Judge Cynthia Boris could have reviewed a von Praunheim film, but she didn't want to ponder Rosa.
Our reviews of The Best Of Bonanza: Volume One (published October 22nd, 2003), Bonanza: The Official Second Season, Volume 2 (published November 6th, 2011), Bonanza: The Official Fifth Season (published April 20th, 2013), Bonanza: The Official Fourth Season (published December 16th, 2012), Bonanza: The Official Sixth Season (published July 27th, 2013), and Bonanza: The Official Third Season (published September 16th, 2012) are also available.
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.
Facts of the Case
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:
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"
•"The Paiute War"
•"The Julia Bulette Story"
•"The Saga of Annie O'Toole"
•"The Philip Diedesheimer Story"
•"The Magnificent Adah"
•"The Truckee Strip
•"The Hanging Posse"
•"The Last Hunt"
•"El Toro Grande"
Bonanza: The Official First Season, Volume 2
•"The Fear Merchants"
•"Blood on the Land"
•"The Last Trophy"
•"San Francisco Holiday"
•"Feet of Clay"
•"Death at Dawn"
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.
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