One of the favorite movies of my childhood was Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968).
The Wizard of Oz reigned supreme, of course, but the slot for my second favorite children’s film was heavily contested by Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and the one in question. Interestingly, the hand of Roald Dahl was in both (the former having been based on one of his books, and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang having been scripted by him in collaboration with the film’s director Ken Hughes, who had also been one of the directors of another messed-with Ian Fleming book Casino Royale the previous year, and was later responsible for the notorious late Mae West outrage Sextette (1978).
The pleasures of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang were subtler than the other two films I mentioned, but there was much to make it stick in the craw. There are the wonderful songs by the Sherman Brothers, who’d also done the tunes for Mary Poppins and The Jungle Book. Unthinkably, critics lambasted the songs as simplistic at the time, but all I can say is that contemporary children swore by them, and reviewers had no idea how good they had it then — the tunes in most modern family musicals in 2014 make the ones in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang sound like Victor Herbert by comparison. Back too from Mary Poppins was the extremely appealing physical comedian Dick Van Dyke. Julie Andrews turned down the role of Truly Scrumptious to play Gertrude Lawrence in Star! that year, so the Andrewsesque Sally Ann Howes was hired as her stand-in. Lionel Jeffries, the warm, fuzzy face of British imperialism played the lovable old grandfather. One of the biggest draws was the evil Child-Catcher (Robert Helpmann), on anyone’s short list of nightmare-producing movie villains, so much so that one forgets that he is only a henchman, the real villains are the Baron and Baroness.
The real star of the film is the car of course. It, and several other elements of the film did much to prime my formative mind to appreciate silent comedies in years to come. Chitty’s backstory as a race car, presented in a prologue, evokes the early films of Mack Sennett. Extended scenes at the seaside remind me, too, of classic Keystone. (In fact, the plot point of falling asleep and waking up surrounded by sea water happens in Miss Fatty’s Seaside Lovers). Van Dyke’s workshop and crazy, whimsical inventions (including the car) call to mind Buster Keaton and others. I find the two comical spies (Alexander Dore and Bernard Spear) to be extremely Chaplinesque (one has the tiny mustache, the other an upturned German one, but a certain dash and twinkle that reminds me of Charlie). Benny Hill, in perhaps his most subdued performance ever, plays a toymaker.
The one place where the film-makers dropped the ball, I think, is the literalism of the art direction at the film’s climax, shot at the actual Neuschwantstein Castle in Bavaria. It’s an impressive location without a doubt — probably much more so in person. But fairy tales happen in the dreamscape. Here is a place where artificial is better. The matte paintings in The Wizard of Oz, or the full-on illustrations of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves make the realistic castle in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang seem like some place you see on your vacation — which is what it is.
And the two children are fairly forgettable, which is just as it should be, because everyone knows the whole joy of this movie is replacing them in our fantasy with ourselves.
Don’t miss my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc
For more on show biz history, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.