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 the 'love affair' 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 he had acquired Gordon Buford's story 'Car, Boy, Girl' for preproduction as early as 1961. In hindsight, The Love Bug really catches the Disney studio’s live-action output on its way down; a spiral begun almost immediately after Mary Poppins (1964) triumphant premiere.
Part of the problem was not indigenous to the Disney studios; soaring costs to assemble and package such all-star glittering entertainments, and, the government enforced divesture of most studio assets, creating havoc in Tinsel Town. In this regard, the Disney studios were far better insulated than their competition. Walt didn’t own his own theater chain, but had developed a lucrative distribution deal with RKO for his early features; establishing his own independent brand of studio operations, ‘Buena Vista’ to release his later product as a free agent. Walt also prudently diversified his studio ahead of the competition to include animation and live-action features, also television programming (a media most moguls had nervously shunned); also, the Disneyland theme park; an idea whose seemingly imminent failure Walt’s detractors were enviously poised to witness, and quite disillusioned when, despite some fairly disastrous misfires on opening day, the concept quickly took off as ‘the happiest place on earth’ – still embraced as a cultural touchstone and tangible repository for all our collective childhood memories.
No, for Disney Inc. the two greatest obstacles yet to be overcome were, first and foremost, the loss of its’ founder to lung cancer in 1966, and second, the seemingly overnight shift away from wholesome family entertainments that had been – and would remain – the company’s bread and butter. For some time after Walt’s untimely passing, neither of these prevailing winds of change appeared to impact the Mouse House; its outward ‘business as usual’ mantra putting into production a progressive slate made in the same spirit that had made Walt's reputation, his name – as well as that of his alter ego, Mickey Mouse – household words. Alas, by 1968 the company was already hemorrhaging capital - badly; thanks largely to the colossal thud of The Happiest Millionaire (1967); a grandly amusing and semi-biographical musical failing to garner the public’s interest. It is regrettable too, that as the decade wore on, the studio’s live-action output in particular seemed to suffer; acquiring a homogenized appeal - the stories even more antiseptic and sugary sweet. When the studio dared to experiment with more adult-themed fare, like Haley Mills’ teenage venture into espionage set against the dramatic splendor of the Greek isles, in The Moon-Spinners (1964) the public stayed away in droves. Time-honored concepts which had clicked splendidly with an audience in one picture imploded with dire fiscal consequences in another. In this volatile climate, no picture was guaranteed to make money - but especially one made at the Disney Studios; its kindly treacle somehow having lost its allure without 'Uncle Walt' to steer his ships safely to port.
The Love Bug was therefore something of a surprise sleeper for the company at a time when they desperately needed just such a miracle. On a budget roughly one third of Poppins, mammoth $6,000,000 outlay, The Love Bug managed to outperform it by nearly $529,439 in pure profits. Alas, and in retrospect, the film’s overwhelming success would inadvertently come with a backlash; the studio immediately planning and executing a series of sequels nowhere near as inventive or as charming as the original. Worse, it was becoming obvious to anyone over a certain age that Disney films once catering to both the young and the young at heart, now increasingly seemed to be a niche market with hit or miss results. The formulaic nature of Disney’s live-action output would reach its impasse with Pete’s Dragon (1977); a bloated all-star musical, it lost a considerable sum and threatened to help hasten the company into receivership.
Viewing The Love Bug today, one is immediately reminded of the Disney Studios in their prime. All the pistons are firing herein; a great cast, co-starring studio fav,’ Dean Jones and ribald comedian, Buddy Hackett – sans profanity on this outing – proving a winning combination in the two-legged star department. But the picture’s success would rest squarely neither on their performances, nor even on their shoulders; but on four properly balanced rubber tires and the public’s ability to fall under the spell of sustained disbelief in its chasse with a mind of its own. A previous attempt to do a TV series based on such a concept, My Mother, The Car (1965-66) had proven ill-conceived and very short-lived camp. The make and model of the automobile in Boy, Car, Girl was never specified, leaving it up to the reader’s imagination. 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 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 made Walt’s crowning live-action/animation achievement - Mary Poppins 1964, to say nothing of Old Yeller, 1957, Darby O’Gill and the Little People, 1959, and, The Absent-Minded Professor. He would also go on to shoot Bedknobs and Broomsticks in 1971), so too was its screenplay by Bill Walsh and Don DaGradi; decidedly, up to the ole Disney magic standards, using their own artistic license to flesh out the rather benign 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 shop with his friend, mechanic - and aspiring sculptor - Tennessee Steinmetz (Buddy Hackett). Today, the creations Steinmetz welded together from ragtag auto parts could have their own exhibition at the Guggenheim. But in 1968, they must have seemed quaintly absurd junk. 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 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 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 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 Jim's interests equally reside in getting to know Carol better, refuses to take Jim home. Instead, Herbie returns Jim to the shop just as Carol and Thorndyke are preparing to leave for a quiet late supper. Jim suggests 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 he and Thorndyke race against each other - winner take all. If Thorndyke triumphs he can have Herbie for nothing. But if Jim wins he can forgo paying Thorndyke the rest of the agreed upon payments and keep Herbie besides. Believing 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. Arriving home to discover Herbie is 'sick', Carol confesses her half in Thorndyke's ruse and together, with Jim’s help, they repair Herbie good as new.
