Historian notes U.N.C.L.E., NxNW anniversaries

Robert Vaughn as Napoleon Solo

Historian Michael Beschloss used his Twitter feed to note two spy-entertainment landmarks: The first telecast of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and the end of production on North by Northwest.

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. debuted on Sept. 22, 1964 on NBC. The show had been in development for almost two years.

Producer Norman Felton, invited to discuss doing a TV series based on Ian Fleming’s Thrilling Cities book, instead pitched an adventure show.

The network said it’d commit to a series without a pilot episode if Felton could get Ian Fleming on board. The two had discussions in October 1962 in New York. In June 1963, Fleming dropped out because of pressure by 007 film producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman.

Despite Fleming’s departure, the project continued, although a pilot would have to be made before NBC committed to a series. Writer Sam Rolfe did the heavy lifting on scripting the pilot and would be the day-to-day producer on the show’s first season. The series paired Robert Vaughn as Napoleon Solo (the character name being one of Fleming’s surviving contributions) and David McCallum as Illya Kuryakin.

North by Northwest, directed by Alfred Hitchcock and written by Ernest Lehman, would set the style for a lot of 1960s spy entertainment. It balanced drama and humor as Cary Grant’s Roger O. Thornhill would dodge spies, with a climax on Mount Rushmore. The film ended production in September 1958 and would be released in 1959.

Here are Beschloss’s tweets:

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https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

UPDATE (9:30 p.m. New York time): Beschloss was busy with other 1960s TV shows, including Get Smart.

 

When character genders change

Rosalind Russell as Hildy Johnson with Cary Grant as editor Walter Burns in His Girl Friday

Every so often, the idea is raised about having James Bond be played by a woman. It came up again just last week, raised by none other than British Prime Minister Theresa May.

Her comment was prompted, in part, by how Jodie Whittaker is the new Doctor Who.

“I think it’s a great move forward for girl power that there is going to be a female Doctor Who,” May told reporters on board her RAF plane Voyager, according to The Guardian. “And one day there should be a female James Bond.”

Other British newspapers ran similar accounts. And when it’s coming from the PM, it’s naturally going to be reported widely. Just as certain, many James Bond fans complained, in effect saying, “Here we go again….”

The thing is, male characters do get transformed into female ones on occasion.

His Girl Friday (1940) was the second film adaptation of the play The Front Page by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. In the Howard Hawks-directed movie, newspaper reporter Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell) became a woman and the ex-wife of editor Walter Burns (Cary Grant).

There was a similar setup in 1988’s Switching Channels, also based on the Hecht-MacArthur play, but transporting the story to television and changing the character names.

Meanwhile, Whittaker has come aboard as Doctor Who. The BBC even posted the end of a Doctor Who Christmas special on YouTube:

 

For now, changing 007’s gender isn’t on the table, with actor Daniel Craig announcing in August he’s coming back for a fifth Bond film. But chances are the idea will get raised again at some point.

North by Northwest: Feast of the character actors

Alfred Hitchcock's cameo right after his "directed by" credit in North by Northwest

Alfred Hitchcock’s cameo right after his “directed by” credit in North by Northwest

There are plenty of reasons to enjoy 1959’s North by Northwest, one of Alfred Hitchcock’s best thrillers. Among them: a slick performance by Cary Grant. Eva Marie Saint as the heroine, James Mason as the villain, Martin Landau as the villain’s main assistant, Ernest Lehman’s script, Bernard Herrmann’s music, etc.

The purpose of this post, though, is to point out the wealth of character actors, especially for those familiar with 1960s and 1970s television shows in the U.S. Hitchcock’s 136-minute film provided plenty of parts, albeit small in most cases, for busy character actors.

What follows is a sampling:

Leo G. Carroll (The Professor): Carroll, by this point, was something of a Hitchock regular, having previously appeared in Rebecca, Suspicion and Spellbound. Here’s he appears as “The Professor,” a high-ranking official of U.S. intelligence. It’s a preview of his performances as Alexander Waverly in The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

Jessie Royce Landis (Roger Thornhill’s mother): Landis was born in 1896, just eight years before Cary Grant. She steals almost every scene she’s in here, especially when she’s skeptical of her son’s wild story of spies. Her career spanned decades.

