Morphine addiction, hallucinations, tornadoes and racism…was that really what Little House on the Prairie was all about…
There are probably as many stories of how the west was won as there were bullets spent winning it but none are surely as winsome as Little House on the Prairie. Liable to curl up in horror at the language of Deadwood, the violence of The Searchers or even the cannibalism of Ravenous, the family of Charles and Caroline Ingalls are as wholesome as The Waltons but, if it were possible, twice as nice, arriving in the small town of Walnut Grove with sunshine and the freshness of springtime in their wake.
Not for nothing do the titles of Little House on the Prairie feature the wholesome smiles of Charles and Caroline (Michael Landon and Karen Grassle) as their three daughters – Laura (Melissa Gilbert), Mary (Melissa Sue Anderson) and Carrie (the twins Lindsay and Sidney Greenbush, credited as Lindsay Sidney Greenbush) – tumble down a hillside amongst the long grass and flowers. If the music was any more rousing, it would have the power of raising the recently deceased, whilst the show could put a smile even on their mourning relatives. It’s billed as a drama but, looked at now, Little House on the Prairie is a nostalgic trip back to a gloomy mid-seventies when television was an escape from the dreary browns of the era to a land where the sun, literally or figuratively, never stopped shining. The winter of discontent may have seen bodies piling up on the streets but one suspects that if Little House on the Prairie were playing on television, life couldn’t really have been so terribly bad.
Based on the book by Laura Ingalls Wilder, which was first published in 1935, Little House on the Prairie is largely concerned with the Ingalls family, who moved from their home of Wisconsin to the small and recently-founded town of Walnut Grove in Minnesota to build a farm and to prosper on America’s frontier. Although Laura Ingalls is, given the origin of the series, the focus of the show, the actual stars are Charles and Caroline Ingalls, who struggle with their farm, the taking on of odd jobs to get by and the raising of their children. A close-knit, religious community – though perhaps overly sweet, it’s possible to imagine that there were as many towns like Walnut Grove as there were those like Deadwood – the town of Walnut Grove is a place where life turned around the church and the school as well as one’s family and a good day’s work. With an ethic of industry and the care of one’s family running throughout the show, Little House on the Prairie doesn’t suggest that a financial reward will necessarily follow hard work but that one’s life will be enriched by a happiness shared between the field and the home. As Nels Oleson reminds Charles, as content on the farm as he is reading a bedtime story to his children, he is the richest man in Walnut Grove.
Of course, the Ingalls are not the only regular members of the cast and joining them are the owners of the general store, the Olesons, the schoolteacher Miss Eva Beadle, Doctor Hiram Baker, Reverend Robert Alden, the owner of the mill and founder of Walnut Grove Lars Hanson and Isaiah Edwards and Grace Snider, who would marry during this second season. As meddlesome as the Ingalls are good, Harriet, Nellie and Willie Oleson are gossipy, bitchy and forever on the lookout to better their neighbours while the long-suffering Nels often confides in Charles Ingalls when his wife’s oneupmanship even gets the better of him. With Nellie testing the patience of Mary and Laura and Harriet proving equally difficult to Charles and Caroline, three of the four Olesons are the sharp needle poking out of the otherwise comfortable Walnut Grove shirt.
So much, though, for a summary of Little House on the Prairie, what does this second season offer? One of the biggest stories in the show, being Mary’s blindness, begins here in Four Eyes with her sight failing and her being unable to read the blackboard in class while the two-part Remember Me sees Isiah Edwards and Grace Snider get married and adopt Julia Sanderson’s three children. Otherwise, though, there’s little out of the ordinary in this season, simply life in Walnut Grove carrying on as usual. There are good episodes – At The End Of The Rainbow and The Runaway Cabooseare both good fun while The Long Road Home and Soldier’s Return are, for Little House on the Prairie, fairly dramatic – but most of it’s quite ordinary, there being lots of nice moments but it’s not particularly substantial as a whole.
And that’s the problem with Little House on the Prairie, with it not being bad but lacking a really memorable episode. A long-running story like Mary’s blindness stands out but that lasted for several seasons, leaving this good for those buying up the sets but not recommended for anyone looking for a single set to remind themselves of the slow pace of life in this small and very gentle part of the American west.
The Richest Man In Walnut Grove (46m23s): Charles is working hard to fulfil an order for the mill but looks forward both to completing it and to the two months of wages owed him. Laura thinks they’ll be rich but Charles and Caroline only want to pay off their debts at Nels and Harriet Oleson’s general store. But then Charles receives bad news – Hanson has to close the mill when one of his customer’s declares bankruptcy and suddenly the Ingalls don’t look quite so well off. Nels, though, isn’t so sure.
