March 24, 2009

El Toro Grande in Bonanza

In the 16th episode of Bonanza, titled El Toro Grande (airdate: January 2, 1960), Little Joe and Hoss travel to California to buy a prize bull from a Spanish rancher.

Not that it's relevant to this blog, but the episode is full of Mexican stereotypes. The hot-blooded young man who dresses like a Flamenco dancer and wields a rapier. The hot-blooded young woman who is pure as the driven snow but who lusts after Little Joe. The happy-go-lucky peasant who strums a guitar and sings songs. The mischievous little boy in the sombrero. The burros. Etc.

Recall that Bonanza is set around the year 1860. This is a decade after the Gold Rush, with its huge influx of white settlers, and California's becoming a state. Yet none of that is evident in this episode. The Spanish hacienda is so typically Mexican that the Cartwrights could've traveled 50 years into the past as well as across the state.

The Native aspect

On the way back, five Indians grab the bull. On the plus side, all five are wearing the loose Western clothes typical of the time. And they say they're just taking the bull because they're hungry.

On the minus side, three of the four "braves" have headbands with feathers. The main Indian is a phony Plains chief. And when he departs, it sounds like he says "good night" in Italian.

This scene must take place in eastern California. Yet the Indians are purely generic or stereotypical. It's a far cry from the broadly accurate portrayal of Paiute Indians in Death on Sun Mountain.

Non-Natives cast as Natives

Three of the "braves" appear to be played by non-Natives. The chief is played by Ralph Moody, who has the typical "ethnic" features of a white actor playing an Indian. But curiously, one of the "braves" is played by Rodd Redwing, a Native actor.

Both Moody and Redwing had long careers playing Indians on TV shows and in movies. But casting them both in this episode seems strange. Why hire one Native and one non-Native for the Indian roles? I could see two Natives or two non-Natives, but one of each?

It's as if they trusted a Native actor in a truly insignificant role but not in a slightly bigger but still insignificant role. Perhaps they didn't think an actual Indian could handle his 4-5 lines. Or it could've been the actors' looks. Perhaps Moody's face was more lined and "heavy" than the faces of handy Native actors.

For more on the subject, see TV Shows Featuring Indians.

Below:  Ralph Moody in a non-Indian role.

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