Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang


Joseph, my manager, called this morning with some tidbits of news. He’s very excited by a new film project he thinks will have an absolutely brilliant role for me. A preliminary treatment is supposed to arrive at Chateau Maine by Fed Ex later today. He also found out the name of the orchestra scheduled to accompany me for my next concert date in Wymore, Nebraska. It's some little dance band named Korn , which sounds very apropos for an evening of quality song and dance in a small farming community. Lastly, he regretfully informed me that the role of Regina in Toxy Foxy, Troma Studios musical sequel to The Little Foxes has been offered to that no-talent hussy, Miss Margo Channing.

I was a little appalled at this last announcement. Margo is an annoying has-been who once had a minor stage career; she may have won the Sarah Siddons award about a hundred years ago but she’s just not in my league. She's never had any style nor my high public profile and her few forays into film have been eminently forgettable. I remember going to the premiere of her film, Goats in Rut some years back and watching the steady stream of first-nighters heading for the exits after five minutes of her vague histrionics in the barnyard scene. I have also not forgotten, nor forgiven, her attempts on Norman's virtue in her dressing room at the Curran theater in San Francisco some years back.

News of Margo always makes me grumpy so I thought a nice happy kiddy musical might restore my temper. I therefore repaired to the home theater, threw a few of the damask cushions around to release some tension, and poked through my collection until I ran across Chitty Chitty Bang Bang , United Artists entry in the family musical sweepstakes from 1968. The mid 60s were a time of rapid social change in America so the studios, with characteristic foresightedness, responded to a need for new social relevance with big budget family musical entertainments. Some of these ( Mary Poppins Oliver! ) are marvelous. Some not quite so ( Dr. Doolitle in which I had a small part as Sophie, the Seal).

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is based on a children's book by Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond. When United Artists purchased the film rights to Fleming's work, they ended up with this property as well. The original book is somewhat sweet and tame, but some executive had the bright idea of hiring Roald Dahl to adapt it to film. Dahl threw out most of the original, keeping only character names, and the concept of an inventor who comes up with a miraculous car that both floats and flies. He added some bite and satire to the narrative, threw in a sappy romantic plot for the parents, and invented a number of juicy supporting comic characters.

The studio, mindful of the success of Mary Poppins , hired the songwriting team of the Sherman brothers who provided their usual peppy 2/4 show tunes, which are eminently hummable in the Jerry Herman style. They took out extra insurance by casting Dick Van Dyke in the lead, making it a character that allowed him to use the same kind of physical comic skills that had served him so well in the earlier film. If they had nailed down Julie Andrews for the female lead, they would probably have had a blockbuster. She wasn't available (and they didn't ask me) so they went with Sally Anne Howes. Miss Howes is lovely and talented, but lacking in the screen charisma department; her uninspired performance, despite layers of tulle and flouncy Edwardian dresses, let the air out of a film that might have been truly scrumptiously special.

The film opens over a montage of famous Edwardian motor races. The titular car wins them all, until, in an act of heroism, the driver crashes it in order to avoid killing a child. The wrecked car is then found in the junkyard of Mr.Coggins (Desmond Llewellyn, 'Q' of James Bond fame) where a couple of tykes, Jeremy and Jemima Potts, played by a couple of blond proto-Muppets, are in love with it. They convince their father, a crackpot inventor named Caractacus Potts (Dick Van Dyke) to acquire and repair it.

The officious wealthy woman of the neighborhood, Truly Scrumptious (Sally Anne Howes), is concerned that the children are not in school and she and Caractacus meet cute in a scene involving a large number of malfunctioning fireworks. Truly is the heiress to the Scrumptious Candy fortune and she helps Caractacus demonstrate one of his inventions, candy that whistles, to her father at his factory. This leads to a large production number where Edwardian factory workers become a dancing flute and piccolo band ( Toot Sweet – a truly daring international pun). This does not end well, but the next large production number (The Old Bamboo - a riff on the chimney sweeps from Mary Poppins ) does and the money Caractacus collects for this entertainment, allows him to buy and repair the car. The newly rebuilt car, which contains pieces of the fireplace, a rowboat and god only knows what else, makes peculiar noises when running which lead the family to dub it Chitty Chitty Bang Bang as an onomatopoeia. More musical numbers follow.

The growing interest between Truly and Caractacus leads to the family heading off to the beach for a picnic. While there, dad starts a long and involved story of how marvelous their car is. This leads to an extended dream sequence, which spans the last hour and a half of the film. It seem that Baron Bomburst of Vulgaria (Gert Frobe), has heard of this marvelous car and great inventor and wants to steal it. When they are cut off on the beach by the incoming tide, Chitty sprouts water wings. There is then an extended Laurel and Hardy sequence of kidnap attempts featuring a couple of spies (Alexander Dore, Bernard Spear). Eventually, the spies decide to kidnap Caractacus, but end up nabbing his even more eccentric father, grandpa Potts (Lionel Jeffries) instead. Grandpa is flown off by Zeppelin and Chitty grows wings so Caractacus, Truly and the kids can follow.

The land of Vulgaria (Neufschwanstein castle of the thousand and one post cards and jigsaw puzzles) is ruled by the infantile Baron, his wife (Anna Quayle) who can't abide children, and the Child Catcher (danseur Robert Helpmann) who enforces the ‘no children’ laws. Soon the kids are taken captive. Will Caractacus and Truly rescue grandpa and the kids? Will Chitty help save the day? Will the Baron, Baroness and Child Catcher get their comeuppance? Will we have a number of other large musical numbers? This is a kiddy musical so I'll let you figure it out. Let's just say there are happy endings in both the dream sequence and in reality.
Despite the film being aimed at children, there's enough here to keep the adults entertained. The hand of Roald Dahl is at work in a number of places with satirical jabs at the Edwardian world, references to movie conventions and types, and, most playfully, in the construction of the Vulgarian court. Here he is allowed free rein to puncture all the bloated self-important images of European aristocracy, mainly in throwaway moments. The major romance plot between Caractacus and Truly is cliché and sappy and telegraphed well in advance and Van Dyke and Howes, despite having most of the screen time and the songs, never set things ablaze. The most memorable moments come from the supporting cast. Lionel Jeffries, in particular, has two great numbers which remain in your head much longer than most of the leads. A solo ( Posh with a capital 'P' ) which depends totally on exquisite timing and a group number where he and some other kidnapped inventors try to make a car float ( The Roses of Success ). Gert Frobe and Anna Quayle also get a murderously funny duet ( A Chuchy Wuchy Pair ).

The production design is stunning, from the shots of the English countryside to the Black Forest of Germany. There are also any number of wonderfully ridiculous inventions scattered about the Potts household, including a breakfast making machine that's a triumph of Rube Goldberg engineering. The costumes are also a treat, drawing on the best of show biz Edwardiana. Truly, in particular, has some glorious gowns and the court scenes in Vulgaria have some great uses of a gray/purple palette. Some of the visual effects, especially of the flying car, have sloppy blue screen work and the film feels about twenty minutes too long. I classify this film as one of my guilty pleasures. I know it's not the greatest, but I always enjoy it.

Primitive vacuum cleaner. Uncooked egg. Dog pack. Bad haircut. Bamboo poles. Gratuitous bathing tents. Jack in the Boxes. Pastry cart twirling. Gratuitous marionette act. Secret caves. Destructive children. Lead soldiers.

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