"Is that all you do, Mr. Potts -- invent things?"

Thursday 08 March 2012 at 8:00 pm

     It all started when Robert Bernard "Moose" Sherman passed away. If you don't know who Robert Sherman was, the long version is here, but simply put, he and his younger brother Richard wrote pretty much every song from every Disney movie you ever saw as a kid. Of course, this is assuming that you were a kid back in the day when seeing a Disney movie was done in a theater on a Saturday (matinee with your friends, or evening with your folks) ...

I saw "20,000 Leagues Under The Sea" at a Drive-In movie theater in I think about 1971, and to this day I still remember the moment the Captain Nemo's "Nautilus" rose from the depths ... but I digress.

     Anyway, my lovely wife Colyn had posted (on Facebook) a link about Robert Sherman's passing:

Robert B. Sherman, one half of the award-winning duo who penned memorable songs for "Mary Poppins," "The Jungle Book" and "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" - as well "It's a Small World (After All)" - has died ...

    and there were the standard kind words about his life and talent, and as I was reading I realized I'd forgotten that the Sherman Brothers had written the songs for "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang," a movie that, as a kid, I hated. And loved. And love, still. It's a bit of a long story.

Movies you love or hate

     [Editor's Note: I wasn't going to say anything at all about any of this if Layne hadn't made the comment about how "AMAZINGLY bad" the movie is, which is a feeble-minded claim that I feel I must refute, as much as it pains me to do so. Layne and I have been through a lot in this world, together and apart, and I'd take a bullet for him, he's like a brother to me. But when it comes to some things, especially movies, we don't always see eye-to-eye, and when I say "don't always see eye-to-eye," I mean that while I do admit that there are parts of the movie I have slight issue with, Layne's brief and blanket dismissal of this film is (if it was written while he was conscious, the typing not just due to his head bouncing on his computer keyboard during a narcoleptic fit) most likely the result of him forgetting his medication again, a sad reminder of the tragic results of his ill-advised, alcohol-induced altercation with a malfunctioning ball machine in a batting cage in 1986, which left him a mere and grotesque shell of a man, unable to use either eating utensils or indoor plumbing, prone to excessive drooling and flatulence, and more to be pitied than feared, God bless him.]

    Actually it's the stuff about the movie that I love, that's the long part. The part I hate is pretty short and simple. You know what I hate about this movie, still, to this day, and why I hated it the most as a kid? Well, this is where I should probably say SPOILERS AHEAD but I just realized that, thanks the wonders of the internet, I can tell you without telling you unless you want me to tell you. That is, if you use your mouse to highlight the area between SPOILER BEGIN and SPOILER END, you can read why I hate this movie, in case you haven't seen it yet but want to know what I'm venting about. The rest of you can just skip over the blank part. Okay, ready? Go!

SPOILER BEGIN

     It turns out that all of the adventures of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, on the sea, in the air, going to Vulgaria and everything that happens after the first picnic on the beach, was all ... a dream.  IT WAS A DREAM!  Oh, sure, they have a "cute" ending where maybe Chitty Chitty Bang Bang goes flying off in the sunset, but that doesn't redeem the fact that IT WAS ALL A DREAM!  Okay, technically it was a story being told by Caractacus Potts to entertain the children during the picnic, but that doesn't change the fact IT WAS ALL A DREAM!  Boy, was I ticked.

SPOILER END

    So that's why I hate this movie, and frankly as an adult I just overlook it in context and attribute this continuity error to some sick, twisted joke by a disgruntled film editor who snuck in the offending footage just as the master negative was being duped.  

    As for why I love this movie ...

    Well, for starters, we'll pick an obvious answer: The Music. And being I mostly don't like musicals, this is a pretty big deal, but simply put, this movie has some darn good songs in it. Like "You Two," which -- like pretty much all of the Sherman Brothers' work -- is warm and sweet, but not at all cloying ...

    Other songs I particular love in this movie are "Doll On A Music Box/Truly Scrumptious" (a "duet" between Sally Ann Howes and Dick Van Dyke), "Hushabye Mountain" (boy did the Shermans' know how to use a minor key for soothing/haunting effect) ...

A gentle breeze from Hushabye Mountain
Softly blows o'er lullaby bay.
It fills the sails of boats that are waiting--
Waiting to sail your worries away.
It isn't far to Hushabye Mountain
And your boat waits down by the key.
The winds of night so softly are sighing--
Soon they will fly your troubles to sea.
So close your eyes on Hushabye Mountain.
Wave good-bye to cares of the day.
And watch your boat from Hushabye Mountain
Sail far away from lullaby bay.

     ... the uniquely daffily wonderful Lionel Jeffries singing "Posh!", and of course the namesake tune "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang." I admit I always fast-forward over "Lovely Lonely Man" as sung by Sally Ann Howes, it's not a bad song per se but it's pretty mushy (especially for kids; it's a rare misfire from Robert and Richard) and it brings the movie to a halt. But again that's what the remote buttons are for, just skip right over it.

     Along those lines, a very great injustice was done to this film when most people not our parents age first saw it: They/we first happened across "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" on broadcast TV (if you're old like me) or even VHS and DVD, and you saw the movie in what is called "NTSC 4:3" or "Academy" aspect ratio, "1.33:1" like the clip above. "1.33:1" simply means that the screen is 1.33 "units" across by 1 "unit" high, and it's your old-fashioned TV aspect ratio, basically an almost-square box. 

     To which I say, "Butchery!", because "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" was shot in "Super Panavision," which is not only 70mm film stock (twice as wide as the "standard" 35mm release), but with an aspect ratio of 2.20:1.  That's a screen that's more than twice as wide as it is high. 

