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Feature film makers have many lessons to learn from this classic
western serial. Although each episode was made on a small budget when
compared to the Hollywood "A" features of today, all of the production
values of great classic movies of the golden age -- painterly
composition and design, emotionally effective acting, lyrical music,
suspenseful storytelling, beautiful timing, strong dramatic dialogue,
elegantly choreographed action, powerful themes, colorful period
costumes, folksy comic relief -- all of these values were at a
consistently high level from show to show, with never an awkward effect
or a misfit scene. Each of the featured characters was drawn in a
unique and stylish way, suggesting the storybook characterization that
distinguishes the best of the Hollywood golden age. Every one of the
episodes stands well as a feature length movie in its own right and
would look as good on the big screen as on TV. There's plenty of
feeling, no padding or softness, and no mindless experimentation with
technique or vulgarity such as has ruined so many westerns made since
It's difficult to understand why an approach which succeeded for so long was abandoned in the 1970's by both television and feature film makers. Many producers turned instead in the direction indicated by spaghetti westerns. Compared to classic westerns like "Bonanza," spaghetti westerns were much less lyrical and took more of a gutter eye view of the old west, stripping it of its romantic appeal and substituting what to a misguided new generation seemed a dirtier and therefore more authentic realism. In retrospect, Hollywood gave up way too much for the little that it got in return. The success of a vast body of works similar in appeal to "Bonanza" (including many of the other action adventure TV serials made from the '40s to the '60s) is proof that there is a widespread taste that is radically different from the one which has predominated in Hollywood since the '70s. Let's hope that one day we'll see the return of Bonanza's classic values to the screen.
This was probably one of the more influential western series of all time. Along with "Gunsmoke" this also was one of the longest running series in the history of television. The thing that made it great though was that it was able to get better over time. For example, in many of the early episodes, Ben and his sons had an almost antagonistic relationship with anyone who came on their property. In fact, the Cartwrights had an almost shoot first, ask questions later attitude to any stranger that might wander onto the Ponderosa. However, when Lorne Greene suggested that the Cartwrights become more hospitable, that's when the show began to take off. Also, the Adam, Hoss and Joe weren't on the best of terms with each other during the show's early days, but as time went on the three of them grew closer and showed their affection towards each other, especially Hoss and Little Joe. But the thing that really made it great was the fact that the cast and crew were able to go from serious drama to some very light hearted episodes and make it more than just a western but a family drama with stories that could easily fit into any era. This is really a show for the ages.
This series is great for many things. The Cartwrights are righteous, hard working and well respected. They work from early in the morning until they sit down for dinner, eating meat and potatoes. Dan Blocker was Texas heaviest baby when he was born, and Little Joe (Michael Landon) always comments on how much he eats for dinner. Pernell Roberts is very cool as Adam, and Lorne Greene, playing Ben Cartwright depicts a very noble and respectable man. Under the scorching sun they meet problems like racism, indians and every other problem you could expect those days. Great entertainment. A TV-series like this will never be made again.
"Bonanza" was the first hour-long TV show in any genre produced in full-color. The continuing cast for the first 6 years featured essentially five persons--Benjamin Cartwright, his three sons and their Chinese cook, along with the local sheriff. Cartwright had been a seaman, who went west and married three times; each time he produced a son and lost his wife. Reaching the ponderosa pine country near Virginia City, Nevada and Lake Tahoe, he built up a large landholding, with cattle, timber, and mines, becoming an important man in the territory. Ben Cartwright was played by Canadian announcer-actor Lorne Greene, who was much younger than the part he played but had Shakespearean training and a powerful speaking voice. Pernell Roberts played his eldest son, Adam, a thoughtful but restless man, 1959-65. Eric "Hoss" Cartwright was portrayed huge Dan Blocker as a man of gentle ways and grit but ordinary intelligence. Attractive Michael Landon played "Little Joe", fast with a gun and learning to be a man; he also write and directed episodes for the series. Victor Sen-Young was Hop Sing, and veteran Ray Teal played Sheriff Roy Coffee. Later, others were added to the series for various stretches, once Adam's part was written out; these included David Canaray as Candy, Bing Russell, Harry Holcombe, Guy Williams, Kathie Browne, and Remo Pisani. Each week guest stars were hired, and a few actors were used in dozens of shows. Among the most memorable guest stars were John Larkin, Ruta Lee, Joan Hackett, Frank Overton, Bruce Yarnall, Inga Swenson as Inger, Ben's second wife, Felicia Farr as his third wife, Grandon Rhodes, Patricia Donahue, Robert Lansing, Lisa Lu and Steve Forrest. Titles such as "The Honor of Cochise", "The Eden Train", "Inger, My Love I,II", "Right is the Fourth "R"", and "The Mountain Girl" among many others bring fond memories. Many directors toiled on "Bonanza", whose title referred to the rich ore found in the Virginia City area during the nineteenth century. The list included Lewis Allen, Leon Benson, William F. Claxton, Herschel Daugherty, Don McDougall, Christian Nyby, Leo Penn and William Witney. Principal writers for the series, with 5 or more credits, included Robert V. Barron, Frank Chase, Suzanne Clauser, Frank Cleaver, the producer David Dortort, Warren Douglas, John Hawkins, Ward Hawkins, Arther Heinemann, Michael Landon, Jo Pagano, Stanley Roberts, Robert Sabaroff, Jack B. Sowards, Thomas Thompson and Al C. Ward. It is difficult to characterize the show except that it was a consistently second-rank attempt to do stories about first-rate ethical people living in an interesting era in a frontier setting. It was the first of the family-oriented westerns, and at the same time a show capable of detaching its principals for dual or independent adventures. If few of its episodes risk to great dramatic heights, many are far-above-average film-making efforts, even by feature-film standards. The production featured clean, straightforward cinematography, Nellie Manley's hairstyles, Wally Westmore's makeup, enjoyable costumes and expert sets, art direction and action scenes. If the family spent too much time at home, seldom were shown with cattle and had virtually no employees, the writers made up for such derelictions by involving the sons and the father in the affairs of town and territory. Innovatve and perhaps inimitable, this was quality dramatic western making from start to finish.
