Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Love Bug
There has probably never been another producer in the history of motion pictures as concerned with the concept of legacy as Walt Disney. Walt didn’t want to make pictures that opened well or played for a few weeks or months. He wanted to make evergreens, films that could be re-released again and again forever. To accomplish this, he made animated features based on tales that had already stood the test of time. When he started producing live-action films, he focused on period pieces and historical fiction. So it’s tough to figure out what he would have thought about The Love Bug. On the one hand, it’s the most contemporary movie the studio had made to that point, firmly rooted in the late 1960s. But on the other, it worked like gangbusters, becoming the studio’s biggest hit in years and its own kind of evergreen.
Walt himself had optioned the source material that became The Love Bug, a treatment or unpublished short story called Car-Boy-Girl (or possibly Boy-Girl-Car) by Gordon Buford. Sources differ on what exactly this was, how it ended up capturing Walt’s attention or even what the exact title was and there’s almost no information about Gordon Buford out there. The only thing that seems certain is that it was a comedy about a sentient car. Shortly before Walt’s death, Dean Jones pitched him a dramatic script about race car driving. Walt wasn’t interested and told Jones he should star in Car-Boy-Girl instead.
Jones had successfully made the transition from Broadway and TV to legitimate movie star by listening to Walt’s advice, so he wasn’t about to stop now. Disney’s Mary Poppins A-team, director Robert Stevenson, co-writer and producer Bill Walsh, and co-writer Don DaGradi, were all assigned to the Car-Boy-Girl project. Walsh had written the Mickey Mouse comic strip for years and DaGradi was a former animator with experience in both shorts like Der Fuehrer’s Face and features like Lady And The Tramp. Their cartoon backgrounds made them ideally suited to creating a real, sympathetic character out of an anthropomorphic car.
Interestingly enough, Buford’s original treatment didn’t specify what kind of car the film should be about. The production team held “auditions” for the role on the Disney lot, inviting the crew and staff to come inspect a dozen or so different cars. The pearl white Volkswagen Beetle won on cuteness and charm. It was the only car in the lineup that everyone reached out to pet as they walked by.
This was not Dean Jones’ first time appearing opposite a character named Herbie. In The Horse In The Gray Flannel Suit, released just a few weeks prior to The Love Bug, Jones’ Aunt Martha has a dog named Herbie. Was this a coincidence or a subtle piece of stealth marketing? It’s hard to say for sure. What is certain is that Herbie the Love Bug’s name came from co-star Buddy Hackett, the nightclub comic making his Disney debut as junkyard artist and occasional mechanic Tennessee Steinmetz (Hackett will be back in this column in animated form). One of Hackett’s routines was about a team of heavily accented German ski instructors named Klaus, Hans, Fritz, Wilhelm and Sandor. The punchline was, “If you ain’t got a Herbie, I ain’t going!” Hackett’s Brooklynese pronunciation of the name never failed to bring down the house. Thus, the little Volkswagen became Herbie.
David Tomlinson, who’d had the role of a lifetime as Mr. Banks in Mary Poppins, returned to the Disney fold to play the snobby, weaselly Peter Thorndyke, European car salesman and Jones’ rival on the racing circuit. The villainous role was the polar opposite of his paternal Mary Poppins character and Tomlinson had a field day with it. We haven’t seen the last of him in this column.
The female lead was given to a relative newcomer, Michele Lee. Lee made her film debut in 1967, reprising her Broadway role in the movie version of the musical How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying. The Love Bug has been her only Disney role to date and even though she appears to be retired, I suppose that could still change. After her stint in Herbie’s passenger seat, Lee focused primarily on television, spending the entirety of the 1980s and about the first half of the 90s on the prime-time soap Knots Landing.