     I'm guessing most of you still reading this are nodding off by now with the techno-geek stuff, so I'll cut to the chase: The clip below is the same scene as the one above, except this is from the recently (2010) remastered Blu Ray release of the film, and it's both hi-definition and with the "correct" aspect ratio.  Whaddya think, does it make a difference?

     I was lucky enough to find a laserdisc version of this movie several years ago, and I "borrowed" a copy, dubbed to Beta Hi-Fi tape (yeah, I'm old) that I still have, but can't play anymore because all my Beta decks have died. So it was with great happiness that I discovered they finally released the widescreen edition on DVD in 2010.

     This is a movie that either needs to be seen in a theater or on a large HDTV, just to do justice to wonderful images (which are so wide and detailed I have to post them here as "pop-ups" to fit on your screen, click the thumbnails for a much larger image), such as ...

Takeoff!

Where we first meet Caractacus Potts, played by the incomparably perfect Dick Van Dyke. This is my Halloween costume for next year.

Caractacus Potts workshopCaractacus Potts' wonderful workshop. This is the kind of workshop that makes both my little-boy heart and grown-up heart go pitty-pat.

Me Ol' BambooCaractacus and friends dancing up a storm to "Me Ol' Bam-boo," which is not just a great song and dance, but actually turns out to be a key plot-point.

She floats!"Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" shows her stuff, transforming into a hoverboat; in the book, she's a full-fledged hovercraft, but I don't begrudge the producers giving her an inflatable undercarriage for the sake of not spending the entire budget on getting shots like the next one ...

Under attack!... where Chitty and crew daringly evade bombadment and capture by the evil Vulgarians. This is a full-size car and a full-size ship on a real ocean, not model work in a tank. Just wonderful stuff.

The Magical Flying Chitty Chitty Bang BangAnd of course ... she flies. Oh how she flies. So what if there are some minor visible matte lines, CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG FLIES!!! Notice you really and truly need the entire 2.20:1 screen to do justice to this beautiful flying car.

The Toymaker and the ChildcatcherThe Toymaker (Benny Hill) and ... shudder ... the Child Catcher (Robert Helpmann). Having the late, great Benny Hill as the Toymaker is just frosting on the cake, as far as I'm concerned. As a kid I didn't know who he was, just some actor, but as an adult I openly admit to being a big Benny Hill fan. Some see him as a "dirty old man," but to me, he's a master of both physical and verbal comedy, at heart just a big kid who wants to be loved, and who can't relate to that? The Child Catcher, on the other hand, is a truly blood-chilling character, and a genuine threat to our heroes. It's a great performance by Helpmann, who was by all accounts a total sweetheart on the set and in real life.

Arriving in VulgariaArriving in Vulgaria, just one of the amazing "sets" in the movie. This is a real castle, Neuschwanstein, built between 1869 and 1886 for the Bavarian King Ludwig II, "The Mad King of Bavaria". This castle is also more famously known as the model for the Sleeping Beauty Castle at Disneyland. 

    And of course there are the two men behind it all ...

Roald DahlRoald Dahl, the screenwriter.  "Roald" rhymes with "Cruel," and frankly that's probably not a coincidence.

Ian FlemingIan Fleming, the author of the original book "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" on which the script is (loosely-ish) based. Yes, that Ian Fleming, the man who created James Bond.

     Quite a team, eh? Seriously, Roald Dahl and Ian Fleming were good friends as well as good (great, actually) writers, and how and why Dahl and Fleming met in the first place is a long and interesting story you should read. And while Dahl's indelible contributions to "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" -- the Child Catcher & the Baron and Baroness being most prominent -- certainly can inspire long discussions about just how much of a talented, disturbed, and disturbing weirdo he was, it was Ian Fleming who found Chitty Chitty Bang Bang in the first place ... and it was he who loved her back to life. 

     Roald Dahl wrote several books for children, and some of those books became classics. Ian Fleming only wrote one book for children, but as luck or skill or art would have it, he wrote a classic. Yes, I read it when I was a kid and yes I still have my hardcover copy which I re-read every few years because it's one of my very favorite books in the whole wide world, and it begins like this ...

Chitty Chitty Bang BangMost motorcars are conglomerations (this is a long word for bundles) of steel and wire and rubber and plastic, and electricity and oil and gasoline and water, and the toffee papers you pushed down the crack in the back seat last Sunday. Smoke comes out of the back of them and horn-squawks out of the front, and they have white lights like big eyes in front, and red lights behind. And that is about that—just motorcars, tin boxes on wheels for running about in.
     But some motorcars—mine, for instance, and perhaps yours—are different. If you get to like them and understand them, if you are kind to them and don't scratch their paint or bang their doors, if you fill them up and pump them up when they need it, if you keep them clean and polished and out of the rain and snow as much as possible, you will find, you MAY find, that they become almost like persons — MORE than just ordinary persons — MAGICAL PERSONS!!!
     You don't believe me? All right then! You just read about this car I'm going to tell you about! I believe you can guess its name already—her name, I should say. And then see if you don't agree with me. All motorcars aren't just conglomerations of machinery and fuel, SOME ARE ....

     As Khalil Gibran once wrote ...

Art arises when the secret vision of the artist and the manifestation of nature agree to find new shapes.

 

    And that pretty much says it all right there.  "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" is a secret vision of artists and cast and crew and music and nature all working together to find new and wonderful shapes, bringing joy to this child's heart. And even if love and joy and movies aren't always or maybe even ever reasonable, "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" is a truly scrumptious work of art.