Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Oh, You Pretty Chitty Bang Bang

I have a bit of a quirk that I would like to confess. Most people buy a movie so they can watch it whenever they want, over and over again. I occassionally buy a movie so I never have to watch it on TV, ever again.

There are two reasons for this. Sometimes the movie is good, and rarely played on TV. I buy it to be relieved of the anxiety of catching the rare appearance (which is often late at night) and scanning the schedules to see if it will turn up. The second reason is a little more complicated, and it's why I now have a copy of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968).

Before I ran CCBB for my nieces and nephews, they asked me, "Is it good?" I replied, "It's good enough." And that is part of the complicated reason.

I like CCBB. But it is far from perfect. It logs in at two hours and twenty-four minutes, which is an appalling amount of time for a family movie, even with the intermission (!) halfway through. When shown on commercial TV this is stretched to an attention-span challenging marathon that tasks many adults, let alone children. The special effects were considered primitive even at the time. And the leisurely pace at which the plot unfolds (the magical Chitty Chitty Bang Bang doesn't even appear until after the one hour mark) seems to be punctuated every five minutes with a musical number, no matter its relevance to the plot.

That being said, I still like CCBB. I like the characters; I like the plot; I like the settings. It was part of my childhood milieu. Every now and then I feel the urge to revisit it, but having my own copy means I need not feel compelled to try to watch it every time it comes on TV. And that is the complicated reason.

Several observations on why I like the movie and find it interesting:

CCBB was made in the wake of the blockbuster success of Walt Disney's Mary Poppins (1964), and besides the quasi-Edwardian setting also employed Dick Van Dyke (without his extraordinary English accent this time) and the songwriting team of the brothers Richard and Robert Sherman, who supplied Disney with many of the songs for his movies. The screenplay was loosely based on the original book by Ian Fleming, of James Bond fame, and written in part by Roald Dahl, who takes his first foray through a candy factory in the subplot featuring Lord Scrumptious.

I like the Rube Goldbergesque inventions of Van Dyke's character Caracatus Potts, especially the breakfast making machine (footage of which I remember seeing paired on the Captain Kangaroo Show with the song "I've Never Seen Anything Like It "--which was from another bloated family musical, Dr. Dolittle). I like the ornate, almost baroque style of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and love with a childlike delight the idea of a vehicle capable of travelling by land, sea, and air; although I am about the furthest from what anyone could call a car person, I coveted this vehicle, and envied whoever bought the "hero" version of Chitty Chitty when it came up for auction recently.

I like watching the English actors doing their various comic or eccentric turns here, some of them in the over-the-top cod Germanic characters of the Vulgarian nation, although Benny Hill gives an unusually straightforward performance as the Toymaker. By far my favorite performance was by Lionel Jeffries (most familiar to me as Cavor in the Ray Harryhausen movie First Men in the Moon, though he was in countless others), who was cast as Van Dyke's father, even though he was six months younger than he! Now famed for being nightmare fuel is Robert Helpmann as the Childcatcher, a Dickensian character with a net, hook, and a long nose for smelling out and caging children for an evil Baron and Baronness who hate them.

After I watched this movie again, I was reminded of something, and popped over to eBay to have a look around. There I found action figures from CCBB that had been produced a few years ago, and I bought a pack that included what I consider the more interesting secondary characters. These are: Grandpa Potts, with pipe and umbrella; Toymaker, with chisel and doll; Childcatcher, with hook and net; and Spy. The Spy is a bit of a rook, consisting as it does only of a couple of feet sticking out one of those big vents you see on old-fashioned ships: the Spies were disguised as these for about ten minutes in the movie. There is another set I hope to get one day, of Caracatus Potts, Truly Scrumptious, and Jeremy and Jemima; and of course there is the magical car itself, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

And so I have had my fill (probably for a few years to come) of CCBB. I can put the movie comfortably in my collection and not have to think about for a good long time, secure in my least until the format changes again.


Anonymous said...

And surely there is a homage to that breakfast making machine in "Pee Wee's Big Adventure."

And Seth Mcfarlane (or someone on his creative team) seems to like the movie, or at least making fun of it. It is referenced three times in "Family Guy" and once in "American Dad."

AlanDP said...

Only 2:24, huh? I'm pretty sure last time I watched that movie it ran at least 6 hours.