History, Legacy & Showmanship
Monday, 18 March 2019 16:21

Fantasmagorical: Remembering “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” on its 50th Anniversary

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Chitty Chitty Bang Bang should be fondly remembered as the bastard child of Mary Poppins and James Bond.” — John Cork, co-author of James Bond Encyclopedia

The Digital Bits and History, Legacy & Showmanship are pleased to present this retrospective commemorating the golden anniversary of the release of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, the musical-fantasy adaptation of Ian Fleming’s 1964 novel starring Dick Van Dyke (The Dick Van Dyke Show, Mary Poppins).

Produced by Albert R. Broccoli (the James Bond series) and directed by Ken Hughes (The Trials of Oscar Wilde, Cromwell), Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was highlighted by Irwin Kostal’s score and musical numbers by The Sherman Brothers, including their Oscar-nominated title song. Co-stars included Sally Ann Howes (Brigadoon stage production), Lionel Jeffries (The Trials of Oscar Wilde), Gert Frobe (Goldfinger), Anna Quayle (A Hard Day’s Night), Benny Hill (The Benny Hill Show), James Robertson Justice (The Guns of Navarone), and Robert Helpmann (The Red Shoes). [Read on here...]

The delightful musical recently turned fifty, and for the occasion The Bits features a Q&A with James Bond authority John Cork who, among other insight, highlights the numerous connections Chitty has to the long-running Bond series.

John Cork is the author (with Collin Stutz) of James Bond Encyclopedia (DK, 2007) and (with Bruce Scivally) James Bond: The Legacy (Abrams, 2002) and (with Maryam d’Abo) Bond Girls Are Forever: The Women of James Bond (Abrams, 2003).

John Cork

Cork is the president of Cloverland, a multi-media production company. He wrote the screenplay to The Long Walk Home (1990), starring Whoopi Goldberg and Sissy Spacek, and he also wrote and directed the feature documentary You Belong to Me: Sex, Race and Murder on the Suwannee River for producers Jude Hagin and Hillary Saltzman (daughter of original Bond producer Harry Saltzman). He contributed new introductions for the original Bond novels Casino Royale, Live and Let Die, and Goldfinger for new editions published in the UK by Vintage Classics in 2017.

Cork kindly spoke to The Bits about the appeal and legacy of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang

Michael Coate (The Digital Bits): How do you think Chitty Chitty Bang Bang should be remembered on its golden anniversary?

John Cork: Chitty Chitty Bang Bang should be fondly remembered as the bastard child of Mary Poppins and James Bond, with Ken Hughes serving as midwife. It is a crazy, wonderful, meandering, warped movie, glorious to look at, filled with great songs, fantastic sets, flat characters, flatter jokes, and enough padding to make Bibendum (aka the Michelin Tyre Man) look svelte.

After the success of Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music, every studio wanted to create their own heir: a long, perennial, family classic, musical roadshow that appealed to kids and the kid in every adult. Universal struck early and successfully with Thoroughly Modern Millie, released in spring 1967, which, like many roadshow musicals, saw its runtime hacked for general release; and in 1969 they had Sweet Charity, which saw it released with alternate “happy” and “sad” endings depending on when and where you saw it. Disney moved quickly with The Happiest Millionaire, released in late 1967. It flopped badly. Fox had Doctor Dolittle, released in late 1967 to ambivalent audiences, followed by the disastrous Star! in 1968 and the slightly profitable Hello, Dolly! in 1969. In 1967 Warner Bros.-Seven Arts had Camelot, which did good business but was not a solid hit, and the underappreciated Finian’s Rainbow the following year. Columbia found success with Funny Girl and Oliver!, but it was the exception. Paramount offered up Half a Sixpence in 1968, Paint Your Wagon in 1969, and Darling Lili in 1970. MGM had Goodbye, Mr. Chips in 1969, and the following year ABC & Cinerama gave us their Sound of Music-clone Song of Norway. (There were just a few others during the waning days of the roadshow in the early 1970s with UA’s Fiddler on the Roof being the only clear commercial and critical success.) Among the strangest of players in this roadshow lottery was Cubby Broccoli, who at that point could have probably convinced United Artists to finance a big-budget musical production of The Detroit White Pages. He was bound and determined to leave his mark on film musical history, and he, like many wise men in Hollywood, thought the time was right for a two-hour, twenty-four-minute musical aimed at children starring a car... a “fantasmagorical” car… which would not appear in all its glory until an hour into the film.

What I love about Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is that it is a bespoke film, a remnant of a bygone era when family movies were made by hand, and not computers. The film is a mess that is so close to working perfectly but doesn’t quite. Yet, it is a lovely mess, just like one of the inventions conceived by Caractacus Potts. Just as the Bond film knock-offs of the mid-60s always felt like they were made by filmmakers who just didn’t quite understand what makes the 007 adventures work, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang feels like it was made by many of the James Bond filmmakers who didn’t quite understand what made Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music such big hits.

Yet, it has scenes that need to be seen: Me Ol’ Bamboo dance number, the glorious cinematography, the weird references to Bond movies, the strangely poignant Doll on a Music Box, Robert Helpmann as The Child Catcher, and the car! I smile at every shot of the sun gleaming off its polished hood. And the entire Sherman Brothers score is perfection.

Every parent should watch Chitty Chitty Bang Bang with their kids. It is a big, beautiful, rainy afternoon movie that speaks to the six-year-old in all of us.

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang roadshow program

Coate: What do you remember about the first time you saw Chitty Chitty Bang Bang?

Cork: I have vague memories of seeing it in the theater when it played in Tallahassee, Florida, where I lived at the time, but nothing of note. I watched it numerous times when it played on network television in the 1970s. One of the things I could never remember was that all the scenes that stuck in my head were from the same movie. I recalled, for example, the Wile E. Coyote-esque rocket-pack scene, the breakfast machine, and grandpa Potts being whisked away by zeppelin, but for years thought they were from other films! I was enough of a fan to have a Chitty Chitty Bang Bang lunch box and the Corgi model of the car.

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang roadshow tickets

Coate: Is Chitty Chitty Bang Bang a significant motion picture?

Cork: It is significant in a number of ways. First, it is an important part of the legacy of Albert R. “Cubby” Broccoli, one of the most fascinating producers in the history of the film industry. It is part of the cinematic legacy of Ian Fleming, one of the most influential authors of the 20th Century. It is part of the legacy of Ken Adam, possibly the greatest production designer ever to work in the film industry. It is part of the legacy of The Sherman Brothers, two of the greatest songwriters to work in the movies. And it is part of the legacy of Roald Dahl, one of the most important writers of childrens’ books.

Yet, probably the greatest legacy is a strange, mostly-1960s phenomenon: the magical car. From The Absent-Minded Professor’s flubber-powered flying car, to 007’s gadget-laden Aston Martin, to NBC’s ill-fated, My Mother the Car, to the Batmobile, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is deeply entrenched in this legacy. Unfortunately for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, just as the film was playing around the country, another magical car started captivating kids: Herbie, The Love Bug. At a tight 108 minutes, The Love Bug offered a more convincingly anthropomorphized car, a better love story, and a far more consistent tone than Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and, as a result, was a smashing success. Regardless, the elegance and beauty of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang remains.

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang

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