"Life's awful complicated, isn't it, Dad?"
Same swamp. Same kid. Same bear. Same fun. CBS DVD and Paramount have released Gentle Ben: Season Two, a four-disc, 28-episode gathering of the well-remembered CBS family adventure's second (and final) 1968-1969 season. Starring little Clint Howard, Dennis Weaver, Beth Brickell (fine), and funny Rance Howard, Gentle Ben: Season Two doesn't seem to differ at all from producer Ivan Tors big hit first season, and that's just fine with me: simple little adventure stories, full of cute animals and cuter kids, always with a nice moral...and of course the pleasure of waiting, just waiting, for that seemingly sleepy bear to take one too many irritating yanks of that neck chain before he snaps. Big disappointment here: those delightful commentaries with Clint and Rance Howard from season one? M.I.A. here...which doesn't exactly help smooth over those iffy fullscreen transfers.
Back in October, 2013, I had the pleasure of reviewing Gentle Ben's first season, a show I used to enjoy in reruns as a kid (I probably hadn't seen it in at least 30 years or more). As I wrote in my first review, these low-budgeted Gentle Ben episodes were shot in a lightning-fast 2 or 3 days max turnaround, so there was barely enough time just to get the goddamned bears to do what they were told...let alone time to create some complexity in the narratives or in the characters' motivations. That simplistic approach, however, was hardly a drawback. I appreciate Gentle Ben's straight, unadulterated approach to its pleasingly basic 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.
Watching this second go-around, though, I think I'm beginning to understand why this breakout first season Nielsen hit (19th for the 1967-1968 season) faded fast in its final sophomore stretch (it dropped out of the Nielsen Top Thirty altogether): nothing changes here, and I mean nothing. Now, there were lots of shows that lasted a whole lot longer than Gentle Ben back during the 1960s, a time when many series made an art form out of rubber-stamping season after season with no discernable change in approach and execution (Hogan's Heroes has to be the supreme example of re-doing the same basic two or three episodes over five seasons). However, a show like Gentle Ben, an inexpensive novelty outing (kid with a lazy 650-bear as a friend) with a simple-yet-limited approach aimed at the very young viewer, didn't have far to go before it was repeating itself. That first season certainly caught the kids in the audience who were rightfully charmed by little Clint Howard's and Ben the Bear's low-key action-filled adventures in the 'Glades. However, any of those kids tuning in the second season might be excused for thinking they were in a time warp, because the same three or four set-ups were being repeated over and over again (a few episodes are direct copies, even)...while something new (and admittedly, a lot of old stuff repackaged) was always popping up on Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color, Gentle Ben's direct competition on early Sunday nights over on NBC. After all...just how many times could little Mark forget the same lesson about going out into the dangerous swamp, only to have Ben shamble after him and drag his ass back home?
The season opener, the two-parter Two for the Sea, is a good example of producer Ivan Tors' magic at taking a bunch of stock footage and constructing a plausible little tale about different species of animals becoming friends...and woe is man who can't do the same (jesus christ...). I'm assuming that's Tors' employee Flipper showing up here as escaped Miami Seaquarium superstar, Marco Polo (god, he's such a charismatic charmer compared to dull-eyed, sugar-crashed behemoth Ben). I don't know what's better: McCloud lecturing Clint about there being no such thing as freedom (because of danger and risk...uh, what?), or that phony shark fin they pull on a string in front of Ben...in about four inches of pond water. Series regular director Gerd Oswald (yes, the genius behind noir A Kiss Before Dying) keeps the action tight in The Wall That Mark and Tom Built, ending the episode with a sweet little set-up involving Jerry Lester getting caught between gators and a panther (fair warning: that damned if you do/damned if you don't scenario is going to happen often this season...), as Tom powers in on his air boat, pistol blazing (Oswald even gets a nicely symbolic shot of Tom and Mark's contretemps, when he has the camera pan down to Tom's cracked portrait frame--on the flip side, you won't see that happen too often this season). Co-star Rance Howard scripts a fun, event-filled outing in Ben the Champ, where pee wee manager Murray Wood (The Wizard of Oz) wants to buy Ben as a pet/partner for his slow-witted wrestler Victor French. The moral? Don't be jealous of someone who loves you and other people; there's room in your heart for more than one person. Lots of funny bits here from director Oswald, including the gypsy yanking on that panther's tale, and Ben hitting the water, trapped in a cage (doesn't faze him). Howard also scripts Flapjacks for Breakfast, where Boom suspects gators have eaten his best dog, Flapjack (surprise: it's the ever-present pesky poachers what stole him). Charlie the Raccoon gets the gator/puma squeeze play this episode, but slide whistles and cow bells during the final pig pen fight just cheapen what's already a cheap comedy scene. You have to love Mom's safety advice to Mark, though, back from the days when American kids were allowed to be kids: "Can I go look for him, Mom?" "Sure! As long as you don't go near that gator hole!"