"Bonanza" aired on NBC in September of 1959. Filmed in color, it was
put in the 7:30 PM slot on Saturday nights so that people in the
appliance stores could see it on the television sets and be convinced
to buy an RCA color television. The ploy worked.
In 1961 it was moved to Sunday nights after NBC realized they had a hit on their hands. It lasted another 13 or so years before being canceled. But it is a landmark in television history.
One suggestion - if you ever find a DVD of "Bonanza" and an episode titled "To Die in Darkness" is listed, don't hesitate to buy the DVD. The episode guest-starred James Whitmore and was filmed in about the mid-1960s. All I will say is that the episode was probably the best of the series.
Bonanza ran for so many years that it's impossible for someone like
myself to say anything negative about the show and have credibility,
but I'm going to. So many shows start off with an "ensemble" cast and
then, because of fan mail to one or two certain actors on the show
(usually the younger ones), turn the show around to showcase only those
This happened with Bonanza. Pernell Roberts was the best actor on the series, and Adam Cartwright lent a sense of rationality and calm to the frenetics of Ben, Hoss, and Little Joe. He was so subtle, yet stole each and every scene he was in. He was like cool water to a fever. However, and as always happens with fan mail because only a small demographic segment write it in the first place (primarily young, single women), the character of "Adam" appeared less and less as the series wore on. Bonanza became "The Little Joe Show," and that's when I stopped watching it. At that point, the only "breath of fresh air" on the show was Hop Sing.
Anyway, Bonanza is a classic and is worth watching when Pernell Roberts was still in the show, or if only to see the myriad of great guest stars in each episode.
I grew up on this classic western series, and as a child always
considered it a treat being allowed to stay up late on Sunday evenings
to watch it. Bonanza is still infinitely re watchable in re runs.
The series chronicles the adventures of the Cartwright family, who live on a ranch near Virginia City, Nevada around the Civil War era. Their ranch (called the Ponderosa) is run and defended by the widowed father, Ben, and his unmarried three sons, Adam, Hoss, and Little Joe. These three brothers have different mothers, all of whom have passed away years earlier.
The Cartwrights are a hard working, prosperous, and honourable family, highly respected in those parts. The Ponderosa is large so reaching its extremities requires a lot of horseback riding. Also, trips away are often necessary in order to buy or sell cattle and so forth. Needless to say, few of these excursions pass uneventfully. Although hospitable, much of the Cartwrights' energy must be spent defending their ranch from interlopers, or protecting themselves from townsfolk jealous of their prosperity and stellar reputation. The Cartwrights do a fair bit of firing their guns up in the air and such, but only shoot to kill when deemed absolutely necessary. They are involved in various town affairs, even the political life of the Nevada territory.
One of the main assets of the series is the underlying warmth that is always present (despite occasional disagreements) between Ben and his three sons, and (despite frequent disagreements) between the three brothers. Now, one brother might beat up another every now and then, but generally has a good reason for it at the time and his anger never lasts long! The characters are all very well drawn. Ben is portrayed as a successful and noble man of great integrity. The oldest son, Adam, the most rational and suave of the brothers, left midway through the series. The middle brother, Hoss, is a gentle giant of a teddy bear, who has an insatiable appetite for food and is a little shy around the ladies. The youngest, Little Joe, is a hot headed, handsome charmer who, by contrast, has quite a way with women. This trio of brothers enjoy various romances but their love interests are typically killed off by the end of the episode or else marriage proves impossible, for whatever reason.
