When I watch Benji, I feel love.
By Paul Mavis
Mill Creek Entertainment, in association with Mulberry Square Productions, has released (in a super-sharp, extras-loaded Blu-ray+DVD+Digital special edition) Benji, the 1974 family classic from producer, writer, and director Joe Camp. Starring Higgins the Dog (trained by Frank Inn), alongside Patsy Garrett, Peter Breck, Christopher Connelly, Tom Lester, Mark Slade, Deborah Walley, Herb Vigran, Frances Bavier, Terry Carter, Cynthia Smith, Allen Fiuzat, and Edgar Buchanan, Benji was the record-smashing zero-budget indie hit of both the summer of 1974 and 1975. This remarkable box office achievement catapulted the “Benji” character into the upper stratosphere of mid-70s pop culture, right alongside other fictional “bedroom poster” icons like Rocky Balboa, Jaws the shark, Charlie’s Angels…and Donny and Marie.
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If you’ve seen Benji in previous washed-out, cropped video and DVD incarnations, you’ll be blown away by Mill Creek’s bright, colorful, sparklingly clean widescreen presentation (a transfer that’s coming out, coincidentally enough, just in time for that March, 2018 Netflix reboot…). As well, there are some very cool bonuses here, including a commentary track with Joe Camp, not one but two of Benji’s 1970s network TV specials (The Phenomenon of Benji and Benji at Work, both…essential viewing), an original trailer, and a photo gallery. Despite what some clueless new reviewers out there claim, Benji works just as well today as it did 44 years ago, for kids and their parents. After all: who wouldn’t love that face?
Benji (Higgins the Dog) is the town stray. He lives alone in an abandoned, spooky “haunted house” out beyond the city limits. He has lots of friends, though, all of whom look forward to seeing Benji each morning. There’s the “Lady with the Cat” (Frances Bavier), who screams curses on Benji when he chases her cat, Petey, up a tree…before smiling benevolently after him as he trots off. Friendly Officer Tuttle (Terry Carter) likes to feed Benji if he has any snacks left.
Cafe owner Bill (Edgar Buchanan) calls Benji “Sam,” and depends on Benji to wake him from his mid-morning snooze out on the front entrance. And little Cindy and Paul Chapman (Cynthia Smith, Allen Fiuzat) are the two children who love Benji and want to keep him. So they have their housekeeper/governess Mary (Patsy Garrett), feed him on the sly…against the strict wishes of their widowed father, Dr. Chapman (Peter Breck), who almost lost a brother to a rabid dog.
Benji finds love one day during his usual garbage scrounging, flirting and romping with girl dog Tiffany. However, their honeymoon home is invaded by three criminals—Henry (Christopher Connelly), Riley (Tom Lester), and Linda (Deborah Walley). These hapless goofs are waiting for the arrival of their ringleader, nasty Mitch (Mark Slade). When a phony kidnapping con turns into the real thing, it’s up to Benji to rescue the kids.
Benji’s backstory is one of the more interesting indie movie tales from the 1970s. In the late 1960s, Texas advertising man Joe Camp, who had experience shooting commercials and instructional films, had the idea of producing a low-budget live-action feature starring a dog, shown mostly from the canine’s point of view (in the vein of Lady and the Tramp), but one that avoided the then-prevalent Disney “True-Life Adventure” semi-documentary style that mixed staged nature footage with human voice-over narration. All the major Hollywood studios passed on Camp’s treatment, telling him that Disney had already done this kind of thing to death, and that he couldn’t pull it off, anyway—not with a real dog acting in a naturalistic way in a dramatic storyline.
