The Cartwrights ride again. Paramount has released another extras-laden set (unusual, considering most of these vintage TV releases drop the "extras-as-bait" after the first season) for the single most successful network series of the 1960s: Bonanza. Bonanza: The Official Second Season, Volume 1, a five-disc, 18-episode collection of the first half of the 1960-1961 season, finds the series (which was already confident and brash right from the start) further refining the characterizations of the four central leads, while consistently producing strong, layered, and extremely well-constructed one-hour playlets that hold up with the best dramatic anthologies from that time period. A must-have for lovers of vintage TV.
In my two reviews for Bonanza's first season, I wrote extensively about the series' inception, its production, and the aesthetic and thematic framework underpinning the show's construction. So I won't cover the same ground here...an unnecessary task, anyway, since the show, at least during its first half this season, remains largely unchanged from season one (you can click here to read those reviews for context). Themes that were first introduced in the previous season are expanded in this go-around, including the notion that the Cartwrights are somehow different and "special" compared to the average settler or farmer out in the West; that the sheer magnitude of their wealth engenders both awe and envy from outsiders (sometimes negatively coloring that "special" status the Cartwrights enjoy); that violence in the Old West is to be avoided at all costs if civilization is to come (although it remains a necessary evil); that cultures will clash in the forward expansion of the West; and that the Ponderosa itself is an almost mystical source of bounty that must be protected--heady themes for a TV genre that is often dismissed by newer critics as the domain of mere shoot 'em-ups.
In the season opener, Showdown, there's a funny throwaway about the Cartwrights' "specialness" that reduces that distinction to their outsized appetites. An amused woman, observing Little Joe's seduction skills and Hoss' hunger, states, "You Cartwrights: if it's not one thing it's another." The Ponderosa is the biggest land parcel out there in Nevada, and this moment suggests the men who run it have earthy passions to match that vastness. However, in episode after episode, the Cartwrights' moral superiority--carefully couched in populist humility--is shown to be far stronger than their corporeal desires, as well as being the only stabilizing force in this untamed frontier, a civilizing force for good that's remarkably unselfish when one tallies up the Cartwrights' forgiving nature in the face of wrongdoing. A good example of this is The Blood Line, written by William Raynor and Myles Wilder, where Ben, after killing a drunken rogue in self defense when the man complains about the "high and mighty" Cartwrights, takes in the dead man's son and tries to teach him that violence isn't the answer to life's tribulations...even though the boy continually vows revenge on Ben's head, and escapes time and again. Several times in the story, everyone urges Ben to have the dangerous boy locked up, but Ben refuses; he doesn't want the boy, well played by David Macklin, to believe that force and violence are the answers to a deeply troubled young man's problems--a rejection of violence on principle that wasn't as novel and unique in television westerns as some critics (who haven't actually watched these old shows) would have you believe. Other good examples of this violence-only-as-a-last-resort creed in Bonanza (a creed that certainly sets them apart as "special" in a land of quick draws and cheap death) comes in Badge Without Honor, where Dan Duryea's perverted love of efficient killing can't win out over the Cartwrights' reluctant use of force as a cleansing agent of justice, and in The Hopefuls, where pacifist Patricia Donahue can't forgive Adam's necessary use of violence--even though she knows he had no other choice--thereby scuttling their romance.
