Retro Review: Fly Into the Past Aboard CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG at the historic Plaza Theatre!

Posted on: Mar 29th, 2013 By:

CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG (1968); Dir. Ken Hughes; Starring Dick Van Dyke, Sally Ann Howe, Gert Fröbe and Lionel Jeffries; Starts Friday, March 29 ; Plaza Atlanta; Trailer here.

By Aleck Bennett, Contributing Writer

The Plaza Theatre has a long, storied and—at times—notorious past. So leave it to them to revive one of the most frightening memories of my childhood by bringing CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG  back to the big screen.

As a tiny tot, my family would drive across town every weekend to have lunch at my grandparents’ house. And being a movie fiend at even that young age, I’d plop down to watch whatever was playing on the Sunday Afternoon TV Movie that week while everyone talked in the kitchen and prepped the meal. There was a certain rotation to the movies they’d schedule, and it seemed like every couple of months or so they’d show either the Beatles’ YELLOW SUBMARINE or—more likely—CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG. And I’d sit enraptured by the movie every time, even though I knew what was coming and that it would scare the pants off me.

Sure, most of the movie is harmless enough stuff. It’s set in the salad days of the 1910s, before the specter of World War I darkened the horizon. There’s Dick Van Dyke being his typical charming self as the perpetually failing inventor Caractacus Potts, but he could play charming in his sleep. There’s Sally Ann Howe in the Julie Andrewsas-Mary Poppins-eque role of Truly Scrumptious (Andrews herself was offered the role, but turned it down; it then went to Howe, who had replaced Andrews on Broadway in MY FAIR LADY). There are memorable songs from Disney’s celebrated in-house composers Richard and Robert Sherman. There are a couple of precious kids, a kindly grandfather and, best of all, a magical car named Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (after the sounds it makes while running). Despite the film’s meandering tone and frequent tangential detours, once we start seeing the car in action, it becomes something thrillingly charming.

The story has its roots in the children’s book by—strange as it may seem—Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond. He was sidelined from writing the Bond novels due to protracted lawsuits surrounding THUNDERBALL. Constantly stressed about the case, Fleming suffered two major heart attacks. During his recuperation, he set out to write a book based on a bedtime story he’d concocted for his son Caspar. Fleming, sadly, did not live to see the book published. A mere two months before its publication, on Caspar’s 12th birthday, Ian Fleming succumbed to a third and fatal heart attack.

Fleming is not the only Bond connection to the film, though. It was produced by Albert “Cubby” Broccoli, co-producer of the classic Bond films. It was directed by Ken Hughes, fresh off directing his segment of the Bond spoof CASINO ROYALE. The film co-stars Gert “Auric Goldfinger” Fröbe and Desmond “Q” Llewellyn. And, most importantly, it was adapted for the screen by the screenwriter of the previous year’s YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE: renowned children’s author and close friend of Fleming’s, Roald Dahl. And that’s where things get weird. And scary.

See, Dahl’s sensibilities were so black as to be nearly morbid. His CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY, for example, has so many kids meeting their (non-fatal) ends that it’s practically THE HUNGER GAMES set in the candy manufacturing industry. So Dahl (along with director Hughes) took great liberty with the source material and created something nearly as traumatic as the boat ride in 1971’s WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY or the flying monkeys in 1939’s THE WIZARD OF OZ.

During the course of the movie’s ambling narrative, we learn that Baron Bomburst, the tyrannical leader of Vulgaria, wants to steal Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. He sends two spies to kidnap Potts and force him to build a duplicate, but they kidnap Truly Scrumptious’ father and Grandpa Potts by mistake. Caractacus, Truly and the kids take off in Chitty to rescue the oldsters, and fly to the dreary country.

Why is the country so dreary, you might ask? Because there are no children on the streets of Vulgaria. And why not, you ask again? Because of…

The Child Catcher.

*shudder*

A character created entirely by Dahl for the film, Sir Robert Helpmann’s portrayal of the grotesque Child Catcher is one of the most frightening cinematic creations ever to be foisted upon unsuspecting movie-going children. The character is in the employ of the Baron and Baroness Bomburst, who hate children so much that the sight of them sends the couple into fits of fear and loathing. With his spindly legs, pasty face, black clothing, warped top hat and enormous nose (with which he can smell the very presence of the little rugrats: “This nose of mine has never failed me. And if there are children here, my friend, you will die.”), he tempts children out of hiding with promises of lollipops and treacle tarts and then takes them away in his carriage to be imprisoned.

And this is where I’d be sent into paroxysms of terror. Not even the presence of Benny Hill as a gentle toymaker could save me. No, this guy wormed his way into my consciousness and took root. He still freaks me out a little. And I’m not the only one. The character was voted in a 2005 BBC poll as “the scariest villain in books,” despite never appearing in the book. In 2009, a poll carried out by Penguin Books named him as the seventh scariest character of all time.

The Child Catcher even figures prominently as an avatar of childhood fright in the earlier, funnier work of Marilyn Manson. On the band’s debut album, PORTRAIT OF AN AMERICAN FAMILY, he is obliquely the subject of the song “Organ Grinder,” which features samples of the character calling out “Here we are children! Come and get your lollipops! Lollipops! Come along my little ones!” Manson’s second release, SMELLS LIKE CHILDREN, was even named in the character’s honor and featured Mr. Manson on the cover dressed in the Child Catcher’s garb.

