I will be honest with you: I hadn’t even THOUGHT about this movie since I was a kid. My brother purchased it for his sons, and we watched it over the weekend, on the 2-disc special edition version, released in 2003.
This is one of those movies, primarily aimed at children, in the genre of Willy Wonka (1971), Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971), and Mary Poppins(1964), that sought to push the viewer into hyper-reality. Like Mary Poppins, this film stars Dick Van Dyke, who is in full force here – singing, dancing, mugging, hamming it up. He was born to play these roles, and he does it with total grace. It is his film, and he succeeds in taking us on a magical journey.
The plot is pretty simple: eccentric inventor invents strange things that do not sell, and thus he can’t make ends meet. He purchases a broken-down jalopy and turns it into a car that drives itself, turns into a boat, and also flies. When the evil Baron Bomburst of Vulgaria spies the car, he will stop at nothing to get it. The Baron chases the inventor, his kids, and his love interest into Vulgaria, where the car is kidnapped and the children are imperiled by the devious “Child-Catcher”, as children are not allowed in Vulgaria (though hundreds of children hide underground in the village). Hijinks ensue: all of the children are freed and rescued, and the bad guys are caught and imprisoned. Oh yeah, and the inventor? Well, he gets the girl in the end.
They don’t make family movies like this anymore in Hollywood. This is a colorful fantasy of a film – a musical, with big dance numbers and intricately choreographed camera moves that last, sometimes, for minutes at a time. I found myself counting shots in some of the bigger, more complicated sequences, and was baffled. Occasionally, there were only three or four shots in a major sequence, but you don’t sense it, due to the moving camera, craning and dollying around a dizzying array of dancers and actors. Considering the rehearsal of camera moves, dance routines, background action, and so forth, the crew must have been shooting this movie for a long, long time in order to get it right. The care and love put toward the making of this film oozes from each frame. The dialogue and some of the acting gets a little cheesy and schmaltzy, but visually, the film is amazing, and deserves attention and study.
The costumes in this film are NOT period-perfect, but they do help move the story along. One can clearly sense 1968 in the costumes, hair and makeup, lighting, and some of the set decoration, but the mélange of the styles seems to suit the story structure and story-telling style. It is supposed to be 1910, in England… but with sideburns on the men, un-brushed and un-cut long, “hippie” hair on the little girl, back-combing in the bouffant hairstyles on the leading lady, and liquid eyeliner on the female cast, it doesn’t feel much like Edwardian England. This is a genre film, in that it is a show-stopping musical, and as such, it dates itself. The influence of 1968 in the design is not problematic; rather it helps to define the style of filmmaking itself. Musicals were fading out of fashion at this time in filmmaking, and CCBB was one of the last of its breed, with a huge budget, top-shelf artists and craftspeople on the crew, special effects, many locations, and UK-based studio work.
The curious thing about the film (that is not often thoroughly explained) is that half of the film takes place in “reality” and the other half of the film is a fantasy. There is a point in the film when the children say, “Tell us a story about a pirate!”, which leads to the Baron Bombast/Vulgaria storyline, and leads to the car floating like a boat, and flying in the sky – the fantasy part. In the film, the transition is so seamless (only demarcated by the children’s question) that the audience slips gently into the fantasy without exactly realizing that it is, in fact, not really happening. Watch it for yourself –the willing suspension of disbelief takes over!
Dick Van Dyke’s character (Caractacus Potts) is, as mentioned, an eccentric inventor. His clothing begins as simple, layered, earth-toned stuff, and arcs into the more sophisticated and stylish by the end of the film. Caractacus is a widower in the film (in the book by Ian Fleming, he was married & his wife was a character as well), and he has two urchin-like twin children, a boy and a girl. Curiously, Caractacus wears a gold band on his left fourth finger – a nod to his late wife? I wondered aloud about this as we were watching the film. It seems curious to have such a poignant, unexplained detail in a film for children.
