Well...ol' Ben's not as charismatic as Flipper (who is?), but the small fry will immediately take to this ursine family actioner. CBS DVD and Paramount have released Gentle Ben: Season One, a 4-disc, 28-episode collection of the CBS series' surprise hit first season (1967-1968). Produced on location in Florida by family-friendly entertainment whiz, Ivan Tors, and starring Clint Howard, Dennis Weaver, Beth Brickell, and Rance Howard, Gentle Ben's straightforward mix of mild-but-exciting action, and its heart-warming "a boy and his 650 pound gut-crunching mother of a bear" coming-of-age stories, should do the trick nicely for original fans of the series, as well as for anyone looking for some wholesome, vintage family entertainment. A big plus in this collection are some fun episode commentary tracks from stars Clint and Rance Howard, reminiscing about the show's event-filled production.
The Ocheechokee area of the wild, untamed Florida Everglades. Neat-as-a-pin game warden Tom Wedloe (Dennis Weaver), firm of jaw and starched of collar, has a full plate, tear-assing around the unforgiving swamp in his sweet, sweet airboat and Jeep, hunting down assorted n'er-do-wells like poachers, moonshiners, and escaped convicts, while futilely attempting to study the migration patterns of the multifarious critters and varmints that populate his beautiful, savage land. His pretty wife, Ellen (Beth Brickell), keeps their suburban-worthy little tract house spic 'n' span while attending to her other domestic duties, like painting stools and tables and changing her top and Capris every quarter of an hour. Next-door neighbor and old swamp-hand, Henry Boomhauer (Rance Howard), does a little fishin', a little bee-keepin', a little pig-farmin', and a whole lot of mud-whompin' in his sick all-wheel drive swamp buggy. And that leaves little eight-year-old Mark Wedloe (Clint Howard), curious and full of spunk, largely on his own in the cruel, unrestrained marshlands. Luckily, he has a protector
I don't think I've seen Gentle Ben since I was a kid, when it was a staple of early 70s syndication runs (a little unusual, since the producers didn't hit that magic 90-episode syndication count for this two-year series). Back in '07, I reviewed another Ivan Tors classic, Flipper, and was delighted with its star (that charming, effervescent scene-stealer) and the show's unpretentious, exciting storytelling. Certainly, Gentle Ben continues that Tors' line of family-friendly entertainment with its clean, efficient execution of simple plotlines that little kids will have no trouble following (as well as empathizing with, too). However, when it comes to Gentle Ben's lead actor--and I'm not talking about pros Weaver or Howard or anyone else (they may have thought they were the stars), but Bruno the bear--vaguely grumpy, sleepy "Ben" is certainly no threat to giddy, athletic Flipper or regal, supernaturally intelligent Lassie. As Clint Howard reiterates several times in his amusing, fun commentary tracks, the big, lumbering bears in Gentle Ben were slow to do anything within their scenes, even with the promise of a doughnut or a soda pop dangling right off camera, and that bruin reticence does knock Gentle Ben down a notch or two in terms of plain watchability. Simply put, the bears here just aren't as charismatic or as cute or as lively as the above-mentioned iconic TV pets. Time and again brave little Clint Howard gamely yanks that recalcitrant bear around to his marks--I swear half the appeal of the show is the genuine, queasy fascination you begin to feel as you wait for that bear to finally snap--while we watch total pro Howard spit out his lines before the clearly disinterested bear blows the shot again (it's all in the eyes--you can't see those bears' dark little eyes, so...no personality). The fact that none of this elaborate shell game in the physical production, directing and editing processes will be picked up by Gentle Ben's target audience--little kids--is a testament to producer Tors' expertise in cobbling together such logistically-challenging material.