Camp didn’t give up. He went ahead and wrote a full screenplay, and then looked for backers. Apparently, his presentation must have been a wow (he states he even got down on the floor like Benji, acting out all the scenes for the money men), because he secured his $500,000 budget within a mere six weeks. Casting the dog was crucial, particularly since Camp had been told it would be next to impossible to get a dog that could do all the things his script required. Camp found the legendary Frank Inn, who had helped train various “Lassies,” “Arnold the pig” from Green Acres, and the “dog” from Petticoat Junction. Inn thought that particular dog, Higgins, would be perfect for Benji. He was getting on in years—13 and officially retired—but Inn stated Benji was the smartest, best-trained animal he had ever worked with, and he could get the job done. Camp was sold.
Using a micro-crew of less than 25 people, Camp assembled an inexpensive cast of familiar TV and movie faces down around McKinney and Denton, Texas and shot for 8 weeks in 1973. Editing took another 6 months and then…no one in Hollywood wanted to distribute the movie. Taking a page from other notable “four wall” releasing successes like Billy Jack and the Schick-Sunn Classic movies (where’s that boxed set?), wherein a producer actually rents out a movie theater, thus collecting 100% of the ticket sales, Campell decided to form his own releasing company, but with a twist. Instead of renting out the second-run houses in less-desirable markets (as was the norm for a lot of four-walling back then), Camp laboriously released Benji section by section throughout America in the spring of 1974, aiming for only the best, most prestigious theaters in each town.
This unusual method worked; by the end of the summer of 1974, Benji had returned its budget ten times—a phenomenal result for a zero-budget indie. Then, Camp did something else that was quite unique: he pulled Benji from U.S. theaters, and waited until the summer of 1975 to start all over again (his thinking: if he stayed in theaters in the fall and winter, when grosses dropped off, he wouldn’t be featured in the trade papers anymore, which noted his weekly record-breaking b.o. grosses). The gambit worked beyond anyone’s expectations. By the time Benji ended its 1975 theatrical re-release, it had grossed $46 million worldwide—an unheard-of 1-to-92 return on investment (and that’s not even counting all the hundreds of millions in merchandising).
Camp went on to make a few more Benji movies over the years (to diminishing returns), along with family outings Hawmps! and The Double McGuffin, as well as several Benji TV specials (usually brought out to promote an upcoming movie). I saw Benji with my girl cousins when I was 9 (I was out-squealed 3 to 1). I thought it looked dumb (I made my preference known: Death Wish, which horrified my aunt and uncle—no Jujyfruits for me in the lobby as they kept glaring at me…), but I distinctly remember laughing and sniffling throughout it, against my (death) wishes, seeking it out again on my own the next summer. It was one of those small, quiet titles a movie fan remembers from their childhood, the kind that can stand out against noisier, more flamboyant picture memories.
Once I found out the original “Benji” had kicked it, though, and was replaced with Benjean, his daughter, I wasn’t interested in seeing the sequels (I was getting too old, anyway). If they could replace Benji like he was Roger Moore stepping in for George Lazenby…the specialness, the uniqueness of that sad-eyed, adorable little pooch was eliminated—at least for me. He was a Hollywood commodity now, not a dog that came off remarkably “real” (strange as that reads) in the context of that first anonymous little indie (the final degradation and proof of that transformation came with the spectacular miscalculation of Camp’s 1980’s Oh! Heavenly Dog, where Benji was voiced by ass-clown Chevy Chase, the poster depicting Benji’s PG-rated hijinks that included eyeballing naked Jane Seymour with a magnifying glass).
Reading some past and present reviews of Benji, I see a lot of bitching about the quality of the movie itself, which seems not only beside the point (this wasn’t intended to be Citizen Kane), but also wrong. Compared to similar zero-budget family indies from that time period, Benji is actually pretty clean in terms of technique. For a first time director, Camp made a lot of smart choices.