Edward Platt (Thornhill’s lawyer): At his point, Platt was six years away from his best-known role, The Chief in Get Smart.

Ken Lynch (Chicago policeman): Lynch showed up as gruff cops (he had a recurring role on the 1970s show McCloud as a New York cop) or gruff villains. With 189 acting credits in his IMDB.COM ENTRY, he never lacked for work.

Malcom Atterbury (Man at Bus Stop): The busy charactor actor (155 credits in his IMDB.COM ENTRY) only gets a few lines as he chats with Cary Grant’s Roger Thornhill in the middle of nowhere. But Atterbury’s observation about the crop dusting plane sets up a classic sequence, which would be an influence in the Terence Young-directed From Russia With Love.

Lawrence Dobkin (U.S. intelligence official): He’s one of the people who participates in a meeting chaired by The Professor. In the 1970s, he’d double as a director on various series as well as being a character actor (including being the villain in the pilot of The Streets of San Francisco).

Les Tremayne (Auctioneer): Blessed with a smooth, silky voice, Tremayne remained busy for decades, including a part in the 1953 version of War of the Worlds.

Olan Soule (Assistant Auctioneer): Another actor blessed with a smooth voice. He had a slight build, but an enormous voice, ensuring he could get work frequently. His many voice-only roles included playing Batman in cartoons produced by Filmation and Hanna-Barbera.

Alfred Hitchcock (Man at New York Bus Stop): One of Hitchcock’s more prominent cameos, he misses the bus immediately after his “directed by” credit.

And no this is not a comprehensive list (sorry, Edward Binns and Ned Glass, among others).

 

Does SPECTRE have too much humor? Not really

Cover art for a North by Northwest Blu Ray release

Cover art for a North by Northwest Blu Ray release

A recurring criticism of SPECTRE is that the 24th James Bond film engages in too much “Roger Moore humor.”

This trope came up repeatedly. (Trust us, this blog surveyed a lot of reviews on both sides of the Atlantic.) Yet, in a lot of ways, SPECTRE’s humor content was closer to “Alfred Hitchock-Ernest Lehman humor,” as realized in the 1959 movie North by Northwest.

Without going into too much detail, North by Northwest concerns the adventures of New York advertising executive Roger O. Thornhill (Cary Grant), who suddenly finds himself in the midst of a Cold War adventure involving spies from all sides.

Sounds like very serious stuff. And it is. But there’s also some humor, similar to SPECTRE.

SLAPSTICK: In SPECTRE, the main example of slapstick humor involves a hapless driver of a Fiat in Rome, with Bond (Daniel Craig) tailgating him while trying to evade Hinx (Dave Bautista). The Fiat driver eventually touches (slightly) a post, causing his air bag to deploy.

In North by Northwest, Thornhill has been forced to drink an entire fifth of Bourbon by the lackeys of lead villain Vandamm (James Mas0n). The thugs intend to make it look like Thornhill had a fatal auto accident while drunk. But Thornhills revives enough to drive off. At one point, two of his car’s four wheels are over a cliff. In a closeup, Grant looks at the camera while his character is drunk and not entirely sure what’s going on.

MORE SUBTLE HUMOR: In SPECTRE, Bond has amusing exchanges with M (Ralph Fiennes) and Q (Ben Whishaw).

In North by Northwest, Thornhill — who finally knows everything — gets away from his “American Intelligence” minder the Professor (Leo G. Carroll). He gets out of his own hospital room and enters the room of a woman patient.

The woman patient, while putting on her glasses, says, “Stop!”

Grant’s Thornhill replies, “I’m sorry…” The woman patient, her glasses now on and realizing what she sees, replies, “Stop….”

“Uh, uh, uh,” Thornhill says, wagging his finger. He then ducks out of the room.

In a 2009 post, this blog argued that North by Northwest provided the blueprint for 1960s spy entertainment. SPECTRE is an attempt to replicate that, as well as the “classic” Bond film style, while including some of the drama of 21st century Daniel Craig 007 movies.

SPECTRE has its faults. This blog’s review, while liking the film overall, cited the “reveal,” the length and the last third of the film as demerits. Still, SPECTRE doen’t remotely resemble a comedy, as some critics seemed to think it did.  It’s an attempt, as we’ve said before, of blending “classic” and Craig-style Bond.

