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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Herbie Rides Again
On the rare occasions that Walt Disney allowed sequels to his live-action features, they tended to feel less like continuations and more like extensions. Son Of Flubber came about because gags intended for The Absent-Minded Professor were cut during the scripting stage. Davy Crockett and Merlin Jones were both TV productions that ended up on the big screen and they feel like it. But when writer/producer Bill Walsh and director Robert Stevenson decided to bring back The Love Bug in Herbie Rides Again, they were obliged to mix things up a bit.
If there's a definitive oral history on the making of the Herbie movies out there, I haven't found it yet. As a result, I'll be speculating a bit more than I'd like on the background of Herbie Rides Again. I apologize if I'm completely off-base on anything. But I think it's fair to say that Disney wanted to make a proper sequel to The Love Bug with stars Dean Jones, Buddy Hackett and Michele Lee. I don't know if Hackett and Lee were approached but Jones evidently was. In an interview with the Herbie fansite Herbiemania, Jones says he didn't think the script for Herbie Rides Again was up to the standards of the original. He's not wrong.
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With Jones taking a hard pass and Hackett and Lee either turning it down or not even being asked to return, Walsh had to find another thread to connect Herbie Rides Again to The Love Bug. Naturally, he turned to Helen Hayes, the First Lady of American Theatre. This was not her first exposure to Disney. Her son, James MacArthur, had been a Disney star from 1958 to 1960 and Hayes herself made a cameo appearance in his mountain-climbing movie Third Man On The Mountain. Hayes began enjoying a late career resurgence around 1970 when she won an Oscar for her role in Airport. She wouldn’t have been the first person I’d have thought of to star opposite a sentient VW Bug but I guess it works.
Hayes plays Mrs. Steinmetz, the aunt of Buddy Hackett’s Tennessee Steinmetz (again, not the first person I would think of). Tennessee is off in Tibet on some sort of spiritual quest with his guru and Jones’ Jim Douglas has abandoned Herbie to race cars in Europe, leaving Mrs. Steinmetz alone in the old firehouse with Herbie and a couple other pieces of living machinery, an orchestrion and a decommissioned cable car named Old No. 22.
So far, none of this makes much sense. I don’t buy the idea that Jim Douglas would head to Europe without Herbie, especially given what happens in later Herbie movies. The Love Bug spent a lot of time establishing what a sensitive flower Herbie can be. The car tried to commit suicide when he thought Jim didn’t like him anymore. Herbie should probably be in therapy instead of taking a little old lady on weekly trips to the market. But this is Herbie Rides Again, not a Bergman movie. Best to let it go.
Like Jim Douglas and Tennessee Steinmetz, bad guy Peter Thorndyke (David Tomlinson) sits this one out. Instead, Walsh and Stevenson bring back Alonzo Hawk (Keenan Wynn), the Flubber-coveting villain from The Absent-Minded Professor and its sequel. Hawk has done well since leaving Medfield for the Bay Area. He’s now a super-rich industrialist with plans to construct the world’s tallest skyscraper. Maybe Hawk should give some pointers to Medfield’s current adversary, A.J. Arno. That’s right, Herbie Rides Again connects to the Flubber movies which themselves connect to the Dexter Riley movies. The shared DisneyVerse is a vast and complicated place.
Walsh and Stevenson still needed a pair of romantic leads to fill in for Jones and Lee. Stefanie Powers from The Boatniks takes leading lady duties. This would be her last Disney movie. After this, she continued as a go-to guest star on dozens of TV shows before landing the role she’d become most famous for on Hart To Hart opposite Robert Wagner in 1979. She still acts from time to time, so it’s possible she could pop up in this column again.
The male lead was Ken Berry, a song-and-dance man who’d become a popular sitcom star on shows like F Troop and Mayberry R.F.D. I had remembered Berry starring in a ton of Disney movies throughout the 1970s but he’ll actually only be in this column once more. But he was all over television during that time, popping up on The Carol Burnett Show, The Love Boat, Fantasy Island and lots more.
Herbie Rides Again opens with a montage of stock footage depicting the demolition of various old buildings as Alonso Hawk watches and gleefully participates in their destruction from the safety of his limo. After the opening credits, we find ourselves in Rome where Hawk’s in the back of a taxi (driven by Disney regular Vito Scotti) fantasizing about destroying the Coliseum to make way for a shopping center. You might be thinking, “Oh, so the movie takes place in Italy?” Not at all. It’s literally just one scene with no explanation why we’re there and then Hawk’s right back in San Francisco.
