In the House of Yesteryear, we adhere to a standard (and arguably, fairly predictable) schedule when it comes to mealtimes—primarily because my father is diabetic and if he doesn’t eat regularly Mom goes into her ZaSu Pitts-number (“Oh, dear…”). She arranges for us to have supper around 6pm, and we enjoy this repast in front of the TV…where we watch WSB-TV Atlanta’s always riveting local newscast before switching over to WXIA (11Alive!) at 6:30 for NBC’s nightly news. (WSB’s news coverage runs until 7, followed by ABC’s national news…yet the habits of an evening news lifetime are hard to break, so that’s why Dad insists we change the channel at 6:30.)
Once ginormous-forehead-news-reader Lester Holt has finished with his nightly spiel, I am pressed into service to find something with which to entertain my father until he decides to call it a day. It wasn’t always this way, you understand; for a long, long time, he would switch over to MSDNC for Hardball with Chris Matthews, and then after that move onto the second and third tee vee punditry courses of Chris Hayes and (for as much as he was able to stay awake for) Rachel Maddow. My mother sweetly explained to him one day that if she had to sit through another hour of Matthews’ bleating, she would have an Elvis-Robert Goulet moment where the TV was concerned. (Hence the urgent request that I take charge of the after-news programming.)
My father claims that his vision problems prevent him from enjoying movies in monochrome…an assertion I find highly skeptical, since he bitched about black-and-white movies/TV shows before his eyesight problems. He does make allowances from time to time; he’s a big fan of the Have Gun – Will Travel and Maverick reruns that air on MeTV on Saturday mornings, plus I was able to convince him into checking out some of the B&W Gunsmokes after he had exhausted the color episodes that are an afternoon staple on TVLand. But the occasional forays into watching a black-and-white movie Western have been met with stiff resistance (he even vetoed Dakota  one night…and that one stars John Wayne!) and since I’ve worked through practically all of the color oaters that are shown on Starz Encore Westerns on a regular basis, I knew I had to think quickly. I distracted him momentarily with the 2011 Ken Burns documentary Prohibition (our local PBS station resurrected this one about a year ago) but he didn’t care for it as much I did. As I sat in front of my desktop computer, hoping for inspiration to strike from the blue…it came to me in a flash. I had purchased the first season of The High Chaparral when Shout! Factory released it to Region 1 DVD at the end of August.
So that’s what the ‘rents and I watched for two weeks; I’d put on a pair of Chaparral installments (each episode runs 50 minutes, so it wasn’t that much different from watching a full-length feature) in the evening until we exhausted all twenty-eight first season episodes. To my gobsmacked surprise, The High Chaparral was warmly received by both parents…and I’m talking about people who normally shun episodic TV as a rule. (My mother does enjoy watching two out of the three “Chicago” franchise series on NBC [Chicago Med, Chicago Fire] and Law & Order: SVU, in the interest of full disclosure.) In retrospect, I probably shouldn’t have been so stunned: I’ve long considered Chaparral to be a most underrated boob tube western, so I’m most pleased that Shout! will be bringing the show’s sophomore season to fans this December 11th.
The premiere two-hour episode, “Destination Tucson/The Arrangement” (09/10/67), finds rancher “Big” John Cannon (Leif Erickson) arriving at the new spread he’s purchased in the Arizona Territory (not far from Tucson) with wife Annalee (Joan Caufield), son William (a.k.a. “Blue”; Mark Slade), and brother Buck (Cameron Mitchell) at his side. It’s not going to be easy for the Family Cannon; the ranch—which Annalee names “High Chaparral”…as you can see in the post title—is in the dry desert, where the slightest trace of drought could spell ruin for a man. If water worries aren’t enough to preoccupy our ambitious cattleman, the news that his new home is smack-dab in the middle of Apache Indian territory will also cause him a few headaches. In fact, Annalee winds up on the wrong end of an Apache arrow and perishes not long after the family has managed to put down stakes.
The Chaparral ranch is not far from the Mexican border—on the Mexican side, the powerful and highly influential Don Sebastian Montoya (Frank Silvera) operates an even larger spread. Big John reasons that if the two factions band together to tackle the Apache problem it would be beneficial to both parties…and after paying Montoya a visit, his Mexican host agrees. But to cement this alliance, Don Sebastian demands that Cannon marry his daughter Victoria (Linda Cristal)—no marriage, no alliance. Though neither Big John nor Victoria are particularly enthusiastic about this “marriage of convenience,” with the passage of time (and additional seasons) the two of them develop a most loving and lasting relationship as they struggle to make High Chaparral a success. Throwing his lot in with the Cannon clan is Victoria’s mischievous brother Manolito (Henry Darrow), who agrees to accompany his sister to her new home to escape his father’s constant disapproval.
