Written by Bill Walsh, based on the novel Car, Boy, Girl by Gordon Buford
Directed by Robert Stevenson
USA, 1974, imdb
“The first rule of all drive-in sequels: make the same damn movie you made the first time!”
Herbie Rides Again stands proudly alongside Halloween III: Season of the Witch as the two films that most deliberately break the sequel rule. It is debatable which is more cruel. Halloween III has no Michael Myers (and for that matter no witches) but never explains why. No doubt many in the audience when it was first released must have been wondering when Michael Myers was going to show, right up until the moment the film ended.
While discarding most of what made the first film work: Dean Jones as racer Jim Douglas, Buddy Hackett as mystical mechanic Tennessee Steinmetz, David Tomlinson as one-percenter race cheat Peter Thorndyke and Herbie as race car 53, Herbie Rides Again at least bothers to explain that you won’t be getting any of the things that you enjoyed in the first film.
The film is still set in San Francisco and Herbie still lives in a former fire house, but instead of Jim Douglas we get Ken Berry as milquetoast Willoughby Whitfield, and instead of Tennessee, we get Helen Hayes as Tennessee’s great-aunt, the widow Steinmetz. We still have Herbie, but the Love Bug is insultingly described in the past tense, “He used to be a famous racing car.” The film’s worst moment is when Herbie dreams of his past glories on the racing tracks and we get a montage of the best scenes from the first film, scenes which we have just been guaranteed will not be repeated. It’s hard to think of a film from a franchise that tries so hard to alienate its audience. The closest comparison is Alien³ which kills popular characters Newt and Hicks offscreen before the film even starts.
It is easy to forget, but the original film is one of the great success stories of the Disney studio, making over $51 million in 1969, the equivalent of $282 million today, adjusted for inflation. The downfall for most sequels is a greedy studio rushing to cash in, but that is hardly the case here. The sequel was produced, directed and written by the original creative team behind the first film and they did not rush the sequel to cash in on the success of the original, waiting five years to make Herbie Rides Again.
To their credit, Bill Walsh and Robert Stevenson do give Herbie plenty of chances to show off his personality through goofy stunts – even if none of them happen on the racing track. Particularly effective is a sequence where Herbie happily chases sea gulls on a beach like a large puppy or a small boy.
That doesn’t really excuse Stevenson and Walsh from spending the first fifteen minutes aggressively annoying their audience. Fortunately for them, Herbie Rides Again redeems itself thanks to their three secret weapons.
First, David Tomlinson’s able replacement, Keenan Wynn, as the proto-Donald Trump Alonzo Hawk. Wynn walks a tight-rope, playing Hawk so broadly that he is always in danger of chewing the scenery and spitting it out, but somehow Wynn stays in balance. Hawk even redeems Herbie’s flashback dream by having a nightmare of his own where he is pursued by monstrous Herbie caricatures.
Hawk is Herbie’s natural enemy, not just because he is an evil real estate developer who wants to tear down Herbie’s firehouse home, but also because he is a former repo man, who still carries his hot wire tools in the glove compartment of his limousine.
(As I mentioned on the Mousterpiece Cinema podcast, the Hawk character connects the Herbie franchise to the Flubber franchise and more loosely a similar Keenan Wynn character – possibly Hawk under a changed name – also appears in The Shaggy D.A. implying that there is a Disney live action continuity and that The Absent-Minded Professor might in some way be linked to Herbie’s creation.)
Herbie Rides Again also benefits from a tighter plot than the original somewhat meandering film. Hawk wants to build his Hawk Tower (a precursor to Trump Tower) and the only building standing in his way is the Steinmetz firehouse. He sends his naive nephew Willoughby Whitfield to get the widow Steinmetz to sign away the building. When Willoughby meets the widow’s roommate, stewardess Nicole Harris (Stefanie Powers), he is literally walloped by love and recruited to stymy his uncle.
The sequel’s final secret weapon is Stefanie Powers. A firecracker on the screen, Powers is simultaneously a grown-up tomboy and gorgeous. She brings infectious energy to the film, not to mention the ability to convincingly deliver lines like, “Why are we being chased by a shark?” Better known for her TV work, Stefanie Powers is almost perfect for a Disney film aimed at young boys, pretty enough to fall in love with, but not in a way that made her seem too glamorous or unattainable.
The strange achievement of Herbie Rides Again is that after annoying and alienating its audience for the first fifteen minutes by stubbornly refusing to give them “the same damn movie” it manages to win back its audience with a strong story, amusing Herbie stunts and antics combined with the strong acting personalities of its cast.
– Michael Ryan