Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Love Bug - 1969

When Dean Jones brought Walt Disney a script in the mid-1960's about the first sports car in America that he was interested in making, Walt told him he had a better car story for him. The story that Walt had in mind was Boy/Car/Girl by Gordon Bufford. After Walt's passing, a committee was formed that would pick projects based on what Walt might have done. Bill Walsh adapted Boy/Car/Girl into the classic film we know today as The Love Bug.

Disney's top director, Robert Stevenson, was assigned as director. Dean Jones was attached to the film from its inception, but the toughest casting choice was the car itself. They had a casting call that included a Toyota, Fiat, Volvo, MG, and a Volkswagen. The VW Beetle got the role because studio employees that passed by it would pet it. Buddy Hacket was cast when Bill Walsh saw him performing in Las Vegas. In that same act, Buddy had a story about a French ski instructor named Herbie, which inspired the name of the car. David Tomlinson returns to the studio as the villain after his memorable role as Mr. Banks in Mary Poppins. Joe Flynn makes his Disney debut, best remembered for his role as Snoops in The Rescuers and Dean Higgins in the Dexter Riley series. Iris Adrian has a small role as the carhop, who would become one of the most memorable side character actresses at Disney in the 1970's.

The movie begins with a drag race as the credits play. One of the losers, Jim Douglas, heads home defeated to find his eccentric roommate Tennessee making a sculpture out of his wrecked car parts. While shopping for a new car, he sees a pretty girl named Carole and walks into the upscale dealership, owned by Peter Thorndyke. About to be shown the door, a Volkswagen Beetle rolls in from the back and bumps him in the leg. The little car follows him home, causing him to get in trouble for allegedly stealing the car. If Jim will pay for the car, Thorndyke won't press any charges. On his drive home, the car forces him off the freeway and hides under a bridge. He takes it back to return it and Carole joins him for a drive to validate that the car works properly. When they start to argue, the car starts driving itself and takes them to a drive-in, where it locks them in the car and forces them on a date. When Carole offers to refund him for the car, he decides to keep it after seeing how fast it can go. Tennessee believes the car has a spirit and is alive, but Jim dismisses it and does some maintenance to race it. After winning his first race, Thorndyke offers to buy it back. Carole suggests a deal where Thorndyke will bet the remaining payments Jim owes against Jim's shares of the car. Whichever driver wins gets to keep it. Meanwhile, Tennessee has named the car Herbie as Jim goes on believing that his driving is what is winning the races. After buying a real race car with the winnings from the races, Jim agrees to sell Herbie to Thorndyke, causing the depressed car to run away and attempt suicide on the Golden Gate Bridge. Jim tries to stop him and almost falls, causing Herbie to backup and save him. On the drive, Herbie destroyed a Chinese restaurant and the owner wants the car as payment. Jim makes a deal where the car belongs to him, but Jim gets to drive him in the next race. If Jim wins, the man gets the money and has to sell Herbie back for a $1. During the race, Thorndyke tries to sabotage Jim by replacing their gas with water and spraying oil on the road. Herbie is able to overcome these hurdles with some amazing tricks, including tearing himself apart to win the race and stay with Jim. The owner of the Chinese Restaurant had made a deal with Thorndyke to get the car from him if Jim lost the race, but in the fine print of the contract Thorndyke had to hand over his dealership if they lost. The film ends with Carole and Jim getting in a restored Herbie for their honeymoon.

The Love Bug premiered at Grauman's Chinese Theater on March 13th, 1969, where valet parking was exclusive to attendees in Volkswagens. The studio wasn't expecting the massive success of the film, which went on to become the highest grossing film of 1969, and the second highest grossing film in Disney history at the time, second to Mary Poppins. It made $17 million in its initial release. It was rereleased in 1979 and premiered on home video in 1980.

Herbie has an undeniable charm and it's easy to see why this was such a big hit. It follows the basic Disney formula for successful comedies, but has a freshness that makes it feel new. Of the Disney films made in the 1960's, this one represents the unique qualities of the era the best. Optional titles included ThunderBug, The Magic Volksy, and Beetlebomb before they decided on The Love Bug. Dean Jones plays another character in the film, the memorable hippy at the drive-in. Eight different bugs were used to play Herbie, each built to perform different tricks. In pre-production, Herbie was going to be red, but was switched to pearl white. The iconic scene with Herbie skipping across the pond was shot at Disney's Golden Oak Ranch. To promote the film, Disneyland had a Love Bug day, where guests would bring their Beetles to the park dressed up for a parade. Dean Jones presenting the winner with an award. The number 53 came from Bill Walsh's favorite baseball player, Don Drysdale of the LA Dodgers.

