By Guy Chapman – Navarro County Gazette
For a certain age group, a small brown mutt became a indie film phenomenon in the mid-1970s. The canine in question was Benji, who in 1963 made his television debut as “Dog” on the Petticoat Junction series. A decade later, the four-legged star would reach a new level of fame in 1974’s Benji, his first starring feature film.
In real life, the dog’s name was “Higgins,” a shelter rescue credited by his owner Frank Inn as being the smartest dog he had ever worked with, being able to remember a series of complex tricks and routines, and capable of expressing emotion.
Benji the film was written, produced, and directed by Joe Camp, and shot around the McKinney and Denton areas for eight weeks in 1973. The film’s story focuses on a stray dog named Benji who lives in an old, abandoned house at the edge of town. As the opening camera zooms in on a broken upper window, the pup pokes his head out to greet the day as the guitar strums of country musician Charlie Rich’s song “I Feel Love” set the opening scene. The tune later won the Golden Globe award for Best Original Song in 1975.
Told from “a dog’s point of view” (complete with regular low angle perspectives to convey a close to the ground feel), Benji has a regular routine of visiting people around town before his final breakfast stop at the Chapman family house. The children, Paul and Cindy, along with Mary the housekeeper, love being part of the dog’s morning routine. The children’s father, however, doesn’t want a dog around the house, meaning Benji’s regular visits are kept in secret.
Benji’s regular daily rounds are interrupted when he discovers another stray dog (later named “Tiffany”), and a trio of kidnappers take over Benji’s home to stage a kidnapping plot.
While all of these elements in place for a “kid’s film” would certainly guarantee plenty of slapstick moments, dated catch phrases, and comedic hijinks, Benji is presented more as a low-key “day in the life” story of a small dog in a smaller Texas town. The kidnappers, though somewhat inept, provide a credible threat when they enact their plan, though mostly serve the purpose of being the foil for Benji’s heroics. It’s a very different type of family film than what would be released today.
That was the intention on Camp’s part. Not wanting to do a Disney style True-Life Adventure documentary with staged footage, Benji the film allowed Benji the dog an opportunity to perform as an actor.
The problem, however, is that all the major Hollywood studios passed on Camp’s concept. G-rated films were generally frowned upon due to their oversaturation in the film industry, a market Disney already had conquered at the time.
Undeterred, Camp went ahead to write and shoot the film on a budget of $500,000.
Even after the film was complete, studios still passed on releasing the film. Taking inspiration from other independent films of the time such as Billy Jack, Camp started his own distribution company, showing the film in only the best and prestigious theaters throughout America during the spring of 1974.
The gamble worked. Benji grossed $39.6 million in the United States, becoming the ninth highest-grossing film of that year. During the summer of 1975, the film was re-released to a second successful run.
While Benji the dog became a pop culture icon in the 1970s (and in the 1980s due to VCR rentals), the original film was Higgins’ one and only appearance as the brave stray. At the time of filming, Higgins was already a senior at 16 years, coming out of retirement for this one last role. The later Benji in subsequent films was played by his daughter, Benjean.
Benji was a product of its time: A slower, more leisurely paced film that allowed audiences to take in the charm and innocence of a dog’s life without a narrator or voice-overs, while not being afraid to be more serious when needed, surprisingly so in comparison to today’s modern film sensibilities.
Several of the Benji filming locations can still be visited today. Benji’s House, the Chapman House, and Dr. Chapman’s office are all within blocks of each other in downtown McKinney. The police station is Denton’s City Hall building, and the courthouse in the film’s opening shots is part of Denton’s downtown.
As part of a day trip last year (and because the film was a personal favorite of mine when I was younger), here are several of the locations as of 2020: