Directed by Robert Stevenson
Written by Bill Walsh and Don DaGradi
Starring Dean Jones, David Tomlinson, Michele Lee, Buddy Hackett
Live-action films at Walt Disney Pictures have always occupied an interesting place, not only within cinema as a whole, but within the company. Even during the dark days of the 1960s and 1970s—basically the period from when Walt Disney passed away in 1966 to when Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg joined the company in 1984—live-action was a moneymaker without being anywhere near as iconic as the animation output. Granted, the studio often fell back on re-releasing its older animated films, but they treated animation as something to be respected, while live-action was just there to get kids in the theater.
In some ways, I wonder if that’s why Walt Disney Pictures was able to have such a tight-knit system comprised of directors, writers, composers, and so on. The director of The Love Bug, Robert Stevenson, was no auteur. He’d been part of the live-action crew for a few years, having directed everything from Mary Poppins to In Search of the Castaways to The Gnome-Mobile. The writers, Bill Walsh and Don DaGradi, similarly shared many live-action credits of the era. There is, in some of these films, a notable sameness, where the sets look similar as do the performers, the score, and the message. The peak of the live-action era for Walt Disney was Mary Poppins, unquestionably, but The Love Bug did well enough to inspire multiple sequels, a reboot, and two TV versions. Not too shabby.
I’ve talked in the past on the show about how early Disney films were created by people who focused a lot on gag-based humor. Coming from short animation to feature-length storytelling, the writers had to refocus themselves on more than just jokes. While I’m not sure that the animated films ever relied on gags heavily, the live-action films did more frequently. Though The Love Bug was based on a story by Gordon Buford, it’s hard not to imagine Walsh, DaGradi, and Stevenson sitting in a room and spitballing different jokes. “Later, we’ll figure out how to put this in the script.” The last third of the film—easily the weakest—is full of sight gags involving cars. Sure, the first hour or so also features Herbie, the titular car, doing goofy stuff all by itself, but the last act is almost devoid of any plot outside of the good guys racing the bad guys, so it’s top-heavy with gags.
One of the true qualities of a classic is its timelessness. That very thing is what makes truly classic movies rare. We use the word “classic” often when discussing movies—networks such as TNT encourage this when they start showing “New Classics” among their lineup—but I can’t think of many movies that deserve to be considered classics that aren’t also timeless. The opposite is being dated, and unfortunately, The Love Bug is a product of its time. There’s a difference, also, between being a period piece and being dated. You can set your movie in the 1960s and comment on the changing nature of the country in a humorous way. You can also choose to include hippies in your movie, because that’s a thing now, right? Seeing people dressed as hippies in this movie—looking as authentic as if they picked up a Halloween costume—reminds me of the rumors surrounding The Dark Knight Rises, that director Christopher Nolan wanted to film during an Occupy Wall Street protest. That decision, which has apparently been nixed, would’ve been tone-deaf and pointless.
And the hippie scenes of The Love Bug, which only happen in the first third of the film, are indeed tone-deaf and pointless. They’re pointless mostly because…well, they happen in the first third of the film. There are no hippie main characters; the person who names Herbie, Tennessee Steinmetz, a goofball mechanic played by comedian Buddy Hackett, is somewhat of a hippy-dippy type. But he’s not dressed in tie-dye or acting like he’s stoned out of his mind. When Carole, the love interest of our lead character, Jim Douglas, is trying to get out of Herbie, she attracts the attention of the most stereotypically dressed hippies, who spout some idiotic faux-spiritual claptrap as a way of ignoring her pleas for help.
I’ll be honest, though I didn’t get a chance to mention it on the episode, this scene concerned me far more than just having hippies. The concept of the film is that Jim is a down-on-his-luck racecar driver who is followed home by Herbie, a beat-up Volkswagen Beetle who appears to be a sentient being stuck inside of an automobile. Herbie is also a great race car, and Jim eventually leads them both to glory. But Herbie is also far too interested in Jim’s love life; from the moment that Jim and Carole meet in the auto showroom where she works, Herbie is as much a matchmaker as he is a race car. When Jim has to drive Carole home, Herbie takes it upon himself to drive them wherever he wants, just to let Jim charm his way into her heart. Here’s the problem: she ain’t buying it in this scene.
That a character would be put off by Jim makes sense; not only is he downtrodden, but he’s a bit dirty-looking in the early scenes, even if he’s played by Dean Jones. The frustration I have is that Jim tries very hard to get Carole to like him in this scene, and she tries even harder to make it clear that she has zero interest in him. Now, I get that, even these days, scenes like this happen in conventional romantic comedies between two characters who are destined to wind up together. (I say “destined” not because of fate or anything like that, but because the screenplays for these movies usually make it thuddingly obvious from the word go.) So, it’s not as if The Love Bug having this scene is uniquely distressing. But it was distressing, especially since Carole is literally held captive by the car, wants to get out, and is stymied at all turns. The hippies don’t help her out because, man, they’re, like, getting all groovy and stuff. Everyone else is too busy focusing on themselves to care about Carole.
Yes, Carole’s going to wind up falling for Jim within the next hour. But that scene in the car made me angry for a minute; the rest of the film never stoops so low, thankfully. Even in the last third of the film, which plods along after extending the main conflict between Jim and showroom owner Peter Thorndyke, The Love Bug isn’t frustrating or even infuriating. Mostly, the movie is enjoyable, thanks to the lead performers. Jones isn’t notably funny or outrageous as an actor, but he’s a solid force in an otherwise insane story. David Tomlinson, well-known for his performances in Mary Poppins and Bedknobs and Broomsticks, is the best actor among the lot. Tomlinson plays Thorndyke, and though he’s got the mustache to twirl, he never becomes so over-the-top as to be obnoxious. It’s a challenge, especially in Disney movies, but Tomlinson excelled at this in his time with the company.
Like a car, The Love Bug mostly hums along without any problems. And like a car, it’s not perfect, so there are speed bumps down the road. Still, the movie occupies a unique space in the Walt Disney Pictures filmography; Herbie is still a well-known icon in Disney’s cast of characters more than 40 years after he first drove onto the silver screen, but he’s never at the Disney theme parks. Disney animated characters, though, usually don’t need more than one film to appear at those parks and stay there for infinity. Herbie is beloved among some fans, and The Love Bug is an entertaining enough trifle, but live-action has been something of a red-headed stepchild for Walt Disney Pictures for quite some time.
– Josh Spiegel