Based on a 1964 book written well after the James Bond books and films had impacted the world’s collective psyche with notions of manly gadgets and customised vehicles, Ian Fleming’s less developed franchise has so far run to only one film; a pity, since Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is a promising piece of work that’s fondly remembered by kids of all ages. The vintage car is the star, of course; Albert R Broccoli’s handsome production also features dialogue by regular Bond scribe Richard Maibaum, but it’s Ken Adam’s set design that fires up the imagination, plus songs from Richard M and Robert B Sherman in the cheerful idiom of Mary Poppins.
Back in the 1910’s before pesky world wars ruined everything, inventor Caractacus Potts (Dick Van Dyke) and his squeeze with a proper Bond girl name Truly Scrumptious (Sally Ann Howes) restore an ancient Grand Prix car with some unique flying modifications and head off with some kids on an adventure that’s kind of a story within a story. They head off pursuit of an airship that has kidnapped the kids grandfather and head to child-less domain Vulgaria, where they fall foul of the nefarious Baron Bomburst (Goldfinger’s Gert Frobe).
Screenwriter Roald Dahl only based the sunny if slow first half of the film on Fleming’s work; the second, a dark and frightening turn of events for many, is Dahl’s own twisted invention, and the advent of the nightmare-inducing child-catcher (Aussie dance-whizz Robert Helpman) typifies Dahl’s macabre sense of humour. The overtones generally are far too dark for family audiences, but a slew of famous names supporting (James Robertson Justice, Benny Hill, Stanley Unwin, Arthur Mullard, Barbara Windsor and Q Desmond Lywellyn) help paper over the rough edges of Dahl’s dream.
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was a top ten hit in the US back in 1968, and seems like a sleeping giant in terms of IP; a name known to generations, a franchise where the car rather than the actors provide continuity, and a sense, as with Bond, of a dark, dangerous adult world partly but not entirely bowdlerised for family consumption. The title song endures, as do Truly Scrumptious’s rather haunting song when she cheekily calls attention to her own disguise, performing as a marionette on a music box. There’s tonnes to unpack here about Fleming’s complex personality, and coded messages about the dangers of strangers and foreigners generally; casting Van Dyke helps diffuse the Britishness of the whole enterprise, but Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is an ideal vehicle for him, and for everyone keen to connect with their own innocent youth, which turns out to be not so innocent in Fleming’s outlandish, threatening, vulgarian world of twisted adulthood.