Live action Disney movies from the sixties through the seventies were weird. A new element made by a scientist that can make cars fly? Why not?
Blackbeard’s back…and he’s a ghost? Brilliant!
A cat…from outer space? I love it but you’re fired!
Yeah, they got odd. But that was part of their charm, just how delightfully campy they could be. My personal favorite in this category is: what if cars were alive?
No no no! I mean, what if one car lived in a world where humans drive them?
Herbie! Herbie the Love Bug! Ay, dios mio…Vroom with vim and vinegar with this veritable, vivacious video with vindictive villains and a very valiant Volkswagen!
The plot: Race car driver Jim Douglas (Dean Jones) is fed up at just doing demolition derbies and needs a new car for racing. He visits a dealership run by the stuffy and arrogant Peter Thorndyke (David Thomlinson), who refuses to serve him due to Jim’s meager means. An unremarkable beige Volkswagen Beetle gets Jim’s attention, but both he and Thorndyke dismiss the car, and Jim heads home.
The following morning, Jim and pal Tennessee Steinmetz (Buddy Hackett) are stunned to find the same Beetle in his driveway. One of Thorndyke’s top associates, Carole (Michelle Lee) brokers a deal in which Jim can keep the car and make payments on it if Thorndyke can agree not to press charges. It isn’t long before Jim starts to notice the car seems to be acting of its own volition, which goes from inconvenient to downright bizarre when the car seems to be actively bringing him and Carole together. Tennessee contributes the car’s odd behavior to various machines that can have hearts and minds, and names the car “Herbie” after his uncle.
Jim takes Herbie out racing and finds despite his unassuming appearance, Herbie is impressively good at it. Thorndyke, perplexed that such a crappy car has proven its worth on the racing circuits, tries to bargain and even demand Jim sell the car back to him. As Herbie’s continued success angers Thorndyke, he eventually sabotages the car by pouring Tennessee’s famous Irish coffee in Herbie’s tank and causing Jim to lose a race. Upset, Jim buys a brand-new car to replace Herbie, but Carole and Tennessee admonish him for abandoning Herbie, Herbie destroys the new car, and Thorndyke tries to buy Herbie back. Herbie runs (drives?) away, and almost jumps off Golden Gate Bridge until Jim saves him.
Because Herbie caused serious property damage to a Chinatown in his emotional tirade, he’s impounded and shop owner Tang Wu (Benson Fong) wants to be compensated. When he realizes it’s Herbie and Jim, he’s so elated as a racing fan that he wants to buy Herbie…thus Jim makes a deal: let them race in the upcoming El Dorado road race. If Jim wins, Wu can keep the prize money and sell Herbie back to Jim for a dollar. Wu agrees.With nothing left to lose, Jim, Carole, and Tennessee take Herbie through the multi-day course, enduring every trick Thorndyke can throw at him, all in an effort to defeat Jim and that spunky, infuriating little car.
How’s the writing?: At 108 minutes, this movie can feel pretty long and excessive. But I think it works to its benefit here. Sports stories typically fit a standard three-act structure: an athlete is inspired, their early talent gets attention, montage through training and various successes, a big bad looms over them and threatens to defeat them, and the third act climax is the final grand competition where the heroes beat the bad guys using cleverness, skill, and heart. It’s formulaic and tiresome, but there’s a lot here that effectively tweaks this arc, even though this structure wouldn’t become overly done for another thirty years.
A huge part of that is the “living car” gimmick. Herbie’s means of communicating are extremely limited. He can drive around on his own, he squirts oil on Thorndyke’s shoes like how a dog urinates, he shudders when he’s scared, and beeps when he needs to be vocal. They never give him a voice or eyes or anything that would push it into the bounds of ridiculousness. Plus the idea of a living car comes off as completely crazy to most everyone in the film except to Tennessee. This is thanks to when the script was written, several cars were parked on the studio lot, and the director found the Volkswagen was the only one where people would pet it affectionately rather than treat it like a transportation machine. Herbie is endearing to look at, and his personality reflects that inherit cuteness. He follows Jim home like a homeless puppy, he gets terrified at the thought of driving on the freeway, Tennessee nurses him back to health when he gets hung over, he gets so depressed he contemplates suicide, and he even plays with the neighborhood dogs. Adversely, he’s also pretty gutsy, happy to jump into racing and even at one point, threaten to run Thorndyke over.
Herbie is the hook of the story, like Aladdin’s Genie: a character on whom the story hinges, and is the saving grace you look forward to seeing every time he’s on screen.Because of this, the story takes a more measured approach in developing Herbie, Jim, Carole, and Tennessee as we see what they want and what they’re willing to do to get it. Jim is a grumpy cynic looking to be on top again, but finds acceptance in Herbie. Tennessee seems to want harmony between man and machine. Carole wants…I don’t know, morality in employment? Still, these four are the key in developing a compelling, if meandering story.