Sally Ann Howe plays Truly Scrumptious (and with a name like that, you know Ian Fleming wrote the book), a privileged daughter of a candy magnate. Her costumes are frothy and pastelly; yards and yards of chiffon were sacrificed to give her the look of an egret in flight. In fact, most of her costumes are over-the-top, in an effort to widen the divide between her world (privileged) and Caractacus’ world (poor). While Caractacus’ costumes are earth-toned and made from natural fibers, her costumes are rigid, corseted, and made from finely woven silks and chiffons, in impossibly light colors; she never gets dirty. Her fussiness, strangely, never really arcs in the film – she is, in the end, just as fussy as she was in the beginning. She briefly steps into peasant clothing while trapped underground in Vulgaria, but by the end of the film, she’s back to the fussy, fruity, frothy, egret-like confections. Her characterization seems to be from another era, from the musicals of the later 1950s, the Carousel, Oklahoma, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers school of performance. The performance style, paired with the liquid eyeliner, bouffant hair, yards of chiffon and a corset – well, it’s somewhat jarring.
The Baron and Baroness Bomburst (Gert Fröbe and Anna Quayle, respectively) are some of the best characters in the film, and their costumes are outrageously over-the-top and fabulous. If you look at their pictures, you know exactly who they are and what their purpose is in the film. One of the best numbers in the movie is “Chu-chi Face”, where, as the Baron and Baroness sweetly profess their love to each other in song, the Baron tries to kill his wife by the most violent means, and fails consistently, throughout the song. The Baroness ignores or perhaps overlooks these attempts to kill her. The costumes are fantastic, hinting at a sadomasochistic twist to their relationship (a hint that is certainly lost on the younger audience). Overall, since they are part of the “fantasy” element of the film, their costumes reflect their audacity and excess. The use of saturated colors, bold graphic details on the costumes, crowns, feathers, accessories – it is just glorious, glorious design. It is over-the-top, but intentionally and appropriately so.
The Child-Catcher (Robert Helpmann) must be one of the scariest characterizations ever committed to celluloid in the eyes of a child. With greasy, long black hair, a poorly-executed prosthetic nose, rumply black top hat, and tight-fitting black clothing, including a creepy cutaway-ish coat and black leather gloves, he surely has sent shivers down the spines of children for decades. This costume is perfection – it is sinister, perfectly suited to the actor, and the silhouette it generates conveys the evil and the danger associated with the character. When the Child Catcher poses as a candy and ice cream vendor, he dons a saffron-colored, appliquéd flowing jacket, adding colorful silk flowers to his top hat, in an effort to soften his look. It is actually hilarious to see – a great choice for the character (as in, it looks like that character would have made THAT costume choice), and it is also a great visual for the audience. This is the kind of iconic costuming that makes the film so special.
The townspeople of Vulgaria – all of the background and cast, including Benny Hill as the Toymaker, are in earth tones, and their costumes are made from natural fibers, directly in opposition to the aristocracy (militaristic, toy-soldier look on the men, and opulent, Worth & Doucet looks on the women). The separation of color, distinguishing the plebes from the aristocrats, is very clear: plebes in earth tones, with many layers and soft textures, everything aged down to look worn and/or thread-bare, against the aristocrats in white, purple, yellow, pink, with expensive-looking fabrics, structured design and sparkling clean, graphic lines.
A note on the characterization of the Vulgarian society and specifically the Vulgarian aristocracy: the characters refer to themselves and their world with German titles: Kaiser, Herr, Fraulein, Liebchen, etc. They say things like, “Javol!” and “Wunderbar,” and their accents when speaking English are remarkably German. One can’t help but think of these absurd characterizations as direct social commentary on some of Germany’s darker history. Is Vulgaria really a metaphor for the Third Reich? Is the absence of children in Vulgaria a metaphor for the holocaust? Is the Child Catcher a Hitler reference? And if so, to what end was this metaphor intended? These are good questions, and I do not yet have the answers. Something to think about when watching the film.
