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‘The Love Bug’ evokes the era of Disney as underdog innovators

The Love Bug

Directed by Robert Stevenson

Written by Bill Walsh and Don DaGradi, based on the book Car, Boy, Girl by Gordon Buford

1968, USA, imdb

As I mentioned during the Mousterpiece Cinema podcast about The Love Bug, when I was a very young boy – about 3 or 4, my parents would drive to NDG from the Laurentians to visit my grandparents. Once there, my Bompa would take me down to his basement garage, wave his hands, intone dramatically “Abracadabra” and the garage doors would open. Then he would wave his hands and proclaim “Abracadabra” to close them back up. I thought he was quite a magician… and he was! At least in the Arthur C. Clarke sense that, “Any sufficiently advanced technology,” in this case an automatic garage-door opener in 1970, “is indistinguishable from magic.”

This is the key to the Herbie films. Children see a sentient car and believe it to be magic; adults see a sentient car and find it terrifying. Hence Duel, Christine and Maximum Overdrive. Or extend it out a little bit beyond cars: kids have Thomas, the Tank Engine and adults have Runaway Train and Unstoppable.

This attitude is even internalized within the film. The character who hates and fears Herbie the most is the oldest and in some ways the most adult of all the characters, Peter Thorndyke (David Tomlinson), the cheating dilettante racer and rich owner of the foreign car dealership where down on his luck racing driver Jim Douglas (Dean Jones) first runs into Herbie. Douglas defends Herbie from Thorndyke when the snobbish jerk physically and verbally assaults the small car. Jim does this mostly to impress Thorndyke’s employee, the pretty Carole Bennett (Michele Lee), but Herbie is so grateful that he adopts Douglas on the spot, eventually maneuvering Jim into buying and racing the Love Bug.

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The character who is most at ease with Herbie and most accepting of the car’s intelligence is Douglas’ roommate and mechanic Tennessee Steinmetz (Buddy Hackett) who is also the most childlike character in the film. Tennessee also comes as close to explaining Herbie as anyone in the film, the closest to vocalizing Herbie’s origin.

It’s happening right under our noses and we can’t see it. We take machines and we stuff ’em with information until they’re smarter than we are. Take a car. Most guys spread more love and time and money on their car in a week than they do on their wife and kids in a year. Pretty soon, you know what? The machine starts to think it *is* somebody.

-Tennessee Steinmetz

In the context of The Love Bug, Tennessee is explaining magic using prose poetry, but with changed emphasis the same speech could be given by characters in The Terminator universe to explain that horrifying reality.

What keeps The Love Bug a charming kids film rather than a horror film is Herbie. It helps that Herbie is so damn cute. Disney even famously did a casting call for multiple cars to choose their Herbie. They lined up the cars in the Disney parking lot and watched how the Disney staff interacted with the cars. The staff kicked the tires of the Toyotas, the Volvos, the TVR and the MG.  The Volkswagen Beetle they patted.

The film also reminds us of a time when Disney was a film industry leader in physical special effects. The difference was that while other studios would use special effects to elicit fear and awe in 2001: A Space Odyssey or thrills in Planet of the Apes, Disney used theirs to create childlike wonder. Or to put it another way, in the same year that featured the greatest car chase sequence of all time in Bullitt, The Love Bug (which incidentally made more money than Bullitt) featured a drunken car barfing Irish Coffee onto the Dad from Mary Poppins.

This embrace of special effects to make children laugh is symptomatic of a generation of Disney employees, who embraced technology with all the fervour of their inner child, rather than fearing it. It is hard to believe today, but there was a time when Disney was the home of meek underdogs who triumphed despite an entire industry convinced that they would fail… and triumphed because of technology.

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The story of Herbie, an underdog car, driven by an underdog owner, that wins races because of the application of “sufficiently advanced technology… indistinguishable from magic” is the story of the Walt Disney Studio and a generation of artists and nerds who used technology to create magic.

– Michael Ryan