Envy and avarice for what the Cartwrights have carved out for themselves also drives many supporting characters' motivations this half-season. The best example, The Bride, written by Richard Newman, finds a local sheriff, played by John McIntire, engineering a nifty little scam with Adam West and Suzanne Lloyd to steal away the Ponderosa by setting up Ben for murder. Arriving at the Ponderosa after claiming to have been married to a phony "Ben Cartwright," Lloyd marvels at the sight of the ranch spread out before her: "Must be wonderful to live on a place like the Ponderosa. A place almost as big as an entire state," she offers, to which the proud-but-humble humanist Ben replies, "Well, Miss Jennifer, it's not what a man has that's important. It's how he got it, and what he does with it that really counts." Responding in the best class-warfare manner, Lloyd tentatively parries with, "But how does one man get so much?" to which proud Little Joe responds, in the best American tradition, "By working till his back's near broke, like our Pa did." Lloyd, continuing on in what could be a dialogue on the Congressional floor today, responds, "Other people work hard," to which sensitive, poetic Hoss replies, "Yeah, but maybe other folks don't dream like our Pa did, Miss Jennifer." So much for petulant, unearned jealousy in the face of hard work and capitalism. And just to drive home the point, forceful Adam seals the deal with, "Yeah, and fight to keep it," signaling that the Cartwrights may indeed help those less fortunate themselves--if they feel they're worthy--but they're not giving away anything out of guilt over their success. In many episodes, the Cartwrights aid anyone they see as pioneers like themselves; people willing to carve out their own destinies, while delivering justice to those misguided enough to think they can take, without having earned.
Further proof of the Cartwrights' unflinching willingness to materially aid others only if they're deemed worthy of the help, comes in the complex Day of Reckoning, written by Leonard Heideman and R. Hamer Norris. Ricardo Montalban is a Bannock Indian shunned by his brother and tribe chief Anthony Caruso for marrying Shoshone Indian Madlyn Rhue. When Caruso tries to kill Ben, Montalban saves him, as much for his Christian wife Rhue's religious beliefs as for his own conviction that Indians will have to come to terms with living with the White man in peace. In gratitude, Ben offers him a stretch of land adjacent to the Ponderosa...as well as next to a racist farmer. Tormented by his thoughts that he fits neither in the warrior culture of the Indians or the farmer culture of the White settlers, Montalban flips when his wife is killed, going so far as to torture Ben, before he's transformed by Ben's still-forgiving nature. It's an extreme example of Bonanza's overriding social and ethical tolerance (as well as another example of 60s television tackling difficult racial issues), and one that stays remarkably consistent and clear throughout the series.
As for the Cartwrights themselves, Bonanza's writers stick to the already-established personas, refining the men's characters to the point where we always know Ben will be forever-patient and paternal and understanding, Hoss will be deceptively simply yet poetic and sensitive, Adam will be mysterious and elegant and perhaps...slightly cynical in his own private thoughts, and Little Joe will laugh his way through women and gunfights. It will be interesting to see if these stereotypes will be tweaked or challenged in the coming seasons. Holding steady, as well, are the remarkably tight, thematically solid scripts that mark Bonanza as one of the best dramas on television at this point. It sounds simplistic, but the stories always have a beginning, middle and end (this is true "storytelling" in the best sense of the word: both basic and highly sophisticated in execution), while characters always have a subtext to their actions, and believable, layered motivations. While the obligatory "happy ending" will probably cause the most concern with modern viewers raised on nothing being settled in their television dramas, it needn't, when seen in the context of what networks required back then in terms of keeping viewers "contented," but more importantly, when seen in light of Bonanza's creator and producer David Dortort's stated outlook for the show: positive and eternally optimistic ("happy ending" is also a relative term; in The Courtship, Hoss is saved from a fallen woman with designs on his money...but he's not happy about learning the truth).
