Tuesday December 18, 2018
On 18th December 1968, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang went on release in the USA and on Christmas Eve of that year, The Love Bug was screened on a limited number of picture houses. For myself, and I suspect thousands of others, they both still convey that sense of excitement; the cinematic equivalent of a tin of Quality Street. Chitty was a staple of Christmas or Bank Holiday television, although the first time I recall seeing the Disney feature outside of a cinematic revival was on video in a bar in Mallorca circa 1982.
I originally planned to choose between these two films, but this idea rapidly proved to be as useless as an X-Factor contestant being asked to play King Lear. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was a British epic musical for children, one featuring some very familiar faces.
Asides from the utterly terrifying Sir Robert Helpmann, there was Richard Wattis, Barbara Windsor before she became automatically associated with the Carry On films (by 1968 she had only appeared in Spying and Doctor), Lionel Jeffries (who was famously six months than Dick Van Dyke), Victor Maddern, Benny Hill and James Robertson Justice. The story was based on Ian Fleming’s only story for children, and a 007 connection is maintained with the presence of Gert Frobe and Desmond Llewelyn.
As for the stellar cars, they were made by Alan Mann Racing and six vehicles were employed on screen: two for the racing scenes and four other cars including a “hovercraft” model that also appeared in the flying sequences. Power was from the Ford “Essex” V6 and transmission was a Borg Warner box.
A 1968 newspaper report excitedly noted that ‘the car is 17ft. 7ins long, 5ft. 9ins wide and 6ft. 3ins high. It is capable of 100 mph’. Mann also asked Goodyear to make the tyres from their latest racing compound as Chitty had to combine a vintage appearance with the ability to cope with the rigours of studio and location work.
However, Chitty is not the star of the film, for that was Sally Ann Howe and Dick Van Dyke. The latter insisted that he would not have to attempt an English accent for the role of Caractacus Potts in the wake of Mary Poppins - and here is a reminder as to why this would have been a very bad idea:
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is as much as a vehicle for Van Dyke’s talents as a dancer, singer and quite brilliant comedy actor as it is about the car. Incidentally, the actor’s favourite invention (which were created by Roland Emmett) was the breakfast machine.
By contrast, The Love Bug has a shorter running time and the significant difference is that while Chitty was about an invention that reflects the personality of Mr. Potts, Herbie is a real character, with “Jim Douglas” as his straight man. Dean Jones was as accomplished a light leading man as Van Dyke, but his role is to act as a proxy for the audience when confronted with a VW Beetle with a mind of his own.
The Love Bug, although not a cheap film, clearly has the lower budget of the two pictures, but this is no hardship as there is plenty of footage of San Francisco. Of course, the special effects are pure 1968 (as is the extensive use of back projection), yet this adds to the charm of the film. As for the main protagonist, it is intriguing to speculate whether the story could have worked with a different automotive hero?
Obviously, the title would have to be changed as a Volkswagen was not the only car Disney considered, for Herbie might well have been an MG, a TVR, a Toyota, a Fiat or even a Volvo. The solution was the staging of a very unusual “audition” with all of the prospective stellar cars lined up before various studio employees who had been on their lunch break. It was the Beetle that attracted the most attention; several workers felt the urge to pat it.
Re-viewing these two pictures in one’s middle age was a highly entertaining experience; I had forgotten just how frightening the “Child Catcher” was (very) and how touching The Love Bug could be at times. Mid-way through the narrative, you do believe that on hearing that Jim has acquired a ‘big, strong car…that can cut it” that Herbie is utterly distraught.
Nor does it matter that his 1966 Lamborghini 400GT manages to transform into an E-Type after being attacked by an irate Volkswagen. I had also forgotten that Herbie even attempts to throw himself off the Golden Gate Bridge, and it is a testament to Jones’s talent that the scene is genuinely tense. There is also the point that while Chitty was rebuilt and indeed created by Caracatacus, Herbie’s origins are never truly explained. As the beatnik artist “Tennessee Steinmetz” points out:
Take a car. Most guys spread more love and time and money on their car in a week than they do on their wife and kids in a year. Pretty soon, you know what? The machine starts to think it “is” somebody.
The major achievements of the original Herbie adventure are, via the stunt work, some doubles with a Porsche 356 engine and a carefully timed horn note, Disney created a fully rounded character. Herbie was as memorable a mechanical object as Robby The Robot of The Forbidden Planet fame, C-3PO, R2-D2 and, dare we say it, Christine. In fact, you might even consider the last-named the “Anti-Herbie”.
So, does this mean that I ultimately opt for the Disney film? Not necessarily, as The Love Bug and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang are complementary as opposed to being rivals. The latter features that wonderful array of character actors, it is grand to see Benny Hill in a semi-straight part, the cinematography is wondrous and Me Ol Bamboo is one of the great musical numbers of British cinema.
The former absolutely mesmerised me some decades ago, and it continues to do so. Most importantly (to me, at any rate) both films can make a 40-something writer feel reasonably young again.