Simple, straightforward wrap-up...of something less than the original. CBS DVD and Paramount have released The Capture of Grizzly Adams, the made-for-TV reunion movie that originally aired on CBS in 1982. Starring Dan Haggerty, Kim Darby, Noah Beery, Jr., Keenan Wynn, June Lockhart, Sydney Penny, G.W. Baily, and Chuck Connors, The Capture of Grizzly Adams certainly isn't as engagingly loopy as its host series, the delightfully goofball The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams; however, it's clean, well-produced family viewing (too well-produced for a potential Schick/Sunn "classic"), moderately exciting for the smallest of the small fry, and an okay conclusion, I suppose, for fans of the well-remembered NBC series. No extras for this okay fullscreen transfer.
The Great American Rockies, the 1850s. Corrie Adams, the sister of fugitive "murderer" James "Grizzly" Adams (Dan Haggerty), is dead of lung fever. Since Peg was the guardian of Grizzly's young daughter, Peg Adams (Sydney Penny), Peg will now have to stay with kindly Liz Hawkins (June Lockhart), the wife of tough-but-fair Sheriff Hawkins (Noah Beery, Jr.), until such time as she's sent to foster care--a situation that pains Kate Brady (Kim Darby), who loves Peg and remembers Grizzly as a kind man, incapable of murder. Local bigwig Frank Briggs (Chuck Connors) sees the situation differently; he knows that if and when Grizzly finds out about his sister and daughter, he'll return to see Peg, and when Grizzly does, Briggs is going to get justice for his murdered business partner--trial or no trial. Sure enough, after rescuing his friend and fellow mountain man, Bert Woolman (Keenan Wynn), from a near-brush with death, Grizzly learns from Bert that his sister has died and Peg is alone, prompting Grizzly to leave his valley to take his daughter to California. Unfortunately, the title of this reunion movie should tell you how that plan panned out, and now Grizzly and Peg are on the run from the vengeful Briggs...and a killer tornado.
Looking back, 1982, by and large, was a lousy year for television. Sure, there were some cool things that happened, like va-va-va-voom Vanna White taking over letter-flipping duties on Wheel of Fortune, or Jerry Lawler bitch-slapping Andy Kaufman on Late Night with David Letterman (we thought it was real...). Or the debuts of classics such as T.J. Hooker, Knight Rider, Matt Houston, Square Pegs, Speed Buggy, and Gilligan's Planet...and the blessed cancellations of Mork & Mindy (yea! no more coke-fueled accents!) and Lou Grant (yea! no more Ed Asner!). However...whatever good was achieved in the TV universe with those isolated landmarks, the overall impact was negated by some truly evil disturbances in the Force, including the arrival of insufferably arrogant Bryant Gumbel on The Today Show (the TV king of inverse talent-to-ego ratios), and insufferably chipper Mary Hart on Entertainment Tonight (how could she look that 80s good...and be that gratingly sexless?); Jermaine Jackson showing up on The Facts of Life; NBC mounting a Texaco Star Theater special without Uncle Miltie; the arrival of Coy and Vance on The Dukes of Hazzard (I simply couldn't watch it...); the cancellation of classics like The Lawrence Welk Show, Barney Miller, The Incredible Hulk, Password, In Search of..., Bosum Buddies (I wept...), and Police Squad! after just six episodes (jesus), making room for three of the most overrated series of the 1980s: Cagney and Lacey, St. Elsewhere and god help us all, Cheers (watch it today...it's awful). With the deaths of three of television's greats that year--Hugh Beaumont (TV's greatest dad), Jack Webb (TV's greatest cop), and Paul Lynde right off the bat in January (the funniest man on TV period)--1982 in television was an all-around bummer from the get-go.
Sulking over an already downer year may have been the reason I didn't watch The Capture of Grizzly Adams when it premiered on CBS during February "sweeps" in 1982...but I doubt it. If anything, I probably didn't tune in out of a combination of extreme TV OCD (The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams was an NBC show...so what's this reunion movie doing on CBS?), and sheer disinterest. After all, TV reunion shows need a good ten years or so for them to be nostalgically compelling, not the measly four years or so that separated Life and Times' cancellation and Capture's premiere. The kids who enjoyed the original series were mostly still "kids" in 1982, but critically, they were older kids and as such, didn't have time to become nostalgic about a show they quit watching years ago for a reason. To be honest, no matter how well remembered and beloved The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams seems today (and I'm a huge fan)...it only lasted a season and a half, from 1977 to 1978, with families and kids eventually tuning out just as quickly as they initially tuned in.
As I wrote in my review a few years ago for the first half-season of The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams, that series' production studio, Shick/Sunn Classic Pictures, was one of the central drivers for all that giddy, hysterical fun during the 1970s' golden age of whacky pseudo-science/pseudo-history, when the nation's pop culture was saturated with B movies, sketchy documentaries, pulp books and magazines, TV shows, and toys dealing with UFOs, Bigfoot, the Bermuda Triangle, crystal power, ESP, and ancient astronauts (to list just a few). And nobody was better at marketing and promoting "must-see" family-friendly exploitation entertainment than Shick/Sunn Classics. Based out of Salt Lake City, Utah, indie Shick/Sunn Classic Pictures compensated for their relative inexperience in actual moviemaking by taking a full-court press approach to pre-production marketing research (to determine target audience and choice of subject matter), followed by strictly-controlled, low, low-budget production costs, smacked home for maximized profits by "four-walled" releasing schemes (renting the movie theatres outright for 100% of the ticket sales), and hyped by ballyhoo-worthy saturation promotion on television, radio and print ads. With an almost foolproof, low-risk method of producing and/or releasing movies that were in essence "pre-sold" to a waiting public, Shick/Sunn Classic Pictures released one insanely profitable family adventure/documentary/drama after another: When the Wind Blows, The Outer Space Connection, The Adventures of Frontier Freemont, The Amazing World of Psychic Phenomena, The Mysterious Monsters, In Search of Noah's Ark, The Lincoln Conspiracy, Beyond and Back, The Bermuda Triangle, In Search of Historic Jesus, Beyond Death's Door, Hangar 18, and of course the 1974 theatrical version of The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams (which by various accounts pulled in somewhere between 25 to 45 million dollars in ticket sales--most going directly into Sunn Classic's pockets--on a paltry half-a-million dollar investment). I saw them all, and absolutely loved them (the day someone puts out a boxed set of Schick/Sunn Classic movies with widescreen transfers is the day I drop dead from the vapors).
With the kind of profit margin success that the mainstream studios could only dream of, it was inevitable that savvy, chintzy Shick/Sunn Classic Pictures would be approached to produce for television, with their most famous effort being 1977's The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams series. According to what I've read, NBC approached Sunn when a 1976 televised airing of the big-screen The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams won a sizeable chunk of the night's demographics. Third-placed NBC, with nothing to lose, signed up Sunn's one-man-band producer, Charles Edward Sellier, Jr., to gather the movie's cast together for a 13-episode mid-season replacement tryout in February, 1977 (in addition to producing the original 1974 movie, Sellier also wrote the highly-fictionalized 1972 novel from which the movie was adapted). Fully cognizant of the culture's zeitgeist at that moment, the producers of television series, The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams, took the real-life animal killer James "Grizzly" Adams and turned him into a beatific post-hippie, pre-New Age Father Earth poohbah who wants to wrap his arms around the whole world and love it to death. Spouting amusing homilies like, "If you live with nature, not against her, she'll treat you real good," (that is, if disinterested "nature" doesn't decide to up and kill you off in any number of grisly fashions), this Grizzly Adams for the Earth Shoe-wearing, Grape Nuts-crunching, macrameing-stitching mid-70s despised money, despised anyone coming too close to his Eden (wonder what the Indians thought of that...), and fanatically wished no harm to come to any of his animals in his valley and on his mountain.
