The third highest grossing film of 1968 was not Rosemary's Baby, The Lion in Winter or even The Odd Couple - but Robert Stevenson's The Love Bug, a winsome and seemingly effortless piece of fluff that streaked across the screen to the tune of $51,264,000, with inimitable charm and good clean fun written all over its racing stripes. This was the last live action film with Walt Disney's personal seal of approval. Disney, who died in 1966, had long been enchanted by the prospect of doing a story about that innate 'relationship' between man and his machine. For one reason or another, the concept never went beyond the preliminary stages during Walt's lifetime, although studio archives reveal Walt had acquired Gordon Buford's story 'Car, Boy, Girl' for preproduction as early as 1961.
The make of the automobile in that story was never specified. For his film Stevenson wanted a car that could imply emotions. Several concepts were tested on the studio back lot, but the director was quick to notice that only the Volkswagen Beetle elicited responses from passersby who reached out to pet it. The car was eventually rechristened 'Herbie' - owing to a joke Buddy Hackett frequently told as part of his nightclub act; about a ski school where all the instructors have very Germanic names. Hackett's reply - "If you ain't got a Herbie then I ain't goin'.” As for Herbie's trademark 53 racing number; this too was a hand-me-down inspired by producer Bill Walsh's affinity for the Los Angeles Dodgers. ‘53’ is the jersey of player Don Drysdale.
If The Love Bug's directorship was on solid ground (Stevenson had done Walt's biggest live action film - Mary Poppins 1964), then its screenplay too had a golden pedigree with Bill Walsh and Don DaGradi fleshing out the rather simplistic story in Boy, Car, Girl. The film opens with a smashup derby that overturns racer Jim Douglas (Dean Jones). Seemingly washed up and thoroughly down on his luck, Jim rooms above a fire house converted into a repair garage with his friend, mechanic - and aspiring sculptor - Tennessee Steinmetz (Buddy Hackett). Today, the creations Steinmetz welded together from ragtag auto parts would have their own exhibition at the Guggenheim. But in 1968 they must have seemed quaintly absurd. Having spent some time on a mountain top in Tibet contemplating spiritual enlightenment, Steinmetz is something of a mystic. He encourages Jim to give up racing and move on with his life. But Jim is stubborn, if accident prone. He is also convinced that all he needs to be back on top is the perfect ride. While strolling past a very chichi car boutique Jim is captivated by a pair of sensual female legs poking from behind a large window display.
The legs belong to salesgirl, Carol Bennett (Michele Lee) who runs hot, then cold over Jim's obvious advances. Their 'cute meet' is interrupted by the showroom's very prickly proprietor, Peter Thorndyke (David Tomlinson) - appalled to learn that the man currently ogling both his staff and his automobiles is otherwise penniless. Jim is introduced to Herbie, an off white Volkswagen Beetle purchased for an uppity client's housemaid, but returned to Thorndyke's establishment after the maid experienced some 'difficulties' with the car's handling. Thorndyke orders his staff to get 'that eyesore' out of his shop. However, when Jim leaves the car showroom so does Herbie. In fact, he follows Jim home like a lost puppy.
The next day, Jim and Tennessee are awakened by a policeman who informs them that Thorndyke has reported the car stolen. Thorndyke offers to drop the charges if Jim will take 'Herbie' off his hands. Angered by what he perceives to be high pressuring, Jim nevertheless agrees to take ownership of the car. But Herbie, sensing that Jim's interests also reside with getting to know Carol better refuses to take Jim home. Instead, Herbie returns Jim to the shop where Carol and Thorndyke are just about to leave for a quiet late supper. Jim suggests that the car does indeed have some 'glitches' that need to be worked out. He wants his down payment back. But Carol decides to take Jim for a spin in Herbie to prove there's nothing wrong with the car. Almost immediately Herbie acts up. He kidnaps Jim and Carol and takes them on a harrowing race through the streets of San Francisco before pulling into a drive-in diner with an abrupt stop.
Unable to let herself out of the car, Carol appeals to a pair of hippies seated in the VW bus parked next to them. "Help!" she hollers, "I'm trapped." But the first hippie (also played by Dean Jones) mistakes the context of her comment and coolly replies, "We all prisoner's chickie baby! We all trapped." Herbie takes Jim and Carol to a romantic lover's lane. Carol escapes the car and Jim makes chase on foot with Herbie trailing behind. After being told about the car's strange behavior back at the garage, Tennessee is convinced Herbie is a reincarnated spirit, possessing a heart, mind and soul. Jim enters Herbie in a race and is astonished when he easily wins. But Thorndyke, also a racing enthusiast, now wants to buy Herbie back.
Jim proposes that he and Thorndyke race against each other - winner take all. If Thorndyke wins he can have Herbie. But if Jim wins he can forgo paying Thorndyke the rest of the agreed upon payments and get to keep Herbie besides. Believing that he cannot lose, Thorndyke accepts this wager - then bitterly loses it when Jim and Herbie come in first place. Determined at any cost to rid himself of Jim and 'that car', Thorndyke sets up Carol to take Jim on a date. After they’ve gone, Thorndyke sneaks into the garage. He is confronted by Tennessee who serves him Irish coffee. As Tennessee quietly gets drunk on this liquor-spiked java Thorndyke sneaks off and fills Herbie's gas tank with the remaining coffee. After arriving home to discover Herbie is 'sick', Carol confesses her half of Thorndyke's rouse to Jim and together they repair Herbie.