Created by writer-producer David Dortort (who also produced The Restless Gun and brought Bonanza to TV screens), The High Chaparral broke new ground in its presentation of Latinx characters at a time when Latinos were often embarrassingly reduced to caricatures like Speedy Gonzales or the Frito Bandito (it’s not a coincidence that both of these animated characters were voiced by the same man, Mel Blanc, who has to shoulder some blame in the stereotype arena dating from the time he played Pedro the handyman on radio’s The Judy Canova Show). The character of Manolito may have occasionally slipped into clichéd traits of drinking and whoring, but as played by Henry Darrow, “Mano” came off as such a charming rogue you couldn’t help but love the man. (Manolito also demonstrated incredible courage when necessary, at witnessed in ”Ride the Savage Land” [02/11/68]; Mano undergoes a harrowing ritual of torture in order to rescue a young girl taken hostage by Apaches.) As a kidlet, I have vague memories of The High Chaparral’s original TV run…but one area where my memory does not fail me is that I had a huge crush on Linda Cristal, who as Victoria Cannon created an endearing, three-dimensional character determined to make the best of an admittedly uncomfortable situation—a relationship that, in the beginning, is more merger than marriage.
As much as I loved the characters of Victoria and Manolito, I thought their father Don Sebastian was a true delight. The elder Montoya was a wily and delectable bastard; a man who clearly reached his station in life thanks to a ruthless and cagey shrewdness that even his adversaries were forced to admire. An excellent example of this acumen is the focus of “Young Blood” (10/08/67): Buck breaks his leg engaging in some horseplay (literally—he was foolishly racing Blue back to the ranch), which necessitates that Manolito and Blue represent John’s interests as they ask Don Sebastian to sell them some much-needed cattle. The two sons manage to get the stock for a reasonable price (Mano appeals to his father as family) while accidentally winding up with the Don’s prized bull; just when Mano and Blue think they’ve pulled one over on the old skeever, Montoya has an ace or two up his sleeve. Though in most of the episodes in which he appeared (actor Frank Silvera passed away during production in the fourth season, a devastating blow) Don Sebastian would often seem to have the upper hand, he could be twisted around the little finger of his daughter, whom he could deny nothing (you’ll witness this in a second season entry, “The Promised Land” [10/25/68]). My favorite Don Sebastian episode is the first season “The Firing Wall” (12/31/67), in which a Mexican rurale (Fernando Lamas) manages to jail Manolito on an outstanding charge, along with Blue and the rest of the Chaparral ranch hands. When Don Sebastian attempts to bail out his son, he’s tossed into the sneezer with the rest of the group!
“That man has some serious anger management issues,” Mom observed of Big John Cannon, the Cannon family patriarch. (She’s right about this, though I pointed out to her that he mellows out a bit by Season Two. She also had a problem with Cameron Mitchell’s Buck character: “Why is he so frigging dirty all the time?”) The High Chaparral seemed to have vanished from TV screens in this country until it resurfaced on INSP in the fall of 2012 as an “exclusive,” It was later added to Heroes & Icons’ lineup—it’s still there, as a matter of fact, weekdays at 10am EST—in August of 2017, and while WGTA (Channel 32) was still offering H&I as their major subchannel I DVR’d the entire series (and picked up the “stragglers” from INSP) with the intention of using episodes as “filler” for shorter movies I was transferring to disc. So, when I saw the news about the second season DVD release, I deleted whatever Season 2 shows were left and kept the other two seasons in case Mom and Dad start jonesing for a fix. I’ve seen about half of the Season 2 shows and I’ll be honest: the first season shows seem to be stronger—according to the Chaparral entry at Wikipedia, “The series gradually evolved to make Manolito and Buck the most prominent characters, as they were the ones who tended to get into trouble; both were somewhat irresponsible, particularly under the influence of drink.”
Wikipedia continues: “The other characters were gradually marginalized. Cattle ranching almost never featured in the storylines, which, whenever Mexican bandit or Indian troubles were not imminent, were much more likely to revolve around personal issues of drama with Manolito or Buck and some form of hell-raising—gambling, fighting, women, or whiskey (or a combination of them).” I’m hoping this doesn’t mean I’m going to be disappointed, though of the second season episodes I’ve viewed so far there were some particularly good entries in the likes of “The Buffalo Soldiers” (11/22/68) and the Thanksgiving-themed “For What We Are About to Receive” (11/29/68). “Follow Your Heart” (10/04/68) is an episode that focuses on one of the series’ secondary characters, foreman Sam Butler (Don Collier), for a refreshing change-of-pace. The High Chaparral was a good-sized spread but for some odd reason seemed to be woefully understaffed; in addition to Sam you had as drovers his younger brother Joe (Bob Hoy…who was a year older than Collier in real life), Pedro (Roberto Contreras), Reno (Ted Markland), and Ira (Jerry Summers). Vaquero (Rodolfo Acosta) was the Chaparral’s chief-cook-and-bottle-washer.
Actor Collier, whose TV resume also included Outlaws (1960-62) and the later The Young Riders (1989-92), is the focus of an interview on the Shout! Chaparral first season set. There’s also a half-hour featurette in which actors who appeared on TV westerns produced by Universal (James Drury, Robert Fuller, Roberta Shore, etc.) reminisce about the good ol’ days; I got a huge kick out of seeing Lawman/Laredo’s Peter Brown among the interviewees—I didn’t recognize him at first, but when he opened his mouth to speak, I knew from that moment on. Here’s hoping that Shout! comes through with Chaparral seasons three and four (if push comes to shove, the entire series has been released in Region 2 and 4 editions)…otherwise, I’m going to be editing out some commercials when it comes time to show them to Los Parentes Yesteryear.