Though it has been a constant presence in reruns, I don't think I had ever seen even one episode Bonanza all the way through until this DVD set arrived. But the parts of shows I'd seen through the years pretty much looked the same to me, suggesting a raucous Western series closer in spirit to broadly comical Westerns like McLintock! (1963) than the more adult drama found in Have Gun - Will Travel and (in its early seasons especially) Gunsmoke. (Of course, those shows had their share of comedy, too.)
Nevertheless, over time I became interested in really giving Bonanza a serious look. I tried a few cheap, public domain DVDs but those were in the trash bin the minute I realized that, to avoid criminal prosecution, their distributors had replaced Bonanza's iconic theme music with generic filler. Roughly the second-half of Season 1 and the first-half of Season 2 are not under copyright protection and new PD Bonanzas titles are released every ten or eleven minutes.
CBS/Paramount finally got around to releasing "the official" seasons, as they understandably call them, further distinguishing these DVDs from their bottom-feeder PD counterparts with, "Finally, the Real Deal on DVD!" In addition to superior video transfers, these sets are handsomely packaged and topped off with loads of extra features that leave public domain offerings in the dust.
When The Official Third Season - Volume 2 turned up in our screener pool, I thought I'd take a chance. I was even more delighted when it arrived, because instead of just Volume 2, it was "The Official Third Season Value Pack," containing both volumes (and which sell for nearly $20 less than buying each volume separately).
I can't speak for Bonanza's later seasons - it was, after all, on the air 14 years with 430 hour-long episodes - but these 34 shows from the 1961-62 season are surprisingly fun and varied, lavishly produced by TV Western standards of the time, and quite entertaining.
Originally, Bonanza's main draw was that it was in color. Indeed, NBC, the leading advocate in the gradual changeover from black and white to color programming, kept in on the air precisely for this reason, despite poor ratings its first year when it didn't even crack the Top 30 ratings-wise. Stars Lorne Greene, Pernell Roberts, Dan Blocker, and Michael Landon were not well known at the time and, for the first few years, Bonanza's guest stars got more money than they did.
By the third season, however, Bonanza was king of the heap, and for the next decade it remained one of the top four shows in prime time, and the most popular show in prime time three years in a row (1964-67), with an average share as high as 36.9. (American Idol, the top rated show for most of the past decade, averages around 14.) Probably for this reason, combined with NBC's vested interest (NBC's parent company, RCA, sold the top-selling color television sets), account for Bonanza's obviously high budget, which at times gives it a really epic feel.
Bonanza was certainly clever in another respect. Hour-long series in those days had backbreaking schedules. Instead of the baker's dozen episodes per season common today, back in 1961-62 NBC cranked out thirty-four 52-minute Bonanzas. Where hour shows with a single star would burn out an actor quick (such as James Garner on Maverick, who ultimately alternated episodes with another co-lead, Jack Kelly), Bonanza wisely divided the labor among four leads instead of one or two.
The show follows the adventures of the Cartwright family, who lord over a 600,000-acre ranch called the Ponderosa along the shores of Lake Tahoe in Nevada. Widowed (thrice!) patriarch Ben (Greene) has three sons: cool-headed Adam (Roberts), gentle giant Hoss (Blocker), and impetuous Little Joe (Michael Landon). Usually, though not always, all four make at least token appearances, but often an episode will focus its story on just one brother or Ben, though sometimes the entire family is featured equally throughout the episode.
My memory that Bonanza was predominantly broadly comic was faulty, or maybe what chunks of Bonanza I saw through the years were just the lighthearted ones, or maybe there's more of that in later seasons. In any case, the episodes in this set consist mostly of solidly told Western melodrama with comical shows here and there. About one-quarter even surprised me. "The Ride," for instance, has Adam identifies a respected citizen and business partner as one of two hooded murderers in a botched station robbery. Yet because Adam didn't actually see the man's face and offers no other evidence beyond his certainty the man is guilty, and because the man's denials appear rational and logical, gradually the entire population of nearby Virginia City sides against Adam. It's an intriguing show, a bona fide mystery and an admirably unpredictable one, yet full of logical suspense.
Season opener "The Smiler" also intrigues. In this episode Hoss accidentally kills a man. The man's brother, a peddler and minstrel (Hershel Bernardi), arrives in Virginia City to claim the body, supposedly bearing no grudge against Hoss, yet his actions subtly suggest otherwise.
