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HowtheWestwasWoncoverGrade: B-
Entire family: No
1978-79, 900 min. (14 episodes), Color
Not rated; would be PG for some violence and adult situations
Warner Bros.
Aspect ratio: 1.33:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital Mono
Bonus features: None

What does the star of an iconic TV Western do after the series ends its 20-year run? If that star is James Arness, he goes right from Gunsmoke to How the West Was Won, turning in his marshal’s badge to hobble around bowlegged as cagey frontier scout Zeb Macahan.

Gunsmoke left the small screen after the 1974-75 season, and the following year Arness donned fringed buckskins to play Zeb Macahan in a TV movie. That realistic, location-shot film was so popular that it led to a mini-series in 1977, and a bona fide TV series in 1978. But Westerns were on their way out. Gunsmoke was the #1 TV show in America from 1957 to 1960, but How the West Was Won only managed to place 11th its first season, four places behind Little House on the Prairie—the only other Western to crack the Top 30 shows. After that, it dropped out of the Nielsen elite, leaving Little House on the Prairie as the only popularly watched Western. It was clearly the end of an era.

Partly, though, it was because the blend of realism and melodrama that sustained How the West Was Won its first two outings started to tip more toward melodrama by the second season. And Arness, who was so genially believable as the crusty Zeb Macahan, develops a slight case of John Wayne syndrome this season, with his performance at times resembling a caricature of his character.

That said, Season 2 is still a cut above the average TV Western.  More


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LittleHouse2coverGrade: B/B+
Entire family:  Yes
1975-76, 1080 min. (22 episodes), Color
Not rated: Would be G
Aspect ratio: 1.33:1
Featured audio: DTS-HD MA 2.0
Includes: Blu-ray (5 discs), UV Copy
Bonus features: C-
Today Show reunion clip

My ‘tweenage daughter doesn’t like historical dramas, isn’t a fan of westerns, and loves fashion so much that it’s like fingernails-on-the-chalkboard to watch the Ingalls girls parade about in their dowdy homemade calico pioneer dresses and bonnets. But she liked Little House on the Prairie: Season 2 enough to want to keep watching one episode after the other, and to shelve it in our collection for future play.

This wholesome family TV series from the ‘70s still has broad appeal, as you can see from the clip of the cast reuniting on The Today Show (link above) to promote the release of the Blu-ray on Season 1 and now Season 2.

The first season was more the authentic pioneer experience, as Pa and Ma Ingalls (Michael Landon, Karen Grasse) moved their brood of three daughters from Wisconsin to Kansas and finally Minnesota. There were Indians and hardships of every kind, and the emphasis was on the family’s journey and settlement.

The popular series was based on the juvenile books by Laura Ingalls Wilder that told of her family’s adventures on the newly expanding American frontier—books like Little House in the Big Woods, Little House on the Prairie, On the Banks of Plum Creek, and By the Shores of Silver Lake. The TV series ran for nine seasons, but by Season 2 the plots were already shifting from pioneer-specific storylines to ones that viewers may have seen elsewhere and could actually identify with better.   More


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LittleHouse1coverGrade: B+
1974-75, 1,260 min. (24 episodes), Color
Not rated: Would be PG for moments of peril and some drinking
Aspect ratio: 1.33:1
Featured audio: DTS-HD MA 2.0
Includes: Blu-ray (5 discs), UV Copy
Bonus features: C-

If your children like historical dramas and love imagining what life would have been like during pioneer times, there’s no better place to start than the Little House on the Prairie TV series. So many ‘70s shows feel dated or corny now, but this series—loosely based on the children’s books by Laura Ingalls Wilder—still plays well. It’s a deftly written, convincingly acted series that’s not afraid to tug at your heartstrings, but also tosses in a dose or two of reality. Not everyone rides a horse or drives a buggy, for example. There is a sizable population that walks everywhere—even great distances—because they aren’t affluent enough to do anything else. And when a hailstorm wipes out all the wheat, farmers everywhere have to leave their families and look for work in faraway places, or they’ll lose the farm and the family will starve.

Little House on the Prairie stars Michael Landon in his post-Bonanza and pre-Highway to Heaven role as the patriarch of a family of females who move from Wisconsin to Kansas and finally end up in Minnesota. The emphasis in this series is on family and family values before such a term came into existence. It’s wholesome, heart-warming, and full of life lessons.

The two-hour pilot, included here, is the most potentially traumatic, so if your family has small or sensitive children I’d start with Episode 1 instead and watch the whole season before suggesting, “Hey, would anyone like to see how the Ingalls came to Plum Creek?” after the children already know that everyone’s okay. There’s a time in the pilot when a family member is thought drowned, as well as several moments of menace that come as a result of wolves and Caroline Ingalls (Karen Grasse) and the girls’ encounter with Indians while Charles is off hunting.


