The Child Catcher – A Boogieman of the Silver Screen

This is my entry in The Great Villain Blogathon co-hosted by the wonderful Speakeasy (http://hqofk.wordpress.com/), Shadows and Satin (http://shadowsandsatin.wordpress.com/), and Silver Screenings (http://silverscreenings.org/). You can go to any one of their sites and find a list of all the fantastic entries that you should make a point to read.

The Child CatcherI hope you know everything that I do for you all. I was going to talk about the Joker from The Dark Knight (2008), but thinking about the villains who have stayed with me over the years, I came back to the one who frightens me the most out of all film antagonists. The Child Catcher from the 1968 musical, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Why the Child Catcher? The short of it is he scares the ever loven crap out of me. The long of it is…well, I’ll get into that below.

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was written by the movie’s director Ken Hughes and novelist Roald Dahl (author of many famous children’s books like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, and The Witches). It is a loose adaption of a book by James Bond creator Ian Fleming. Dahl’s script deviates greatly from the original Fleming novel with many characters and storylines existing only in the movie and large junks of the book being totally absent. The Child Catcher is one of those Dahl fabrications. The Child Catcher is also not the main villain. Actually, he doesn’t appear until an hour and forty minutes into the film, and when he does, he only has 5 to 10 minutes of screen time. As I will explain, he hardly needed any more time than that to sear himself into my mind forever.

Our story is set in the early 1900s and follows two British children and their father, Professor Caractacus Potts (played by Dick Van Dyke). Caractacus suffers from the not-having-a-British-accent-even-though-everyone-else-in-his-family-does-disease (aka, this came after Mary Poppins, 1964, and Dyke refused to attempt a British accent again). He’s also an eccentric inventor with a lot of enthusiasm for his work. His inventions sadly never bare fruit. Eventually, the three obtain an old junk car that was destined for the scrap heap. Potts quickly restores the car, and the three go on a beach picnic with their new friend Truly Scrumptious (played by Sally Ann Howes), an upper-class woman who’s father owns a candy factory.

Our four main characters.

Our four main characters.

The first half of the film consists of Potts trying to raise the money to buy the car. The second is made up of a story Potts’s tells his children during the picnic. In said story, the awful Baron of Vulgaria wants Potts’s new car, which can move through the water and fly through the sky in Potts’s story. Potts’s equally eccentric father (played by Lionel Jeffries), who takes trips to places like Alaska and Africa via a small shed, is mistaken for the professor and taken against his will to the fictional country. Our four heroes are off to save him and arrive in a land where there are no children. The Baron’s wife hates children and has issued a law banning them. When it’s discovered that two new children have arrived in Vulgaria, the Baron and Baroness send out soldiers and a special man to capture the kids.

A dastardly horse and carriage with a cage in the back then bursts out of the castle and rides down to the town. The man driving is dressed all in black. He’s gaunt, has a long nose (all the better to smell children with), long black hair, a skewed top-hat, and a terrifying, villainous smile. He has one purpose. To catch children, throw them in the castle dungeon, and throw away the key. He is the terrible Child Catcher as played by Robert Helpmann.

The Child Catcher wielding his giant, child catching net.

The Child Catcher wielding his giant, child catching net.

Helpmann was an accomplished Australian dancer, actor, theater director, and choreographer who by all accounts loved children. It may be odd that a man who adored children is playing a character who has scared the bejesus out of them for so many decades, but Helpmann plays the part with relish. It’s not what you would call an understated performance. Who am I kidding? It’s wildly over the top and very much a cartoon caricature in how he’s written, in how he looks, and how he’s played.

The Child Catcher walks around with a sinister walk and a giant net. He entices children with the promise of free candy and ice cream before capturing them in his small iron cage. The frightening smile hardly ever leaves his face while he does his job. He’s not trying to hide who he is. He’s not as richly layered as other villains, he wears everything there is to him on his sleeve, but that’s why he’s so creepy.

The Child Catcher after he's captured Potts's children.

The Child Catcher after he’s captured Potts’s children.

The man he is inside is reflected in how he looks. He’s just plain evil through and through. He’s more than a villain. He’s an otherworldly being. He’s the creature under the bed. He’s a boogieman of the silver screen. He’s a character who, in his few short scenes, is able to create a chilling, memorable monster who kids will remember well into adulthood. Yeah, he’s not a subtle creation, but I don’t think that’s the intent. He’s designed to be a nightmare. No more, no less. One of the tools he walks around with is a pole with a metal hook attached for Christ sake.

The Child CatcherIt’s a testament to Helpmann’s performance that the Child Catcher has made a number of lists for the most frightening villain/character of all time. He made Entertainment Weekly’s 2008 list of “50 Most Vile Movie Villains,” a couple Empire Magazine lists, a Digital Spy list, Total Film’s “Greatest Movie Villains” list, and a CBBC (Children’s British Broadcasting Corporation) poll voted him the scariest villain from a children’s book (despite him not actually being in the original novel). I’ll admit he doesn’t frighten me quite as much as when I was a kid, but he still scares the willies out of me whenever I see him.

What do I think of the rest of the movie? It’s pretty good. I liked it a lot more than when I was a kid. Everyone in the cast deliver solid roles, even the actors playing the kids do a good job. The characters are silly and corny sometimes, but they are always fun and never not interesting. For all the crap I and others give Dick Van Dyke about his “British accent” in Mary Poppins and his lack of one in this, he’s a fantastic actor. He gives a charming and natural performance in this film that’s a joy to watch. All but a song or two are catchy classics. It’s the Sherman Brothers, so how could you expect anything less. While he apparently hated the finished film and while stories make him out to be a pain in the butt to work with, Ken Hughes’s direction is superb. The film looks extremely modern in some places, the movie not feeling as 60s-ish as other musicals from around that time. Its cinematography is also gorgeous. It may have too leisurely and loose a plot, but it’s still a load of fun.

