It would appear that Michael Landon, Jr. is attempting to cash in on his late father’s Little House On The Prairie appeal. He is one of the driving forces behind this series of made for television films. He has directed several of them and serves as an executive producer on them all. He has also been involved with some of the writing on the series. They are based on a series of books written by Janette Oke. They follow three generations of women in the days of the Western frontier. When I say that Landon is spending on his father’s legacy, you need look no further than the common elements of the films themselves to understand how I come to that conclusion. All of the films feature frontier living and the interactions of these small town peoples in surviving the hardships of the West. There’s more than one little house on a prairie to be found in this collection.
The films are more than Western affairs. They are intended to be “Faith” films. In ach case someone’s faith in God is put to the test and they must find their way back to grace. The films are often interrupted with spontaneous Bible verses and more than a few sermons on faith. There’s plenty to go around when it comes to testing that faith. In just about every film some poor girl loses a husband and must rebound with another. Of course, each of these prospective husbands are encountered with a level of hostility at first. I guess I can understand that part, because my own wife and I had less than positive feelings for each other at first. Now we’ve been married for over 20 years. She hasn’t had to find a new one … yet. The films all do a good job of throwing other adversity at these women. They are often in a situation where they find little support about them and often encounter hostility towards their dreams and ambitions. As the box art tells us, they must use love and faith to overcome these obstacles.
The only actor to appear in most of the films is Dale Midkiff, the former science fiction star of Time Trax. He plays the patriarch of this ever-expanding family of mostly women. They do their best at aging him over the years, but he looks very much the same over the 40 or so years the film series explores. There is an absolute consistency in theme and production throughout the series of films. It almost plays out like a long mini-series or some sort of limited run television series. The films were made by the Hallmark Channel but could just as easily have been at home on Lifetime.
Here’s a brief description of the 8 films, each on their own DVD:
Love Comes Softly (2003)
“A man loses his horse, he goes after it. It’s as simple as that. A man loses his woman, he goes after her. It’s as simple as that.”
Marty (Heigl) is heading west with her new husband Aaron (Macready). They’ve staked a claim to build their homestead and begin their lives together. On their first day camped out on their new land, Aaron falls from his horse and dies. Poor Marty is devastated. She has no family here, and now no place to live. Winter is coming, and there will be no more wagon trains heading east until the spring. She has land, but they never had a chance to build a home on it. The substitute preacher at her husband’s graveside service approaches her in the rain after the service. Clark Davis (Midkiff) proposes a marriage of convenience. He has recently lost his own wife and has a young daughter in need of a woman’s hand in raising her. He proposes that he will pay her way back east in the spring as well as offer her food and lodging during the winter if she marries him and serves as young Missie’s (Bartusiak) mother for the duration. With no other real options, she accepts, and the two are married. At first her relationship with Missie is quite rough. Missie resents her trying to step in for her real mother, for whom she is still grieving. Eventually the two bond, and Marty begins to love her life with the Davis family. When winter ends, they all must face a choice. Will Marty stay or return to her own family back east?
Grey’s Anatomy standout Katherine Heigl takes on the role of Marty here. Abandoning the glamorous look she is more noted for, Heigl does a pretty good job as the grief-stricken widow here. She does appear to share some genuine chemistry with young actress Bartusiak and even a little with Dale Midkiff. This is quite a claustrophobic film. The majority of the short running time takes place with just these three actors. Their interactions are everything here. The ending is predictable, but isn’t that the point?
Love’s Enduring Promise (2004)
“There’s boys’ work, and there’s men’s work, and then there’s God’s work.”
It’s 10 years later, and there’s a third child in the Davis household. Missie (Jones) is all grown up now. She is now the teacher at the local schoolhouse. She has caught the eye of a rich business executive who is in the area to survey some land he is developing. Grant Thomas (Astin) wants to win her hand, so he wines and dines her with his wealth. But Missie has feelings for Nate (Bartholomew), who has returned to town after a long absence. When an accidental axe to his leg threatens Clark’s (Midkiff) life, Nate comes to the rescue and not only saves his life but offers to work the land for him while he recovers. Nate is also struggling with his own past, and a father from whom he has been estranged for many years. A tragedy in their lives split them apart and sent Nate running away from home. Now Clark wants to reunite father and son. Meanwhile, Missie must decide between wealth and love.