Four Eyes (46m31s): The hardest worker in the school, Mary Ingalls, is disappointed when her report card is returned to her with a poor set of grades. Feigning illness to stay off school, Mary stays up at night studying but one night, Charles tries to help her and realises what the problem is – Mary needs glasses. With them, Mary’s grades start going up again but the other kids at school begin to tease her.
Haunted House (46m21s): Old Mr Pike lives in a creaky old house outside of town and the kids talk about him as though he were the devil himself. There’s even talk of his house being haunted. Nellie Oleson dares Laura to go into Mr Pike’s house and finds that he’s not so much scary as sad, living alone while he waits for his wife to come home. But, as Laura finds out, Mrs Pike is dead and maybe old Mr Pike needs a better way to grieve for her.
In The Big Inning (46m25s): It’s the time of year that minds in Walnut Grove turn to baseball with the annual game against the team of Green Stockings. After the defeat of the previous year, the hopes of the Walnut Grove baseball team rest on Charles finding a star pitcher, Mr Mumford. But when the whole town starts betting on their winning this year, Mrs Mumford, a good woman who has no time for gambling, tells her husband that he won’t be playing.
The Campout (46m24s): It’s the holiday season and over the break, the school tells the children to gather as many leaves as they can. As the Ingalls prepare for their camping trip, with Mary and Laura excited about how many leaves they’ll collect, the Olesons ask if they can accompany them. Anything, as Harriet tells Nels, to stop the Ingalls children beating Nellie and Willie. But things don’t go quite as planned with the poor Ingalls looking set to have a miserable old time.
The Spring Dance (46m29s): It’s the time of the dance in the church hall and Grace Snider is having trouble finding a man to take her. The man that she wants doesn’t seem interested so she tries making him jealous to, it would appear, no avail. Little Laura Ingalls is, oddly enough, having the same trouble with a boy in her school and asks Willie Oleson to help her. With the spring dance approaching, will either lady get their man?
Remember Me (46m09s, 46m12s): Laura and Mary rescue a sack of puppies thrown in the river and spend the long spring days getting them back to health. But a neighbour, the widow Julia Sanderson, hears bad news – her own health is failing and she’ll die soon. In a way, though, she’s quite ready for it but it’s her three children that she worries about and asks Charles to find a home for them after she dies. Try as he might, though, Charles has a hard time finding them a home, finding that he may not have a choice but to split them up. As the very thing that Julia Sanderson had asked him not to, Charles is troubled by his conscience.
Ebenezer Sprague (46m20s): When Lars Hanson and Charles Ingalls build a bank in the town, Walnut Grove welcomes Mr Sprague to manage it but he’s less than pleased to be there. A cold and heartless banker, Mr Sprague even assumes the friendship of Laura Ingalls to be Charles’ way of persuading him to offer the Ingalls a loan. But maybe the little girl has a way to melt the Sprague’s heart.
At The End Of The Rainbow (46m06s): There’s gold in the hills or so Laura Ingalls thinks when she spots a nugget in the river while out fishing. Fired on by dreams of the wealth waiting for her family – and of the relative poverty in Nellie Oleson’s future – Laura spends all week collecting the gold but when the time comes to cash it in, there’s a surprise awaiting her.
The Gift (46m22s): The children hold a collection at school to gather enough money to buy Rev Robert Alden a present. With Mary being the one most trusted to look after the money, Laura spots a way to double their money – buy a box of Dr Briskin’s Homeopathic Remedies, sell them individually and use the proceeds to buy the reverend a more expensive gift. Somehow, though, things don’t work out quite how she planned.
His Father’s Son (46m13s): John Sanderson, one of the two boys adopted by Isiah Edwards and Grace Snider, is a concern to his new father with his interest in books…not the thing for a boy living in frontier country. But when Edwards looks to change him by buying him a gun and taking him hunting, it’s a parenting decision that goes terribly wrong.
The Talking Machine (46m21s): The phonograph comes to Walnut Grove – the Olesons, foolish as they are, are not awfully impressed – and with it comes Jason, a young boy who joins the school. Both Nellie and Laura vie for his affections but, an engineer at heart, he’s simply not interested in either until he warms to the young Miss Ingalls and leaves behind him a broken-hearted Oleson.
