This post is dedicated to my aunt, who let me loaf around her house every summer, subjecting her to hideous experiments with expired cosmetics when I wasn’t watching one of four movies: The Sound of Music, Mary Poppins, My Fair Lady or Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. On a loop, people. My aunt = awesome.
“Awesome” would also describe this very strange movie that is commonly found in the Children’s Section of video stores. Tagged the “most fantasmagorical musical entertainment in the history of everything!”, it’s like a delightful experiment that grows with you as you age unlike any other movie I’ve ever seen. Consider, for example, the people who made it:
First, we have the source: it was based on a children’s novel written by Ian Fleming. Yes, that Ian Fleming. James Bond fans remember the character of Q with a great deal of affection – so imagine Q as a young man at the turn of the 20th century as a frustrated genius inventor whose ideas are several decades ahead of his time. That’s who Caractacus Potts is. And Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was the story of Potts and his family teaming up with their amazing car which could fly, swim, and displayed signs of intelligence, to stop the evil designs of a nefarious gang of chocolate robbers in Paris. Sounds like fun, doesn’t it?
Except, for the movie version they got Roald Dahl to write it. That’s right – Roald Dahl! You don’t really think the man who wrote Charlie and the Chocolate Factory would be okay with that storyline, do you? The life of inventor Potts and his two children were immediately enlivened by the entry of – wait for it – Truly Scrumptious, a glamorous blonde fired with do-gooding zeal who just happens to be heiress to the stupendous Scrumptious candy fortune. And the action promptly left the famed candy stories of Paris and relocated to a fantastical kingdom where bad things happen, especially to children.
Giving Fleming and Dahl company in the writing department was director Ken Hughes, who landed the gig in spite of directing the Bond spoof Casino Royale starring David Niven the year before. This was a departure from protocol for Albert Broccoli, who owned Eon Productions which produced both Chitty Chitty and the Bond movies – in fact, his family continues to run the Bond franchise today. Usually, you don’t get to work for Eon after you worked outside the official canon. But I guess Broccoli knew what he was doing coz Hughes pulled it off. Funnily enough, the next movie Hughes directed (the historical Cromwell) featured future ill-fated Bond Timothy Dalton in a supporting role.
And of course, it starred Dick Van Dyke as Caractacus Potts. I’d confess that he was my babyhood crush but I don’t know what that would say about me, so I’ll refrain. Oh, what the hell – I love him and I don’t care who knows it. He might feel he’s never made a good movie but he brought tremendous joy to my childhood and I love him for it.
With these many cooks stirring the pot, you’d think this movie would be a complete mess. You’d be flat out wrong. There are so many ways to look at this film:
On the surface, it’s the standard story of two neglected, motherless children who dearly love their father but require things of him that he is simply not equipped to provide. Into their lives comes this golden haired, beautiful stranger and suddenly life is infinitely better. You can think of it as a paean to the two parent family, if you like.
However, Caractacus isn’t really all that grateful to have Truly involve herself in his business. He loves his children dearly and is willing to go to extraordinary lengths for them; neglectful he might be but he is not an indifferent parent. And the children understand this and while they really fall for Truly, they fall for her as a person rather than the mother they don’t have.
Then there is the story that Caractacus spins for his children – it’s the childish version of a Bond movie with secret lairs and foreign powers scheming to steal something of value: in this case Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, the wonder car. But what takes place in this foreign land is straight out of a child’s nightmare: a horrible clown who steals children away from their parents and subjects them to a life starved not just of food but of affection.
This was also a movie of the 60s when the Cold War was escalating – and here’s this royal couple, out to kill each other, in a land where no one dares to raise their voice against tyranny or speak the truth, a land of inferior weaponry and widespread poverty where people are subjected to inhuman misery that seems directed towards their very extermination until they are rescued by the super four and their souped up, one of a kind car, a mechanical marvel brought to life by a free mind.
And in the 60s, isn’t it interesting that Grandpa Potts’ eccentricity is portrayed by his obsession with the British Empire, particularly India?
After all these years I suspect I’ve barely scratched the surface of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.