The Dance & Production Numbers:
The Old Bamboo Dance: Caractacus finds himself on the run at a fair; he joins a dancing troupe to hide from the man chasing him, and blends in to the dance number. It is truly brilliant – great choreography, dancing with sticks, high-kicks, vaulting – such energy! The dancers wear raggedy earth toned vests, bowler hats, knickers, and display exquisite dance and gymnastic skills. This is a dance number performed to enthusiastic perfection. Caractacus’ costume gently blends in with the existing dancers, and we are so mesmerized by the performances, we don’t even care or notice when, at the end, the man chasing Caractacus is nowhere to be found.
Toot Sweet dance: this is a black and white dance fantasy! In the candy factory set, we have Caractacus, Truly, and all the candy workers dancing, in black and white costumes. There are occasional touches of grey in the costumes, and everything seems to be part of a beautiful black and white illustration, right down to the factory windows, equipment, staircase – everything is in harmony, creating a beautiful graphic effect. Caractacus and Truly dance with the workers, swinging around and around on wheeled carts, using centrifugal force to propel them; it’s magnificent. Truly’s dress sways beautifully with the motion, and watch the cinematography carefully – they do their own dancing and stunts – no cuts! In the end, dogs invade the factory, and mayhem ensues, spoiling Caractacus’ chance to sell his candy idea.
The landing of the blimp in Vulgaria: this is not so much a dance as it is a ceremony. There are huge lines of men in toy soldier costumes waiting for the blimp to arrive. All I could think, watching this, was, “What time do you think the background call was to get all of these people dressed in time for shooting?!” I imagine it would have had to have been pretty darned early. The toy-soldier costumes are really sharp. Every I is dotted, every T is crossed. These costume designers did not miss a trick. It is in the big crowd scenes like this one that you see the impeccable attention to detail in the costumes, and really have a sense for the accomplishment and for the achievement of this film.
The Baron’s courtly dance/ball: It is Baron Bomburst’s birthday, and to celebrate, there is a dance that occurs in the Vulgarian palace, before the Toymaker arrives to deliver his special gift. This dance is exquisite – every background player’s costume has been thoroughly designed. Every shade of purple is used in the ladies’ intricate gowns and accessories; every man’s suit/uniform is exquisitely tailored and festooned with military ribbons. In that sense, every background player looks like a principal actor. I couldn’t help but think about the background casting, wondering how much lead time they had to fabricate all of those gowns. It looks stunning, and I know for a fact that it was probably a nightmare to get it together. Hats off to the designers!
The Toymaker’s presentation: also known as the dancing doll number. Truly Scrumptious is dressed up as a dirndled Alpine peasant doll, complete with her hair in undulating, loopy braids – the hair is perfection! She pretends to be a mechanical doll (like no one will figure out she’s human!) as part of the Toymaker’s birthday present to the Baron. Her costume is very broad – simple, bright colors, very graphic. In fact, she looks like one of the decorated cookies from the Nut Tree that I used to get as a kid in the 1970s, but I digress. She sings a song and moves with clock-like precision. Caractacus enters the song/dance, dressed as a puppet on a string. He moves like the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz, spineless and droopy, with a floppy yarn wig and big gloved hands. His costume is a version of the traditional Alpine costume (cropped jacket, bundhosen), but again it is really 1968-ified with colorful embroidery and embellishment. The Baron is inspired, delighted at this performance, to join Caractacus in his dance, and while he is distracted by the fun, the children who have heretofore been hiding in the sewer of the city rush in and take over the palace.
In summary, this movie is worth a careful look. I was energized to see such mindful attention to detail in the costumes. It is not a perfect movie, but it is a magnificent achievement for the designers. So often we judge a movie by whether or not the costumes are period-perfect. In this case, it is not really about that. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is a fantasy film, and the period details are not as important as the telling of the story. It makes me a little bit exhausted to think about the work that went into this film, and I salute the costume designers for their beautiful effort. They have created lasting characters in our common film vernacular. They have created icons.