Somehow I never got around to seeing this before. It has its moments, but I suspect young children would get more out of the film than I do, though even they might find it too long and overloaded with mostly mediocre songs.
It’s about 1910, and Dick Van Dyke is an eccentric inventor who lives somewhere in the English countryside with his equally eccentric father and his young son and daughter, who are incredibly kind and well-behaved, possibly because they don’t go to school and hence lack role models.
Van Dyke’s father and children speak with an English accent, but Van Dyke himself sounds American. This might be put down to his eccentricity, but the fact is that his attempt at Cockney in Mary Poppins earned such universal ridicule that he agreed to appear in this film only if he was not forced to fake an accent.
The children beg their father to purchase a ruined race car before it’s sold to a scrap dealer who means to scrunch it up and put into the fiery furnace, Old Testament fashion. Van Dyke is short on fund, but when he accidentally steals the show in a song-and-dance performance at the local fair, admiring audience members throw enough money that he can afford the 30 shillings to buy the car.
While he’s busy fixing it up, the children are busy fixing him up with woman named Truly (Sally Ann Howes), the charming grown daughter of Lord Scrumptious, the owner of a candy factory, which given his name was probably an inevitable career choice.
Truly, Van Dyke, and the two kids pile into the freshly refurbished car (which they name Chitty Chitty Bang Bang after the sounds it makes) to go have a picnic at the seashore. There the sight of a ship prompts Van Dyke to extemporize a story that comes to life on the screen: The ship belongs to the villainous Baron Bomburst of Vulgaria, who is attempts to steal their wonderful car but is thwarted when the car on its own initiative turns itself into a boat so they can get away.
Baron Bomburst, however, isn’t so easily deterred, and his spies kidnap Van Dyke’s eccentric father, thinking he can make another car just like it. When our heroes go in pursuit they discover that Vulgaria outlaws children, employing an evil childcatcher to round up any that might be found. The country’s only toymaker (played by Benny Hill) makes toys only for the Baron.
Bomburst is played by a happily singing and dancing Gert Fröbe, better known as Goldfinger. (No doubt his only regret was not getting to utter the line, “No, Mr. Van Dyke, I expect you to sing.”)
The Bond connections don’t end there. The guy Van Dyke bought the race car from is played by Desmond Llewelyn, the Bond films’ Q. It was produced by Bond producer Albert R. “Cubby” Broccoli (Truly’s car’s numberplate is CUB 1). And it’s based loosely on a children’s book by Ian Fleming.
Truly Scrumptious sounds like a name the creator of Pussy Galore would come up with, but it turns out Truly isn’t in the original book. She and a lot of the film’s story were reportedly invented by co-screenwriter Roald Dahl, a popular children’s book author (e.g., Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) in his own right. The script was co-written by Ken Hughes, with additional dialog by Richard Maibaum, who also co-wrote all the Bond films from Dr. No through License to Kill.
The songs (only a few of which are memorable) were authored by the Sherman brothers, who previously wrote better ones for Mary Poppins. The high point is the energetic production number “Me Ol’ Bamboo,” which stands well on its own.
Lionel Jeffries, who plays Van Dyke’s father, gets one of the better remaining songs. Oddly enough, though he looks easily old enough for the role, in reality he’s about six months younger than Dick Van Dyke.