Little House on the Prairie box sets is the lack of extras. A scant few "behind-the-scenes" production notes on the third disc are hardly enough for a beloved classic series such as this. I'm sure if Michael Landon were still alive, he would have been more than happy to contribute some quality material to the set. Let's hope that for the next set (Season Five), Goldhil gathers some of the original cast and crew to record some interviews (or commentary tracks) while they are still with us.
The retail price of $49.99 for this set is quite reasonable. Despite the flaws in the audio and video, I can easily recommend this set as a purchase for fans -- it's better than taping the episodes off the Hallmark Channel. Little House on the Prairie: The Complete Fourth Season makes a welcome addition to any DVD library.
Both Goldhil Home Video and the series are found not guilty, although light probation is urged due to the lack of extras.
Review content copyright © 2004 Bill Treadway; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Goldhil Home Media
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 1060 Minutes
Release Year: 1978
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Behind-the-Scenes Notes