‘Herbie Goes Bananas’ has a Bad Reputation

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Herbie Goes Bananas

Written by Don Tait, based on the novel Car, Boy, Girl by Gordon Buford

Directed By Vincent McEveety

USA, 1980, imdb

Listen to our Mousterpiece Cinema Herbie Goes Bananas podcast or read Josh‘s extended thoughts about the film.


Some films acquire a bad reputation that sticks like a bad smell, driving potential viewers away before they ever see it. Everyone knows that Alien³ and Alien Resurrection are terrible even especially those who have never seen the film. This fate happens particularly to notorious bombs – especially to films that (temporarily) kill off franchises. There is a perverse feedback loop in place, the film bombed because no one went to see it, and since the film bombed it must be terrible, so no one wants to watch it.

But this is confusing quality with popularity. They can be linked, but films bombing may result from any number of factors from poor marketing (John Carter) to poor timing (Speed Racer coming out at the same time as Iron Man) to changing tastes (Grease 2).

There is no denying that Herbie Goes Bananas was a bomb. It made the least of any of the Herbie films, grossing only 18 million. While the franchise continued with an unsuccessful TV series (Herbie the Matchmaker) two years later in 1982 and a TV film with Bruce Campbell in 1997 (The Love Bug), Herbie was banished from film screens until paired with Lindsay Lohan for the 2005 film Herbie Fully Loaded.

Thing is, you could have predicted Herbie Goes Bananas would bomb just by looking at the cast list and the roles that they played. Most of the Herbie films have a formula: there is a romantic couple, usually Herbie’s driver and a love interest, and there is a character – usually a comedian – who plays Herbie’s friend, the person who believes in Herbie. This comedy relief character is frequently Herbie’s mechanic. Finally, there is a villain, determined to either own or destroy Herbie.

Just look at the evolution of the films:

The Love Bug (1968) Driver: Jim Douglas (Dean Jones), Love Interest: Carole Bennett (Michele Lee), Mechanic: Tennessee Steinmetz (Buddy Hackett), Villain: Peter Thorndyke (David Tomlinson)

That is an A cast especially for Disney. Dean Jones was a Disney star having made successful films for them including That Darn Cat!, Blackbeard’s Ghost, and The Horse in the Grey Flannel Suit. Michele Lee had starred (both on Broadway and in film) in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Buddy Hackett was Johnny Carson’s favourite guest and a star from It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. David Tomlinson, of course, was the father from Mary Poppins.

Herbie Rides Again (1974) Driver: Willoughby Whitfield (Ken Berry), Love Interest: Nicole Harris (Stefanie Powers), Mechanic Herbie’s Friend: Widow Steinmetz (Helen Hayes), Villain: Alonzo Hawk (Keenan Wynn)

With my genetic weakness for redheads, I am tempted to say that replacing Michele Lee with Stefanie Powers was an improvement, but at the time, Michele Lee was a movie star and Stefanie Powers was a TV star of a failed TV show (Girl from U.N.C.L.E.) In every other category there is a drop-off from slight (replacing David Tomlinson with Keenan Wynn) to dramatic (replacing Buddy Hackett with Helen Hayes) to calamitous (replacing Dean Jones with Ken Berry). It’s still a solid B as a cast though.

Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo (1977) Driver: Jim Douglas (Dean Jones), Love Interest: Diane Darcy (Julie Sommars), Mechanic: Wheely Applegate (Don Knotts), Villain: Max (Bernard Fox)

Dean Jones and Don Knotts are as good a pair as Dean Jones and Buddy Hackett, but Julie Sommars is a huge drop-off from either Stefanie Powers or Michele Lee in any category: fame, beauty, talent. (Mean, but true.) There is an argument to be made that the villains in Monte Carlo are more of a committee than a person, including Inspector Bouchet (Jacques Marin) and rival driver Bruno von Stickle (Eric Braeden), but either individually or as a group they don’t hold a candle to Tomlinson and/or Wynn. So, better in two categories than Herbie Rides Again, worse in two categories than Herbie Rides Again, call it a tie, another B cast.

Herbie: Fully Loaded (2005) Driver: Maggie Peyton (Lindsay Lohan), Mechanic Love Interest: Kevin (Justin Long), Herbie’s Friend: Maggie Peyton (Lindsay Lohan), Villain: Trip Murphy (Matt Dillon)

Add Michael Keaton as Maggie’s Dad Ray Peyton Sr. and Breckin Mayer as Maggie’s brother Rey Peyton Jr. and that cast is as good as any since the first film in terms of talent, fame and ability to sell tickets. Big surprise that it grossed the most money of any of the Herbie films to date – although the original still holds the crown in inflation adjusted dollars. A solid A cast.

So, let’s take a look at Herbie Goes Bananas shall we?

Herbie Goes Bananas (1980) Driver: Pete Stancheck (Stephen W. Burns), Love Interest: Melissa (Elyssa Davalos), Mechanic: Davy “D.J.” Johns (Charles Martin Smith), Villain: Prindle (John Vernon)

That’s a pretty weak cast, the worst at every position with the exception of John Vernon as the villain. And the film seems to know that, because halfway through it essentially ditches that cast for the following:

Owner/Sponsor: Aunt Louise Trends (Cloris Leachman), Love Interest: Captain Blythe (Harvey Korman), Herbie’s Friend: Paco (Joaquin Garay, III), Villain: Prindle (John Vernon)

That’s a stronger cast, but still the weakest of any of the Herbie films – Leachman and Korman were essentially TV stars and supporting characters in Mel Brooks films being asked to carry this film and were unable to do so.

