On Disney+, at least on my version of the home screen, there is often a section titled “Nostalgic movies.” Sometimes it is there, sometimes it is not, and I have no idea when it will display. The artificial intelligence controlling these things is a fickle creature. When it does come up, it speaks to an old fuddy-duddy like me. Perhaps I am not being charitable to myself. I am not that old. Yet, if you were to guess my age based on what Disney+ thinks I want to watch, then I would probably be well into my eighties. I have seen the original The Parent Trap (1961) dozens of times. Recently I reviewed The Absent Minded Professor (1961), and even before I got the streaming service I had covered Swiss Family Robinson (1960). I will take old school Disney over the new stuff most of the time. This is why today you are getting The Love Bug (1968).
It is not until well into The Love Bug that we get to meet Herbie, the title Volkswagen Beetle, who is actually given a credit. Instead, we are first introduced to struggling race car driver Jim Douglas (Dean Jones) and his goofball mechanic Tennessee Steinmetz (Buddy Hackett). A series of unfortunate wrecks have slipped Jim further into the ignominy of demolition derby races. With the destruction of his latest car, he heads into the city to find a cheap, new set of wheels. Walking past an expensive European imported car dealership, he is enticed by two sights. The first is a flashy yellow sports car, and the other is a flash of a set of legs belonging to saleswoman Carole Bennett (Michele Lee). It is the car that, after a fashion (he bumps his head on the window when Carole startles him while staring at the automobile), brings him into the showroom. Carole’s boss, Peter Thorndyke (David Tomlinson), is eager to make a sale, but quickly rescinds his flowery approach when he learns how much Jim is willing to spend. This is when we finally meet Herbie, who rolls into the midst of them on his own, much to Peter’s annoyance. Jim defends the “little car” (a running nickname for Herbie), but leaves soon thereafter. Unknown to Jim, Herbie follows him home. Jim does not find out until the next morning when he is awakened by a police detective who is there to arrest him for grand theft auto. Jim tries to clear up the matter by taking the car back to Peter, but charges are dropped only after Jim agrees to buy Herbie for monthly payments. It is while Jim attempts to bring Herbie home, legally this time, that he begins to see Herbie’s willful side. Herbie is too frightened to get on the freeway, and refuses, taking Jim on a crazy ride. He attempts to take the car back, but when Carole goes with Jim so he can demonstrate Herbie’s idiosyncrasies, the little car behaves normally, for the most part. Herbie does decide that Carole and Jim should be together and does everything an automobile can do to make two people a couple. It is Tennessee, with his Tibetan born spirituality (not making this part up), who understands Herbie from the start. For Jim, the little car is nothing other than his next racer, and Tennessee convinces Herbie to go along with it, and not to win by too wide of a margin in order not to arouse any suspicion. The person who is suspicious from the start is Peter. Because of the abuse that he had heaped upon Herbie, Herbie retaliates by spitting out oil on Peter, and generally making a fool of the dealership manager at every opportunity. When Peter sees in the papers the success that Jim is having with Herbie, Peter desires to get even. His answer is to enter into the races himself, thinking the superior vehicles he drives will put Herbie in his place. Herbie wins every time, which only increases Peter’s aggravation. It also inflates Jim’s opinion of himself, thinking that he is once more on top of the racing game based upon his own talents. To get more information, Peter asks Carole to start dating Jim, even though they had already been seeing each other. Things come to a head, though, when Carole quits the dealership to be with Jim full time, only to find that Jim is willing to chuck Herbie for a brand-new sports car similar to the one he had first seen. Herbie does not react kindly, and neither does Carole, who had been filled in on Herbie’s personality by Tennessee. Before Jim can sell Herbie to Peter, the little car wrecks Jim’s new purchase and takes off into the night. After Tennessee finally convinces Jim of Herbie having a mind of his own, Jim goes in search of Herbie. Herbie accidentally runs through a Chinese grocery store, and Jim saves him from jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge. The store owner, Tang Wu (Benson Fong), decides to drop the matter when Jim agrees to enter the upcoming El Dorado race in exchange for all the prize money. On the eve of the race, Tang also makes a wager with Peter, betting his dealership for Herbie. Proceeding the first day of the cross-country meet, Peter is in the lead and Herbie is sadly beaten up. It looks like the little car is defeated, and Peter comes to gloat. Doing so springs Herbie back to life, and after some repairs, Carole, Jim, and Tennessee are back on the road the next day. Those fixes cannot prevent Herbie from beginning to break apart just as they are coming into the final stretch. To everyone’s astonishment, particularly Peter’s, Herbie splits in two, with one half finishing in first, and the other in third. We end with Peter working in Tang’s new car dealership.
This might sound kind of strange, but The Love Bug is as close to a hippie Disney movie as the Mouse ever produced. It is significant that the film comes out in 1968 and is set in San Francisco. By this time, the famous Haight Ashbury district had become hippie central, and there are direct references made to the neighborhood in the film. There are also a few of its long-haired denizens seen in the movie, vapidly smiling from inside their Volkswagen Buses. The connections to this movement are also ephemeral. There are the moments when Tennessee explains his spiritual awakening that he had when he traveled to Tibet and conversed with Buddhist monks. This fits with what hippies were trying to accomplish, though with Tennessee it is played for laughs. Some of his other thoughts are pretty “far out,” such as when he basically describes Herbie as being proof that one day machines are going to take over the world. Now, where have I heard that plot before. . . ? At any rate, the title itself would not suggest a post-apocalyptic world of killer robots, but a hippie movie if I ever heard one. I would even posit that it is from this movie that Volkswagen shed its roots to its Nazi past (the Beetle, by the way, was originally developed under the Third Reich), and became the vehicle of the counter culture. What a world.
The statement in The Love Bug that I will use as my entrée into my Catholic analysis is when Jim describes Herbie as one of a kind. It is a little more detailed, actually, than this clichéd phrase. He talks about how there are thousands of cars made, and that out of those only one or two of them are truly different. Many will roll their eyes at such fluffery, or take the cynical line and say that it is true, that most people are pretty much the same, except for ourselves, of course. I say people because, even though this line is said before Jim had accepted the truth about Herbie, it applies because the car does become somewhat anthropomorphized. These words stand out to this Catholic reviewer because they fly in the face of what we are taught about every one of God’s creations. Seeing the sameness of others aside from ourselves is a sin of pride. Because God imbues each of us with our own special characteristics, we should celebrate every creation for its incredible variety. Ultimately, despite his earlier statement, this is where Jim lands in his character development. He comes to treasure Herbie as the special individual he is, even if he is a car. If only we could all care for one another in a similar fashion.
I recommend The Love Bug. The hippie connections are a bit strange. Further, its antics are reminiscent of something out of Looney Tunes. Luckily for me, I like Looney Tunes, and could probably still watch those cartoons today if the desire struck me. I was also a little taken aback by seeing a car trying to commit suicide. Otherwise, it is a light hearted movie throughout, that genuinely had me laughing in certain parts.