Judge P.S. Colbert visited Tampa once; don't ask.
"A family's like a hand. And truth…that's what ties all the
fingers together. When you get those fingers tied together, that makes a fist. I
mean a real fist, buddy. A fist that'll help you against any problem you run
Here's the sitch: Tom cruises the 'glades in an "Airboat," which resembles a giant Badminton shuttlecock, fitted with a large fan in the tail, and seats for the driver and a passenger up front, where the rubber crown tip would usually be. Tom's an environmentally-conscious and dedicated peace officer, doing his level best to keep the delicate balance preserved between marine life and land-lubber—in essence, all creatures great and small.
But those that matter most to the good Warden Wedloe are the ones who inhabit his home: Lovely wife Ellen (Beth Brickell, Posse), seven-year-old son Mark (Clint Howard, Evilspeak), and his 650-pound pet black bear, named Ben.
Yes, that's correct—Gentle Ben: Season One contains a series of twenty-eight episodes, chronicling the adventures of a seven-year-old boy with a ton of tamed American black bear for his bestie. Ben wears a chain-link necklace that Mark uses to tug him along, or to leash him to a pole in the back yard. There's also a shed back there with "Ben's House" painted on it, but:
Q: Where does a 650 lb. black bear sleep?
A: Anywhere he wants to.
That occasionally includes Mark's bed. No, really—Ben seems quite at home, scattering a game of Chinese Checkers being played in the Wedloe's living room, while he's got his big snout buried deep into a box of Nilla Wafers. There's also a raccoon named Charlie with house privileges—possibly angling for his own spin-off series?
Not all the co-stars are so cuddly. The swamp's got its share of alligators, wildcats, snakes, and even some bears that don't take too kindly to being petted. Mostly though, the villains tend to be human: poachers, bounty hunters, trophy hunters, moonshiners, and greedy property developers among them.
There are also natural elements at play—a hurricane and a brush fire manage to whip the area's resources into a panic in those rare episodes where humans aren't trying to despoil them.
Through it all (most of it, anyway), big Ben remains pretty gentle—seldom going farther than a playful swipe or a low-key growl. Of course, how much more does a giant beast (housebroken or not) need to do in order to warn intruders off? Heck, watching him stumble in for his title card during the opening credits makes me back up reflexively!
The wildlife photography is a treat for audiences of all ages (the show was shot on location at Palm Beach Gardens and Fairchild Tropical Garden, Miami), and while they were obviously intended for younger audiences, Tom Wedloe's lessons on life and good behavior hold something for everyone. Proving every bit as adept at playing dad as he was at playing deputy to Matt Dillon, Weaver remains horribly unsung as a true television hero, and Clint Howard proves that all the neophyte acting talent in his family didn't go to older brother (and future Oscar-winning director) Ron, who guest stars in one of these episodes, playing against type as a bully, and pulling it off with aplomb.
Clint and Ron's father Rance Howard (Grand Theft Auto) shows up a good deal more often, in the semi-regular role of Henry Boomhauer, a man-about-swamp who's always ready to lend the Wedloes a helping hand, even if he gets a might grumpy at times. Clint and Rance team up to provide commentary on a few episodes, and while their banter stays light-hearted and rose-colored, you'll learn a lot about the making of this series from them. A photo gallery completes the set's bonus offerings.
The transfers here are not always the best (though they may very well be the best available), with some segments showing a surfeit of grain, resulting in some fairly blurred imagery. None of the damage I saw was enough to render events incomprehensible, or take away my enjoyment of the story at hand. I also took in several episodes that looked just fine, so just be prepared for a bit of optic pot luck here. The mono sound ranges from fine to serviceable, and Paramount has helpfully provided English SDH captioning, which never hurts.
Admittedly, I'm biased—I saw Gentle Ben as a little tyke myself, and have been waiting a long time to renew my acquaintance with it. I'm happy to report that it remains as charming (and yes, corny at times) as ever, and I see no reason why it wouldn't appeal to today's all ages audiences as well.
Hey, film buffs! Still on the fence? Consider this: one episode features a pre-Superstar Burt Reynolds (Deliverance) as the co-pilot of a plane that goes down in the glades. The pilot's hurt bad, Burt's leg is pinned in the wreckage, and the cargo includes a tranquilized tiger in a cage (which has broken on impact), and he's waking up!
Meanwhile, I've just started watching another episode, and Ben's about to come stumbling in for his title card during the opening credits, so if you'll just excuse me…
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