So toss your cynicism aside and let the film take you back to a more innocent time. The journey may go all over the place, plot-wise, but it’s a scenic route. And the Plaza may not have a magical flying car, but taking a trip with CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG costs you only the price of a ticket. Come along, kiddie-winkies!

Aleck Bennett is a writer, blogger, pug warden, pop culture enthusiast, raconteur and bon vivant from the greater Atlanta area. Visit his blog at doctorsardonicus.wordpress.com

 

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Kool Kat of the Week: Rediscovering the Magic of the Fabulous Fox Theatre Through the Atlanta Preservation Center’s Walking Tour.

Posted on: Jun 19th, 2012 By:

This ornate lamp is just one of the 1000 magical design details in the Fox Theatre. Photo Credit: Jaclyn Cook.

By Lisa Stock
Contributing Writer

Can a building be a Kool Kat? If you know the Fabulous Fox Theatre as intimately as we do, we think you’ll say a resounding “yes!” After writing, directing and producing several fairy tale-inspired films (TITANIA, THE JULES VERNE PROJECT) and an unique experiential play of Neil Gaiman’s SNOW, GLASS, APPLES, we figured contributing writer Lisa Stock knows something about stage magic, so we asked her to take one of the Atlanta Preservation Center‘s walking tours and report back… 

As locals we’ve all been to the Fox Theatre, whether to see movies, concerts, or to show it off to visiting relatives. We love to sit under its starry sky and touch the wheel of the nautical ticket chomper as we enter. We drive past it every day, it’s always been there, and after almost losing it in the 1970s, we hope it always will be.

When I worked at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Annenberg Collection had acquired Van Gogh’s “Wheatfield with Crows.” It was exceptional. I ran past it every day on my way from one office to another, directed tourists to its gallery, confirmed that—yes it had been sold for $53 million and went on my way. Until one day at lunch I went in the gallery and sat in front of it—for about an hour. One of the curators was there and told me its story: where it had been painted, at what point in Van Gogh’s life, that there were several other versions, but this one had not been seen for 100 years because it had been in private ownership. Its thousand words spoke out, and suddenly the painting took on a new life and a new appreciation for me.

The nautical ticket chomper at the Fox Theatre. Photo Credit: Jaclyn Cook.

Similarly, on a rainy Saturday morning at the end of January, I had the chance to hear the thousand words of the Fox Theatre. It is a masterpiece of its own, and has quite a tale (or 200) to tell. If you haven’t been on the tour yet—GO! They’re led by knowledgeable volunteers who give individualized tours depending on how they love the theater.

We were taken around by Vic Jester, who focused on the extraordinary architectural details of the building. He wove tales of gatherings, performances and parties, of eras gone by and a landmark rising up from the cold days of almost being closed forever. I was intrigued by the design of the theater influenced by the Taj Mahal and the 1920s discovery of King Tut’s tomb—all stemming from a contest by its original owners, the Shriners, to “Out Baghdad Baghdad.” As you walk through the Egyptian Ballroom and the Grand Salon, you feel like a character in CASABLANCA or expect to see Pepe Le Moko come around the corner. There are hidden repetitions in the Islamic art of the stained glass ceiling and opulent chairs in the Men’s and Ladies lounges (which were designed to emulate the room structure of a Middle Eastern harem). It’s not just the ancient epochs that greet you here, but the decades of the 20th century and its inhabitants, too. A door leads to the old infirmary where in case one felt faint, a nurse was onsite to care for you. Private telephone booths in the lounges are available to make personal calls. The Mighty Mo, a grand Moller organ rises up from the orchestra pit to lend music to the show.

You even learn about how the starry ceiling is created, from paint to lights—just in case you’d like to do that to your own house. There’s a lot to be noticed and appreciated on the walls and floors, too. Just about every inch of the Fox has a story behind it. Going to the theater used to be an experience, one you saved up for, dressed up for, and looked forward to for weeks. There are few of these atmosphere theaters still standing in America of this caliber—but how lucky we are to have one here in our very own city that is still hosting performances and films, and welcoming you like member of royalty.

The stained glass ceiling of the Fox Theatre's Grand Salon. Photo credit: Jaclyn Cook.

This weekend there are several great Retro reasons to return to the Fox. Norah Jones will be jazzing it up on the Fox’s magnificent stage Saturday night June 17 Or sing-a-long with Julie Andrews and the Trapp Family children during a special screening of THE SOUND OF MUSIC (1965) at 2 p.m. on Sunday June 18 in The Fox Theatre’s Coca-Cola Summer Film Festival.  But to really get to know the history and tales of this wonderful local landmark for just $10, consider taking an Atlanta Preservation Center walking tour of the Fox or a historic Atlanta neighborhood such as Sweet Auburn, InmanPark and Grant Park.  While you’re there, keep an eye out for all the scarabs!

See more photos of the Fox Theater by photographer Jaclyn Cook, who took the shots included in this article, here.

 

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