Sunday 28 September 2008

The Love Bug (1968)

I've been catching up with a lot of live action Disney movies lately that I've never seen before, things like Old Yeller, The Absent-Minded Professor or Escape to Witch Mountain. These are Stateside staples, that everyone and their dog grew up on, but either didn't find their way over to England or did so and nobody particularly cared. They certainly didn't become staples where I was. Yet some of those old Disney films made it overseas and became as popular as they did in the States. I may not have grown up seeing Old Yeller but I did grow up with Herbie, the Love Bug.

I lost track of how many films I saw with that little Beetle with a will of its own but doing a quick bit of research suggests four of them, up to 1980's Herbie Goes Bananas. This one was the first, in which we, along with race car driver Jim Douglas, are introduced to Herbie, a white Volkswagen Beetle (or Bug in the US, hence the title). Douglas is racing in demolition derbys because he's crashed out a few too many in the big races, but he gets another chance with Herbie, against all his expectations. In fact he only acquires Herbie by accident and is the last person to realise just what he has.

It begins when he follows a pair of legs into a car showroom. The legs belong to Carole Bennett and the showroom belongs to her boss, Peter Thorndyke. Herbie doesn't have a name at this point but he's still a car and Douglas defends it when Thorndyke kicks it. It then follows him home and nearly gets him into trouble when the police think he stole it. Because Thorndyke wants rid of it and Douglas needs a car, Bennett mediates a solution: Douglas should buy the car at a good price in exchange for immunity from prosecution.

Soon of course he finds that far from being a hunk of metal, it's a peach of a race car. The only thing he doesn't realise is that it's Herbie winning the races not him, not that it would be a difficult realisation to come to. His friend Tennessee Steinmetz, who makes art out of auto parts, believes it and provides the name, and Carole who naturally leaves Thorndyke's establishment to back up Douglas's racing and become his girl in the process believes it too. Even Thorndyke believes it and tries all he can to reacquire the vehicle himself, not to race it but to destroy it.

As you'd expect for a film abut a car with its own personality, this is complete lunacy but we shouldn't care because it really boils down to being a live action episode of Wacky Races, complete with an excellent Dick Dastardly in the form of David Tomlinson as Peter Thorndyke. He isn't quite Terry-Thomas but he's as close as anyone else ever got, with a deliciously devilish performance throughout, pausing halfway through the El Dorado road race to sip chilled champagne. My favourite line: 'Honesty is a quality not necessarily to be despised.' Tomlinson dominates the cast, at least the human cast as Herbie naturally steals the film, and this may be his most memorable role, Mary Poppins and Bedknobs and Broomsticks notwithstanding.

Jim Douglas is played by Disney regular Dean Jones, who began his long association with the company in That Darn Cat! in 1965. This would prove his best known role though, which he reprised in the second sequel, Herbie Rides Again, as well as the 1997 TV remake/sequel, also called The Love Bug, though this was a cameo appearance only with Bruce Campbell playing the lead. Carole Bennett is Michelle Lee, who did surprisingly little on film, concentrating on TV where she would became far more famous for Knots Landing. Tennessee Steinmetz, the other main character, gave another family friendly role to comedian Buddy Hackett.

The film is great fun, of course, but it carries a few surprises. There's a surprisingly saucy visual joke to introduce Jim to Carole and there are a couple of counterculture drug references too. This was 1968, so the treatment of the Chinese-American characters is terrible. Don't get me wrong: it's not all negative but, my goodness, it's cliched to a 2008 audience. The main Chinese-American character, Mr Wu, is a sharp wheeler dealer with no end of business enterprises across the country, but he still turns up to the police station when Herbie takes down a pole at the front of one of his corner stores. As he's played by Benson Fong, best known as number three son to Charlie Chan, he gets a bunch of 'Confucious say' type comments. Oh well.

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