Saturday, December 5, 2020

CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG 1968

Last year, whenever I came across a review complaining about the 3½-hour running time of Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman (2019), my first thought was that none of these folks would have survived being a kid in the 1960s. Not at a time when Hollywood's most eagerly-anticipated family movies all wore their lengthy running times like emblems of prestige: Mary Poppins (1964): 2hr 20m; The Sound of Music (1965): 2hr 55m; Doctor Dolittle (1967): 2hr 32m; Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967): 2hr 33m; and Oliver! (1968): 2hr 33m.

And certainly not at a time when double-features were the norm, and theaters, under the guise of presenting “Top Family Entertainment” offered child-abuse programming like pairing the 2hr 25m Chitty Chitty Bang Bang with the 3hr 4m Around the World in 80 Days (1956). Such was the bladder-challenging bill at San Francisco’s Castro Theater in the summer of 1969 when I was 11-years-old and saw Chitty Chitty Bang Bang for the first time.

click image to enlarge
A 1968 Christmas season release, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang opened in San Francisco as a reserved-seat roadshow attraction (complete with overture, intermission, & exit music) at a then-steep minimum $3 ticket price. When it played regular engagements in 1969, its revamped ad campaign underplayed the musical and magical car angles in favor of emphasizing the comedic figure of Dick Van Dyke and anachronistically (the film is set in 1910) showcasing Sally Ann Howes' legs.   

Most roadshow films went immediately into wide-release after their exclusive engagements were over (Continuous Performances! Popular Prices!) but the underperforming Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was swiftly yanked from screens after its poorly-reviewed initial run (The SF Examiner called it “abysmally saccharine”), re-emerging six months later as a get-the-kids-from-underfoot summer release in August of 1969. But by then it was too late. Over the Easter holidays, America’s fickle kiddie population had fallen in love with another four-fendered friend…Herbie, the matchmaking Volkswagen Beetle of Disney’s The Love Bug. A case of love at first sight that saw the modest feature earning more than ten times its $5 million budget at the boxoffice while the heavily-promoted Chitty Chitty Bang Bang remained unable to recoup its $12 million budget. 

Dick Van Dyke as Caractacus Potts
Sally Ann Howes as Truly Scrumptious 

Adrian Hall and Heather Ripley as Jeremy & Jemima Potts

Lionel Jeffries as Grandpa Potts

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is the only children’s book written by James Bond creator Ian Fleming. It’s also the only non-Bond film made by James Bond franchise producer Albert R. Broccoli. Fleming’s slight story of a family and their magical car was made into a grand-scale movie musical (at the time, the most expensive musical ever made in England) that is commonly (and accurately) described these days as a James Bond film for children.

This is certainly true of its story, which pits a good guy devoted to gadgetry (crackpot inventor Caracticus Potts) and a woman with an outrageous name (candy heiress Truly Scrumptious) against an eccentric villain (Auric Goldfinger himself, Gert Fröbe as Baron Bomburst). But the Bond connection also applies to the production team, many of whom began work on CCBB fresh from completing the latest Bond film You Only Live Twice (1967). The screenplay of that film was written by Chitty Chitty Bang Bang screenwriter Roald Dahl (with director Ken Hughes), and Hughes, along with Baroness Bomburst Anna Quayle, had just finished work on the Bond spoof Casino Royale (1967).

Desmond Llewelyn as garage owner Mr. Coggins, portrayed "Q" in 17 James Bond films. 

But in 1968, the movie Chitty Chitty Bang Bang most eagerly sought to emulate was Disney’s blockbuster Mary Poppins (1964). And if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was so sincerely devoted to flattering Mary Poppins that it all but followed a blueprint. Same songwriters (Robert and Richard Sherman Sherman); same choreographers (Mark Breaux & Dee Dee Wood); same period (the book's contemporary setting was changed to Mary Poppins' Edwardian era); same casting (Poppins’ Dick Van Dyke—mercifully, minus the English accent), and a Julie Andrews substitute (Sally Ann Howes). I've read that the producers sought to reunite Mary Poppins costars Julie Andrews & Dick Van Dyke, but unless the role of Truly was conceived as significantly larger than what we see in the final film, it's hard to imagine that Andrews--a headlining Oscar-winner--ever seriously entertained the idea of playing anybody's second lead.

So intent was CCBB on duplicating Mary Poppins' winning formula, it features a copy of what has always been my least-favorite Poppins number: "Fidelity Fiduciary Bank." In this instance, the 'comical old coots' song is the livelier but no-less-deadly "The Roses of Success."