One of the better outings this season, A Gift of Love, is a charming lesson in giving and taking, and honoring one's commitments, when Mark trains a little dog for nearly-blind squatter, Mr. Minegar, played by Robertson White (an excellent father-son chat near the end shows how good Dennis Weaver was with little Clint Howard). Code Name: Disaster is a lively entry, where clueless game warden Tom, more worried about his animals than taking care of his frankly bored and sexually frustrated wife (yeah I know that's not actually in the show...but it is in mine) goes out with his buddies to capture and rescue animals from the rising tides, while Mr. Minegar gets caught in quicksand (Mr. Spunky the Dog helps dopey out). Some cool shots of Weaver and the group leaping off their air boats and rodeoing those animals in the swamps. Mark learns how to be a manipulative little bastard in The Intruders, where he intentionally misleads Dad to get an implied "OK" to go out exploring in uncharted swamp. Mark's new friend Willie is along (Angelo Rutherford), but there's no explanation how he came to be here. Starr of Green Bay is a carbon-copy of the previous year's outing with St. Louis Cardinals Bob Gibson, with football replacing baseball, and Bart Starr--the greatest quarterback in NFL history--subbing for Gibson (already by this point, too many elements of the individual episodes feel familiar and warmed-over from season one). Much better is The Waltons' Earl Hamner's Warden's Pond, where the counterculture finally arrives in the 'Glades...to overwhelming negativity. "Citizens of the world" Andy Jarrell and Sherry Saxe intend on squatting in a ramshackle, dangerous shed (they paint a daisy on it to shore it up), but she discovers she's pregnant, boosting her bourgeois metabolism, and before you know it, Tom's disapproving head-shaking and eye-rolling works: Andy the bum wants a job and a haircut.
Roving panhandlers seems to have been on someone's mind in the Gentle Ben production offices because another one comes by in Knights of the Road, a strange outing where Albert Salmi as an educated drop-out steals some food and a flashlight and winds up making little trusting Mark feel sad (free spirits can not catch a break on this show...). Watch the crazy scene where Salmi benevolently says "Hello," to a mama gator when he goes messing with her hatchlings. Earl Hamner and Gerd Oswald try yet again to drag Gentle Ben out of 1955 with The Haunted Castle, a slick exercise about young diamond thieves who listen to rock 'n' roll (goddamn it!) and who have the nerve to notice what Tom seems all-too-often oblivious to: he's married to one "out of sight" lady. We even get a home invasion, with spear-guns (cool!), at the Wedloe place! Alas, it's to no avail; the episode closes out with little Clint singing a new song, I Am the Way I Am!, set to the series' theme music (his smiling parents don't seem to question this impromptu Broadway moment)...and we're right back in the Eisenhower era. Nice try. Another punk in the guise of rich, entitled goof-off Michael Burns (Blue Boy!!) arrives in The Warden's Apprentice, and his influence is just as corrosive to Gentle Ben's equilibrium as those hippies--when Mom tells Mark to clean up his room, he has the temerity to sass back, "Yah, just a minute." Clearly, such brash mutiny from servile paternal obedience calls for the impudent whelp to receive a good thrashing, but he quickly sees for himself that his idol Burns is a real creep (they hit and injure a little fawn with his car...and Burns just wants to throw it away to hide the evidence!). Conservation kooks appear to be swarming into the 'Glades; in the two-parter, Keeper of the Glades, environmentalist terrorist Alfred Ryder is sabotaging a construction company's planned road through the 'Glades, but Tom convinces him the road will allow others to enjoy what Ryder loves, too, about the place. The Great Mail Boat Robbery is a lot of fun for two reasons: hilarious Douglas Fowley as Hap the hapless postman...and that guy in the bear costume piloting Hap's boat in all the long shots.
