Our weekly series in which writers revisit for the first time in ages their youthful passions and reconsider how well they hold up with the passage of time.
“Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” is not quite the same movie I recall, but even my fractured memory of it has exerted undue influence over the course of my life. Until yesterday, I thought the plot was “two kids get kidnapped, their inventor dad uses his magical car to rescue them from Germany.” I remembered it was scary and weird, with the second best soundtrack in the world, after “The Sound of Music.”
I was incorrect on almost every front, although the theme song remains a beltable classic.
First, I spent my formative years in Saudi Arabia, where the only VHS tapes available were censored to bits. Airport security operated with such devastating precision that they once confiscated my copy of New Kids on the Block”s controversial concert documentary “Step by Step.”. Our episodes of “Full House” were fifteen minutes long, because Uncle Jesse and Aunt Becky never touched. Consequently, while CCBB on Amazon prime clocks in at 2.5 hours, cutting out all the intersex contact, joyful dancing etc., my bazaar-bought tape was probably about an hour, but clearly I had just watched the same bananas half over and over again.
I was five when we moved to Riyadh from the UK, and sought comfort in the repetitive viewing of all things scary and weird. My new American school was so adamantly cheerful! The first grade teacher stared at me with a wilting smile when I shared the exciting details of my favorite book, George”s Marvelous Medicine.
“This kid wants to kill his grandmother, so he -“
“- What else do you like?”
“The Twits? Two monkeys kill their owners.”
I was steered away from Dahl, toward Seuss (still tedious to me) and patted too firmly on the head.
After playacting at being American every day, and always failing due to accent and constitutional grimness, I came home after school and popped our worn copy of CCBB in the VCR. I beamed when the malnourished children staged their machete-wielding rebellion, recoiled from the child-catcher with his prosthetic Roxanne nose, was disgusted by the corpulent Baron and his ghastly wife who liked diamonds more than humans. Point being, it”s about a bunch of kids who want to get rid of some grownups, and Roald Dahl wrote it. Watching felt like wrapping myself in a familiar blanket of delicious unease, except we didn”t have blankets, because we were in the G.D. desert.
Re-watching it last night, I realized I had just been playing the ending on loop. The movie actually unfolds thus: Dick van Dyke is Caractacus Potts, a penniless inventor who seems to waste all of his time making whistling sweets and tinkering with a junky old car. Serendipitously, his truant ragamuffin kids meet and bewitch a Ms. Truly Scrumptious, the nice (unmarried) heiress to a candy factory. Truly has faith in Dad”s inventions, unlike their jerk roommate, Grandpa. Dad takes them all out for a picnic and story time, and they tumble into his tall tale.
A Slavic baron is so desperate for the eponymous car that he kidnaps Jerk Grandpa, and the family has to fly it to the made-up land of Vulgaria to save him. During their mission, they discover the Baroness banished all Vulgarian children with the help of a creepy net-wielding “child-catcher,” and Benny Hill has been hiding them in a grotto under the castle. After organizing the cave children in a coup, the family returns safe and sound to the beach where the story began. The heretofore-useless whistling sweets are discovered to be an irresistible dog treat, seeding a Potts fortune. Dad and heiress decide to get married, the end.
It turns out that seeing a movie a few hundred times over the course of five years will give a small child some big ideas. I suspect my pathological truancy was not a result of spontaneous generation, but that a small seed lodged deep in my spongy brain within the first ten minutes of this subversive film. When Truly reports to their dad that the children have been skipping school, he shrugs and says it”ll give the other kids time to catch up. When I missed 52 sessions of AP physics in 1996 because I was, oh, reading a novel somewhere, it was most likely driven by a similar well of concern for the academic welfare of my peers.
The Baroness of Vulgaria became my Platonic childhood ideal of villainy. With her hair shellacked into a curly helmet, drowning in diamonds, fainting with disgust at the sight of children, she repulsed me to the core. In spending a lifetime running away from her, the Baroness has shaped the woman I became: one with an inexplicable aversion to personal upkeep and jewelry. If you want to raise a 35-year-old who doesn”t know how to brush her hair properly or accessorize, I have a kitchen-tested recipe for you.
The most marked effect, of course, is also the most obvious. Potts is a brilliant, prolific, imaginative tinkerer with his head in the clouds. Lean and twinkly-eyed, his youthful energy rendering him perennially 14, he wanders around the house muttering to himself, adjusting and re-adjusting his array of outlandish projects, having boundless faith that one or more will pay off. His family is delighted by his eccentricity, and they are enthusiastic passengers on his unlikely train to success. Five was definitely too early for me to recognize a “type,” but in no great coincidence, I did marry a comedy writer.
On second viewing, the details of the film (Infinite grand prix montage? Multiple love songs? Blech!) are much less important than the way it made me feel, and the way I feel about it still. Out of curiosity I looked up a few old reviews, which are mixed. My favorite dismisses it as “just” a movie for children, which is ridiculous for two reasons. 1) of course it”s for children, the title is an onomatopoeia. 2) Roald Dahl, despite his many character flaws, excelled at making children feel like he was writing specifically for them, dark creepy thoughts and all. At the end of my obsessive CCBB run, when I was 9, I wrote a letter to Dahl to thank him for creating so many of my favorite things. He died right after I sent it, and it seemed appropriate, somehow, to believe for many years that I had been the cause.
Priyanka Mattoo has had every job in entertainment. Follow her twitter.com/@naanking.
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