Classic Movie Dogathon: OH HEAVENLY DOG, starring Benji
Don’t misunderstand. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with Man’s BFF. I just never had a dog when I was a kid, and none of my close friends had dogs when we were all kids, so my exposure to dogs in the so-called formative years of my life was limited. Since then, I’ve never had that need to have a dog in my life because I’ve never had a dog in my life to begin with.
Which then begs the question: why would a non-dog person participate in a dog-themed movie blogathon? Armchair psychologists might point to the absence of a dog in my life and interpret my participation in this event as some subconscious attempt to fill a void from my childhood and blah blah blah.
1980’s Oh Heavenly Dog was a no-brainer for me to write about for four reasons:
1. I am from the 1980s.
2. I am a film buff.
3. I am a writer.
4. BENJI IS ADORABLE!
So there you go.
Just as someone once described Speed as “Die Hard on a bus,” I would describe Benji as “Lassie meets Die Hard.” Whereas Lassie was purebred and glamorous and straight out of central casting (think Arnold Schwarzenegger in any of his action movies), Benji was a scrappy mutt, with spunk for days and a requirement to overachieve in order to succeed (think Brice Willis in Die Hard). When Lassie (like Arnold) was off to the rescue, her ultimate success was never in doubt; “Of course Lassie saves the day … she’s Lassie.” But when Benji (like Willis) found himself in jam after jam, there wasn’t so much doubt as there was disbelief; “How did HE do THAT?”
In contemporary sports terms, Lassie = Tom Brady. Benji = Tim Tebow.
(Now visualize Benji taking a knee, with his head lowered to a clenched fist, deep in prayer. And scene.)
My first recollection of Benji was from his debut in 1974’s Benji, an Oscar-nominated film (Best Music, Original Song) about a stray dog who rescues two kidnapped children. Not only had I seen the film, I had also read the novelization of the film, which my parents purchased for me via one of those monthly, grammar school, mail-order book sale deals.
Fast-forward to 1977, when the not-Oscar-nominated sequel, For the Love of Benji, was released. In this installment, our canine hero finds himself at the center of adventure and intrigue in Greece. Greece! (Also fast-forward to another of those monthly, grammar school, mail-order book sale deals.)
Both of those Benji films were made by Joe Camp, a director who, while he had two other forgettable films in the 1970s (1976‘s Hawmps! and 1979‘s The Double McGuffin), made his name (and got a lot of mileage) by making all things Benji, on screens large and small, including my film choice for the Dogathon, 1980’s Oh Heavenly Dog.
Oh Heavenly Dog stars Chevy Chase as an American private investigator in London who finds himself murdered not long after being hired by bad guy Omar Sharif. After a visit to Purgatory (really), Chase is sent back to earth with the charge of solving his own murder as his ticket into heaven. The catch? He returns to earth as a dog, played by Benji. This is a huge plus in the cuteness department, but being a dog makes solving a human murder something of a challenge. Thankfully, Chase/Benji has the gorgeous Jane Seymour, as the love interest, to help save the day.
And not that I’m one for spoilers, but really, it’s a Benji movie; of course the ending is happy.
As movies go, Oh Heavenly Dog is not good, with its greatest sin being that it is terribly boring. This is inexcusable, given its comedic lead (Chase), its adorable star (Benji), its beautiful love interest (Seymour), its exotic villain (Sharif), and its glamorous locale (London). This is a recipe for something sensational, but in the hands of Camp and screenwriter Rod Browning, it’s more like a bad episode of a tired sitcom that sends its leads on a shot-on-location vacation in hopes of ginning up viewers during sweeps.
Even the scenes in Purgatory, the scenes that feature Chase as the focal point, thud with indecisiveness. First there is this heavenly vibe, with everyone dressed in flowing white garbs (which is a very kind description of high-end hospital gowns), and there is cloud-like white mist all around. Then there is this futuristic vibe, where Purgatory’s gatekeeper has (what must have been in 1980) a beyond-the-state-of-the art computer on his desk. And then there is this bleak, bureaucratic vibe, where everyone shuffles through what looks like your standard DMV lobby, with pneumatic tubes whisking who-knows-what to who-knows-where, and miserable people working behind desks and counters.
Pick a vision, Mr. Camp, not “All of the Above.”
To be fair, I think Oh Heavenly Dog also suffers from some poor timing. It was made six years after Benji’s introduction, so it’s possible that the Benji train had lost so much steam that even its filmmakers were bored. (Benji’s next adventure, Benji the Hunted, wouldn’t see the light of day for another seven years.) It was also released two weeks before Chase’s bigger (and much better) vehicle, Caddyshack, which allows for the possibility that (a) Chase was distracted by the making of, and run-up to, the latter film; or (b) Chase wasn’t quite in his film groove yet; a groove that would come with such hits as Caddyshack, Vacation, and Fletch. (Fletch is the most interesting of the three films to me because, like Oh Heavenly Dog, it features a lot of voiceover work by Chase, which even from a straight delivery-of-lines perspective, is worlds better than Oh Heavenly Dog.)
If you are a completist like me, and you have the need to see everything (or as much as possible) from the 1980s, or if you are a completist about movies starring dogs, or Benji, or Chase, or Seymour, then check out Oh Heavenly Dog. Otherwise, forget the dog, embrace the gopher, and fire-up Caddyshack.
And the dog-gone fun doesn’t end with my blog! (Dreadful pun, I know.) Check out the rest of the furry-friended films in the Classic Movie Dogathon here!
And much thanks to Classic Movie Blog Association member Classic Film and TV Cafe for hosting this ter-ruff!-ic event! (Did it again. So sorry.)