Even though all of Dean Jones’ Disney features had been contemporary-set comedies, they all took place in the suburbs or quaint little towns untouched by the passage of time. Even The Horse In The Gray Flannel Suit spends as little time at Jones’ New York City ad agency as narratively possible. The Love Bug is different. San Francisco in 1968 is such a very specific place and time that even Disney couldn’t ignore it. Consequently, Hackett’s Tennessee Steinmetz is an aspiring Zen master given to lengthy reminiscences on his time with the Buddhist monks of Tibet. Some of the first people Jones encounters after discovering Herbie’s special nature are hippies, including one in a psychedelic van played by Jones himself in a fake beard, long wig and blue-tinted sunglasses. This might be our first movie to show any kind of awareness of the world outside the studio walls since the Beach Boys turned up in The Monkey’s Uncle.
The Love Bug has been consistently popular over the years, so its storyline probably doesn’t require a lot of summation. Still, there are a few points to take note of. Jones stars as Jim Douglas, an aging race car driver whose glory days are far behind him, if he ever experienced them at all. After losing a demolition derby, Jim finds himself without a car. His search for a cheap ride is sidetracked when he spots leggy sales associate Carole Bennett (Lee) through the window of Thorndyke’s high-end European showroom. After going inside to flirt, Thorndyke mistakes Jim for a paying customer. Jim expresses interest in the shop’s pièce de resistance, a bright yellow sportscar dubbed the Thorndyke Special. But when Thorndyke discovers that Jim’s broke, he turns the charm off like a spigot.
Jim’s presence in the shop also attracts the attention of a little Volkswagen Beetle, who rolls out of the garage and onto the showroom floor to get his attention. Jim’s not interested but he stands up for the car anyway when Thorndyke starts insulting it. The next morning, Jim wakes up to find a detective (played by fellow nightclub comic and Car 54, Where Are You? star Joe E. Ross) outside the old firehouse he shares with Tennessee. Turns out the Bug followed him home and is parked right outside. Thorndyke accuses Jim of stealing the car and has him arrested, while Jim believes Thorndyke planted the car there himself to strong-arm him into buying it.
Jim avoids jail time by agreeing to buy the car on an installment plan. But he soon discovers the car has a mind of its own when he’s literally incapable of getting on the freeway. The car seems to be out of control but Jim eventually warms up to it when he realizes that it’s going out of its way to bring him and Carole together.
It’s worth noting that the movie wisely makes no effort to explain how or why Herbie got its special powers. Tennessee offers some pseudo-Buddhist enlightenment about inanimate objects possessing hearts and minds of their own but that’s about as far as it goes. Stevenson, Walsh and DaGradi understood that nobody really cares about the rationale behind fantastic events. The important thing is that the audience cares about Herbie.
Once Jim and Herbie start racing together, the audience really does start to invest emotionally in the little car. Thorndyke gets Herbie drunk by pouring some of Tennessee’s patented Irish coffee into the gas tank. When Jim starts hogging all the credit for their winning streak and goes out looking for a bigger car, Herbie gets jealous and runs away. In possibly the film’s strangest scene, Jim discovers Herbie about to commit suicide by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge. Herbie has a more complex personality than most people in live-action Disney comedies.
During Herbie’s long dark night of the soul, he damaged a Chinatown store front owned by Tang Wu (veteran character actor Benson Fong). Jim can’t afford to pay for the damages but Tennessee (who speaks Cantonese) discovers that Wu is a racing fan and persuades him to become Herbie’s new owner and allow Jim to race in the upcoming two-day El Dorado race. If Herbie wins, Wu can keep the prize money but has to sell Herbie back to Jim for a dollar. As both a businessman and a racing buff, Wu can’t pass up a deal like that.
The race pits Team Herbie against the Thorndyke Special, driven by Thorndyke himself and assisted by his own personal Mr. Smithers, Havershaw (Joe Flynn, last seen in Son Of Flubber). Walsh and DaGradi don’t bother giving the other competitors names, much less personalities, but they’re driven by a who’s who of legendary stuntmen including Dick Warlock, Jock Mahoney and Bud Ekins. The announcers are none other than long-time L.A. Lakers play-by-play man Chick Hearn and legendary voice actor and announcer Gary Owens, who was also voicing Space Ghost and appearing regularly on Laugh-In at the time.
