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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Going Totally ’80s to Save the Plaza: VALLEY GIRL Like Embodies Classic Romantic and Cinematic Themes, Fer Sure!

Posted on: Apr 26th, 2012 By:

Plaza Theatre Benefit Presents VALLEY GIRL (1983); Dir: Martha Coolidge; Starring Nicholas Cage, Deborah Foreman, Elizabeth Daily; Fri. April 27 at 8:30 PM; Special guests, including Blast-Off Burlesque,VALLEY GIRL costume contest, contest for the best VALLEY GIRL impression; silent auction from local Atlanta businesses, including Libertine, Adult Swim, The Euclid Avenue Yacht Club, Slopes BBQ and more; tickets $16 with a $1 discount per ticket for cash payments; All proceeds from ticket sales and the silent auction go directly to keeping The Plaza Theatre alive. Trailer here.

By Emily Jane McFarland
Contributing Writer

When I first learned that The Plaza Theatre had plans to screen the 1983 classic teen romantic comedy, VALLEY GIRL, on Friday, April 27 at 8:30 pm, I could not stop talking about how hot Nicholas Cage is as a young ’80s Hollywood punk rocker. The Plaza is not just Atlanta’s only independent, nonprofit cinema, it is also a historical landmark and an important part of our community.   Owners Jonny and Gayle Rej have always had to fight to keep the Plaza’s doors open, a difficult one that many would probably have given up long ago. But the Rejs are two very special people. Unfortunately, as of late, The Plaza’s situation has turned more dire than usual and the decision to host a fundraiser centered around a screening of VALLEY GIRL was made in an effort to raise both money and awareness that The Plaza needs help.  If it does not receive that help, this art deco gem will sadly become another ghost of Atlanta’s past.

In 1983, I was busy being born, so I never had a chance to see VALLEY GIRL in the theater when it first opened. Once in middle school, I was finally able to watch it, forming a slew of girlhood memories that made VALLEY GIRL very special to me. I sadly came to the realization that the likelihood of seeing VALLEY GIRL on the big screen, let alone on a 35 mm print, was slim to none, even when I lived in New York for seven years. My dreams of staring into the dopey eyes of a 30-foot Randy as he falls in love with Julie were crushed.

Nicholas Cage and Deborah Foreman in VALLEY GIRL (1983). MGM Home Entertainment.

When I was in the seventh grade, I had not yet seen VALLEY GIRL and those young memories were just starting to develop. Every Saturday, while my best friend’s parents would stay out all night for their weekly “date night,” we would walk to the now defunct Movies Worth Seeing video store off Highland Avenue, before ordering a pizza, to rent a movie.  Often we would ask the guys at Movies to recommend films, which would almost always turn out to be not age-appropriate for us – titles such as A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, MEET THE FEEBLES, BLUE VELVET and SHIVERS. We never hesitated to rent their picks because, like most young girls who frequented Movies at that time, we were madly in love with staff-member John Robinson.

This particular Saturday evening, however, John was off somewhere with his long-term relationship girlfriend, so instead of making an effort to impress him, we picked VALLEY GIRL, a movie neither of us knew very much about. All I knew was that I had just seen CAN’T BUY ME LOVE for the first time and I was ready to watch anything in that genre.  Although VALLEY GIRL is nothing like SHIVERS or A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, it is rated R, so that meant it had to be at least a little inappropriate or us, making it all the more fun to watch.

That night, as we popped the tape into the VCR, I was almost relieved to watch a romantic comedy instead films with bizarre rape scenes set to the tune of “Singing in the Rain.” Little did I know that VALLEY GIRL (and its intelligent and honest depiction of teens in love with an ending that as I grew up I would come to see as melancholy and thought-provoking) would affect me more deeply than the films mentioned earlier, albeit for entirely different reasons and in different ways.

As we watched, it was obvious to us that the story of VALLEY GIRL was timeless, utilizing universal literary themes, most notably ROMEO AND JULIET, which VALLEY GIRL has been cited as being very loosely based upon. It doesn’t stop there, however; lyrics from numerous Motown girl group songs floated in and out of my head as I watched, such as “He’s a Rebel” by The Crystals and The Shangri-La’s “Leader of the Pack.” We also see these themes in a number of films that were made prior to 1983, such as GREASE, MY FAIR LADY, THE PALM BEACH STORY and, my personal favorite, IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT.