These slapdash opening minutes accurately set the tone for what follows. None of this footage matches. The rear-projection work placing Hawk in Rome is some of the least convincing effects work you’ll ever witness. If you’re feeling charitable, you can take this as a sign that the movie will be more free-wheeling and anachronistic than its predecessor. If not, you can read it as the filmmakers admitting they do not care about this project. Honestly, both interpretations are correct.
Hawk’s plan to dominate the San Francisco skyline has run into a major snag: Mrs. Steinmetz, who refuses to leave the firehouse standing in the way. I love that an employee lifts the enormous model of Hawk’s building to reveal a little firehouse model hiding beneath it. Anyway, none of Hawk’s high-priced lawyers (most of whom are familiar Disney faces) have been able to get Mrs. Steinmetz to play ball. When Hawk’s milquetoast nephew, Willoughby Whitfield (Berry), shows up fresh out of law school, he hires him on the spot and sends him off to deal with the old lady.
Willoughby is pretty sure Mrs. Steinmetz is off her rocker when she starts talking to Herbie and Old No. 22. Just as he’s getting ready to have her committed, a pretty flight attendant named Nicole (Powers) turns up. Nicole was Mrs. Steinmetz’s neighbor until Hawk tore down her apartment building and left her homeless. Mrs. Steinmetz took her in and now Nicole affectionately calls her “Grandma”. Thanks to her history with Hawk, Nicole immediately sizes up Willoughby as an enemy and punches him in the face.
Before Nicole can do any more damage, Willoughby pleads his case. The neighborhood looks like a war zone, the firehouse is falling apart and the crazy old lady talks to her car. Nicole can’t do anything about those first two points but decides to clear up that last one by taking Willoughby for a ride in Herbie. You can probably guess how that goes, except you can’t because Herbie takes them to some kind of Renaissance Fair to participate in a joust/game of chicken. Wait, was Herbie Rides Again the secret inspiration behind George A. Romero’s Knightriders?
The upshot of all this is Willoughby decides he wants nothing to do with his uncle’s shady dealings and Mrs. Steinmetz decides Nicole and Willoughby have crazy-hot chemistry. Willoughby screws up his courage to confront Hawk face-to-face but chickens out when he hears his uncle’s latest apoplectic tirade. Instead, he quits over the phone, dons a fake beard as a disguise and runs to the airport.
Hawk decides to take care of things himself. For whatever reason, he’s figured out that Herbie is the key to this whole thing and steals it (sorry, him…I’m not 100% clear on Herbie’s preferred pronouns). Then he makes the mistake of insulting Herbie and all bets are off. Herbie takes control and creates a huge traffic nightmare before unceremoniously dumping Hawk on the sidewalk outside his office.
Now Hawk tasks his lawyers with getting the car but Herbie has taken Mrs. Steinmetz out shopping. Mrs. Steinmetz calmly reviews her shopping list while Herbie deals with the lawyers, driving through a fancy hotel, climbing to the top of a parking garage and leaping between buildings, even driving straight up the cables of the Golden Gate Bridge. Once again, Disney weirdly cheaps out on some of the least special special effects on film. The Golden Gate gag is particularly bad. The scale is all wrong and somehow Hawk’s secretary (Elaine Devry) is able to see what’s happening from miles away.
Herbie and Mrs. Steinmetz make it home to find Nicole, who ran into Willoughby at the airport and convinced him to help fight Hawk. Mrs. S. sees an opportunity for a little matchmaking and sends the potential lovebirds off to the store, ordering Herbie to keep them occupied for a little while. They end up at the beach. While love blossoms and Herbie cavorts in the sand like an excited puppy, Hawk’s chauffeur (Ivor Barry) bribes an old-timey fisherman (Arthur Space) to block the only access road. With the young folks and that meddling car out of the picture, Hawk intends on swooping in to pack up all of Mrs. Steinmetz’s possessions.
Hawk’s diversion doesn’t work for long. Finding the road blocked, Herbie simply drives out to the end of a pier, leaps in and navigates back to shore the long way, much to the astonishment of both sharks and surfers. Returning to their empty home, our undaunted heroes decide to retrieve their stolen goods from Hawk’s warehouse. They get everything back and Herbie helps them escape a pair of hapless security guards (including recurring player Norm Grabowski in his final Disney appearance). On the way home, Old No. 22 picks up a drunk but flirtatious passenger, Mr. Judson (John McIntire, last seen in The Light In The Forest, giving the funniest performance in the whole movie).
