Oct. 15, 2008

The Love Bug (1968)
Grade: 63/100

Director: Robert Stevenson
Stars: Dean Jones, Buddy Hackett, David Tomlinson

What it's about. Set in San Francisco. Dean Jones is a washed up minor league race car driver, who lives with his wacky welder friend, Buddy Hackett. One day, Jones walks past the showroom of pompous British auto dealer/racer David Tomlinson. He is enticed inside, not by the race cars on sale, but by the legs of Tomlinson's right hand woman, Michele Lee.

The showroom includes a humble Volkswagon Beetle. It falls for Jones, and follows him home. This forces Jones to buy it. The Beetle, named Herbie by the irrepressible Hackett, compels Jones to date Lee. For some reason, Jones enters it in races, which Herbie wins at the expense of Tomlinson. Now Tomlinson is obsessed with getting Herbie back, so he can exact revenge by destroying it.

A wager is placed on an upcoming long distance race, with Herbie's existence at stake. By this time he is owned by sly Asian-American businessman Benson Fong, although Jones is still the driver. Can Herbie beat Tomlinson's racecar? Remember, it is a Disney movie.

How others will see it. The plot is ridiculous, the events are preposterous, the dialogue is exaggerated, and the characters are simplistic. In other words, it's a good lightweight screwball comedy. Those who can see it as such will find it amusing. It also helps that Lee (best known for her later role in "Knots Landing") is fine eye candy.

How I felt about it. Yes, The Love Bug is silly. Very silly. But if you can accept the premise that a Volkswagon Beetle can drive itself and go faster than a Jaguar, then you are free to have a good laugh at the utter nonsense of it all. Still, one has to wonder why Tomlinson is so much better at racing than all the other drivers, and why he bothers to sell cars if he can win every race that Herbie isn't in.

Deacon Jones was on a roll by the time of The Love Bug. With That Darn Cat! (1965), he replaced Fred MacMurray as the face of Disney live action comedies. His run continued through Snowball Express (1972), with the occasional later vehicles, such as Herbie sequels and The Shaggy D.A.. As a male lead, Jones is a straight man with romantic appeal to young moms, an essential quality since it is the moms who take their kids to the movies. Jones projects 'bad boy' in sufficiently watered down fashion that he lacks the machismo appeal to men that, for example, Steve McQueen had. That was fine with Disney, who only wanted someone to plausibly pair with Sandy Duncan in Million Dollar Duck..

The villain here is Tomlinson, best known for his role as the meanie banker in Mary Poppins. After Julie Andrews works her nanny magic on him, he is reformed, and sings "Let's Go Fly a Kite" with suffragette Glynis Johns.

Tomlinson has no such moment of awakening in The Love Bug. He remains a scheming, ill-tempered foil to the very end. Good for him.