Considering the budget, Camp managed to get quite a few talented TV faces that people in the audience would recognize: radio star and actress Patsy Garrett (Nanny and the Professor, Room 222, and that classic Purina Cat Chow “chow chow chow” commercial); Peter Breck (The Big Valley); Christopher Connelly (Peyton Place); Tom Lester (Green Acres); Mark Slade (The High Chaparral); Deborah Walley (the AIP starlet, even playing Gidget); Terry Carter (The Phil Silvers Show, McCloud); Frances Bavier (The Andy Griffith Show, Mayberry, R.F.D.); Edgar Buchanan (Petticoat Junction); and character actor Herb Vigran (too many movie and TV credits to list). With their easy air of experience, veteran pros like those did more than half the work for first-time writer/director Camp, giving Benji a polish it wouldn’t have otherwise had (check out the amateurish non-actors in so many indies from that time period to see the difference).
Camp’s main story, in terms of narrative, may be slight, and right out of some Victorian penny dreadful—cute kids are kidnapped and threatened, dog rescues them—but that simplicity allows the movie to focus on Benji and his activities, not on the humans, and not on their plight—a rather daring move on Camp’s part. That’s a nice twist for anyone expecting a standard family outing (when the kids are first introduced, with the sweet mother-figure governess and the widowed father, you expect this classic “broken Disney family” to take over the story). By keeping the narrative coming from the diminutive dog’s POV, the suspense can’t help but flow along nicely, too. Camp intros the first three gang members as vaguely comical (the bickering over the pudding tins; one is scared of the “haunted house”), setting up the kid viewers for when the truly menacing villain—ringleader Slade—steps in (kicking Tiffany into the wall is Benji’s strongest visual, then Camp lets Higgins’ expressive, soulful eyes do all the work).
Camp’s tone is quite deft, too. He often shoots for sentiment here, but it doesn’t come off as sloppy or syrupy—a neat trick. There’s just the right amount of loneliness in that famous opening, as Benji shambles out of his “haunted house” on the outskirts of town to visit with his human friends (the choice of growly, folksy Charlie Rich to sing the theme, I Feel Love, was an inspired match to the visuals of Higgins). Camp is able to tease that almost all of them have something sad in their life—Garrett talks wistfully of her passed husband, Buchanan remembers his dead wife, the children without a mother want a dog but can’t have one because of their loving-but-strict father (only Carter’s cop is truly upbeat)—but these small details are only hinted at; nothing mawkish is heightened for effect. We can’t tell if Benji likes being alone or not, and that lets the viewer take over, depending on their age and how they’re experiencing the story (as a kid I remember thinking he had to be scared and lonely during his nights in that pitch-black house…but now his independence looks pretty good: lots of friends, free grub, obliging girlfriend, no job…). Camp walks a fine line with this low-key, happy/sad atmosphere, and he pulls it off. For a first time writer/director producing a feature-length movie with almost no money, Joe Camp’s work on Benji doesn’t need to be qualified or excused in relation to his canine star’s talents.
And that’s high praise when that star is Higgins the Dog. With all apologies to trainer Frank Inn, as the famous saying goes: stars aren’t made, they’re born, and regardless of the remarkably naturalistic tricks Higgins acquired, he has that “X factor” you can’t coax out with a command and a treat (Flipper had the same deal going on, too). He’s such a scrappy, all-American mutt, with his funny little face and growly, yelpy yap. Physically small but fleet of foot when running and dodging and climbing, he’s the classic underdog we all love to root for. He’s not the steely, flinty Rinty, or the brawny, muscular mongrel Old Yeller, or cool, classy, patrician Lassie. He’s right down on the ground, and we’re with him, at eye level, maximizing our identification with him (another master stroke by Camp, insisting that the camera stay down on the ground). Camp’s script has him climbing arbors, opening pudding tins (remember slicing your thumbs on those?), dodging grasping humans, flirting with pretty Tiffany (the funniest scene in the movie—if you don’t want a dog just like Higgins at that point, you’re not human), and then romancing her in a field full of butterflies, all in dreamy, gauzy slo-motion, and all of it effortlessly accomplished by the wonderfully game, communicative Higgins. It’s a star-making performance…that couldn’t be made.
