Bonanza: The Official First Season, Vols. 1 and 2
Paramount Home Entertainment, 2009, 8 disks, 1,585 min., $69.98.
All 32 first-season episodes of Bonanza (1959–73)—the second all-time longest running TV Western behind Gunsmoke, which ran 20 years—were released on DVD last fall to mark the show’s 50th anniversary. The first Western to be televised in color, Bonanza still looks mighty good (plenty of sets, sure, but also great shots of Lake Tahoe and the prodigious ponderosa trees of the namesake ranch) and sounds even better, with that unforgettable title song by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans, as essential to the opening credits as the National Anthem is to a ball game. The cast includes three-time widower Ben Cartwright (Lorne Greene) and three grownup sons—all-work-and-no-play oldest son Adam (Pernell Roberts), whose mom was from New England; gentle giant Hoss (Dan Blocker), whose mom was a big-boned Swede; and impulsive, girl-crazy Little Joe (Michael Landon), whose part-Creole mom lived in New Orleans. The Cartwright men run the 1,000-square-mile ranch near Virginia City, Nev., without much help from anyone, except maybe Chinese cook Hop Sing (Victor Sen Yung), who constantly threatens to quit, because only Hoss enjoys third helpings. Hop Sing actually outlasts Adam (Roberts bolted the Ponderosa in search of his own bonanza after the 1964–65 season) and Hoss (Blocker died in 1972, and his absence contributed to the show’s decline).
In that first season, the Cartwrights have a particularly hard edge—sometimes fighting one another, but more often threatening to shoot or hang most anyone with the nerve to set foot on the precious land the C-boys apparently gained through nothing but hard work. Exceptions to their no-trespassing policy include particularly comely gals. Little Joe is the fastest worker, hooking up with a rival rancher’s daughter, a gypsy “witch,” a betrothed senorita and Paiute Chief Winnemucca’s daughter, though Adam seduces a saloon girl (Fay Spain), Hoss expresses his love to a fragile sweetie (Inger Stevens) and Ben seriously dates the daring and flamboyant actress Adah Isaacs Menken (Ruth Roman). Also allowed on the Ponderosa are certain colorful male figures, including Virginia City newspaperman Mark Twain (Howard Duff); claim-jumper Henry Comstock (Jack Carlson), who gives his name to a lode; Philip Deidesheimer (John Beal), an engineer whose square-set timbering system makes the Comstock Lode mines safer; and the mighty Chief Winnemucca. Those four and Menken were actual historical figures, while the Cartwrights and most everyone else are fictional frontier folk. DVD specials include archival interviews, the original NBC peacock logo and behind-the-scenes photographs.
Originally published in the April 2010 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.