Katherine Heigl’s part is pretty much reduced to a cameo here as the focus quickly shifts to the Missie character. Cliff De Young has a small but effective part as Nate’s estranged father, Zeke. The real problem here is January Jones taking over the new adult Missie role. She’s incredibly flat and rather uninspiring for what is supposed to be an inspirational film. It’s hard to believe she is intended to be the same as the rather spirited young girl was in the first film.
Love’s Long Journey (2005)
“Ask me no questions and I’ll tell you no lies.”
Missie (Cottrell) and Nate, now named Willie (Bartholomew) are heading to make their new lives together much as her adopted mother was doing in the first film. They’ve raised enough money to start their own cattle farm. They homestead a fine piece of property, buy some head of cattle, and hire a motley crew of cowhands to help work the farm. Their new neighbors are a mixed Indian and white couple. Miriam Red Hawk (Bedard) is the Indian woman and also a midwife. Missie attempts to befriend the family and teaches the young ones to read with her school books. There is also a band of crooks in the area who have set their sites on the new settlers. Led by Trent (Savage), the gang includes Sonny (Jackson) who is trying to make a future for him and his young brother Jeff (Phillips). Sonny doesn’t have the stomach for killing and is put in a terrible position when they go to rob the new family only to discover they’ve taken in his young brother and provided him a home and education.
Erin Cottrell replaces January Jones as Missie, and the film is the better for it. Cottrell might not be the best actress in the world, but it didn’t take much to be better than the abysmally bad Jones. There are a lot of threads open here; in fact, too many to properly address, so they are left as unfulfilled promises. They look more like filler. The Indian neighbors and the farm hands are two threads that, once introduced, are never fully fleshed out. There are some rather colorful characters in the group of hands that includes Frank McRae as Cookies and old Star Trek utility actor William Morgan Sheppard as the appropriately named Scotty. Nate was using his middle name in the last film to avoid being identified but uses Willie from here on out.
Love’s Abiding Joy (2006)
“You know God a heck of a lot better than you know cattle.”
After a few years Missie (Cottrell) and Willie (Bartholomew) are having a hard time of it on the ranch. A cattle plague and drought have nearly wiped them out. Things are looking up a bit when Pa Davis (Midkiff) takes the stage out to visit with his daughter and her family. He arrives just in time to see the family luck continue its slide when their newborn baby dies suddenly, plunging Missie into depression and a crisis of faith. Willie is approached by the town government to be their first sheriff. At first he doesn’t want anything to do with the job, but they are in need of money, and Missie’s depression has made her unable to continue as schoolteacher. Willie takes the job reluctantly, only to find out that he’s being used to drive debtors out of their property. Meanwhile young adopted Jeff (Bell) is courting Colette (Whitman), daughter of Mayor Samuel Doros (Laughlin) who is the wealthy landowner driving out the poor farmers. The mayor has a plan to remove all of the obstacles in his way, including young interloper Jeff, if the new sheriff can’t find a legal way to stop him.
Most of the cast from the previous film return. Like most of these films, this one ends in another wedding. The supporting cast in this film is a step above the previous movies. There’s more of everything here, if you’re a fan of this stuff. Like the previous films, the plot mirrors classic literature. Here there’s a little Romeo and Juliet. Previously there was A Tale Of Two Cities and Wuthering Heights. Throw in a little Grapes Of Wrath for good measure.
Love’s Long Journey (2007)
“I’m not sure if you can hear me or not, Lord. I’m not even sure that I believe in you.”
The film opens as another husband bites the dust. It’s so long Willie. Missie has nothing left here, so she packs her family and moves back to her hometown where Pa (Midkiff) and Ma (Smith) are waiting to help out. She gets her old teaching job back and tries to settle in while getting over the loss of her husband, who was gunned down in the line of duty. Still, it doesn’t take her very long at all to catch the eye of this town’s sheriff Tyler (Browne). The local church becomes a staging area for an orphan train where a group of New York orphans are being put up for adoption. Two of the young kids are siblings Belinda (Coleman) and Jacob (Lemasters). Jacob is adopted by a cruel farmer and his wife, basically as free labor for the farm. When no one will take Belinda, Missie steps in and takes the feisty young girl. But Belinda isn’t happy, and keeps going out in the night to try and save her brother from his bondage. When the two run out into a dangerous storm, it looks like there’s room for just one more miracle before the closing credits … oh, and another wedding.
Katherine Heigl did not return as Marty. I guess she didn’t want to have some gray streaked into her hair. The character suffers, however, as Samantha Smith is about as wooden as those crosses up on Boot Hill. By now these films are looking way too contrived.
Love’s Unfolding Dream (2007)
“Sometimes a dream is all you can have.”