The next day, Mrs. Steinmetz goes to meet with Hawk face-to-face. Willoughby follows her and arrives just in time to see her drive Herbie onto an enormous window-washers’ platform. They make it to the 28th floor where Hawk is on the phone with a demolition guy named Loostgarten (Chuck McCann, later a very prolific voice actor including Duckworth on the series DuckTales). Hawk’s done messing around and wants Loostgarten to knock the firehouse down tonight, permit or no permit.
Of course you realize there’s a reason Stevenson introduced this comically oversized window-washer, right? Sure enough, an incensed Mrs. Steinmetz hits Hawk full-force with a stream of suds. Once the office is full of bubbles, Herbie drives in and chases Hawk through the halls and out onto the window ledge. Before Herbie can outright murder Hawk, Mrs. Steinmetz threatens to trade him in if he doesn’t calm down.
Back home, Nicole and Willoughby concoct a plan. Willoughby impersonates his uncle and gets Loostgarten on the phone. Telling him there’s been a change of plans, Willoughby gives Loostgarten Hawk’s home address instead. That night, Hawk is understandably having trouble sleeping, suffering PTSD-induced nightmares where he’s chased by Demon-Herbies with razor-sharp teeth or he’s Kong atop the Empire State Building menaced by Flying Herbies trying to shoot him down with motor oil. Loostgarten wakes him up, calling to verify the new address, at which point Hawk gives the OK to demolish his own house.
The next morning, Hawk finally admits defeat and announces he’s turned over a new leaf. Willoughby and Nicole go to Fisherman’s Wharf for a celebratory dinner but Mrs. Steinmetz stays in, partly to give the young folks some space but mostly to entertain her own gentleman caller, Mr. Judson. It’s a good thing they stayed behind. Hawk was, of course, lying through his teeth and has assembled an army of bulldozers and wrecking balls to bring Hell to Mrs. Steinmetz’s front door.
While Mrs. Steinmetz and Judson hold the fort, Herbie manages to break through the front line and fetch Nicole and Willoughby. Speeding back to the firehouse, Herbie uses his psychic Herbie powers or something to mobilize an entire armada of sentient, driverless Volkswagen Beetles. They come from garages, from junkyards, from driveways, from drive-in movies (still carrying the seemingly frozen young lovers in the backseat). The Bugs thwart the bad guys and Hawk runs into the Traffic Commissioner again, who hauls him off to either jail or an insane asylum. Willoughby and Nicole end up getting married because why wouldn’t they and everyone lives happily ever after. Except, perhaps, for San Francisco’s many Volkswagen owners whose cars mysteriously vanished one night and never returned.
So yeah, Herbie Rides Again is not what you could call a good movie. I wouldn’t even say it’s a particularly well-made movie. That being said, I had some fun with it. Without any returning characters from The Love Bug, Stevenson and Walsh couldn’t continue Herbie’s story in any meaningful way. And let’s face it, does anyone really want Herbie’s story continued in a “meaningful” way? So Stevenson and Walsh went another direction and cranked up the zaniness to eleven. On that score, it delivers.
Even so, being weird and goofy can only carry a movie so far. It would be really nice if more of that weirdness was intentional. I don’t think Stevenson intended for the lousy chroma-key effects to be an ironic commentary on the illusion of cinema. They’re just cheap, lazy effects. The relationship between Mrs. Steinmetz and Mr. Judson is genuinely cute and funny. I’d love it if the movie focused more on them or invested Willoughby and Nicole with half as much personality. In the end, I felt like I enjoyed Herbie Rides Again in spite of everyone’s efforts, not because of them.
Despite its shortcomings, audiences were ready to welcome Herbie back. Herbie Rides Again came out in England first before opening in America on June 6, 1974. Most critics seemed to feel the same way I do about the movie. They admitted it wasn’t very good but they weren’t mad about it. It went on to become Disney’s highest-grossing film of the year, just barely missing the top ten. Helen Hayes even got a Golden Globe nomination for the movie, possibly just for emerging with her dignity intact.
It's hard to say whether or not Walt Disney would have greenlit any sequels to The Love Bug. On the one hand, it was an enormous hit. But that might actually have protected it in Walt’s mind. He might have felt a sequel would cheapen whatever magic made The Love Bug special. But with Walt gone, the studio couldn’t afford to leave money on the table. After Herbie Rides Again proved The Love Bug’s success was no fluke, you knew full well that Herbie would return.
VERDICT: It’s a Disney Plus for the Demon-Herbies alone but it’s not great.
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