Judge Sandra Dozier enjoys watching dramas about pioneer days, but she would never willingly return to an era before surround sound.
Our reviews of Little House On The Prairie: The Complete Third Season (published February 19th, 2004), Little House On The Prairie: The Complete Fourth Season (published March 23rd, 2004), Little House On The Prairie: The Complete Fifth Season (published August 20th, 2004), Little House On The Prairie: The Complete Sixth Season (published November 17th, 2004), and Little House on the Prairie: The Complete Nine Season Set (published November 13th, 2011) are also available.
Mrs. Oleson, to her son: "Willie, how could you?! How could you be a
Executive producer Ed Friendly and producer-director-star Michael Landon deserve much of the credit for getting Little House on the Prairie greenlighted at NBC. Landon, who was enormously popular as Little Joe on Bonanza, would be the star power drawing viewers to the show, but it hardly needed the help; generations of potential viewers had grown up reading the books of Laura Ingalls Wilder and would tune in to the show with avid interest. In its first season, the show was already ranked in the top twenty, despite the conscious choice not to adhere to the original stories but instead to stay faithful to the core characters (the Ingalls family) and develop a new universe based on their community in Walnut Grove. Season Seven is a more mature look at the beloved characters and town we've come to know and love.
Facts of the Case
Charles Ingalls (Michael Landon) and his wife Caroline (Karen Grassle) originally moved to Walnut Grove when Laura (Melissa Gilbert) was still in braids and going by the nickname "Half-Pint." Mary (Melissa Sue Anderson) had not yet lost her sight or married Adam (Linwood Boomer), and Albert (Matthew Laborteaux) was not yet part of the family. They suffered many harsh winters and grueling summers but managed to stake themselves to their land, make friends, and carve out quite a niche in the little town.
These days, Charles works at the mill and Caroline has her restaurant within the hotel that Nellie (Alison Arngrim) runs with her husband, Percival (Steve Tracy). Harriett Oleson (Katherine MacGregor) and Nels Oleson (Richard Bull) still run the general store, and Willie (Jonathan Gilbert) is still a first-class brat who gets sent to stand in the corner a lot. With Mary in Sleepy Eye with Adam at the blind school, Laura also leaves home to make a life for herself with Almanzo (Dean Butler), a situation around which many of the stories this season are written.
Season Seven showcases a changing Walnut Grove—Laura leaves the Ingalls family home when she marries Almanzo, Mr. Garvey (Merlin Oleson) and his son move to Sleepy Eye, Eliza Jane moves on to have her own life (and possibly find love) somewhere else, Nellie has twins, Adam regains his sight and moves back to Walnut Grove with Mary, and Charles and Caroline take in some new family members. In many ways, the stories this season reflect the maturity of the aging characters. Also, Landon is behind the camera as director more often this season, which gives secondary characters an opportunity to shine. Some of the episodes, for instance, follow Mr. Garvey to Sleepy Eye ("A New Beginning"), where he becomes the deputy sheriff (in addition to running his business) in an attempt to clean up the youth crime problem in town.
The season opens with the two-part "Laura Ingalls Wilder," in which Laura and Almanzo finally wed. In one of the more complicated plots for an otherwise simple show, Almanzo buys a plot of land on credit from a crooked seller, who promptly shuts off the irrigation line and forces Almanzo to default on the loan, which returns the land to the seller. When he refuses to marry Laura because he is now unable to provide for her, she defiantly decides to take a teaching job in another town. In a parallel story, Eliza Jane meets a man whom she falls instantly in love with, and mistakenly believes that he loves her back. When it turns out that he is to marry someone else, Eliza Jane realizes that she needs her own life and leaves Walnut Grove, vacating the spot of teacher, which Laura takes over. Almanzo finally relents and agrees that they can both work, and that the marriage will go forward.
Although Little House was known for its deeply emotional storytelling, the series plays it light for most of the season. Standouts include "Divorce, Walnut Grove Style," in which Laura suspects Almanzo of having an affair and goes into Half-Pint mode, getting into a knock-down fight with her rival; "The In-Laws," which features Charles and Almanzo making a bet as to who can get to Sleepy Eye first with a loaded wagon and then letting pride make a monkey out of both of them; "Oleson Versus Oleson," in which the women of the town move out on the men in defense of their right to own property (watching the men trying to cope with kids and cooking is hilarious), "Come, Let Us Reason Together," in which Percival's Jewish parents visit for the birth of the twins; "The Nephews," which should be a training video for prospective parents about what kind of havoc two feisty, troublemaking boys can wreak in a short amount of time; and "Goodbye, Mrs. Wilder," in which Mrs. Oleson decides that fine art and French should be taught in school, and Laura challenges her to take over teaching. While not as iconic as previous seasons, these episodes provide fine entertainment and devote more time to the relationships of the non-Ingalls characters. Even the running joke of Willie being constantly sent to the corner (even by his own mother in "Goodbye, Mrs. Wilder") is featured more often in this season.