I’ve been avoiding this film for a long time. That’s partially down to the Child Catcher. I’m so glad I gave it another go, and if you’ve never caught it, I would give it a watch. Its characters, songs, jokes, direction, and villains all work, and after the credits roll to one more happy rendition of the title song, you’ll be checking your closet for the Child Catcher before you dare set foot in bed.

23 thoughts on “The Child Catcher – A Boogieman of the Silver Screen

  1. You know, I have never seen “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” in its entirety, and I see I’ve been missing out on a FAB villain! I mean, look at that wardrobe!

    I’m so glad you switched from The Joker to The Child Catcher. I really enjoyed this post and your observations. Thanks for including this. 🙂

    • I’m glad I switched, too. It allowed me to rediscover a film I had been avoiding for a long time. He is a very creepy villain. Again, he doesn’t appear until very late into the movie, and when he does, he only has a few short scenes. He’s so memorable, though. Glad you liked the post!

  2. I had no idea this was based on a book by Ian Fleming. Thanks for a great post! I loved this film as a child…but I used to look away when the Child Catcher showed up. I’d forgotten all about him (probably trying to expunge the fear from my memory). I loved your point that he’s so scary because of how obviously villainous he is. As soon as a villain acquires motives or layers, they don’t seem as frightening, anymore. 🙂

    • Oh, I totally understand. I’m a fully grown adult, and I still looked away from him a couple times.

      Yeah, I think a lot of people are surprised Fleming wrote the book. It may bare little resemblance to the movie in a lot of respects but its still an odd topic for the man who wrote James Bond.

      And thank you so much! So glad you liked it! 🙂

  3. Yes, the child catcher creeped me out mightily in my youth! I was in shock when I found out last year that he’s the same dancer in Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes! How could the child catcher be this wonderful fellow? Just points out to Helpmann’s skills as a dancer and actor. He does give that child catcher some graceful movements while trying to catch the kids. Enjoyed this post a lot!

  4. Great post. I had no idea Dahl was responsible for the screenplay, but it makes sense now I think about it. For me, the Child Catcher is on par with Margaret Hamilton’s Wicked Witch – I was terrified of both as a child as they both encapsulated a very particular kind of malice. Funny how both roles ended up defining the actor’s for the rest of their lives: sometimes there’s just no escaping a character that’s so beloved and iconic.

    • Yeah, the movie has a very Dahl feel. You made me think. It’s funny you mentioned Hamilton and the Wicked Witch, because she also liked kids a lot. Funny she is so well known for a part that so scares kids, as well. It seems the nicest people have a habit of playing the meanest/scariest characters.

      Thanks for stopping by! 🙂

  5. great pick, the stuff of childhood nightmares for sure. That surreal, cartoonish look adds so much to the effect, this one drills into kids heads about stranger danger. If only real life baddies were so easily identifiable. Thanks so much for joining in the event!

  6. I KNEW I had really bad memories of “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” for a reason. Now I know why! I only vaguely remember the character, but the entire Vulgaria sequence was bizarre and creepy. I’m not sure I’m brave enough to revisit the movie as an adult. (Kidding…slightly.)
    Great post, and excellent choice of movie villain for the blogathon!

    • I felt the exact same way about the film. I had memories of the Vulgaria sequence being so weird and not in a good way. It’s another reason I didn’t watch the movie for so many years. The Child Catcher didn’t help…at all. If you’re anything like me, though, the film won’t be nearly as weird this time around.

      So glad you enjoyed the post. Thanks for stopping by! 🙂

  7. I really enjoyed your write-up, although I’ve never seen Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. The book was a favorite of mine as a child, and I when I finally got a chance to see the movie, I was so disappointed that it was so different from the book. So, sadly (or, maybe, fortunately!), I never got a chance to see the Child Catcher!

    • I’ve never read the book. So I don’t know all the changes, but I can imagine your frustration. I’ve felt the same way about many a book to movie adaptions. If you can look past the changes, it’s pretty entertaining, though.

      Thanks for stopping by! So glad you enjoyed the post! 🙂

  8. His nightmarish quality makes sense, given it’s from the head of Dahl. I loved this actor in The Red Shoes. I’ll have to watch the movie in the middle of an afternoon though, huh? Doesn’t seem like a film for nighttime viewing, even for an adult:) Leah

    • That’s a good point about Dahl. He really had the mind and creativity for inventing those types of characters.

      And haha. Yeah, maybe an afternoon viewing would be best.

      Thanks for stopping by! 🙂

  9. Heather Rippley – who played Jemima Potts in the movie – said Robert Helpmann was one of the most charming people she had ever met and both her and Adrian Hall (who played Jeremy) said they sometimes couldn’t get through filming scenes with him because he was constantly making them laugh.

    Bobby stated in an interview once that, despite the fact he enjoyed being in the film, he regretted it a bit afterwards because the kids he taught dance lessons to were afraid of him after seeing the movie.

  10. I just watched this on Netflix the other day and the child catcher still freaks me out! But it is definitely a classic! Does anyone else find the wicked witch of the west still scary from The Wizard of Oz?

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