Unable to accept 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 sportier import, inadvertently damaging a Chinese convenience store besides before driving 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 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 reluctantly agrees.
But Thorndyke is not about to give in or give up. He confronts Mr. Wu and suggests another wager. If Herbie is unable to complete the race he will automatically become his legal property. Mr. Wu agrees to this exchange, provided Thorndyke give up ownership of his auto boutique should Herbie win. At first, all goes according to plan. Herbie easily outraces 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 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, with renewed energy coursing through his cylinders, Herbie races 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 Jim has taken Herbie on have severely weakened his 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 (as was mostly the case for young love in any Disney film, void of anything beyond a firm handshake or polite peck on the cheek). Dean Jones and Michele Lee are good actors - but they simply have no on-screen chemistry beyond ‘good friends’. 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 we come to believe as an actual 'personality' in the film, rather than just another inanimate object. Herbie is real, or rather, as genuine as a few clever sound effects and our fertile imaginations can make him. It’s always been of a particular fascination for me how the human mind can graft distinctly human traits on just about everything from polar bears to tea cups and convince itself of the plausibility in such impracticalities. But when Herbie wheezes we can almost believe he could shed genuine tears. When he grinds his axel or revs his engine, he appears fiercely competitive and jealous. This pantomime, of course, largely (if not entirely) plays within our mind; a superb marriage of cleverly contrived visuals and some stellar sound effects. The illusion doesn’t work unless both elements are present. Just turn the sound off and try to watch the movie with the same effect.
Composer, George Bruns introduces us to the 'Herbie' theme - a winsome and lightweight melody, as carefree and high spirited as our four-wheeled friend, and quite memorable in its own right. We hear it whenever Herbie goes racing and it becomes integral for the audience to suspend their belief 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 Volkswagen Beetles outfitted with high power engines. Whether skipping like a stone across an open lake, 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 (and this in an era when sequels were hardly the norm). Several followed - none rivaling the original's intangible element of infectious 'feel good'.
Disney Home Video released The Love Bug on DVD in 2004 as part of their Vault Disney series. Like most of the transfers in that series, The Love Bug had issues, chiefly inconsistently rendered colors and a residual overall softness to the image. These issues have not been entirely resolved on this newly minted 45th Anniversary and a shame too. I’ll just go on record to vent an opinion about arbitrarily ascribing ‘anniversary’ dates to releases, when it becomes fairly obvious there’s nothing particularly ‘special’ about them to mark the occasion. Although the image does indeed tighten up on this Blu-ray, especially when directly compared to its standard-def predecessor, the improvements are hardly as startling as on the two aforementioned ‘Disney Exclusives’ reviewed on this blog. Color fidelity is an issue; flesh tones in particular adopting an unflattering piggy pink hue. It’s odd, because there are moments when this image snaps together and provides, if not a visual feast, then at least the sort of clarity and attention to fine detail we’ve come to expect from a 1080p hi-def presentation. Alas, such moments are generally infrequent and bookended by others where the image is softly focused to downright blurry. Process shots and mattes - heavily used in all the driving sequences and long shots are quite obvious; Peter Ellenshaw's fine paintings adopting a ColorForms cut and paste look instead of being seamlessly integrated into the live action. Film grain is rather excessive during the stock footage used in the main titles (arguably, as it should be), and marginally amplified by the matte work, appearing quite clumpy and, at times, faintly digitized. I’m not going to fail this disc on image, but it neither dazzles as it should. Regrets.
The audio has been remastered to 5.1 Dolby Digital, but continues to exhibit uncharacteristic stridency. It’s sad to see another Disney classic once accompanied by an extra disc of memorable features, get short shrift on Blu-ray. No extras for The Love Bug, except Disney’s idiotic ‘smoking is bad’ promo that precedes the feature. Sorely missed; the DVD’s Special Edition treasure trove of extras: including no less than six comprehensive documentaries, covering every aspect of the 'making' and enduring legacy of The Love Bug. We also lose the deleted scenes and audio commentary, plus the 'sound studio' elements and a ton of concept art, biographies on Dean Jones, Michele Lee and Buddy Hackett. If you already own The Love Bug on DVD, I’d sincerely pass on this repurchase. You’re getting nothing new or worth your coin.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)