Caractacus Potts: great human

I don’t know why the film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is so popular with children. The centrepiece of the movie occurs in the state of Vulgaria, where children are reduced to the status of vermin, scavenging for food in various dank and dirty cellars. Those who manage to escape into open country are ruthlessly snared by an astonishingly evil and big-nosed child catcher, who exhibits them in his cage for the paedophobic Baroness to inspect. All the toys manufactured in the land are for the exclusive use of the Baron, who in spite of being many years older than his wife is himself an overgrown child. Yet the attractive Baroness dotes on her husband, remaining loyally by his side even after he has been deposed. What possible pleasure could a child derive from such a grim and unnatural setting?

The children are rescued from their plight by a pitchfork rebellion instigated by Caractacus Potts, a widower whose own offspring are imprisoned in the Baron’s castle. I question whether this is the right message for the children of today. Violent revolutions have a poor track-record in human history, often fomenting a reign of terror in which the masses reminisce nostalgically about the ancien régime. As the children’s ideological mentor, one might have expected Mr Potts, an Englishman, to advocate a more measured approach. The Baron, perhaps, could have been forced to sign a Magna Carta and accept a new position as a constitutional head of state. And storming the castle on the Baron’s birthday was a mean-spirited decision, more befitting embittered proletarians than fun-loving children.

Yet Caractacus Potts reveals himself as a man of exemplary character when his children demand that he weds Truly Scrumptious. Being a gentleman of the old school, Mr Potts is deeply embarrassed, even though Miss Scrumptious is evidently charmed by the idea. He observes that a union between a penniless inventor such as he and a wealthy heiress such as she would be unthinkable. Nowadays, many would deride Mr Potts’ behaviour as a load of snobbish nonsense, but a gorilla understands the importance of hierarchy in mating decisions. A certain degree of reticence in such matters helps to preserve a climate in which the raffish adventurer is discouraged from soliciting the affection (and possibly infiltrating the petticoat) of the well-bred maiden. The removal of all inhibitions in such matters has done little for the moral health of the human species, which is now infested with scheming gold-diggers at every street corner.

Mr Potts is ready to propose marriage only when he discovers that he too has acquired a fortune as a result of one of his inventions. In his excitement, he rushes to inform Miss Scrumptious of his new-found wealth and kisses her on the lips.

“Well, Mr Potts, now you really will have to marry me!” exclaims the startled Miss Scrumptious.

Although they laugh at this humorous conceit, it is an apt note on which to end the film. Children should learn that a kiss is not purely a sensual embrace and may often lead to more significant things. This is not to say that a gentleman should always marry the first woman he kisses – that would certainly be going too far. But I think it is correct to say that a gentleman should never kiss a woman on the lips unless he is open to the possibility of marrying her. It is subtle points of etiquette like this that preserve humanity from chaos of the bacchanal orgy.
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