Show Biz is one of those episodes you hated as a kid, because it shows how TV parents would go a mile and half for their kids for the stupidest, undeserved reasons. Here, Mark tries to one-up a new show-off at school: his bear can do anything the new kid's performing dog can do...and Ben will put on a show to prove it (too bad Trick #1 wasn't having Ben rip off the kid's face...). Sure enough, everyone's suddenly coming to the Wedloe house on Saturday, with Ben not being able to do much more than eat, sleep, and sh*t. So, instead of what my parents and probably a lot of your parents would have done--a sweet "Tough luck, dimwit; that's what you get for mouthing off," and instructions to let everyone know you lied, pronto--Mark's TV parents buy a hundred dollars (that's 1969 dollars, mind you) worth of cake and ice cream and decorations to help Mark throw a goddamned party (god TV was/is/forever will be better than real life any day...). Flamingo Flats tries to be serious-minded and dramatic, with Lou Antonio as an unrepentant Seminole who's not going along with any of Tom's conservation schemes...but it's too pat and truncated to make any impact. Lifeline is a very rare action outing centered on Ellen's character, as she braves a typhoon after taking 6 boys out camping (this show really wasted Brickell's talents). My Son the Banker reminded me of a subpar but fun Andy Griffith Show episode, with Ben causing havoc at a local bank, including getting himself locked in the vault (watch the look of genuine terror on The Ghost and Mr. Chicken's Jim Begg's face when that bear's snout goes right for his jugular). The Last Red Wolf finds would-be writer Ellen, um...reinvigorated at her craft when handsome author Chris Robinson stops by, looking to use a story she wrote as the basis for an article (she just starts pounding and pounding and pounding away at those typewriter keys...). He turns out to be a jerk, though (he actually uses Mark as bait to draw out vicious wolves--hee hee!). Some good action at the end, with Ellen all set to blast away with her rifle--not at
The Competitor has a hard lesson for little Mark to learn: you're not the best at anything. But that's okay, according to his disappointed parents, when he fails to take command of the Junior Game Wardens Club's leadership competition (where you must stalk, kill, skin and decoratively mount your own man-eating alligator). One of the better episodes this season, because Mark acts like a real boy, in all his petty, jealous, competitive paranoia; he even tries to cheat by getting a head start on his litter pick-up challenge (Mom drops her head in shame as Dad looks at Mark as if he's something he picked up on the bottom of his shoe). Mark of the Arrow is a clean, quick action outing, with Mark becoming a little man when he saves his injured father (poacher's arrow through the leg, and busted shoulder--left out in the wilderness to die). Rory Calhoun, looking like a sleek, glossy, well-fed cat (his hair is magnificent...), arrives in the 'Glades in Boom's Land Boomerang, hoping to turn Boom's land into a duck-depleting slaughterhouse for hunters (the episode is fair in making sure people understand that hunters have every right to hunt...while their fees go towards maintaining our nature preserves). Elephant on the Lam seems awfully familiar, about an abused elephant being hidden by Mark, while The Prey isn't much different, with Mark trying to protect an innocent little doe during deer season (someone's not trying by this point...). Speaking of not trying, The Bully is a thinly-veiled rip-off of a first season episode, Geen-Eyed Bear, with Clint's real-life brother Ronny Howard playing yet another bully (who thought this was a good idea...unless they already knew the show wasn't coming back?). And finally, Busman's Holiday is a surprisingly screwball outing with the great Chester Morris quite hilarious as a bus driver who has hijacked his bus to become a hermit in the 'Glades. It's fun to see beautiful, poised Beth Brickell finally lose it and start screaming at everyone (like a real mom) when that f*cking bear destroys her house for the umpteenth time (Gentle Ben might have stuck around with more real moments like that), while old pro Morris delivers one funny line after another with real aplomb ("You don't think he'll [Ben] get to liking me too much...like hugging me to death?"). Maybe they did know the jig was up for Gentle Ben during this final episode; how else can you explain the show's final scene, with Brickell's ironic response to Clint declaring he'd never want to get rid of Ben: "Never's a long, long, time...."
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.