But Hollywood wishes do come true, and when released Chitty Chitty Bang Bang did indeed have critics comparing it to Mary Poppins…unfavorably on all counts. In his memoirs, even star Dick Van Dyke joined the chorus, citing that he felt Hughes was the wrong director for the job and that the film ultimately failed to capture the magic of Disney's classic. Given that Ken Hughes would go on to direct the Mae West travesty Sextette (1978), perhaps Van Dyke has a point. Falling short of its fantasmagorical expectations Chitty Chitty Bang Bang joined the ranks of Camelot (1967) and Paint Your Wagon (1969) as representative of a form of "Bigger is Better" filmmaking whose era was nearing its end. But time has been kind, and in the 50-plus years since its release, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang has emerged from the shadow of Mary Poppins enough to be hailed as a beloved children’s classic judged and appreciated on its own considerable merits. A far cry from the days when my attempts to recommend the movie to schoolmates were met with chants of “Shitty Shitty Bang Bang.” 

Anna Quayle and Gert Frobe as Baroness & Baron Bomburst of Vulgaria

Seeing Chitty Chitty Bang Bang for the first time on a double-bill with Around the World in 80 Days was quite the thrill and nowhere near the backache challenge for my 11-year-old self as I would find it today. Though I confess to having fallen asleep during part of Around the World in 80 Days (one moment Shirley MacLaine hadn’t yet entered the movie, the next, there she was in that balloon) by and large, as long as the Jujyfruits and popcorn held out, I was a happy camper. 

The only big musical I’d seen at this point was Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967), so without prior visions of Mary Poppins dancing in my head, I thought Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was the most extraordinary movie I’d ever seen. I was utterly wowed by it. On an enormous screen and with glorious stereophonic sound Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was a storybook fantasy adventure come to life. It seemed to have everything: action, laughs, chases, comic schtick, rousing songs, zany characters, romance, dance, spectacle, and a big wooly sheepdog named Edison. It even had a bit of a dark side.

Robert Helpmann as The Child Catcher
I was too old to find this legendary kindertrauma character scary at the time, but as an adult, I've often found myself wishing (usually in a restaurant or on a plane) that such a service actually existed.

I remember being very taken with Potts’ kooky Rube Goldberg-style inventions (the work of Frederick Rowland Emett), particularly that ingenious breakfast-making machine I still would love to own. But what stands out best of all and most memorably is the titular automobile itself. Designed by Academy Award-winning production designer Ken Adams under what must have been no small degree of pressure to live up to the laundry list of glowing superlatives ascribed to it in the title song, the magical car dubbed Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is every bit the iconically miraculous motorcar the movie needed it to be. 

Critics were tough on the film for what they asserted were disappointingly primitive special effects for a movie of this size and expense (they may have had a point, as Chitty's budget was equal to or larger than that of another 1968 release, Stanley Kubrick's 2001:A Space Odyssey whose special effects had set a new standard), but back then I didn't notice or didn't care. When Chitty turned into a boat or the first time it takes wing, just the sight of it (crude special effects and all) hit a fanciful, fantasy nerve in me. I remember getting such a goosebump charge out of it.   

Custom cars were all the rage on TV in the '60s, the George Barris-designed automobiles on Batman, The Monkees, The Munsters, & The Green Hornet were big hits with the young set. But even amongst these memorably snazzy machines, Ken Adam's whimsical design for the flying, amphibious Chitty Chitty Bang Bang stands out with class and distinction. 


THE STUFF OF FANTASY

I saw Chitty Chitty Bang Bang two more times that summer, by then paired with Heaven with a Gun, a truly awful Glenn Ford western made bearable only by its being half the running time of Around the World in 80 Days. And in all these years my love of it as a cheerful, brightly-colored confection as sweet and loaded with empty calories as anything whipped up by the Scrumptious Sweet Company, has only increased. I say empty calories because Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is a delectable film that, for all its whimsy and charm, has always engaged my spirits more than my heart. The story—essentially a kidnap/rescue adventure fantasy—is fun in a cartoon kind of way…full of activity and “business” meant to entertain and amuse. But the screenplay keeps the characters at a bit of a remove, their personalities and goals presented so cursorily that the movie never touches me or gives me waterworks in the manner of The Wizard of Oz, Mary Poppins, or Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.

It's not entirely true that nothing in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang gives me waterworks. For some reason, the duet performance of "Doll on a Music Box/Truly Scrumptious" gets to me every time. It's a lovely courtship dance in a film skimpy on romance, so when Truly breaks character at the end to give Caractacus a loving smile, I always melt. 


Maybe this is owed to the fact that, as children’s movies go, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’s emotional stakes are kept on a low-boil. Both The Sound of Music and Mary Poppins saw lonely children reclaiming their fathers thanks to the spunky intervention of Julie Andrews, and in Oliver! a severely brutalized and exploited orphan finds a home. But Chitty Chitty Bang Bang presents us with a cast of characters whose lives, when the film begins, may not be perfect, but are far from unhappy. Caractacus is a widowed fantasist whose inventions come to naught, but his loving children’s belief in him is unshakable. And I couldn’t have been the only kid who thought Jemima & Jeremy had it pretty sweet living with minimal parental supervision out there in the country in a picturesque windmill crammed with toys and gadgets made by a fun dad. 