Does it give the feels?: Certainly. And it’s all through Herbie’s vulnerability. Arguably the key moment is when Herbie runs away. By this point in the movie, Jim is still in denial about Herbie, thinking he alone is responsible for winning all those races. But when it’s obvious Herbie is, in fact, autonomous, and the little car disappears, it’s Jim alone who has to swallow his pride. He tries to get his friends to help, but Tennessee pointedly points out Jim needs to do it alone because it’s his attitude that upset Herbie.Of course, this leads to Herbie trying to commit suicide off Golden Gate Bridge. It sounds stupid, I know, but the scene is played with such sincerity and Herbie’s established to be as emotionally stable as a child, that you can’t help but be downright shocked and afraid for the car’s…well, life.
Who makes it worth it?: Herbie. I love that little car. He’s just so cute and sweet. End of story.
Out of the human cast? Well, David Thomlinson is at his decidedly least-Mary Poppins-est here, as the deceptive, temperamental, pompous, and all-around twatwaffle Thorndyke. Here, Thomlinson is hamming up the shtick to the nth degree, right down to various inflections, such as when he threatens Jim to leave his dealership “Before I lose my tem-PER!”, or any time he screams for his minion, Havershaw. Later in the film, he goes full cartoon character, particularly being scrunched into Herbie’s glove compartment, and remaining scrunched up afterward. It’s a treat.I like Tennessee too, despite the weird parts of his backstory I’ll get to later. He’s a sweet and endearing guy who just wants to be Herbie’s friend and be as supportive as he can to Jim.
Best quality provided: There’s an inherent charm in this I love. Partly from Herbie’s childlike appeal, and part of it from its decidedly dated aesthetic.
This movie came out in the heart of the flower power era, and it’s evident in most every frame. Like, I never heard “groovy” be used unironically save for Ash Williams quips and reruns of Scooby-Doo, Where Are You?. But when Herbie shows up a couple of mouthy teens at a stoplight, the girl chortles, “Groovy, pop! Groovy!”, and it looks equal parts awkward and silly, like how I imagine kids will someday look at old YouTube videos of “Gangnam Style”. When one cop babbles to his partner about seeing Herbie trying to jump off the bridge, his partner responds with suggesting he’s “been on the Haight/Ashbury beat for too long”. There’s even a scene where Carole begs for help from a couple of hippies at a drive-in restaurant (Herbie has her locked in), and one of them responds with stereotypical pseudo-wisdom: “We all prisoners, chicky-baby. We all ‘locked in’ ” (Fun fact: that hippie was played by Dean Jones!) Even The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes didn’t delve this deeply into this level of pop culture depiction, but boy, is it adorable!
What could have been improved: Like a lot of my other favorite Disney movies (Dumbo, The Jungle Book, and Song of the South), this movie has a race problem, and I ain’t talking about car races.
After wrecking Chinatown, and with the introduction of Wu, the establishment of Chinese culture is so damn hamfisted that I’d hate to show this movie to anyone from the Asian nation. Some of the characters invoke faux Chinese aphorisms as though to invoke Confucius (“Wise man say haste is cracked bowl that never know rice”, “Wise man say, when finish the book, close the book”), or they make awkward jokes (“I think now is chance to wipe egg fu young off face”). And when Herbie breaks down at one point, the car and the three people inside are hoisted up by eight young men with carrying poles, because having Chinese people doing not-Chinese things would just be dumb, amirite?!
Now, if you’ve ever heard Buddy Hackett, (You have. He’s Scuttle in The Little Mermaid.) know he’s got a hilariously amazing, distinct voice. It’s a delightfully nasally Brooklyn accent that’s a treat to hear. While Tennessee is a fine character and Buddy plays him well…his back story makes little sense. The movie takes place in San Francisco, not New York. But he also tells us he used to be part of a Tibetan monastery, where he seems to have gotten his perspective on life and why machines can have souls. Later, it’s this backstory that makes itself known in an important scene where Tennessee is speaking Mandarin to Mr. Wu. I’m not saying Hackett shouldn’t speak Mandarin, but it’s almost framed with a comedic quality to it.
Verdict: This is my favorite live action Disney movie. Herbie is such an endearing star, despite being bereft of eyes, a voice, or even a mouth. So much so this movie got three sequels and two remakes, and it didn’t matter if he starred alongside Helen Hayes, Don Knotts, Harvey Korman, Bruce Campbell, or Linsday Lohan: Herbie always stole the show by being his cute, temperamental self. Eight out of ten for old 53.Now why Herbie never had so much as a cameo in the Cars franchise annoys me to no end. But at least he has his own hotel at Disney World.
Eat it, Lightning McQueen.
OH, COME ON!!