Each week, the show would provide "feel good" lessons for the kiddies in conservation, tolerance, and non-violence. Glossy simplification was key: no one died; no one got maimed; no one even got fleas or lice. And with that simplification came the worst (and therefore most hilarious) kind of anthropomorphizing in the show's main relationship: Grizzly and his animals. Grizzly Adams kept up a running conversation with Ben the grizzly bear and all the other forest creatures that would seem to indicate that Grizzly was a bit teeched in the head. The directors never failed to include several shots in each scene of Ben the grizzly bear nodding and growling in agreement with Adams' ramblings, while higher forms of communication were regularly employed between the two (smarter than Lassie, Ben could apparently understand complex commands to go find strangers and report back, as well as turn fish on a rotisserie, and pray before his supper, displaying a preternatural calm that belayed his own natural impulse to use Adams as a scratching post). All of that made The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams easy to laugh at, certainly...but at its core it was a genuinely sweet show, and truly innocuous in the best sense of that word. Employing the crudest forms of melodrama (crying, lost children being chased by animals, crying, lost adults being chased by animals), The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams was primitive storytelling, to be sure, amplified by the almost laughably inept nature of the production: mismatched stock footage shots from other Sunn Classic epics, poor framing, incomprehensible editing, indifferent thesping, and production values reminiscent of a junior high schooler's Super 8mm film project. In other words, it recreated the big-screen feel of a typical Schick/Sunn Classic Pictures movie exactly.
So...maybe that's why I didn't have all that much fun with The Capture of Grizzly Adams: it's not really a Schick/Sunn Classic effort. It's too polished, too "clean," too generic and anonymous in conception and inspiration to be a true Sunn "classic" (in other words, it's too professionally put together for a Sunn, and it's missing that crazy, wild-and-wooly attitude of canny carny exploitation that even the series could routinely muster). It's problematic enough that two central figures from the original series--kindly Indian brave Nakoma (Don Shanks), and cantankerous old trapper Mad Jack (Denver Pyle)--are M.I.A. here. Missing cast members, due to death or contractual obligations, is an understood possibility for the average TV reunion movie that most viewers grudgingly allow (making things a little better is the addition of talented Keenan Wynn, an acceptable sub for Denver Pyle). However, too many other critical elements of the series are missing in The Capture of Grizzly Adams. First and foremost: we don't get to see Grizzly Adams be "Grizzly Adams." Where is Grizzly communing with nature and his little woodland creatures, isolated in his Eden as he helps those strays that happen to wander onto his mountain? Here, we get a brief establishing scene of Grizzly helping a neighbor (neighbor?) with a fishing trap, but that character could be anyone in a Western; nothing in it is specifically "Grizzly Adams." Even worse...where is Ben the grizzly bear? Sure, we see him a few times here and there, but he's supposed to be Adams' best friend, and he spends most of his time separated from Adams during the movie's run. Maybe there were problems with this particular bear performer (we rarely see him in the same frame with an actor), but disastrously, the moviemakers do very little with him in terms of the storyline, and thereby ignoring one of the key attractions of the original series (the kids love the bear growling and yowling along with Adams, as if he understood him).
On the plus side, The Capture of Grizzly Adams doesn't fool around, getting on with its trim little story (from scripter Arthur Heinemann; Little House on the Prairie, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry) with no fuss or muss. The cast is quite good for this kind of outing, with Chuck Connors, as always, making for a notably mean, snake-eyed villain, and Beery, Jr. effective as a kindly sheriff. Special note must be made of little Sydney Penny, who does well in her emotional scenes with equally sincere Dan Haggerty (she almost made up for no Ben with my small fry audience). Lots of action punctuates the quickly-moving story, including characters getting swept down rivers and over waterfalls, a pretty-good tornado sequence (the tornado itself looks silly, but the damage effects are pretty good), and an exciting scene on a perilous rope bridge, including a knife fight to the death. All of this is fine in The Capture of Grizzly Adams if it were a solid episode from say, Gunsmoke or Bonanza or any other number of anthology Westerns from the 60s and 70s...but it has little to do with the original Grizzly Adamsseries. This made-for TV reunion movie may be called The Capture of Grizzly Adams...but someone forget to include Adams in the mix.
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.