You Two
Caractacus Potts and his two unaccountably British children. Though Potts' father and children speak with English accents, Dick Van Dyke, still stinging from criticism of his problematic Cockney accent in Mary Poppins, only agreed to appear in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang if he could forgo the accent.


Even Jemima & Jeremy’s quest to rescue the junked Chitty from the fiery furnace is a low-wattage conflict due to the notion of Chitty being a sentient machine is never fully developed (she shivers at the mention of being melted and rescues the family at moments of danger, but has no personality to speak of) not mention the kids are ready to abandon their salvage mission when it appears doing so will cause their dad undue hardship. However, one thing the film gets right is to grant the frosty Truly Scrumptious character a thawing-out musical number with the children. What's ideal about the casting of Sally Ann Howes is that' she's pretty in precisely the way a child can relate to...like a teacher one develops a crush on. By the end of the number, it's been firmly established that Jeremy & Jemima need a mom, and we in the audience can identify with them in their wish for Truly and their dad to fall in love.

Benny Hill as The Toymaker

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM

I didn’t like movie musicals very much when I was young. No fewer than 13 musicals were released in 1968 (3 by Elvis alone!) and to this day I could kick myself for passing opportunities to see current favorites like Funny Girl, Finian’s Rainbow, and Star! in their original release. But what I did like were cars. Toy cars, model cars, and, after seeing the 1967 theatrical re-release of The Absent-Minded Professor (1961), flying cars. Fred MacMurray’s flying Flubbermobile captivated me to no end, so when Chitty Chitty Bang Bang came on the scene, the car was the primary attraction for me. Nowadays, my absolute favorite thing about Chitty Chitty Bang Bang are its songs and musical sequences. The eleven songs by Robert and Richard Sherman (showcased by Irwin Kostal’s brilliant orchestrations) are catchy and hummable and have aged remarkably well. Not a clunker in the bunch, the entire original score is splendid...even the dreaded “The Roses of Success” has started to grow on me.

Toot Sweets
This pitch-perfect musical pitch meeting is a visual delight. The candy factory set is an eye-popper, and I still get woozy with vertigo when I see those dancers up on that narrow ledge near the rafters.
 

Me Ol' Bamboo
CCBB's answer to Mary Poppins' "Step in Time" is this rousingly entertaining and athletic number in which clever choreography takes center stage. Production on the film was shut down for a week due to 41-year-old Dick Van Dyke sustaining a leg injury while performing one of the dances in the film (sources vary as to whether it was this one, the most likely suspect, or "Toot Sweets"). 

Chu-Chi Face
My partner never saw the film, but when I played this song for fun in my dance class, the silly lyrics and comical vocal performances of Gert Frobe & Anna Quayle made it one of his instant favorites. When we finally watched it together, he was so surprised by its ironic staging (cloying terms of endearment are exchanged amidst the Baron's many unsuccessful attempts to kill the Baroness). I don't think the number ever made much of an impression on me as a kid, but because it never ceases to make my sweetheart laugh, this sequence has become my most-replayed favorite.

Though Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was one of the more eagerly-anticipated releases of 1968, when award season rolled around, only the music of the Sherman brothers (their first non-Disney score) garnered any attention...no wins, but attention. Oscar and Golden Globe nominations for that irresistible earworm of a title song, and a second Globe nomination for Best Original Score. 

Emmy Award-winning TV star Dick Van Dyke had the opportunity to display his versatility as an actor, dancer, and singer in several iconic movies. He made his film debut opposite Janet Leigh in Bye Bye Birdie (1963), his likable persona transferring easily to the big screen. 


THE STUFF OF DREAMS

I’d allowed a lot of time to pass between viewings of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, this recent revisit stirring up dust clouds of nostalgia of such density as to fairly obscure my awareness of what I might have once characterized as the film’s flaws. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang hasn’t changed, but in the last few years, my appreciation of the value of good, old-fashioned schmaltz, cornball comedy, and sweet-natured sentimentality has. One doesn’t have to try very hard to draw contemporary parallels to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’s child-caging Vulgarians and the tyrannical, childishly-petulant, tantrum-throwing Baron Bomburst. And indeed, it’s for that very reason that Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’s liveliness, tuneful good cheer, and elemental, storybook sweetness (and silliness) proved to be just the right “happy endings” spoonful of sugar medicine I needed to make the waning days of 2020 a little easier to deal with. (There go those Mary Poppins comparisons, again!)




BONUS MATERIAL:


Two of my favorite stars from Ken Russell's The Boy Friend (1971) appear briefly in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang: British cinema icon Barbara Windsor (top photo) and dancer Antonia Ellis (bottom photo, far right)

Ballet star Robert Helpmann (The Child Catcher) with Moira Shearer in The Red Shoes (1948)


Actress/dancer Paula Kelly (Sweet Charity) dances to an instrumental rendition of the Oscar-nominated title song "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" on the 41st Academy Awards. It lost to "The Windmills of Your Mind" from The Thomas Crown Affair.



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