How ‘The Trouble With Harry’ still affects the 007 franchise

Our co-publisher has sounded the alarm on how troubles at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Inc. could imperil the movie future of James Bond. But in many ways, it’s merely the latest chapter of “The Trouble With Harry.”

Harry, of course, is Harry Saltzman who launched the Bond series with partner Albert R. Broccoli with 1962’s Dr. No. Saltzman, though, was never satisified with only doing 007 movies. He did other movie projects and got involved with business ventures. He ended up pledging his half of Danjaq LLC (and its production company, Eon Productions) as collateral to banks. As chronicled in the documentary Inside the Spy Who Loved Me, the banks began to foreclose, freezing operations at Danjaq/Eon for a time.

The situation was resolved when United Artists Corp., the studio that rleased the Bond movies, bought Saltzman’s half in the mid-1970s, and gained a direct ownership interest. Over the next two decades, UA got absorbed by MGM and MGM’s ownership changed hands multiple times. Danjaq/Eon largely retained creative control but studio types exercised influence. One small example: In GoldenEye, Bond’s original car was to have been as Aston Martin but the studio struck a deal instead of with BMW AG.

The Harry Saltzman deal thus tied 007’s future to a studio where the words “uncertain outlook” stick like glue. The trouble with Harry continues to haunt 007. For now, the words “uncertain outlook” also stick to James Bond.

Some editorial pissing and moaning

Much as been discussed, amongst James Bond fans, about the current news covering the financial implosion of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, as the once-great studio slides into ignominious dissolution. This article at Deadline Hollywood can bring you up to speed on all the details. Suffice it to say that the future of the James Bond film series looks a little dicey right now.

Most Bond fans, while not necessarily shrugging it off, point to the six-year delay (due to Danjaq’s lawsuit against MGM/UA,) between Licence to Kill and GoldenEye as evidence that the series has “survived” similar problems in the past.
MGM logo

Survived” being the operative word…

The difference between then and now is that, back in 1989, the series was running on inertia if not actually beginning to wind down. The success of The Living Daylights notwithstanding, Timothy Dalton wasn’t the big hit with audiences the studio was expecting, and Licence to Kill, capping off an uneven decade of John Glen cookie-cutter entries, sputtered at the box office during the summer of Batman. Nevertheless, there was in the background a continuing, palpable desire on the audience’s part to see Pierce Brosnan take up the role of James Bond. That unextinguished flame helped light the way for the triumphal return of the series with 1995’s GoldenEye. That was then.

Now we have a “rebooted” series, telling a (new) story of the 007’s career from the beginning, starring one of the most popular and critically-acclaimed actors in the role in history. Chapters 1 and 2 have been enormously successful, and worldwide interest in James Bond hasn’t been this high in decades. But, despite all that momentum, the producers got “tired,” distracted with other projects, and otherwise futzed around with planning the next film — so now there’s nothing in the pipeline when the studio goes kerflooey.

Here’s the situation I think the James Bond movies are in: the production company, which owns half of the property, is ambivalent about its commitment to the property. The bankrupt studio, which owns the other half, isn’t going to let one of its few remaining assets get away while fighting for its survival. So… nobody else can make a James Bond movie, and the people who can can’t afford it, and maybe aren’t all that interested in going to all that work anyhow. It’s probably going to take years for things to sort out, after which 1. Their popular leading man will, almost certainly, be gone — and with no heir apparent in sight; and 2. Audience interest will have found other things to glom on to.

Sorry to be pessimistic, but I think this is a serious setback for the James Bond movie series — a setback which it’s going to have to, once again, “survive.” How many lives does this cinematic cat have? It survived On Her Majesty’s Secret Service‘s box office drubbing because Sean Connery came back for one more; it survived Connery permanently leaving due to the popularity Roger Moore brought with him; it survived The Man with the Golden Gun‘s failure because EON (and newly-sole proprietor Cubby Broccoli) went balls-to-the-wall making The Spy Who Loved Me; it survived Licence to Kill because people still wanted to see Pierce Brosnan as James Bond.

It’s been 47 years and 22 screen adventures for our favorite “gentleman secret agent with a license to kill.” But how many bullets can James Bond dodge? Will he finally succumb to inertia, or will he suffer the death of a thousand cuts, inflicted by the ones who can truly kill him — the lawyers and the MBAs and the accountants?

— Paul Baack

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service to get a big-screen showing

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, the sixth James Bond movie which is about to have its 40th anniversary, is going to get a big-screen showing this fall.

The Lafayette Theater in Suffern, New York, will show the film on Nov. 28, as part of its Big Screen Classics series. Films in that series are shown at 11:30 on Saturday mornings and have a $7 ticket price. For 007 fans in the Northeastern U.S., it’s a chance to see George Lazenby’s sole James Bond film — and one of the best in the series — on the big screen again.

William Safire, one-time spy novelist, dies

Most of the obituaries for William Safire, who died Sept. 27 of pancreatic cancer chronicle how the one-time speech writer for Richard Nixon became a columnist for The New York Times, won a Pulitizer Prize and was an expert on language.

What they probably won’t discuss in detail was how the 79-year-old pundit took a turn at being a spy novelist. Safire’s 1995 novel was called Sleeper Spy. In it, a “sleeper” agent planted by the old Soviet Union has been activated. Enter investigative reporter, Irving Fein, who seems based on journalist Seymour M. Hersh, who has written extensively about intelligence activities. As described by Safire:

Irving Fein found himself kicking around the media, respected by peers but seen as trouble by editors, potent in print but unable to capitalize on what he wrote by touting it effectively on television. Maximum energy, zero synergy.