Thorndyke dives deep into The Big Book Of Dirty Tricks to ensure his victory. Herbie barely finishes the first day in a distant last place. But Thorndyke’s arrogance inspires Herbie to continue the race. On the second day, they make up for lost time but the race has taken its toll on Herbie. In the final stretch, the car splits in two, with Jim and Carole racing in the front seat and Tennessee holding on for dear life in the back. Thanks to a judging committee that seems to be making up the rules as they go along, Herbie finishes in first and third. Wu takes control of Thorndyke’s business, putting him and Havershaw to work in the garage, and Jim and Carole get married, placing their honeymoon plans in Herbie’s capable….um, tires, I guess.
Disney had been making high-concept comedies like this for quite some time, as far back as The Shaggy Dog a decade previous. But while there was no reason to doubt their ability to make a movie like The Love Bug, there was also nothing to indicate it was going to be anything special. On paper, it hews closely to the “strait-laced Dean Jones has his life turned upside down by a cat/a dog/some monkeys/a ghost/a horse” formula. But there are a few subtle tweaks to the recipe that give The Love Bug some extra juice.
First off, Jones’ Jim Douglas isn’t quite as strait-laced as his previous characters. Most of Jones’ other films cast him as either an accomplished professional, a devoted husband or father, or an ambitious young man on the way up. Jim Douglas is closest to Steve Walker in Blackbeard’s Ghost. They’re both single guys, they’re both underdogs in competitions where the odds are stacked heavily against them, and they both have to convince themselves they’re not crazy when strange things start happening. But Steve was fundamentally honest and didn’t want to take a victory his team didn’t earn. Jim obviously isn’t above taking advantage of a situation. After all, nobody else is racing with a magic car and you know damn well Jim’s not disclosing that little nugget on his entry form.
Another key difference is that Jones’ previous performances were essentially reactive. There’s an art to that too, of course, and Jones was extremely good at reacting to whatever nonsense got thrown at him, whether it was by a bunch of dogs or Peter Ustinov. But you can’t just react to a car. You have to actually act in order to sell the idea that the car is acting on its own volition. Jones is up to the task and it’s really thanks to him and Buddy Hackett that you come to believe in Herbie. Jones is somehow even able to make talking a Volkswagen off a bridge look…well, maybe not normal but certainly less ridiculous than it might.
Of course, Disney’s gimmick comedies live or die on the strength of their gags (just ask Merlin Jones). Fortunately, Stevenson, Walsh and DaGradi brought their A-game to The Love Bug. This is a Disney comedy that’s not just aimed at the youngest members of the audience. Hackett and Tomlinson’s drunk scene is genuinely funny, as are the visual gags and gentle pokes at hippie culture.
The movie really shines in its slapstick special effects. Whether it’s Herbie falling to pieces, a detour through an active mine or Tomlinson discovering a live bear in his passenger seat, Stevenson does a great job creating the live-action equivalent of an animated cartoon. These effects aren’t exactly going to leave you gob-smacked, scratching your head and wondering how they could have possibly pulled off such miracles. But they are consistently fun and leave you laughing.
Contemporary audiences were certainly more than satisfied with The Love Bug. After premiering in limited release on Christmas Eve of 1968, the movie expanded on March 13, 1969. Audiences flocked to the relatively low-budget picture, eventually turning it into the second highest-grossing film of 1969, behind Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid and ahead of Midnight Cowboy (needless to say, it was a weird, transitional time at the movies). It was the studio’s biggest hit since Mary Poppins.
Naturally, some critics groused about it, complaining that it was too predictable, too simple-minded and too far-fetched. These critics strike me as the sort of people who would complain that their ice cream is too cold. Of course it’s all those things. So what? All that matters is if it brings you some degree of pleasure.
The runaway success of The Love Bug all but guaranteed that Disney would stay in the Dean Jones business and vice versa. Rest assured, Jones will be back in this column before long. But it also inspired the studio to reconsider Walt’s long-standing bias against sequels. Prior to The Love Bug, only a handful of pictures had given extensions: The Absent-Minded Professor, The Misadventures Of Merlin Jones and, for whatever reason, Old Yeller. But The Love Bug became a phenomenon that the studio would soon become very, very interested in replicating. And so, to borrow a phrase from James Bond, Herbie will return.
VERDICT: Disney Plus