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.