Tors, a Hungarian emigre to the U.S. who served in the O.S.S. during WWII prior to his Hollywood career, cut his teeth on low-budget science-fiction and adventure films in the 1950s (frequently with actor/producing partner, Richard Carlson), before he moved away from the shrinking B market and into the increasingly lucrative live-action TV field. Having scored a huge hit with the first-run syndicated Sea Hunt (Lloyd Bridges, forever running out of air at the bottom of the sea...), Tors would go on to make successful family films (Zebra in the Kitchen, Africa, Texas Style, Clarence, the Cross-Eyed Lion) and television series (Flipper, Daktari) in the 1960s, eventually amassing enough money and clout to construct his own studios down in Miami, where Gentle Ben was shot (his production company was also responsible for the remarkable second-unit underwater photography for the Bond smash, Thunderball). Tors, who often made feature-length movie versions of his hit TV shows, actually reversed the process for Gentle Ben (according to interviews with Weaver and Howard) making the feature film, Gentle Giant, based on the book by Walt Morey and starring Weaver, Howard and Vera Miles, as a promotional tool to prop-up the TV premiere of CBS' Gentle Ben--a network debut that occurred over a month before Gentle Giant hit the big-screens. Given one of the sweetest spots on the CBS schedule--Sunday nights at 7:30pm, right after Lassie (30th for the year in the Nielsen's) and right before The Ed Sullivan Show (13th)--Gentle Ben faced tough demographic competition from the last half hour of ABC's Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, and the first half hour of NBC's Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color (25th for the year). However, Gentle Ben proved to be an immediate and surprisingly sizeable hit with family audiences, ending out the year as the 19th most-watched show on television.
According to Howard's commentary, these low-budgeted episodes of Gentle Ben were shot in the lightning-fast turnaround time of 2 to 3 days max, so there's little opportunity for any kind of complexity in the narrative or in the characters' motivations...thank god. As I wrote for Tors' Flipper, I appreciate Gentle Ben's similar straight, unadulterated approach to its pleasingly simple adventure/morality tales. There's a charming, primitive (in the best sense of that word) feel to Gentle Ben's structure and execution, an old-timey professionalism that looks positively inspired next to much of the insipid, incompetent--and deeply cynical--junk that is aimed at kids and families today. The themes that pop up here--primarily shaped through the life lessons that growing-fast Mark learns through his adventures with friend Ben--certainly aren't original, but they're time-tested, and treated with the open-faced respect they get here...they work quite well, as expected. The opening episode, Hurricane Coming, shows Tors' canny appreciation of what will hook his first-time small-fry audience: lots of non-violent action (expensive in this opener, with extensive wind and rain effects), and plenty of cute cut-aways to the animals and the kid (a Tors trademark: kids love to watch animals at play). This first episode also encompasses two of the most repeated plot elements you're likely to see in an average Gentle Ben episode: Mark gets himself lost in the threatening wild, and Ben goes and saves him (Growing Pains is a typical example of this: Mark slips out of his bedroom window again--they needed a screen on that thing--and is almost eaten by a panther before Ben saves him).
Other plot threads that run through multiple Gentle Ben episodes include poachers either plying the only trade they know...or trying to get rich (Gator Man, Green-Eyed Bear, Fish and Chips, The Opportunist) and thieves using the 'Glades to hide out (A Waste of Honey, Warden in the Bear Pit, The Ransom and Trophy Bear--the last two with Ben himself as the target of theft). Heavier themes like racism pop up occasionally (Invasion of Willie Sam Gopher or A Medal For Ben), but they're handled with a softer touch for the young viewers (only Mama Jolie comes over as out-and-out inept, with a silly Jamaican voodoo subplot and false-dramatic center of an illegal alien on the run...who has no real reason to run). Proto-environmentalist elements occasionally surface, too; in Battle of Wedloe Woods, developer Howard Da Silva wants to bulldoze hundreds of 'Glades acreage for a housing tract, before land-loving Mark and Tom convince him instead to raise cattle there (funny how things change, with cattle-raising now stigmatized as positively evil by the lunatic environmentalist/PETA fringe). Even sex rears its ugly head here; in Restless Bear, Waltons creator Earl Hamner, Jr. scripts a sensitive-yet-heavily-coded story about Ben needing to, um...get out more, if you will, that winds up having Mark praying to God to have Ben knock it off and get back home (it's fairly hilarious when green-around-the-gills Mark moans, "I can't eat!" after he finally understands what Ben's really up to in the swamps).
With a surprisingly hefty back bench of pro helmers like Ricou Browning, R.G. Springsteen, John Florea, George Cahan, and particularly cult director Gerd Oswald (the sensational noir classic, A Kiss Before Dying), under the steady guidance of hands-on Hollywood producer/director vet, George Sherman, Gentle Ben's episodes, regardless of how slight the content, are never less than entertaining strictly from a meat-and-potatoes storytelling standpoint, with the more action-oriented outings tending to stand out. Take a Giant Step lets underutilized Beth Brickell almost save a drowning kid...until Weaver steps in and lets bad dad Fritz Weaver have the honors (if they wouldn't let the talented, Actors Studio-trained Brickell actually do anything this first season...would it have killed them to at least let her be a little sexy every now and then? Just one cropped top or a bikini, fercrissakes?). Battle of Birthday Bay is a good outing with a simple premise: Weaver wants to take Brickell and Howard up to a friend's cabin for her birthday...and a group of hungry panthers hold them at bay. Gerd Oswald comes up with a tight little winner in Survival in the Swamp, when crafty convict Bruce Gordon stalks Weaver and Howard in the swamp (good suspense here: basic and nicely-done). The two-parter, The Wayward Bear, has a nice change of locale, as Ben wanders out of the 'Glades and into town, causing all sorts of havoc (you'll love the guy in the bear suit, jumping off a trestle right before a train squishes him). And Voice from the Wilderness has director Ricou Browning's friend Burt Reynolds dropping by for a claustrophobic actioner; he's trapped in the wreckage of a downed plane, with a tranquilized tiger--his cage busted open--slowly waking up. Brilliant set-up. Some sweet action shots of Bruno and the cat squaring off in the cramped fuselage top off this winner.
Reynolds certainly isn't the only "name" to pop up here; another Tors trademark was using actors who were oftentimes working way above their material, giving the admittedly slight episodes an added "oomph" they wouldn't normally enjoy. In addition to Reynolds, solid performers like Frank Schuller, Ron Howard (who's excellent playing a troubled teen in Green-Eyed Bear), Simon Oakland, Albert Salmi, Jay Silverheels (kinda overdoing it a bit in Invasion of Willie Sam Gopher), Howard Da Silva, Sidney Blackmer, Pat Hingle, William Windom, Pat Henning, Murvyn Vye, Harry Bellaver, Stuart Erwin, Templeton Fox, Strother Martin (hands-down the best performance this season as, what else, a weasley, slimy little crook in The Opportunist), Tom Poston, Juanita Moore (stuck in that abysmal Mama Jolie), baseball great Bob Gibson (pick yourself up off the floor after Gibson says, with a completely straight face, that he'd rather lose than "use tricks" like brushback pitches. Hee hee!), Fritz Weaver, Bruce Gordon, and Slim Pickens show up, most to good advantage, putting Gentle Ben firmly over into the "plus" column with its trim little stories, its uncluttered production, and its good performances.
Here are the 28 episodes of the 4-disc Gentle Ben: Season One collection, as described on the inside of the DVD cover:
Fish and Chips
Voice From The Wilderness
Invasion of Willie Sam Gopher
Battle of Wedloe Woods
Warden For Man And Beast
A Waste Of Honey
Warden In The Bear Pit
A Medal For Ben
The Wayward Bear, Part I
The Wayward Bear, Part II
Battle of Birthday Bay
Fired In The Glades
Take A Giant Step
Survival In The Swamp
Ol Joe's Gotta Go
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.