The Pride Of Walnut Grove (46m16s): A telegram arrives at the school telling Mary that she’s been chosen to represent Walnut Grove in a state-wide maths competition being held in Minneapolis. In spite of their pride, though, Charles and Caroline have to tell their eldest daughter that they can’t afford for her to go. As Charles prepares himself to tell Miss Beadle that Mary won’t be attending, he’s surprised to learn that
A Matter Of Faith (46m15s): When Charles plans to go on a trip with Mary, Laura and Carrie, Caroline offers to remain at home but on the day before they leave, she scratches her leg on a piece of dirty, rusting wire on the trailer as it’s being loaded. With Charles and the girls away, Caroline gets on with her chores but as the wound worsens, she falls sick. As a heavy rain falls, Caroline is left alone with a fever and a leg that’s now badly infected. With no other hope, she turns to scripture.
The Runaway Caboose (46m22s): On a trip with their father and Isiah Edwards to a train station, Mary, Laura and Carl Sanderson, the other boy adopted by Isiah and Grace Snider, climb into an empty caboose for an adventure. But when it begins rolling backwards on the track, Charles and Isiah set out to rescue their children, knowing that time is short when the railway guards tell them of a train leaving from Sleepy Eye that’s coming in the opposite direction.
Troublemaker (46m24s): Not all of the children in Miss Beadle’s class are as attentive as Mary Ingalls and when the older and more disruptive children cause a problem, Harriet Oleson arranges for Miss Beadle to be fired. When Hannibal Applewood, Miss Beadle’s replacement, arrives, he immediately takes a dislike to Laura Ingalls and soon the usually good-mannered girl is being blamed for all manner of disruption in the school classroom.
The Long Road Home (46m22s): Charles and Isiah gratefully accept the wages of fear when they take a job transporting explosives. Leaving home, saying farewell to their loved ones and catching a ride on a train, they pick up their first consignment of blasting oil. Setting off with two wagons, each of which carries five gallons of explosive, Charles, Isiah and two other men – Henry Hill (Lou Gossett) and Murphy (Richard Jaeckel) – move carefully through the countryside, learning much about each other along the way and, for Murphy, that is racism has no place when he depends on the black Hill for his life.
For My Lady (46m00s): When Charles takes a job for the widow Elizabeth Thurmond (Mariette Hartley), he asks that his payment be a china tea-set that he intends on giving to Caroline as a gift. So not to spoil the surprise, though, he must spin several different stories to cover his tracks. Soon, though, tongues start wagging and most of the womenfolk of Walnut Grove believe that Charles is having an affair.
Centennial (46m14s): The summer is approaching and Walnut Grove are preparing for their 4 July celebrations when an increase in taxes puts them under threat. Disappointed in their own government, it takes a voice from outside of the town to make the men and women of Walnut Grove realise what a great country they live in and that, taxes or not, Independence Day is one to be celebrated.
Soldier’s Return (46m00s): Granville Whipple (Richard Mulligan), the son of old Mrs Whipple (Queenie Smith) returns home to Walnut Grove after serving as a soldier in the civil war. Setting himself up as a music teacher and taking Mary and Laura Ingalls and Nellie Oleson as students, Granville is haunted by the ghosts of the civil war and takes morphine to ease his sleep. But what was an occasional remedy turns to an addiction and Granville’s fight goes on long after the ending of the civil war.
Going Home (46m13s): A terrible storm blows up around the Ingalls farm and when Charles spends that night saving what he can, he wakes the next morning to find that a tornado has destroyed his crops and killed his cattle. Tired of the fight and depressed at this setback, Charles intends to leave Minnesota and return to his homeland of Wisconsin but does so without discussing this with his family.
Little House on the Prairie comes to DVD in a decent but unimpressive state. With lots of grain and a noticeable amount of damage, there doesn’t appear to have been a great deal of work done to it before its appearance on DVD but it doesn’t look much worse than its last showing on Channel 4 some years back. Certainly, the production values of the mid-seventies look to be a good deal lower than that of the end of that decade or of the eighties and the DVD presentation reflects this with a softness and cheapness to the picture that stands out. The 2.0 Mono audio track doesn’t sound at all bad but, equally, is there to do the job rather than to be shown off. Everything about the set sounds reasonable but in line with the technical standard of the picture. There are, however, no subtitles on any of the episodes.
Other than a 56s trailer for other releases from Universal Playback, there are no extras on this release.
The lack of extras and the straightforward transfer of the series onto DVD won’t surprise anyone with any experience of Universal Playback so it comes with the kind of fairly average rating that one’s come to expect with their six-disc boxsets. Fine though this is, it does lack the extras on the Region 1 sets, all eight seasons of which are available on DVD, but if they matter then look elsewhere for the best versions of Little House on the Prairie.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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