When all is said and done in VALLEY GIRL, the punks stay punk and the girls stay valley. Many characters become much more self-aware and some even change. These transformations, however, are all on the inside. One of the central messages of the film is very much the opposite of both GREASE and MY FAIR LADY, in which the female protagonists must change the way they dress, speak and their mannerisms and, in GREASE, her morals. This outward alteration is not only in order for their respective men to realize that they are deeply in love, but necessary for these relationships to succeed, or even happen at all. In VALLEY GIRL, as well as THE PALM BEACH STORY and IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT, the lesson to be learned is not that you must change who you are and how you dress in order to be with the one you love, no matter how different the two may be from one another.  Sometimes we simply cannot help who we love, even when it makes no sense.

The closing limousine scene in VALLEY GIRL (1983). MGM Home Entertainment.

Another central message of VALLEY GIRL that goes hand in hand with the one above is that love has absolutely nothing to do with how we dress or which side of the tracks we come from. Instead, it is much more about a connection inexplicably felt between two people. In fact, during their first night together, Julie blushingly tells Randy that she is experiencing this exact feeling. By the look in his eyes at that moment, it is obvious that he feels it as well. IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT uses a similar concept – these two people, one rich and stuck-up and the other a drunk out-of-work newspaperman, should in no way be in love. In fact, throughout the entire movie, they fight it all the way. But in the end, they give in and the Walls of Jericho come tumbling down, because this lesson is the same as that of VALLEY GIRL – you cannot help who you love.

At the close of the film, Randy and Julie ride off in a limousine, slipping out of Julie’s prom as a food fight ensues. The last image of VALLEY GIRL is Julie in her prom dress and Randy in his nice-for-a-punk-rocker suit, seated side by side in a limo, looking straightforward. One is left to wonder if the film’s ending is a happy one, full of promise, or if it is meant to be reminiscent of THE GRADUATE (1967). In that film, Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman) interrupts the wedding of Elaine (Katharine Ross) and Carl (Brian Avery), causing a physical altercation. Elaine and Benjamin are able to break away from the chapel and proceed to board a bus. They sit in the very back seats, with Elaine in her wedding gown and Benjamin in his tattered clothing. For a moment, there is a feeling of triumphant possibility and an infinite future, where nothing is too late, as spoken by Elaine to Benjamin upon his arrival at the chapel.  This moment, however, is a fleeting one, quickly overshadowed by reality and the uncertainty of the future that at one time felt magical. When the director of VALLEY GIRL, Martha Coolidge, mimics this ending, she subtly brings up similar reality-based questions involving what is next for our couple.  By doing so, she is able to set VALLEY GIRL apart from many other films of its genre.

Katharine Ross and Dustin Hoffman in the closing scene of THE GRADUATE (1967). MGM Home Entertainment.

Interestingly, when I was younger I could only see that in the end the boy got the girl, despite all of the obstacles placed in front of him. Years later, when I was no longer a teenager, I still could see VALLEY GIRL as I did in the seventh grade, but also began noticing the melancholy nature of the end as well as the director’s ability to turn ridiculous ’80s teen stereotypes into characters that feel as though they are actual human beings. I cannot wait to find out what I am able to learn about VALLEY GIRL this time around.

Video Links:

VALLEY GIRL well known loooooove montage: “I Melt With You”

Break Up Scene from VALLEY GIRL: Nicolas Cage does a great impression of a Valley girl (lots of F-bombs).

Club Scene from VALLEY GIRLwhen Julie and Randy fall in love and she mentions that connection she feels for him and so on “it’s like we’re linked or something.”

THE GRADUATE End Sequence.

THE PLAZA (2010): Documentary by Matt Rasnick about The Plaza Theatre’s struggle to survive in a world of multiplexes.

If you have any additional questions or to make a donation to Save The Plaza Theatre via Pay Pal, please visit www.PlazaAtlanta.com.

Emily Jane McFarland is an Atlanta-based photographer and the Manager of The Plaza Theatre. This is her first article for ATLRetro.com. 

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