This Day in History - December 18

Director Steven Spielberg born

On this day in 1946, Steven Spielberg, who will become one of the most successful directors in modern movie history with such blockbusters as Jaws, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan, is born in Cincinnati, Ohio.

After studying film at California State University, Spielberg directed his first full-length feature, the 1971 thriller Duel, which starred Dennis Weaver and originally aired on television, to strong reviews. Spielberg’s first directorial effort to be released in theaters was 1974’s The Sugarland Express, starring Goldie Hawn. The young director grabbed Hollywood’s attention with his next film, Jaws (1975), about a killer shark that terrorizes a beach community. Jaws,which co-starred Richard Dreyfuss and Roy Scheider, became the first movie in history to gross over $100 million.

Spielberg’s next film, the UFO-themed Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), also starred Dreyfuss and achieved similar box-office success. It was followed by yet another massive hit, 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark, which starred Harrison Ford as the adventurous archeologist Indiana Jones. The movie, co-written by George Lucas (Star Wars), was nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. It became a successful movie franchise, with Spielberg helming the sequels: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) and Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull (2008).

Spielberg’s Midas touch continued with the 1982 sci-fi drama E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, about a boy (played by Henry Thomas) who befriends an alien. The movie was an enormous commercial and critical success, earning nine Oscar nominations. Spielberg turned away from action thrillers and special effects with 1985’s The Color Purple, based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1982 novel of the same name by Alice Walker about a young black woman growing up in the South in the early 20th century. The film, which featured Whoopi Goldberg, Danny Glover and Oprah Winfrey, received 11 Oscar nominations.

Spielberg’s 1991 film Hook was based on J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan and starred Dustin Hoffman, Robin Williams and Julia Roberts. Although Hook did well at the box office, it received mixed reviews. Spielberg’s next film, 1993’s Jurassic Park, based on Michael Crichton’s sci-fi novel about cloned dinosaurs, featured cutting-edge, computer-generated special effects and became one of the top-grossing movies in history. Also that year, Spielberg helmed the Holocaust drama Schindler’s List, which starred Liam Neeson in the title role and earned Spielberg his first Best Director Academy Award. He earned his second Best Director Oscar for 1998’s World War II drama Saving Private Ryan, which featured an ensemble cast that included Tom Hanks and Matt Damon.

Spielberg went on to direct such films as A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001), Minority Report (2002), with Tom Cruise; Catch Me if You Can (2002), with Leonardo DiCaprio; and Munich (2005), which earned Spielberg another Best Director Oscar nomination.

In addition to writing and directing, Spielberg has served as a producer on a variety of television and film projects, including the 2001 HBO series Band of Brothers and Clint Eastwood’s Flags of our Fathers (2006) and Letters from Iwo Jima (2006). Spielberg was married to the actress Amy Irving (Crossing Delancey) from 1985 to 1989 and has been married to the actress Kate Capshaw (Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom) since 1991.

“Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” opens in New York

On this day in 1968, the musical film “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” opens in New York City. The movie featured Dick Van Dyke, who had made a splash four years before in the Disney musical “Mary Poppins” and whose eponymous TV show had been a hit since 1961. Its real star, however, was Chitty Chitty Bang Bang herself: a magical flying car that always knew how to save the day.

The movie, based on the only novel by Ian Fleming that is not about James Bond, takes place in the early part of the 20th century and tells the story of Caractacus Potts (Van Dyke), an eccentric and unsuccessful inventor who lives in a windmill with his two children and their batty grandfather. The children spot a broken-down old racing car at the local junkyard and ask their father for 30 shillings to buy it; to raise the money, Potts tries to sell “whistling sweets” (that is, candy pieces that whistle) to local chocolate magnate Lord Scrumptious. When the whistling turns out to be more compelling to dogs than to people, Potts gets a job performing as a folk dancer in a musical revue at the county fair. Soon he earns enough to buy the car and fix it up. He drives her to a family picnic at the seashore, where Potts tells his children a fanciful tale about Chitty Chitty’s magical powers. She could sail over the ocean and float through the sky, he said, and she would always use her powers to rescue children who were in trouble. As the family putters home after their day of picnicking and storytelling, they are so happy that they don’t notice that the story was true: Their magical car really can fly!

Chitty Chitty was based on three real cars, also named Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, owned and raced by a British count. The filmmakers didn’t use those actual cars in the movie, though. instead, they built one careful replica that was more than 17 feet long and weighed two tons. For the flying and swimming scenes, they used prop versions instead.

When it was released, the film did get a few good reviews–“There is nothing coy, or stodgy or too frightening about the film,” The New York Times said, “and this year, when it has seemed highly doubtful that children ought to go to the movies at all, ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’ sees to it that none of the audience’s terrific eagerness to have a good time is betrayed or lost”–but for the most part critics hated it. (Leonard Maltin called the film “one big Edsel”–a reference to the Ford Motor Company’s famous flop.) A stage musical based on the film played in London’s West End from 2002 to 2005. A Broadway production opened in April 2005, but closed after just 285 performances.

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