The actors are all stellar in their roles, including Pernell Roberts (Adam), Dan Blocker (Hoss), Michael Landon (Little Joe), and of course Lorne Greene as the principled family patriarch, Ben. I also love the ranch cook, Hop Sing, played by Victor Sen Yung.
This is a wonderful action packed western with great values. The Cartwrights are always the noble heroes and most of the bad guys quite villainous. If only there were more programs like this vintage western on TV these days!
As a child growing up,I can recall seeing every episode at least a dozen number of times and can fondly recognize all the characters on the show. "Bonanza" was that show. For the 14 years that it ran on NBC,it has become television's second longest running western series,and the only TV show that was presented in "living color" throughout its run. The show was the equilavent of My Three Sons,with the exception that it was in the rolling hills of Nevada during the turn of the 1800's. Only during its run that Lorne Greene and Michael Landon were the original two cast members that stayed on the series in which Landon produced and directed several of the episodes. Only two other members left the show at the peak of their fame when it was in the top ten for the duration of the show(which was #1 in the Nielsen ratings during much of the 1960's). Pernell Roberts,who played big brother Adam left in 1965,and Dan Blocker who played the mighty Hoss left in 1972 due to health problems. Repeats of the series can be seen on PAX-TV along with the lost episodes that date back to the early 1970's. A Must See!
It got to be a running joke around Bonanza about how fatal it was for
any women to get involved with any Cartwright men. After all Ben
Cartwright was three times a widower with a son by each marriage. And
any woman who got involved with Adam, Hoss, and Little Joe were going
to end up dying because we couldn't get rid of the formula of the
widower and the three sons that started this classic TV western.
Perhaps if Bonanza were being done today the writers would have had revolving women characters who came in and out of the lives of the Cartwrights. People have relationships, some go good, some not so good, it's just life. And we're less demanding of our heroes today so if a relationship with one of them goes south we don't have to kill the character off to keep the survivor's nobility intact. But that's if Bonanza were done today.
But we were still expecting a lot from our western heroes and Bonanza though it took a while to take hold and a change of viewing time from NBC certainly helped, the secret of Bonanza's success was the noble patriarch Ben Cartwright and his stalwart sons. Ben Cartwright was THE ideal TV Dad in any genre you want to name. His whole life was spent in the hard work of building that immense Ponderosa spread for his three children. The kids were all different in personality, but all came together in a pinch.
The Cartwrights became and still are an American institution. I daresay more people cared about this family than the Kennedys. Just the popularity that Bonanza has in syndication testifies to that.
Pernell Roberts as oldest son Adam was written out of the show. Rumor has it he didn't care for the noble Cartwright characters which he felt bordered on sanctimonious. Perhaps if it were done now, he'd have liked it better in the way I describe.
This was just the beginning for Michael Landon, how many people get three hit TV shows to their credit. Landon also has Highway to Heaven and Little House On the Prarie where he had creative control. Little Joe was the youngest, most hot headed, but the most romantic of the Cartwrights.
When Roberts left. the show kept going with the two younger sons, but when big Dan Blocker left, the heart went out of Bonanza. Other characters had been added on by that time, David Canary, Tim Matheson, and Ben Cartwright adopted young Mitch Vogel. But big, loyal, but a little thick Hoss was easily the most lovable of the Cartwrights. His sudden demise after surgery left too big a hole in that family.
So the Cartwrights of the Ponderosa have passed into history. I got a real taste of how America took the Cartwrights to heart when I visited the real Virginia City. It doesn't look anything like what you see in Bonanza. But near Lake Tahoe, just about where you see the Ponderosa on the map at the opening credits, is the Cartwright home, the set maintained and open as a tourist attraction. Like 21 Baker Street for Sherlock Holmes fans, the ranchhouse and the Cartwrights are real.
And if they weren't real, they should have been.
I only got onto this show in recent years. Episodes from various
seasons would appear at a local video store or on afternoon television.
I was not viewing it in production order and I think it needs to be
seen in production order as it is a show about a growing family, the
Cartwrights! I found it all a bit too studiobound but found the
Cartwrights reasonably interesting but nothing that would change my
average view of western shows. Then one day I went to a friends place
and he got out a copy of the Bonanza pilot of 1959!
A Rose For Lotta (1959, 50 minutes) is a well directed pilot that captures the vast open fields of The Ponderosa, but more importantly, it captures the Cartwrights as we never see them in the series. They fist fight with each other, they fire guns in the air when invaders enter the land, they threaten invaders with murder, this pilot is in my top five western shows (big screen or little screen) of all time!
The pilot story is about powerful silver barons (including Yvonne DeCarlo) appearing on the Ponderosa and taking Joe hostage in return for valuable timber. The acting from the regulars takes on a 1950s theatrical edge instead of the usual sleepwalking acting (best explained this way, think of Chuck Heston in 1959 Ben-Hur compared to Chuck Heston in 1974 Earthquake) and this hour is something you will never forget. Enjoy!
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