There are some terrific bonuses included on this Mill Creek Entertainment Blu-ray+DVD+Digital special edition. In addition to an original trailer (love those real folk testimonials) and a photo gallery, featured on both the Blu-ray and the DVD discs is a full commentary track with Joe Camp, moderated by his son, Brandon (who does an excellent job guiding the discussion—that rarely happens on these DVD commentaries, as you well know if you read my reviews). Joe Camp offers up a wealth of behind-the-scenes production information, while coming off as that most rare of moviemaking creatures: a genuinely nice guy. A must-listen to for Benji fans.
Next up is The Phenomenon of Benji, the 1978 ABC special directed by Joe Camp, and starring Benjean, Higgins’ daughter, as Benji (the video for this looks pristine). “Benji’s special guest star” is none other than Charlie Rich, who sings a medley with the pooch perched on his piano (when Rich—not Benjean—slipped into The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face, I was instantly transported back to the gloriously wacky days of network TV specials). Petticoat Junction pals Edgar Buchanan and Meredith MacRae show up as we get down to brass tacks: Benjean doing some tricks for the paying yobs (holy christ how many people are in that theater??). Clips of Benjean traveling, getting the Golden Globe (for Charlie’s singing—bet he loved that), and Benjean executing a remarkable bit of slave labor: pulling up a giant bone on a ladder, using his paw each time to hold the chain. To their credit, they admit this ain’t the real “Benji” (they say he “retired,” not “expired”), before we get clips of For the Love of Benji (they really want us to accept the new dog…). The special ends with Benjean forced to endure the sweaty, grasping hands of hundreds of kids in the audience as she nervously trots by them, the frenzied tykes barely containing their (innocent) desires to tear her to pieces. Jesus do I miss TV specials from this era….
Next, 1980’s Benji at Work network special is up, hosted by ABC’s Eight is Enough’s Adam Rich (who promptly blows his first joke—thanks, Adam!). I’m pretty easy when it comes to how these animals are trained for their movie and TV roles (I guarantee they eat better than me), but I have to say: if you’re one of those PETA freaks, you might not want to watch Benji at Work. Even I was a little taken aback by a couple of things I saw…mostly that smug asshole Chevy Chase trying to upstage Benjean at a real press conference for Oh! Heavenly Dog…and failing (Jane Seymour, however, can do no wrong). I guess I can see them putting Benjean on two tightropes, or putting Visine in her eyes to make them “sparkle” (“Sparkle, Benjean, sparkle!”). But that dog does not like getting close to that crazy f*cking dolphin at Marineland, and they keep shoving her forward at it. If that isn’t cruel enough, Frank Inn puts a fish in Benjean’s mouth, grasping her tightly so she won’t bolt, and then lets that dolphin try and snatch it out of Benjean’s mouth! In a panic, Benjean snatches her head back before it’s neatly sliced off (just in time, kids!). Now…get on that surfboard, Benji! Don’t worry, Frank offers, not entirely convincingly, “She can swim pretty good…” (she better!).
Later, on location in London, they show Benjean trying to navigate a closed road set while cars drive by (the constant yelling at that dog is something to hear, but even better is the subtle shutdown Camp the director puts on mere trainer Inn: when Camp calls, “Stay,” to Benjean he means it. Okay, Frank?). Worse, wait until you see the completed shot: tell me I’m wrong that they’re not throwing that poor animal down some stone steps and onto his ass. Watch him scrabble and almost break his leg. You watch it and tell me I’m wrong to think that’s not only cruel, but dumb (what were you going to do with your movie if you broke its neck? Unless you had a couple of spare “Benjis” on hand…). Adam Rich closes out the show with an unintentionally hilarious mournful coda, existentially wondering where all this acting life ends for kid stars like him and dogs like Benji…before wising up but quick and brightly offering that they’re not complaining, no sir! (they better not!). A rare, bizarre treat.
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. Click to order.
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