THE LONE RANGER (Blu-ray combo)

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LoneRangercoverGrade:  B-
Entire family:  No
2013, 149 min., Color
Rated PG-13 for sequences of intense action and violence and some suggestive material
Aspect ratio:  2.40:1
Featured audio:  DTS-HD MA 7.1
Includes:  Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Copy
Bonus features:  C-

Johnny Depp and Gore Verbinski conspired to reinvent the pirate movie, so why would it surprise anyone that they’d give a complete makeover to the legend of The Lone Ranger?

According to the legend that radio series and ‘50s TV show were based on, the Lone Ranger was John Reid, who rode into a box canyon with his brother and other Texas Rangers in pursuit of the Butch Cavendish gang—who lay in wait and ambushed them, killing everyone and leaving Reid for dead. Enter Tonto, who helps him recover, and soon the masked man dedicated to avenging those Rangers by fighting for truth, justice, and the American way is riding across the West with his faithful Indian companion, rounding up bad guys in every episode.

When Verbinski and a trio of screenwriters (including Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, from the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise) begin with the premise that John Reid is a lawyer and anti-gun crusader and brother Dan (James Badge Dale) is a man’s man kind of Ranger, it serves as the set-up to a punch line. Tonto later finds the dead Rangers, John included, and puts them in open graves, after which a white spirit horse thought to be able to bring someone back from the dead focuses on John, despite Tonto’s efforts to flag him over to brother Dan instead.  After John is fully recovered and their reluctant partnership begins, Tonto keeps calling him Ke-mo-sah-be until John finally asks what it means. “Wrong brother,” Depp-as-Tonto deadpans.

That pretty much sets the tone and narrative approach for this big-screen reboot. As in Pirates, there are supernatural elements, super-sinister villains, eyebrow-raising stunts, and two heroes that, together, do what Depp did as Capt. Jack Sparrow—calmly blundering through the mayhem and coming out at the end of each scrape or skirmish with a kind of befuddled confidence. So parents, if you’re fine with your children watching Pirates of the Caribbean, this film has more of the same. But the violence is every bit PG-13, and that’s the audience. Is it any worse than the Pirates films? Not really. It has the same blend of action, stylized violence, and humor.  More

SHANE (Blu-ray)

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ShanecoverGrade:  A-
Entire family:  Yes (with an asterisk)
1953, 118 min., Color
Unrated (would be PG)
Warner Bros.

Aspect ratio:  1.37:1
Featured audio:  DTS-HD MA 2.0
Bonus features:  C+

Jack Schaefer’s 1949 novel has been credited for helping the Western make the leap from pulp fiction aimed at youngsters to serious adult fiction. It also established the formula for countless movies and TV series, and I can’t think of a better “starter” Western to introduce youngsters to the genre.

That’s because in Shane (1953), as in the book, we see the action through the eyes of a young boy  (Brandon De Wilde), and the lad’s hero worship is nicely balanced by underlying issues that families can use for discussion. That point of view also creates a gap between Joey’s understanding of the situation and the audience’s. To Joey (Bob, in the book), whose father has taught him that guns and violence are to be avoided, Shane and his pearl-handled .45 seem heroic. The audience realizes that one reason Shane decides to stay and work as a hired hand is that he’s weary of the gunslinger’s life and wishes he could have what that family has—a point that’s driven home when it’s made clear  the farmer’s wife has her own attraction for the handsome stranger. But when he gets caught up in a simmering range war, any hopes of settling down are threatened.

I’m giving it an asterisk for family viewing because of the violence—tame by Western standards, but violent nonetheless. There are two main fistfights that establish the character of homesteader Joe Starrett (Van Hefflin) and Shane (Alan Ladd), a mysterious stranger who’s awfully jumpy and good with a gun. There’s also a close-range shooting by a hired gun (Jack Palance) and a climactic gun battle in a darkened saloon. For the most part, though, it’s a case of rising tensions between cattlemen and farmers.   More


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LoveMeTendercoverGrade:  B-
Entire family:  No
1956, 89 min., Black-and-white
Unrated (would be PG)
20th Century Fox
Aspect ratio:  2.35:1
Featured audio:  DTS-HD MA 5.1
Bonus features:  B-

In November 1956, Love Me Tender introduced Elvis Presley as an actor. By that time he had already made his TV debut as a performer on Louisiana Hayride, singles like “That’s All Right” were playing nationwide, and his live shows were causing riots. Elvis’s first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show (performing “Love Me Tender”) on September 9 had exposed him to 60 million viewers, most of whom would be curious to see this rock ‘n’ roll phenomenon on the big screen.

Though Elvis didn’t get top billing, the studio featured the 21 year old on the movie poster with his guitar, and Love Me Tender did well at the box office. It’s an above-average Western, but maybe only slightly—something that’s clear if you can mentally remove Elvis from the picture.

Without The King, Love Me Tender is a decent horse opera that has more stand-and-talk moments than shoot-‘em-ups. It’s slow in spots, and that plus black-and-white will be enough to put off younger family members. But Elvis really does add interest.

The screenplay comes from Robert Buckner (Dodge City), yet there’s considerably more melodrama here than in that classic Western. What else can there be when the film’s main focus is a romantic triangle involving suppressed love?   More

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