However, the season is also marked by some excellent drama that requires the usual box of Kleenex nearby. "The Silent Cry" starts things off with a story of two orphaned boys who are about to be separated by the orphanage because the younger boy won't speak. An elderly man helps them hide when they run away, and is able to coax the younger one out of his shell. "Portrait of Love" reunites a blind girl with the mother who left her as a baby, and even though the secret her mother holds is predictable, it's nearly impossible not to be moved by the excellently directed scene when they come together. The other stand-outs are the two-part "To See the Light," in which Adam regains his sight, and the sadly sweet "I Do, Again," a story revolving around Caroline, who finds out she cannot become pregnant again and fabricates a pregnancy to help her deal with her grief and hide the truth from Charles. When he learns about it, he takes her back to their hometown to renew their wedding vows.
The season ends with new children in the Ingalls household anyway, when a son and daughter are orphaned in a terrible accident. The Ingalls take them in temporarily until a foster family can be found to adopt them, but the new family is harsh and the kids run away to Charles and Caroline, who decide to take them in permanently. In this respect, the show comes full circle, with a new family for Charles and Caroline and a full house once more.
Little House was something of a crossover hit: a deeply religious show that was sometimes heavy-handed in its moralizing yet managed to be balanced enough to attract a large agnostic and atheist fan base—a trick that shows such as Highway to Heaven (which also starred Landon) and Touched by an Angel did not pull off as effectively. Perhaps this is due to the simplicity of every stage of production, from the open, earthy (and mostly outdoors) sets, to the straightforward direction and uncomplicated plots that typified the show. For instance, in "The In-Laws," the entire episode revolves around a bet that Almanzo and Charles make about who can get to Sleepy Eye (with a full wagon) first.
Perhaps the best episode to represent Season Seven is the two-parter "Sylvia," about a girl who is a little more curvy than her classmates and is unfairly persecuted for it by her father, who makes her bind her chest and holds her responsible for any unasked-for attention from the boys. She stars a relationship with Albert that her father also stamps out. When she is brutally raped and ends up pregnant, her father blames her. It's a mature story that gives Albert a chance to be a hero, even if he's too innocent to see the bigger picture, and has some really fine direction, including a scene where Silvia and Albert are talking in the woods, and the camera pans down slowly to frame them in an overhang of tree branches. It also has one of the best moments in the series, when Caroline, who is enraged at Mrs. Oleson for spreading a rumor that Albert is the one who got Silvia pregnant, announces that she will attend church on Sunday and ask God for forgiveness for what she's about to do, then throws the bread dough that she is kneading right into Mrs. Oleson's face. Harriet's comical flailing about as Caroline stalks out is priceless. While this is a seriously dramatic episode (at one point, her father spits, "How can I believe a whore?" into his daughter's face), it still finds moments of levity and art, which is typical of this season.
The maturing cast, new characters, and Michael Landon's increasingly time-consuming roles as director and executive producer make for a very different story arc in Season Seven. Fewer episodes center around the core Ingalls family (their prosperity removes the central drama that the series is known for); several episodes take place exclusively in Sleepy Eye, where Mary and Mr. Garvey are; and Albert is less of a troublemaker and more of a settled, confident boy who wants to be a doctor and who is starting to become interested in girls. These changes met with mixed reactions from fans, who basically wanted to see their favorite characters happy but missed the drama of previous seasons. Still, although this season doesn't have much to do with pioneering spirit and is more of a straightforward family dramedy, it is nice to see a lighter side of Walnut Grove. Also, introducing ideas like having Percival's parents visit or frankly addressing the issue of what being silent about violent rape can do to a closely knit community brought in a contemporary social aspect that played out well in the 1800s framework.
