After ABC recently ran a badly gutted version of this movie that cut out several of my favorite bits. I finally broke down and bought a copy to add to my collection. Which is joy, because this is a movie that I remember fondly.
Recommend this product?
The story opens on a montage of auto races in that golden era before the first World War. After proving itself on the European Grand Prix circut, a british car returns triumphantly home, only to be wrecked when the driver swerves to prevent hitting a child. A few months later, two lovely British children with big imaginations named Jeremy and Jememiah Potts have adopted the burned out hulk as their special toy. Unfortunately, the car is owned by the local junkman (Desmond "Q" Llewellyn), who is forced by the realities of his profession to sell the car to a mean local ironmonger. Jeremy and Jememiah flash the junkman a four alarm sad puppy dog look, and he says he'll sell their father the car for 30 shillings (for those unfamilar with the old British monetary system, that's a pound and a half, or about $75.00 in modern money). Happily, two endearing poppets go off to tell Daddy. Resulting in nearly a nasty accident when local aristocrat Truly Scrumptious (Sally Ann Howes) comes screaming around the corner in her car, which she promptly drives into a nearby pond (this will become a running gag). Truly, who's something of a busybody and a know it all, is horrifed to see two young children not in school, and takes them home to give their father a piece of her mind.
From there we get a look at the Potts home, a combination windmill/farm, and the children's father Caractacus Potts (Dick Van Dyke) freelance inventor (the name Caractacus has a noble pedigree, being the latin form of the Welsh Caradoc, who was a British leader who gave the Romans fits for a time, although here I suspect it's a play on "crackpot"). Mr. Potts is trying out his latest invention, a primitive rocketpack, which (like most of Potts inventions) doesn't exactly do what it's supposed to do, and Truly ends up dowsing Potts with water, which Caractacus doesn't precisely appreciate. They argue, he shows her his inventions (including a rug eating vacum cleaner prototype, and a candy maker that makes hollow sweets with some interesting holes in them), argue some more, and she goes off in serious huff. Over dinner (made by delightfully Rube Goldbergesgue appliances) the kids make their pitch for the car, blissfully unaware that their father couldn't cough up 30 shillings to save his life, much less buy a broken down old race car. Nonetheless being a loving father, he agrees to give it a try. This earns a snort from his father (Lionel Jeffries) a retired bat-man (a british soldier who acts as a personal servant to an officer), who's trying to get Caractacus to give up inventing for the life of a wage slave (actually he's not exactly the poster child for common sense himself, being given to going to a small hut on the property in costume, and pretending he's traveling to Africa, Alaska, etc).
Caractus goes to his workshop to consider his problems, there he notices that the family sheep dog, Edison. is whistling. It turns out that the candy with those unintential holes is a musical instrument as well as a confection. Before you can say "We're in the money," The Potts family is off to the factory of candy baron Lord Scrumptious (James Robertson Justice), and guess what...(all together now)...Truly is his daughter! And you probably thought Scrumptious was a commen British Surname now, didn't you? Well, Truly helps Caractacus past the officious assistant, and into the office of her surly grouch of a father. Caractacus makes his pitch, resulting in a big production number in the factory. It nearly pays off, but just as Lord Scrumptious is about to agree, the high pitched whistle of the musical candies draws every dog from the surrounding area, and disaster ensues as they run riot through the factory.
With his dreams of cornering the novelty candy market still smouldering, Caractacus, moves on to Plan B. Setting up an electric barbering machine at a local carnival. As expected the machine has a less than sucessful debut, and Caratacus has to flee for his life into one of the shows, and a dance number that gets him those 30 shillings (and some extra apparently).
After acquiring the car, Caractacus sets out to restore her. Scavaging parts from all over, he produces a geniunely beautiful piece of automotive design, one with a distinctive sound that gives the car it's name. Taking her out on a test run to the beach, they sing the title song, and run into (almost literally) into Truly, whose car goes into that same pond (somebody really ought to inform the Ministry Of Roads about that corner). She agrees to come with on their little jaunt. After a draggy montage, and another song, Caractacus finishes the day with a story, and the movie enters into it's second, more interesting half.
Caractacus' tale revolves around the attempts of the malevolent Baron Bomburst of Vulgaria (Gert Frobe, obviously having a blast) to get his hands on the marvelous car invented by...Caractacus Potts (humility not being a Potts family hang up). Zany misadventures ensue as the Baron's agents (two screaming dolt stooges with bad german accents) attempt to steal the car, which is exhibting the ablity to travel on water, to the apparent surprise of it's inventor. What they end up doing is kidnapping Grandpa Potts, mistakenly believing he's Caractacus. Caractacus, Truly, and the Kids drive off to the rescue in Chitty, chasing the Baron's zepplin until they go over the white cliffs of Dover (another note to the Ministry Of Roads, fences near the cliffs).
Fortunately Chitty has another trick up her fender her inventor didn't know about, she can fly. She can also think, for she takes the rescue party straight to Vulgaria.