"The Honor of Cochise" demonstrates Bonanza's occasional social consciousness. In this show the Cartwrights are pinned down by a war party of Apaches led by Cochise (Jeff Morrow). Cochise demands they turn over an army captain (Star Trek's DeForest Kelley) who they insist ordered the genocidal poisoning of Indian women and children. What are the Cartwrights to do? Later in the season, "Look to the Stars" explores anti-Semitism in a show about a bigoted schoolteacher with the bad habit of expelling minorities.
Where even the highly rated Gunsmoke tended to look pretty cheap at times, with that show's soundstage main street exterior, for instance, harking back to the days of primitive live broadcasts, Bonanza was at this time anyway quite extravagant in TV terms. The Virginia City backlot sets (at Paramount) had to have been the biggest of its kind, certainly for TV use. It's quite massive, and complete with a forced-perspective featureless mountain in the background (presumably to hide something behind it; why else would it exist?). The main Ponderosa exterior is a huge soundstage set, and the interior is lavishly appointed, a sharp contrast to Matt Dillon's Spartan surroundings on Gunsmoke. The show also frequently went on location, often farther from Hollywood than most. Besides Western perennials like Iverson Ranch and Red Rock Canyon, Bonanza frequently flew its casts and crews to Nevada and Northern California, through obvious inserted close-ups shot back in Hollywood undercut this effort a bit.
Guest stars this season include: Scatman Crothers, John Carradine, John Qualen, Denver Pyle, Paul Richards, Faith Domergue, Vito Scotti, James Griffith, Nestor Paiva, Robert Culp, Dabbs Greer, Sue Ane Langdon, Arnold Stang, Ian Wolfe, Joe Turkel, Dean Jones, R.G. Armstrong, Sue Randall, Lisa Lu, Philip Ahn, Vic Morrow, Karen Steele, John Litel, John Abbott, Kevin Hagen, John McGiver, George Mitchell, Lisette Loze, Kathie Browne, Sean McClory, Jacqueline Scott, Mercedes McCambridge, Audrey Dalton, Hayden Rorke, Jan Merlin, Grace Gaynor, Chubby Johnson, Frank Overton, Brooke Hayward, Royal Dano, Majel Barrett, James Doohan, Paul Birch, John Archer, Bethel Leslie, Lyle Bettger, Charles Maxwell, Edward Platt, Eileen Ryan, Arthur Franz, Les Tremayne, Booth Colman, Douglas Lambert, William Schallert, Morris Ankrum, Robert Foulk, Ben Johnson, I. Stanford Jolley, Charles McGraw, Lee Marvin, Roy Barcroft, Inga Swenson, Robert Brown, Ford Rainey, Irene Tedrow, Luciana Paluzzi, Lee Bergere, James Coburn, Frank Ferguson, Whit Bissell, Warren Oates, Raymond Bailey, Ed Nelson, Bill Quinn, and Patricia Breslin. Victor Sen Yung, Ray Teal, and others have semi-regular parts.
Video & Audio
The Official Third Season Value Pack is nothing more than two half-season sets bound as one. The 34 shows are presented across nine single-sided, dual-layered DVDs (region 1). The shows are complete and with their original music, and most are preceded by NBC Peacock logos touting Bonanza "in living color." Select episodes include bumpers and other additional material including the cast, in costume, promoting the new 1962 line of cars from Chevrolet. These are really something, and include the Cartwrights driving rather than riding across the mountains of Nevada, with an announcer who insists on calling the show "BEAU-nanza."
The transfers are solid with good sharpness, accurate color and contrast. The Dolby Digital mono is likewise fine, and supported by optional English subtitles. The helpful packaging not only offers plot summaries with airdates, but also filming dates, locations for each episode, director and writer credits, and other trivia.
Beyond the Chevrolet and bumper material noted above, these well-appointed discs include photo galleries and a handful of audio commentaries, featuring Sue Ane Langdon, Lisa Lu, Diane Mountford, Audrey Dalton, and Andrew J. Klyde.
Greene and Blocker appear in a short sequence from "The Scene Stealers" a March of Dimes television film starring Buster Keaton and Ed Wynn; Blocker also appears with Henry Fonda and Cara Williams in an excerpt from "Henry Fonda and Family," while Pernell Roberts helps salute "Betty Endicott: Standout Stand-In."
Though its writing and direction are not quite up to the level of early Gunsmoke and Have Gun - Will Travel, Bonanza is very good and appealing in other subtle ways. That combined with the strong transfers and great extras make this Highly Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.