An unexpected benefit of seeing the lighter side of Little House is the injection of Michael Landon's rather mischievous sense of humor. As Butler comments in one of the extras, Landon seemed to like to see characters befuddled and at a loss, and there are several moments where characters are openly devious or manipulative, as is true to human nature. Fortunately, his own character of Charles Ingalls is not immune to this treatment, and he is made the fool in a few episodes this season, most notably in "The In-Laws," when he thinks he knows a good short cut to Sleepy Eye but ends up eating his words when he has to drive his wagon through a bog and is turned back by a trigger-happy landowner who has erected a wire fence around his property. To add insult to injury, he tries to lie about his misfortune to his wife, who has known all along that he didn't make it to Sleepy Eye in time. In another episode ("Oleson Versus Oleson") he blatantly tricks Nels into joining a talk on women's rights just so he won't be the only man there. It's surprising and hilarious to see Charles behave in such an un-Christian manner.
Normally, one would not expect extras on a Season Seven boxed set, but Goldhil has included two interviews and an audio commentary, as well as an interactive quiz that tests the viewer's knowledge of trivia from this season. The interviews are about 12-15 minutes long and catch up with Alison Arngrim (Nellie) and Dean Butler (Almanzo). Arngrim talks about the preparation of a wig for Nellie and how painful it was to wear, and Butler talks about the marriage episode and his public appearances. More substantive is the audio commentary Arngrim does for the hilarious "Come, Let Us Reason Together," the episode that features Percival's parents visiting Walnut Grove for the birth of their grandson and granddaughter. Arngrim must have done her homework, as she talks extensively about Jewish customs, the other actors who appear in the episode (even extras), and other behind-the-scenes anecdotes. She also talks sweetly of her costar and on-screen hubby Steve Tracy, about their scenes together and her bittersweet feelings about watching him nearly twenty years after his death from AIDS. This was an enjoyable commentary, and it would have been wonderful to have more done for this set.
The packaging for this collector's edition is very handsome, with a full-color printing for the box that has character pictures, a fold-out inner folio that has pressed plastic holders for the DVDs, and a full-color booklet that has more pictures of the cast, an episode guide, and the regular stars listed in back. The box cover has this disclaimer: "This DVD has been restored using state-of-the-art color correction, picture enhancement, and noise reduction technologies." The picture quality (which is discussed in more detail in Rebuttal Witnesses) does indeed have more color depth, but other than the image and sound process, there was no scene-by-scene restoration, so the image quality varies by episode and scene, mostly due to poor source material.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Unfortunately, the image and sound quality for this boxed set leaves something to be desired, despite the efforts of Goldhil to restore the image via a color process and to reduce static and interference on the soundtrack. Part of the problem is the source: Little House was such a popular show in syndication that copies of the original prints were run off several times, a process that degraded the quality of the original to a point where only a restoration effort could return it to a near-pristine condition. The other factor is that Goldhil does not have the deep pockets of some of its competitors, and must work with the source material they can get. Therefore, the image quality ranges from fantastic, with a clear and bright image that blows away anything that has been on television since the original run of the show, to barely recognizable in some parts, with scenes so badly degraded that faces in wide shots are completely blurred by scan line interference.
It should be noted that, overall, image and sound quality is far superior to what is currently available on VHS or in television syndication. The color process by Goldhil has beefed up the color depth a bit and smoothed out some of the grain and dirt, but the image is still somewhat washed out and grain, lines, and the occasional "sunspot" (bright, one-frame flashes that obliterate part of the image) still clutter the print. Sound quality fares better, but at times it is muffled or indistinct.
Once I sat down to watch and enjoy these shows, the image and sound problems were quite tolerable, and I was only occasionally distracted by the more egregious flaws. Nevertheless, seeing Little House on The Prairie in this condition just reminded me that this show, which so faithfully tried to recreate the pioneer lifestyle and provided a whole new realm of entertainment for fans of the books, deserves better. It's all the more frustrating that the prints are in such bad shape, because this show was nominated several times for its cinematography, the ghost of which can be seen in some of the muted shadow-and-light play in certain scenes. I would love to see this show undergo a more detailed restoration effort and be released with some higher-production-value extras (a Michael Landon retrospective would be nice, for instance) and a slicker presentation.
As with previous seasons, the picture and sound quality continue to trump anything broadcast in syndication today. Although this series is certainly deserving of a more careful restoration and the involvement of some of the other living cast members (such as Melissa Gilbert), this is still an excellent edition with entertaining extras. Recommended for anyone who likes to pull out their favorite episodes and watch them over and over, especially if you've been living with VHS all these years.
We'll make you stand in the corner if you don't consider checking out Little House on The Prairie: The Complete Seventh Season.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Goldhil Home Media
• Interview with Alison Arngrim
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