Oct 22 2010 12:35pm

Frequency Rotation: Lionel Jeffries and friends, “The Roses of Success”

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang

Each week, Frequency Rotation digs up a different song with a science fiction or fantasy theme. Genre, musical quality, and overall seriousness may vary.

In honor of Steampunk Fortnight, I figured I’d pick a steampunk-themed song for this week’s installment of Frequency Rotation. Easy, right? After all, there are dozens of bands out there today hoisting the steampunk banner. But rather than pick a new song by a new artist, I wanted to go back a little further. How much further? 1968: the year of the great, often overlooked steampunk milestone, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

As Stephen Hunt pointed out in his Great Steampunk Timeline earlier this week, the cinema of the 1960s flirted with the style of retro-futurism that would become known as steampunk. Hunt didn’t mention Chitty Chitty Bang Bang—his Timeline clearly wasn’t meant to be all-inclusive—but there’s no denying that the film’s Edwardian airships and brass contraptions strongly evoke steampunk’s celebration of spectacle, anachronism, and ingenuity.

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang

But besides the fact that the movie has, you know, a flying car circa 1910, it pumps out some honest-to-God steam. In the musical number “The Roses of Success,” the eccentric Grandpa Potts—father of fellow inventor Caractacus Potts, possessor of the most steampunk name in history—is jailed in a workshop in the fictional nation of Vulgaria and forced to help devise a floating, flying car. The philosophical message of “Roses” may as well be steampunk’s motto: “Every shiny dream that fades and dies / generates the steam for two more tries!”

Grandpa Potts is played superbly by actor Lionel Jeffries, who died in February of this year after a long and respectable career. It’s worth noting that in 1967, the year before Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was released, Jeffries also starred in another of the decade’s steampunk-flavored films, Jules Verne’s Rocket to the Moon. Rocket was released in the States under the name Those Fantastic Flying Fools—not to be confused with 1965’s vaguely steampunkish Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines—and it echoes, albeit in a sillier fashion, the 1902 steampunk cornerstone, A Trip to the Moon.

Like A Trip to the Moon, Rocket is loosely based on a bona fide steampunk classic, Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon. As Hunt’s Timeline mentions, the midcentury saw some other Verne adaptations make it to the big screen, namely 1954’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and 1969’s Captain Nemo and the Underwater City. What sets Chitty Chitty Bang Bang apart is the fact that it’s based on a far fresher source: the 1964 children’s book of the same name written by James Bond creator Ian Fleming.

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang by Ian Fleming

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’s screenplay was co-written by Roald Dahl, which makes sense, seeing as how the scenes set in the Scrumptious Sweet Company uncannily parallel parts of Dahl’s own book from 1964, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. (Although Charlie himself wouldn’t make it to the big screen until 1971.) But what’s even more interesting to the steampunk fan is Scrumptious’s elaborate, clockwork Toot Sweet Machine—also known as the Humbug Major Sweet Machine, a real-life kinetic sculpture built by the great Frederick Rowland Emett, a man who should be awarded some kind of posthumous Steampunk Nobel Prize. (The Toot Sweet Machine is the first gizmo in the video below.)

And just in case you need any more proof of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’s steampunk pedigree, here is the film’s title song, along with the scene that accompanies it—complete with goggles, a race against a steam train, and the wheezing engine of the fantabulous auto that jumpstart the song’s pistonlike rhythm. People nowadays like to gripe about the fact that the 21st century has arrived, yet they haven’t gotten their futuristic flying car. Me, I’ll take the rickety one from 1910 any day.

Jason Heller writes for The A.V. Club, plays guitar in some bands, and will have “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” stuck in his head all goddamn day now. His debut novel will be published by Quirk Books/Random House in 2012.

1. KwanTi
It saddens me that you omit mention of Lionel Jeffries great performance of "POSH," while dangling from the Vulgarian's airship in his garden shed. That has been my favorite scene from that movie for years.
Bridget McGovern
2. BMcGovern
Wow--I haven't seen this movie in more than 20 years, but I loved it when I was little...I also had no idea that Roald Dahl worked on the screenplay (although I knew that he and Fleming worked for MI6 together during WWII for awhile...all part of the great spying/chocolate/flying car secret intelligence conspiracy, I guess :) Anyway, this was brilliant--totally worth the inevitable Chitty Chitty earworm!
3. kid_greg
This brought fond memories. At my grade school they use to show movies like this in the cafeteria/autotorium ( back before VCR/DVD and the movie had to be showed on via real projector) for like $1 and $0.10 for a bag of pop-corn. I had forgotten about seeing Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. That was a real good time.
Del C
4. del
Rocket to the Moon was not Lionel Jeffries' first retro moon movie.  He earlier played Joseph Cavor in the 1964 adaptation of H G Wells' First Men in the Moon.  Mark Gatiss wrote and played Cavor in a new BBC version this year, and dedicated it to Jeffries.  
5. Bohemi-mom
I loved this movie when it was new..I was almost 7...and I quickly bought a used video of it for my own daughter, age 5...she adores it! Of course, she is a chippette off the old block...she also loves the animated Atlantis and her brother,7, who just happens to have Down Syndrome, loves The Great Mouse Detective, which is also quite the steamy adventure too, being based on the Basil of Baker Street book series inspired by that *other* detective on the street, a fan of whom I've been too since a child...I guess the acorns didn't fall far from the tree! I love my kids and sharing steampunk adventures with them...oh and did I mention my kids know all the words to "Whale of a Tale" from 20,000 Leagues..yes that gets a lot runs here!
6. Story Cottage
I have always loved the movie. As an adult I finally found and read Fleming's book it was "based" on. What a waste of time! I can't stand the book on so many levels. Mercifully it is short - and Dahl was able to create a masterpiece starting with the concept of a transforming car.
8. a-j
Well, I loved the book as a child, in fact I think I may have read it before seeing the film. Loved the film too except for the ending.

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