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Should I Watch..? The Love Bug
What's the big deal?
The Love Bug is a family comedy film released in 1968 and is the first to feature the anthropomorphic white VW Beetle known as Herbie. The film itself is based upon the 1961 book Car, Boy, Girl by Gordon Buford. The film stars Dean Jones and Buddy Hackett as down-on-his-luck racing driver Jim Douglas and his eccentric mechanic friend Tennessee Steinmetz who encounter Herbie in villainous David Tomlinson's showroom and find themselves succeeding in life as well as races. Tapping into the flower-power culture of the time, the film was hugely successful in the US with takings over $51 million. It would be followed by a series of sequels, a reboot in 1997 with Bruce Campbell and even a short-lived TV series. The film continues to encourage enthusiasts across the world with many replicas frequently appearing at motor shows.
What's it about?
Washed-up racing driver Jim Douglas has resorted to driving in demolition derbies, assisted by his ever-optimistic mechanic Tennessee Steinmetz. After their most recent outing, Jim is left without a car and so heads into San Francisco to acquire a new vehicle at a relatively low price. After spotting attractive saleswoman Carole Bennett in the showroom of Peter Thorndyke, Jim sees Thorndyke abusing a white Volkswagen Beetle. Jim defends the car's honour and is shocked to find the car sitting outside his home the next day. With Thorndyke accusing Jim of stealing the car, Carole eases tensions by letting Jim buy the car in instalments.
Believing Thorndyke to have sold him a dud, Jim is amazed to find that his control over the car is severely limited. Tennessee suggests that the car may actually be alive and christens it Herbie. With Tennessee's tender care and Jim's talent behind the wheel, Herbie helps the duo to achieve racing victories with his astonishing turn of speed - much to Thorndyke's annoyance...
Bill Walsh & Don DaGradi *
Release Date (UK)
16th May, 1969
Comedy, Family, Fantasy, Sports
What's to like?
These days, such a premise would never have made it past the drawing board but back then in the Sixties, The Love Bug would have made perfect sense - even without the drugs. It's amazing how much charm and personality the car itself exudes and the Disney crew can be justly proud of the work they did on the car. Remember that this is years ahead of CG trickery - all of Herbie's tricks and pranks were done for real. With a game cast playing the film's material at the exact level it needed, the illusion is utterly believable. Herbie also has none of the crime-fighting instincts he seems to develop in the later films - he's a frustrated racer and nothing else, the way it should be.
The story might be childish nonsense but it works on two levels - both as an racing drama as well as an unlikely love story between Jim and Carole. Or even between Tennessee and Herbie, if you really thought about it and were prepared to forgive how weird it all is. Tomlinson has a great deal of fun as the baddie, seeing as most viewers would remember him as Mr Banks from Mary Poppins (1). And while the racing scenes might lack some of the crispness and glossy effects that most modern films possess, they are still exciting in a goofy kinda way. It's all about having fun and surely, that's the point of any family film.
- This was the last live-action film that Walt Disney personally authorised before he died in 1966. Jones puts the film's success down to this fact.
- Herbie's name came from a comedy skit that Hackett was known for while the number 53 is said to have come from a producer's admiration for baseball player Don Drysdale who was a pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers.
- Herbie received his own credit as himself, the only time he would. Today, only a handful of Herbies are known to exist - one of which belongs to Dean Jones.
What's not to like?
The film obviously has dated in some respects - the racing scenes are obviously sped up while some of Herbie's tricks look positively crude. The hippie references also don't help viewers watching the film nowadays as it makes the film about as hip and groovy as a freshly thawed-out Austin Powers. And away from the driving scenes, the film's story isn't enough to sustain the momentum generated when Herbie's going at full speed.
It's a pity that the film doesn't quite know what to do when Herbie is parked up. Jones and Hackett are a good combo and Tomlinson is a moustache-twiddle away from being Dick Dastardly. Perhaps, as a viewer, I was simply swept up in the magic of Herbie himself - the car's endless trickery and hi-jinks is far more amusing than anything else. It's a bit like The Italian Job (2) - the moment those three Mini Coopers start racing around Turin, you forget almost everything that went before it.
Should I watch it?
It's the most entertaining Herbie film of the lot, one that isn't weighed down by expectations or plot contrivances. The Love Bug is straight-forward, family fun that typified much of Disney's output at the time - whether you've seen the film before or not, it still provides plenty to enjoy and cheer for. Compared to the increasingly silly sequels, this is a film of genuine craftsmanship and skill.
Great For: VW Beetle owners, Sixties revivalists, petrol-heads
Not So Great For: anyone buying a New Beetle thinking they're cool, environmentalists, squares
What else should I watch?
Sadly, it would be a case of diminishing returns the moment the sequels started to get churned out. The first Herbie Rides Again (3) is a disjointed effort with Herbie returning - not as a racing car but instead fighting the evil corporate developers trying to evict a little old lady from her house. It's too silly and not good enough. There was a slight return to form in Herbie Goes To Monte Carlo (4) where Dean Jones returns as Jim Douglas and Herbie returns to the race track once again. But it wouldn't last - Herbie Goes Bananas (5) is an incomprehensible idiotic mess that would signal the demise of the series until 2005's Herbie: Fully Loaded (6) with a pre-meltdown Lindsey Lohan.
These days, movies are more likely to replace the thrill of the racing scenes seen back then with CG. Films like Speed Racer (7) and Cars (8) have the requisite noises and feeling of speed but lack the excitement that genuine racing scenes possess. Even more adult-orientated fare like The Fast And The Furious (9) resort to CG-enhanced scenes. You might be better sticking to movies of a similar era - Vanishing Point (10) combines stunning driving sequences with a heavy dose of pharmaceutical philosophy while Steve McQueen's Grand Prix (11) and Bullitt (12) also stand up for die-hard petrol-heads.
© 2016 Benjamin Cox