Unable to accept that it is Herbie, not he who has won the races against Thorndyke, Jim returns to the garage the next evening with a brand new Lamborghini. He has agreed to sell Herbie to Thorndyke in exchange for the remaining payments he owes on his new car. Heartbroken, Herbie demolishes the Lamborghini, inadvertently damages a Chinese convenience store, then drives off into the foggy night, attempting suicide by driving off the Golden Gate Bridge. At last able to bond with his car, Jim saves Herbie from this plummet (or, that is, they save each other) and a new, and much more rewarding friendship is born. A mechanic by trade, Carol leaves Thorndyke's employ to be part of Jim's pit crew. Unfortunately, the convenience store's owner, Mr. Wu (Benson Fong) wants Herbie as remuneration for the damages he has incurred to his property. Tennessee speaks to Wu in his own language and Wu agrees to allow Jim to race Herbie at the Eldorado circuit, running the Sierra Nevada to and from Yosemite National Park. If Jim wins he can have Herbie back. Unable to resolve their stalemate any other way, Jim agrees.
But Thorndyke is not about to give in or give up. He confronts Mr. Wu and suggests another wager - that if Herbie is unable to complete the race he will automatically become his legal property. Mr. Wu agrees to this exchange, provided that Thorndyke give up ownership of his auto boutique should Herbie win. At first, all goes according to plan. Herbie easily out races the other cars and is in the lead. But Thorndyke has evil plans afoot. He changes directional signage on the course and tampers with Herbie's wheels overnight. Two come off during the second day of the race and are lost over the side of a cliff. Tennessee informs Jim that he may not be able to make the necessary repairs and Herbie - defeated and deflated (literally) - shudders at the thought of belonging to Thorndyke once again. Instead, he chases after his old owner when Thorndyke comes around to collect on his bet with Mr. Wu. The next day, a renewed energy coursing through his cylinders, Herbie races to the home stretch. Thanks to Jim's clever shortcuts, Herbie makes up for lost time, racing neck and neck with Thorndyke's car. However, the turbulent slaloms that Jim has taken Herbie on have severely weakened his metal chasse. Herbie splits in half with Jim and Carol in the front seat and Tennessee riding in the back - both ends finishing the race seconds ahead of Thorndyke's car.
In accordance with the terms of their agreement, Mr. Wu takes over Thorndyke's dealership, relegating the pompous owner to the status of a lowly mechanic in his own shop. Carol and Jim are married. When asked by Tennessee where they plan to spend their honeymoon, Jim simply replies, "I don't know. Herbie hasn't told us yet." The car pulls away with Jim and Carol in the backseat, waving goodbye to Tennessee. The Love Bug is congenial to a fault - its cloying plot occasionally weighing more heavily than it should. The romance between Carol and Jim is antiseptic at best - with but one or two very polite kisses to recommend it. Dean Jones and Michele Lee are good actors - but they simply have no on screen chemistry. Thankfully, the focus of the story is not on them. More winning on every level is the relationship that gradually blossoms between Herbie and Jim, and more to the point, the tenderness between the audience and the Volkswagen as we come to believe it an actual 'personality' - not just another inanimate vehicle.
Composer George Bruns introduces us to the 'Herbie' theme - a winsome and lightweight tune that is quite memorable. We hear it whenever Herbie goes racing and it becomes integral for the audience to suspend their beliefs in this car and accept 'him' as a trusted friend. Howard Jensen, Danny Lee and Robert A. Mattey's special effects also get high marks. The Love Bug is a film with a lot of stunt work - most of it performed by a slew of Beetles outfitted with high power engines. Whether skipping across an open lake like a stone, balancing on three tires, falling out of a tree, or just popping wheelies to impress Carol, Herbie's engineering is an extraordinary feat of full scale SFX. In hindsight, The Love Bug is a good, solid Disney movie; not in the same league as Swiss Family Robinson, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea or Mary Poppins perhaps, but worthy of its moniker as wholesome family entertainment. The film's speedy performance at the box office all but guaranteed a sequel: several followed - none rivaling the original's intangible element of 'feel good'.
Disney Home Video released The Love Bug in 2004 as part of their Vault Disney series. Frankly, I am ashamed it's taken me this long to acquire and review this disc as part of my own collection. After all, I remember The Love Bug fondly from my own childhood. Like the various other titles in the Vault Disney series, this disc is a middling effort. While we're on the subject, it bears noting that - as a company - Disney Inc. seems to suffer from a complete disinterest in remastering any of their classic live action movies for Blu-ray.
That's a pity, because what we have here is a slightly faded widescreen image. Color fidelity is fairly solid in close ups, but long shots are soft with mildly boosted contrast levels. Age related artefacts are more prevalent during the second unit work. Process shots - heavily used during driving sequences - are more obvious than they ought to be, as are Peter Ellenshaw's matte paintings (seen primarily during Herbie's suicide attempt).
The audio has been remastered to 5.1 Dolby Digital, but still exhibits an uncharacteristic stridency. Extras are where this 'Special Edition' really excel. We get six comprehensive documentaries that cover every aspect of the 'making' and enduring legacy of The Love Bug. There's also deleted scenes, an audio commentary, some 'sound studio' elements, a ton of concept art, biographies on Dean Jones, Michele Lee and Buddy Hackett, and a digital copy of the original press junket material and screenplay.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)