While there isn't a bad one in the collection, stand-out episodes this half-season (minus the ones mentioned above) include The Mission, a straight-ahead desert adventure featuring the always-good Henry Hull as a decrepit, drunk scout looking for personal redemption out on the sand dunes. One of my favorites, Dan Duryea (he gets better and better every time I see him), has a terrific showcase for his completely unique blend of intelligent anti-hero charm and perversity as the marvelously-monikered "Dude Butcher Boy" in Badge Without Honor ("Violence as such is vulgar...yet the skills and rhythms of disciplined violence, is beautiful," he purrs). Claude Akins, another familiar face I never get tired of seeing, plays against type in The Mill, belaying his often forceful, base physicality for a mentally-deranged character capable of manipulation and deception. The Trail Gang sports a typically quirky turn from Dick Davalos, who's fine as a father-hating gunslinger. The Spitfire features a memorably flinty performance by Katharine Warren as proud settler who vows vengeance on the Cartwrights after she feels they've slighted and insulted her...as well as killing two of her boys. And certainly the best episode this half-season, the remarkable Silent Thunder, written by John Furia, Jr. and directed by none other than Robert Altman, features one of Stella Stevens' finest performances (from one of the best, and most underrated, actresses of the 1960s and 1970s). Portraying a deaf mute, Stevens' turn is simple yet highly effective, playing well off Landon's sensitive Little Joe, while Altman gives us a brief yet dazzlingly expressive bit of direction when he shoots Steven's almost-rape from her POV, complete with silent soundtrack and odd, ominous framing on her attacker, Albert Salmi (you never see direction like that in most formulaic TV back then).
The popular misconception (perpetuated by always-suspicious sites like Wikipedia) is that Bonanza was almost canceled until it was moved to Sunday nights, away from Saturday night ratings giant, Perry Mason. That's half true; Bonanza was almost cancelled after its first season against Raymond Burr's classic, but by this sophomore session, Bonanza, given a second chance by NBC due to their considerable investment in this first-color Western, was not only holding its own against Perry Mason, but beating it on a regular basis by the end of the 1960-1961 season. Bonanza, which didn't even chart on the Nielsen Top Thirty during its first season, shot up to a healthy 17th for the year this sophomore session...only one notch below Perry Mason, which dropped from the previous year's 10th position, to 16th this season. And just as confirmation of Bonanza's might against the long-time legal series winner, once Bonanza moved away from it to its traditional Sunday night spot for its third season, Perry Mason shot back up in the Nielsen's to fifth for the 1961-1962 season, a spectacular comeback...but not as spectacular as Bonanza's 2nd place finish that same year.
Here are the 18 episodes of the 5-disc set, Bonanza: The Official Second Season, Volume 1, as described on the inside slipcover:
Showdown (September 10, 1960)
The Mission (September 17, 1960)
Badge Without Honor (September 24, 1960)
The Mill (October 1, 1960)
The Hopefuls (October 8, 1960)
Denver McKee (October 15, 1960)
Day of Reckoning (October 22, 1960)
The Abduction (October 29, 1960)
Breed of Violence (November 5, 1960)
The Last Viking (November 12, 1960)
The Trail Gang (November 26, 1960)
The Savage (December 3, 1960)
Silent Thunder (December 10, 1960)
The Ape (December 17, 1960)
The Blood Line (December 31, 1960)
The Courtship (January 7, 1961)
The Spitfire (January 14, 1961)
The Bride (January 21, 1961)
Disc extras include a brief, three minute video introduction on disc one, shot in 1999, from Bonanza creator/producer, David Dortort, for the 40th anniversary of the show (it's lovely to see his charming wife humorously correct him from time to time). On disc two, there's a fascinating series of stills from Lorne Greene's and Michael Landon's promotional visit to Cincinnati "Colortown, USA" Ohio, and their appearance on the real Oprah Winfrey show: The Ruth Lyons 50-50 Club (a few parade stills from other events are included, too). As well, there's more video footage of David Dortort at his home, discussing the part historical accuracy played in the production of Bonanza. It runs 6:24. On disc three, there's a vintage on-air promo for the series, along with another video interview with Dortort, again from 1999, where he discusses the series and the importance of color. It runs 3:18. On disc four, there are a few stills of the lead actors at their homes, along with a very brief Dan Blocker interview with Richard "Cactus" Pryor (mid-to-late 60s), which only runs 1:39 (I would have liked to see the whole interview). Finally, on disc five, a brief (2:02) clip of Dortort remembering Pernell Roberts (both died very recently), along with some on-set publicity photos of the cast. That's a lot of extras from Paramount for a vintage television series...and most welcome, too.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.