Vulgaria is not a happy country. The Baron, it turns out, is even more of a loon than we thought. He has banned all children from the realm because A) he wants to keep all the toys in the kingdom to himself, and B) his wife hates and fears children. He places Grandpa amongst his collection of kidnapped scinetests, telling him to duplicate the marvels of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (Grandpa, naturally, doesn't know what the Baron is takling about). Chitty meanwhile buzzes the Baron's castle, and lands near the conviently located village. The Baron sends out his army, and his Child Catcher (Robert Helpmann). Meanwhile, Truly and the Potts family seek help from the villagers, who prove to be browbeaten and scared. The only succor comes from the royal toymaker (Benny Hill, if you can believe it), who hides them from the Child Catcher, and provides much needed exposition. Meanwhile, The army finds Chitty,
and Jeremy and Jememiah fall for a pretty obvious trap and get captured. The Toymaker leads Truly and Caractacus to a grotto beneath the castle, where the villagers have been hiding their children. Caractacus notices that the children can sneak in and out of the castle plumbing at will, and his mighty brain concieves a cunning strategem...and, and...just in case you've been living with Cave People all your life I'll let you know how this all turns out by buying the video...
As you can see this is a family oriented musical. What's surprising is the people who put this out. The original book was written by Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond, and the film was produced by Albert Broccoli who produced the Bond films (he picked up the rights when he bought the Bond series). In the late sixties, with Connery off sulking in his tent, putting the Bond movies on temporary hold, Broccoli decided to turn this Fleming book into a disneyesgue musical in a sign of how much like a Disney movie he wanted it to be, he lured the Sherman brothers team from Disney Studios to write the music. The result is a very listenable score, ranging from the title theme (nominated for an Oscar) to songs like "Me Old Bamboo", and "The Traveling Life." There are a couple of misfires like "Toot Sweets" with lyrics that sound like an advertising jingle, and "Lonely Man" which sounds like the Sherman's just opened their rhyming dictionary, and went from there. This isn't helped by director Ken Hughes' tendency to make the segues into the musical numbers rather jarring. People just start singing and dancing for no apparent reason. Almost like Hughes is saying "Well, we need a song here, hadn't had one for awhile."
Storywise, the film has it's good and bad points. The first half has a tendency to drag, has we go through the Potts family's problems. Then they do something most creative writing teachers warn you against, they change story in midstream, and introduce a fantasy-dream sequence for the rest of the picture. This can result in a clumsy juxtaposition between one story and the other. In this case they carry it off, largely because the fantasy gives the movie a much needed shot in the arm. Freed from the woes and frustrations of the Potts and the Scrumptiouses, the film settles into pure fairy tale, and there's no need to worry about nagging little things like logic. Fortunately, Hughes shared the screenwriting chores with Roald Dahl, who had a real flair for the fantastic, (and, apparently, an obsession with candy factories). So we end up with a world where you can accept that a car can go over water, and fly, and tyrants can ban children from the kingdom. If, at times, the imagery seems overly stylized (like Vulgaria's decidely inbred aristocracy), you can pass it off with, "Hey it's just a father telling a story to his kids."
The cast is first rate, for the most part. The only real weak spot is Sally Ann Howe as Truly Scrumptious. She's pretty, and she sings like an angel (if she didn't lip sync), but I get a feeling they hired her after they couldn't get Julie Andrews. She's not an experianced actress, and achieves only the barest mininum of screen chemistry with Van Dyke. Fortunately, Van Dyke is a darn good song and dance man, and carries off the part of Caractacus with minimal fuss, and a great deal of grace and athleticism. He is aided by old pro Lionel Jeffries as Grandpa. A skilled comic, Jeffries nearly steals the show at times. Gert Frobe, on the other hand, suceeds in stealing the show, simply by having a good time. When you watch him threaten, prance around, and mug the camera, you can tell he's having a party playing a spoiled brat who refuses to grow up, and doesn't care who knows it.
Although the special effects look pretty cheesy nowadays, they were state of the art then. And they're helped by beautiful sets, and landscapes. Chief among them, Neueschwanstein, the famous fairy tale Castle built by King Ludwig II of Bavaria (who wasn't mad by the way, just impractical and extravagent), and the medieval city of Rothenburg for the village sequences (also in Bavaria, just not next door to the castle, I know I've been to both).
All in all, an entertaining by the numbers musical. At times draggy, but that's not unusual for musicals. Still, it's a pleasant enough experiance, and you don't have to turn on the v-chip when the kids watch it. And, for me at least, it invokes fond memories of day in a real movie theater (not a box made for maxium seat capacity) in Oswego, where my Dad brought my brother and me to see it when this movie was still fresh and new, and when I was young enough to think a flying car was cool. And that neat reproduction of Chitty from Corgi that had the wings and everything, lasted through trips acros the Atlantic and years of rough play (heck we even had Bond's Aston Martin DB-V complete with Bond, machine guns, bullet shield and chinese guard for the working ejector seat). An era of great movies, great TV, and cool toys. Todays kids just don't have so good.