Now it’s adopted daughter Belinda’s (Taylor-Compton) turn to take center stage. She has grown up and wants very much to be a medical doctor. Of course, in these days there just wasn’t much belief that a woman could do that job. Her family has faith in her, but no one else does. The local Doctor, Jackson (Pine) only reluctantly takes her on as an assistant when a wealthy elderly lady Mrs. Stafford Smith (Charles) has a stroke while passing through town, and Doc Jackson doesn’t have the time to help in her rehabilitation. Meanwhile people are starting to drop like flies in the town, so Belinda gets many chances to prove her worth as a potential doctor. Along the way, Belinda meets up with a young lawyer who is in town to fix up his uncle’s place, which he has just inherited. The two fall in love. A rich patron and a new husband get Belinda’s life started toward her dreams.
This is likely the most contrived and formulaic entry in the film series. It’s anchored only by the performance of Scout Taylor-Compton as the grown Belinda. She provides the best performance of the series of leading ladies that parade through this film series. Midkiff is back again and appears to be the anchor for the movies. A long string of remarkably convenient coincidences drive this movie into the territory of the absurd, however.
Love Takes Wing (2009)
“These children aren’t innocent. They come from liars, beggars, and thieves.”
Belinda (Jones) is now a doctor graduated from Boston Medical School. She is traveling with fellow newly graduated pal Dr. Annie Nelson (Duff). The two are called to an out of the way village that has been overrun with a spreading disease. The town blames the kids at the local orphanage, who seem to have caught the disease first. Belinda must treat the sick and figure out what is killing these people and how to stop it while dealing with growing hostility from the frightened townspeople. The cry for violence is led by Ray Russell (Phillips). Her only ally is town Mayor Evans (Duffy). The two new doctors must be inventive and a bit like detectives to solve the problem before either the disease is out of control or the townspeople resort to violence against the children.
The biggest disappointment here is the removal of Scout Taylor-Compton as Belinda and her replacement Sarah Jones. They didn’t even bother to find someone with the same color hair (or at least use some old fashioned dye). We lost one of the best performers in the film series. I’d love to know who came up with that brilliant idea. Belinda joins the long list of widows and has lost her lawyer hubby. Of course, it doesn’t take her long to find a new one in the local blacksmith, who is one of the few that believe in her attempts to save the children. The supporting cast is actually pretty good here. Cloris Leachman plays the old woman who runs the orphanage. Lou Diamond Phillips not only plays the bad guy here but directs the film as well. Jordan Bridges joins the film series’ long list of replacement husbands.
Love Finds A Home (2009)
“Medicine isn’t the only thing that makes people feel better. Sometimes they have to believe that they can get better.”
Belinda (Jones) is now the town doc. Her daughter Lillian (Halverson) is all grown now and in love with her father’s new apprentice, Josh (Trevino). Doc Annie (Huff) comes to visit with her midwife mother-in-law (Duke), and she’s about to have a baby of her own. Her pregnancy gets complicated, and Belinda and Annie’s mother-in-law aren’t getting along as science and traditional medicine clash.
The film series ends with a whimper, even with the appearance of Patty Duke in the cast. This one doesn’t have a uniting thread like most of the others. It merely ties together a series of circumstances.
Each film is presented in its original intended aspect ratio. A couple are flipper discs with both a Full Frame and Widescreen version. A couple more are just Full Frame, and the more recent sport a 1.78:1 aspect ratio. They look fine for made for television films. There is some compression artifact, more than I should have seen. The films are all short, running under 90 minutes, and contain no extras beyond a trailer or preview advertisement. Colors are average but often over-lit in the exterior shots. Black levels are average, hampered by the aforementioned compression artifact. The real problem is a strange focus flaw that I’m not sure isn’t a defect in the way the film was shot. Items suddenly blur or lose focus momentarily. There are also moments where the light and contrast shift suddenly and make for a rather abrupt viewing experience. I suspect they were quickly shot and released on Hallmark.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 track isn’t any more impressive. The earlier films are only in 2.0, but I swear you won’t notice any difference. It’s all dialog and front and center.
I readily admit I’m not the target audience for these films. I watched them with my wife, who is much closer to the intended victims, eh … I mean audience. She liked them better than I, but wasn’t impressed enough to see them again. I never read the Oke books. Again, I’m not exactly who she is writing for. I’m not even sure if there are more books, and eventually more films in the series. It appears to have run about as far as I can see it going. With these 8 books and films, “There’s a lot of love spillin’ over”.