The Love Bug has inspired more follow-up projects than any other live-action Disney film property. Four direct sequels were made: Herbie Rides Again in 1974, Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo in 1977, Herbie Goes Bananas in 1980, and Herbie Fully Loaded in 2005. In 1982, Disney attempted a TV series starring Dean Jones that only laster 5 episode on CBS called Herbie: The Love Bug. In 1997 Disney made a TV movie also called The Love Bug, a modern take on the story loosly inspired by the original film that also had a Dean Jones cameo. In 1999, Walt Disney World opened the All Star Movies resort, which features a Love Bug wing.

The Love Bug is currently available on Blu-Ray as a Disney Movie Club Exclusive. This version has a wonderful new restoration, but loses all of the bonus features from the 2-disc DVD set, which includes a making-of feature, commentary, and vintage promotional material. The film is presented in widescreen with a decent restoration. The film is also available in a 4-movie collection paired with the first 3 sequels, but you lose the second disc and therefore most of the bonus features. The new restoration is also available digitally from all major providers.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

The Horse in the Gray Flannel Suit - 1968

After Walt Disney's death in 1966, the studio still had a few films in production and pre-production to get them through the next couple of years. These films would still be marketed the same as when he was alive, with "Walt Disney Presents" above the title. The first film marketed a different way, with "Walt Disney Productions Presents" was The Horse in the Gray Flannel Suit, based on the book The Year of the Horse by Eric Hatch.

With the studios' biggest star Dean Jones attached, they assigned Norman Tokar to direct. The two worked together on The Ugly Dachshund. The screenplay was adapted by Louis Pelletier, who did several Disney films before it including Follow Me, Boys!. Winston Hibler, famous as an animation writer and animal film producer, filled producer duties. Disney's rising star Kurt Russell appears here in his third Disney film, shortly before taking Dean Jones' title as the biggest star at the studio. Alan Hewitt returns to the studio, having appeared in both Absent-Minded Professor films, who would be paired with Russell in the upcoming Dexter Riley film series. Character actor Norman Grabowski makes his final Disney appearance here, best known as the dumb jock in the Merlin Jones series.

After an animated credit sequence, we are introduced to advertising agent Fred Bolton, who is working on marketing a digestive pill called Aspercel. While at work, he receives a big bill for his daughter's horse riding lessons that makes his head spin. After the boss is unimpressed with their campaign, he gives the team 24 hours to create a new one. When Fred picks up his daughter Helen from her lessons, he settles the bill with her pretty riding instructor, who had suggested to Helen that if she had her own horse, her riding would improve and she could compete in big races. In a stroke of insanity, he pitches the idea to his boss of having a show horse named Aspercel to subliminally bring the product to a higher class market, which gets him promoted to vice president. After Helen loses the first competition, Fred takes advice from Ronnie, the brother of another competitor. He has Helen's instructor increase training to every day because if Helen and Aspercel don't make it to the finals in Washington, he will be fired. After hearing her father argue with his boss before a show, she gets under a lot of pressure even though she is consistently winning. When Aspercel runs away and Fred chases after him, Helen reports the horse stolen. Their ride turns into a police chase and Fred gets locked up in jail, but the story gets media attention which pleases his boss. When Ronnie arrives to take Helen on a date, she stands him up to practice and has an emotional breakdown under the pressure of competing. After finding out that Aspercel jumped a 7 foot wall during the chase, the trainer decides to enter the horse in the open jumper championship, which could land them bigger media attention. With the trainer riding, the pressure is off Helen. When Aspercel wins, Fred realizes he is in love with Helen's instructor and they get engaged.

The Horse in the Gray Flannel Suit was released on December 20th, 1968, paired with the second Pooh short, Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day. It earned $3.3 million during its box office run, about half of what Dachshund earned and not quite a success. It premiered on TV in 1971 and was first released on home video in 1986.

While the title and marketing suggest this is a zany Disney comedy, it actually has a lot more heart than what appears on the surface. There are also a lot of deeper themes, such as gender inequalities of the 1960's, the importance of family over careers, and the psychological trauma of children who support their family. The film offers fun, classic Disney charm with great performances from all of the actors. The only faults I can give it are inconsistent pace. It starts out fast paced and exciting, but quickly becomes slow paced once Aspercel starts competing. Many of the outdoor scenes were shot at Disney's Golden Oak Ranch. The title is a joke on a popular novel and film from the 50's called The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. Fred's dog is named Herbie, possibly an intentional nod to the next Dean Jones Disney comedy, The Love Bug.

The Horse in the Gray Flannel Suit is currently available on DVD, where it is presented in fullscreen. The original theatrical ratio was 1.75:1 widescreen. They used the VHS master from the 1998 release to make the DVD and there aren't any bonus features. The film is also available in a 4-movie collection of Kurt Russell films where it is paired with Now You See Him, Now You Don't, The Strongest Man in the World, and The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes.