Of all the classic television westerns out there, none is as famous as Bonanza. When it first premiered on NBC Television in 1959, it was already a milestone, seeing as how it was the first hour-long TV show to be broadcast in color (resulting in a few other shows to follow suit). Audiences across the country responded so well to the series, in fact, that it kept on-a-runnin’ for a total of fourteen seasons (taking second place to CBS’ Gunsmoke, which ran for a mind-boggling twenty seasons).
The premise of the show was as simple and down-to-earth as any western could get. Set at the legendary Ponderosa Ranch, Bonanza followed the lives of the Cartwright Family. Elder Ben (the great Lorne Greene) is a passionate man, one who takes great pride in looking after his ranch, his family, and his surroundings. Fate has been none too kind in affording Ben with a lifelong mate: you see, he’s already parted ways (in the heavenly sense) with three very different brides. Fortunately, each wife left Ben with a son — and it’s the completely dissimilar backgrounds of each boy that probably gave Bonanza a great deal of appeal.
Ben’s oldest and wisest son is named Adam (and rightfully so). Portrayed by Pernell Roberts (Trapper John, M.D.), Adam’s mother was part of New England’s high society sect — and her upbringing is most apparent in his actions. He’s a collected sort, the kind that knows to shoot first and ask questions later. Then there’s the middle brother, affectionately nicknamed “Hoss” (Dan Blocker). Born to a rather large Swedish woman, Hoss is the type of guy you would definitely want on your side in a fight, but not the type of person you would want to rely on for his wits. Lastly, there’s Little Joe (Michael Landon — the only cast member who didn’t wear a toupee, interestingly enough), the rabblerousing rebel born of Southern stock — he don’t care for Yankees none, even if his oldest brother is one of them. Rounding up the cast (though on a much smaller scale, but noteworthy nonetheless) is Hop Sing, the Ponderosa’s quick-tempered-but-invaluable chef (played by Charlie Chan’s Number 2 son, Victor Sen Yung).
With a color budget, the makers of Bonanza took full advantage of their lush western surroundings (even if it was filmed in Southern California — but of course, Big Bear and Lake Tahoe look enough alike that the average viewer wouldn‘t know the difference), filling up the screen with big blue skies, open plains, and white guys dressed as Native American Indians. Don‘t let the latter put you off — Bonanza may have been the first time I heard an actor playing an Indian that didn’t speak in broken English (even the Chinese characters aren‘t as “put down upon” as most vintage television series tended to do).
Things get off to the right TV western start immediately. In the pilot episode, “A Rose For Lotta,” the Cartwrights meet an actress (Yvonne DeCarlo, from The Munsters, who has been secretly hired by the local bigwigs to lure one of the boys away from the ranch — so that they can weasel their way into the ranch. Nothin’ doin’ when you’re dealing with a family like the Cartwrights: Ben and sons soon figure out what’s going on and set things straight. But even the at-home lives of the Cartwright clan is not as one would expect it to be. The boys (especially Adam and Little Joe) are always at odds — primarily due to their different backgrounds (if Bonanza were made today, one of Ben’s sons would probably be half-Black).
The fun continues well throughout the entire season, offering up more adventures (both on the ranch and in the big cities) full of gunplay, fist fights, and a little gentlemanly romancin’ of the ladies courtesy of Pernell Roberts or Michael Landon (fortunately, we never really got to see Dan Blocker or Lorne Greene make out with anyone — I‘m sure the show wouldn‘t have lasted as long otherwise). Over time, each actor added his own panache to his character, developing them into something more than just a name on paper, and the efforts of many great television writers and directors only added to the enjoyment.
Much like One Step Beyond (which premiered the same year), many Bonanza episodes fell into Public Domain years back — resulting in more cheapo VHS and DVD releases than most mathematicians can count. Fortunately, CBS/Paramount have gone back to the original materials, remastered them, and brought forth Bonanza: The Official First Season, Volumes 1 & 2. Available as a set or individually (smart move there, fellas), each volume contains 16 episodes from the series’ premiere season.
The video presentation for these fifty-year-old episodes is a marvel to behold, especially if you’ve ever seen any of the aforementioned Public Domain releases. Colors are once again bright and crisp, and debris is kept to a minimum. The episodes are presented in their original 1.33:1 standard ratio, and are accompanied with a more-than-acceptable mono stereo soundtrack. No subtitles are provided, but the discs are Closed-Captioned.
Normally, CBS/Paramount doesn’t tack on any special features. But this is Bonanza we’re talking about, and they didn’t want the ghosts of Lorne Greene, Michael Landon, Dan Blocker or Victor Sen Yung coming to haunt them, so we finally get some goodies here. Among the bonus materials to be found on Bonanza: The Official First Season, Volumes 1 & 2 is the rare alternate ending of the pilot episode, in which the Cartwright boys sing the lyrics to the famous theme song; several archival interviews with creator/producer David Dortort, still galleries, a few NBC promos and bumpers for both the pilot (Volume One) and “The Avenger” (Volume Two) ; a half-hour Fireside Theater episode which inspired Bonanza; some sketches, and several episodic promos.
Even if you’re not a western fan, you’ve probably heard of Bonanza. And, if you haven’t heard of it (or seen it), then this is your big chance to catch up with a television series that shaped the TV western for years to come.