On this day in 1968, the musical film “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” opens in New York City. The movie featured Dick Van Dyke, who had made a splash four years before in the Disney musical “Mary Poppins” and whose eponymous TV show had been a hit since 1961. Its real star, however, was Chitty Chitty Bang Bang herself: a magical flying car that always knew how to save the day.
The movie, based on the only novel by Ian Fleming that is not about James Bond, takes place in the early part of the 20th century and tells the story of Caractacus Potts (Van Dyke), an eccentric and unsuccessful inventor who lives in a windmill with his two children and their batty grandfather. The children spot a broken-down old racing car at the local junkyard and ask their father for 30 shillings to buy it; to raise the money, Potts tries to sell “whistling sweets” (that is, candy pieces that whistle) to local chocolate magnate Lord Scrumptious. When the whistling turns out to be more compelling to dogs than to people, Potts gets a job performing as a folk dancer in a musical revue at the county fair. Soon he earns enough to buy the car and fix it up. He drives her to a family picnic at the seashore, where Potts tells his children a fanciful tale about Chitty Chitty’s magical powers. She could sail over the ocean and float through the sky, he said, and she would always use her powers to rescue children who were in trouble. As the family putters home after their day of picnicking and storytelling, they are so happy that they don’t notice that the story was true: Their magical car really can fly!
Chitty Chitty was based on three real cars, also named Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, owned and raced by a British count. The filmmakers didn’t use those actual cars in the movie, though. instead, they built one careful replica that was more than 17 feet long and weighed two tons. For the flying and swimming scenes, they used prop versions instead.
When it was released, the film did get a few good reviews–“There is nothing coy, or stodgy or too frightening about the film,” The New York Times said, “and this year, when it has seemed highly doubtful that children ought to go to the movies at all, ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’ sees to it that none of the audience’s terrific eagerness to have a good time is betrayed or lost”–but for the most part critics hated it. (Leonard Maltin called the film “one big Edsel”–a reference to the Ford Motor Company’s famous flop.) A stage musical based on the film played in London’s West End from 2002 to 2005. A Broadway production opened in April 2005, but closed after just 285 performances.