Fein has gotten a tip and the sleeper and is poking about. It’s more complicated than that, of course, and the tale runs more than 400 paperback pages. It was fairly entertaining and the paperback version carried quotes from the likes of PBS’s Jim Lehrer, former CIA director Richard Helms and then-CBS anchor Dan Rather.

Sleeper Spy is a footnote in Safire’s career. But it was an interestng footnote for fans of espionage fiction.

What if k.d. Lang’s title song was used for Tomorrow Never Dies?

Here’s a song we know was proposed for a James Bond film. The official title is Surrender, it was written by David Arnold and Don Black and performed by k.d. Lang. We know this because it was used in the film Tomorrow Never Dies — in the end titles rather than the main titles.

With the editing software available today and with YouTube as a distribution channel, it doesn’t take much imagination to figure out how things would have turned out had Eon boss people Michael Wilson and Barbara Broccoli opted for that song instead of the Sheryl Crow song that was used in the main title. It might have gone something like this:

Alternate Quantum of Solace title songs

The title song to last year’s Quantum of Solace had, at best, mixed reviews. On YouTube, there’s a song that supposedly was submitted and rejected by the filmmakers. With YouTube, though, even a rejected song can have a life of its own. Witness this video where the song appears over the titles from the 2008 James Bond film:

Meanwhile, a parody song peformed by Joe Cornish that made the rounds before Quantum was released is back, also paired with the titles of QoS:

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. turns 45

Forty-five years ago — Sept. 22, 1964 — a show debuted that had been pitched to NBC executives as “James Bond for television.”

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. turned out to be more than that. It ushered in an era where spies would be welcomed into U.S. living rooms and not just be seen on movie screens. The opening moments of the pilot/first episode, seen in the first couple of minutes of this video, were certainly eye-catching and enhanced by Jerry Goldsmith’s score:

The show featured a dashing wordly hero, Napoleon Solo. Ian Fleming, during a very brief period when he was involved with the project, had helped name him. Fleming quickly dropped out, at least in part because he didn’t want to anger Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, the producers who were turning his James Bond novels into movies. Norman Felton, the producer overseeing U.N.C.L.E., and Sam Rolfe, the writer-producer who Felton chose to write the pilot, would come up with their own take on the spy genre.

While it had some Bondian elements, U.N.C.L.E. would have significant differences:

1. It was the utopian spy show. U.N.C.L.E. was a multi-national organization, whose agents were the best that many countries had to offer. It was a post-Cold War series produced in the middle of the Cold War. The best example of that? Namely:

2. Illya Kuryakin a sympathetic Russian character. Kuryakin was seen only fleetingly in the U.N.C.L.E. pilot, The Vulcan Affair. Nevertheless, it was clear that Felton and Rolfe had bigger plans in the future. Robert Vaughn, in a short presention to advertisers and network executives said that Kuryakin (and the actor who played him, David McCallum) “is an interesting young man — you’ll see him often.” NBC wasn’t that keen on Kuryakin and wanted him out. Felton & Co. instead dumped actor Will Kuluva, who had played U.N.C.L.E. boss Mr. Allison, and had him replaced with Leo G. Carroll as Alexander Waverly. When NBC discovered what had happened, it was too late. (The Kuluva scenes were refilmed with Carroll before the episode aired.)

Bear this in mind. U.N.C.L.E. premiered 23 months after the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the U.S. and Soviet Union nearly went to war. The show often kept Kuryakin’s “Russian-ness” under wraps, but not entirely. In one first-season episode, he’s shown in the U.S.S.R. in a military uniform. In another, he and Solo are driving up to a large mansion. “Suddenly, I feel very Russian,” Kuryakin says. Put another way: director Lewis Gilbert boasted during the making of the 007 film The Spy Who Loved Me how that film featured a sympathetic Russian character. It only took 007’s producers 13 years to catch up to U.N.C.L.E. in that regard.

3. U.N.C.L.E. spies had to be different from Bond because they mixed more with “ordinary” people.

Rolfe in his pilot script established the use of an “innocent” — a character intended as a surrogate for the audience. In Rolfe’s pilot story, it was a housewife who had a close relationship with Andrew Vulcan, a leader of the criminal organization Thrush. Solo and Kuryakin, simply by interacting with the “innocents,” had to act differently than Bond and show different emotions. In the series, the “innocents” are a mixed bunch. A goofy third-season episode, The Matternhorn Affair, has an innocent (Bill Dana) who’s supposed to be funny but instead has the audience rooting for him to get killed.

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was like a nova. Its popularity shone brightly but then burned out. By January 1968, it’d be off the air.

But U.N.C.L.E. paved the way for a full fledged spy invasion of U.S. TV screens. A year after its debut, NBC brought out I Spy (a more serious, Cold War-grounded spy drama) and Get Smart, the spy parody created by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry while CBS introduced The Wild, Wild West where the spy and cowboy genres mixed. In 1966, CBS went to the well again, with Mission: Impossible.

What’s more, this decade has been quite good for U.N.C.L.E. fans. The entire series is available on DVD with extensive extras. Four volumes of U.N.C.L.E. soundtrack music are available from Film Score Monthly, produced by film and TV music expert Jon Burlingame. There hasn’t been an U.N.C.L.E. movie but having seen what’s happened to Mission: Impossible (Jim Phelps turned into a villain in the 1996 film), The Wild, Wild West (turned into a very uneven 1999 film) and I Spy (turned into a goofy 2002 comedy), that may not be a bad thing.

In any event, happy anniversary, U.N.C.L.E. and Messrs Solo and Kuryakin.