The Siren may be going out on a limb calling this movie great.
"Some of the sets and machines were amusing, but ... the movie was 145 minutes of badly acted, sugar-coated whimsy, punctuated by dreadful songs and shoddy special effects," says Ronald Bergan in 1986's The United Artists Story. Apparently the critics in 1968 hated this, too. And I guess if I saw it right after a screening for Rosemary's Baby or Bullitt I might have hated it, too, or at least have come out of the theater muttering, "What the hell?"
But I saw it as a child and loved it, and when I see it as an adult I love it still. Yes, the rear projection is awful, but if you notice the rear projection is awful in Vertigo, too, and nobody questions your taste when you love that one. Chitty probably doesn't need me to defend it, since it was critic-proof in 1968 and is adored to this day. As an intellectual exercise, however, I decided to go over what I think fans see in this movie that Mr. Bergan and others don't. Plus I needed an excuse to sing along with "The Travelling Life" again.
It's based on stories by James Bond creator Ian Fleming, and has some things in common with the Bond movies. You have improbable gadgets including the flying car of the title, a ruthless dictator, a gorgeous woman and an endlessly inventive hero out to save everybody. You even have Gert Frobe (and Cubby Broccoli as producer).
Tots Jeremy and Jemima persuade their father, itinerant inventor Caractacus Potts (Dick Van Dyke) to refurbish an old car they have fallen in love with. Once Potts has it up and running, it turns out the thing can fly, and float, and navigate. Word of the car's miraculous powers reaches the sinister Baron Bomburst (Frobe), who has the Potts' grandpa (Lionel Jeffries) kidnapped in the mistaken belief that Grandpa is the car's inventor. Off go the Potts to rescue Grandpa, accompanied by Truly Scrumptious (Sally Ann Howes), daughter of the local candy magnate. When they arrive they find that the Baron has outlawed children in his little Ruritanian dictatorship. As Bugs Bunny would say, of course you know this means war.
Dick Van Dyke was in great singing and dancing form, especially in "Toot Sweets" and "Me Old Bamboo." I suppose someone watched Mary Poppins and said, "Dick, let's just forget about the British accent this time, 'kay?" So it wasn't until I watched the movie as an adult that I bothered to wonder why Dick sounds American, but everybody else is English as crumpets. Anyway, I love the British, but they need to get over the "Dick Van Dyke accent." I will make a deal with them: y'all don't bring up his ersatz Cockney, and I won't mention Laurence Olivier's weird pronunciations in The Betsy and Kenneth Branagh's braying in Dead Again.
But Dick isn't the primary reason the Siren adores this goofy movie. Rather, I love it for:
1. Sally Ann Howes. She radiates intelligence, she takes crap from no one in this movie, she decides she wants the hero before the hero wants her and she goes after him. Plus, she gets to wear wonderful hats. Howes was 38 when she made this movie and she looks about 25. See, wearing wide-brimmed hats protects your face from the aging effects of the sun, just like Mama told you. If you like Howes as much as I do, check out the wonderful old portmanteau thriller Dead of Night (1945).
2. The children. One aspect of movies that has improved over the years is children's performances. So many times you watch an old movie like The Women and want to strangle the mugging little brat you're supposed to feel sorry for. And remember Bonnie in Gone with the Wind? When she broke her neck jumping that fence I swear I felt sorrier for the pony.
The children in Chitty are peppy and enjoyable without causing tooth decay. As a little girl, I thought Jemima had the edge, and I still do. She has fire and initiative, and a mouth on her too, as when she calls Baroness Bomburst "VERY UGLY." The ever-helpful IMDB tells me that Heather Ripley, who played Jemima, never made another movie, but is now an "eco-warrior" protesting things like nuclear plants. Somehow it seems very fitting that Jemima would grow up to be a fighter.
3. That castle. 'Nuff said.
4. Last but not least, a superb villain in Robert Helpmann's Childcatcher. Compared to this terrifying individual, the Baron is as pathetic as Wile E. Coyote. I saw a documentary on Robert Helpmann a while back. He was, of course, primarily a ballet dancer, which explains how he could convey menace with his entire body. On this show, they interviewed a man who had been Helpmann's friend. This man's children adored Helpmann, and sometimes when the kiddie-winkies were going to bed they would ask him to "do the Childcatcher." When Helpmann obliged the children would scream in utter terror. The friend thought this was hilarious. I think I would asked have asked Sir Robert to switch to a bit from Tales of Hoffman, but I guess I am a PC American wimp.
In fact, so scary is the Childcatcher that I don't think I will let my kids see this movie until I am sure they can handle him. But when that happens, I will be ready with my sing-along DVD.
So take that, Mr. Bergan.