There is an argument that Herbie is the real star of any Herbie film, but this ignores the fact that the box office results of the Herbie franchise were directly related to how strong the cast was – how famous, talented, funny and good-looking they were.

It smacks of fantasy booking, but what would the box office results of Herbie Goes Bananas have been like if the film opened with Diane Darcy and Giselle (the Lancia Scorpion that Herbie fell in love with in Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo) missing the curve during the Mexico Grand Prix and crashing, leaving Herbie and Jim Douglas heartbroken and out of racing at the Mexican garage when Paco runs into them? (Instead of having those events happen off-screen, mentioned in passing by the owner of the garage where Herbie is moping at the start of the film.) Replace Melissa with stewardess/world traveller Nicole Harris and give the Paco part to a child star with an actual fan base (like a member of Menudo) instead of an unknown and you have a cast that might actually sell some tickets.

But forget the hypothetical and forget the film’s popularity at the box office. Set the film’s reputation aside and consider the all important question: Is Herbie Goes Bananas any good?

It’s better than good, Herbie Goes Bananas is great.

To be fair, it is not without faults. Like Herbie Rides Again, it not only fails to include the two best elements of the Herbie films: racing and Jim Douglas, it goes out of its way to mention them, as if to remind the viewers that they weren’t going to get something that they wanted.

Also like Herbie Rides Again, Herbie Goes Bananas features two romantic couples, one of whom are an older couple whose relationship is driven by an aggressively sexual older woman, a prototype for the humour of Golden Girls and Hot In Cleveland. (Not that those programs aren’t popular, but the demographics of Herbie fans and Betty White fans are probably not that similar.)

What makes the film really run though is the complete lack of sanity. Where Herbie Rides Again goes slightly insane with the Alonzo Hawk dream sequence, Herbie Goes Bananas goes bat-shit insane from the moment that Herbie adopts Paco and doesn’t really let up until after Herbie beats a small plane to death in the film’s climax.

…the only connective thread is Herbie himself, who is strangely marginalized and never feels like an active character (at least, as active as a car with a mind of its own can be). What’s worse, his personality is more infantilized than in previous films and feels a lot less fully formed. Herbie mostly exists in this film as a pale shadow of what he was before.
Josh Spiegel, Extended Thoughts on Herbie Goes Bananas

Here’s a shocker: I believe completely the opposite of what Josh believes.

Far from being infantilized, this film sees Herbie at his most adult: he adopts and protects Paco as (essentially) his son.

Far from being marginalized, consider what Herbie gets up to in this film, what roles he plays: Parent (adopting Paco), Smuggler (sneaking Paco onto the cruise ship), Escape Artist (breaking Paco out of jail), Swimmer (after being forced to walk the plank by Captain Blythe, Herbie swims to shore and is saved from drowning within sight of land by Paco), Taxi (with Paco as “driver”), Matador (self-explanatory), Adventurer Archaeologist (rescuing the giant gold disk from Prindle), Master of Disguise (to evade Prindle, Herbie is disguised as a Volkswagen Bug covered in bananas), Slapstick Cop (attempts to detain Prindle and his accomplices by throwing bananas at them), and finally, Anti-Aircraft Vehicle (Herbie demolishes Prindle’s airplane to prevent his escape).

While I might argue that the producers might have better served casting an established child star in the role of Paco, Joaquin Garay the Third is engaging as Herbie’s son and the producers were smart to tap into the reason that children love Herbie: the wish fulfillment of having a car that would be your friend and drive you around. (The same wish fulfillment that drives the Transformers universe – not that Michael Bay seems to realize that. Or to quote Teletoon, the Canadian animation channel: “In the Transformers universe, you don’t need a driver’s license! Of course, that’s because the cars drive themselves.”)

Herbie’s protective instincts and Paco’s Latin roots lead to the single best action sequence of any of the Herbie films (including Herbie Fully Loaded) when Herbie becomes a matador and fights an enraged bull.

The film is also filled with wacky pop culture references from Oliver Twist (Paco as The Artful Dodger – remember that Oliver was a lousy pickpocket) to Mutiny on the Bounty (Captain Bligh-the) to Mel Brooks (Korman and Leachman) to Ernest Hemingway (the matador sequence) to Tintin (Paco as Tintin and Herbie as Snowy) to the same pulp stories that influenced George Lucas and Steven Spielberg in creating Indiana Jones (the gold disc) to Inspector Clouseau (the terrible but effective disguise, the banana flinging).

Herbie Goes Bananas is like that rickety-rackety roller-coaster ride, the one with the bad reputation, the one that the teenagers whisper caused the death by decapitation of two lovers. Getting on board requires abandoning coherent thought and reason, but if you abandon yourself to the ride’s insanity, you are in for a thrilling, exciting ride.

(Your mileage may vary.)

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