And it’s humor content is comparable to what Hitchcock liked to introduce in some of his films. SPECTRE isn’t up to the standards of North by Northwest. That’s still a nice standard to shoot for.

 

Skyfall and Oscar nominations: glass half full or empty?

Thomas Newman

Skyfall composer Thomas Newman

For James Bond fans, this year’s Oscars ended a long 007 drought. Yet, fans on social media had a very mixed reaction.

On the bright side, Skyfall secured five nominations, the most for any 007 film. The previous best for a Bond movie was 1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me with three. Not so bright: no nomination for Best Picture and no nomination for director Sam Mendes. In other words, fans wanted more.

Here’s a look at some of the reaction we saw among 007 fans via social media.

Thomas Newman got nominated for best score but John Barry never did for a 007 movie? Outrageous! Newman has been nominated for several movies, with Skyfall being the latest. John Barry won five Oscars but never got nominated for a 007 score, even though he established the Bond music template.

A couple of thoughts: in theory, Oscar nominators are supposed to only consider scores for a single year of movies. The 2012 nominators weren’t in a position to do a “make good” for Barry because, well, he’s no longer alive. Also, there’s probably very little overlap between those who voted to nominate Newman and those who passed over Barry in the 1960s. It doesn’t mean that Newman’s score is better than Barry’s work.

Skyfall deserved a Best Picture nomination. Why didn’t it get one? There had been a buzz that Skyfall could have gotten in. The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences can nominate as many as 10 movies for the Best Picture honor. U.K. BOOKIES GAVE SKYFALL EVEN ODDS. The Whatculture Web site on Jan. 3 offered up TEN REASONS IT THOUGHT SKYFALL WAS A CONTENDER FOR A NOMINATION.

It didn’t happen. The academy only nominated nine movies. The academy tends to be pretty tight lipped. But keep this in mind: Alfred Hitchcock, Cary Grant and Peter O’Toole never got a competitive Oscar (Grant and O’Toole did eventually get honorary Oscars). With any group, such as the academy, there are internal politics, relationships, etc., that come into play. If you really believe Skyfall (and for that matter director Sam Mendes) really deserved a nomination, well, don’t let the Oscars get you down.

It’s too bad Skyfall only got technical nominations. Cinematography (where Skyfall’s Roger Deakins got nominated) and score actually are as much artistic as they are technical. (Skyfall also got nominations for best song, best sound editing and best sound mixing.)

Lewis Gilbert, in the documentary Inside You Only Live Twice, referred to Freddie Young (who photographed the fifth 007 film) as one of the great artists of British cinema. The director frames the shot, but the director of photography, though his or her lighting, greatly affects the look of a film. It’s not uncommon for DOPs to make the jump to directing. Music, meantime, has a big impact on the emotional feel of a movie.

Former 007 screenwriter does a Twitter parody

Bruce Feirstein, who has three James Bond screenwriting credits (GoldenEye, Tomorrow Never Dies and The World Is Not Enough) imagines what it’d be like if Twitter existed during the Golden Age of Hollywood.

Feirstein’s piece in Vanity Fair presents what would have happened had James Stewart, Cary Grant, Alfred Hitchock and others had Twitter accounts. To read Feirstein’s musings, JUST CLICK HERE.

1959: Hitchcock draws the blueprint for Bond movies (and other ’60s spy entertainment)

That blueprint, of course, would be the director’s North by Northwest, which marked its 50th anniversary this year.

The film is normally written about its use of themes such as mistaken identity or use of familiar landmarks as settings that Hitchock employed in his prior films. Still, it’s also striking how the movie also seemed to inspire makers of 1960s spy entertainment.

The documentary Inside From Russia With Love comments on how the second James Bond film tips the cap to Hitchcock by including “an aerial assault on 007” (a helicopter going after Bond) that wasn’t part of Ian Fleming’s original novel. In the Hitchcock film, Cary Grant faced this menace:

North by Northwest’s style may have also rubbed off on the Bond creative crew. Ernest Lehman’s script deftly balanced humor with the story’s suspense. For example, Cary Grant, after being forcibly inebriated by the villain’s henchman, does a double take staring into the camera when the car he’s driving is in a precarious spot on the edge of a cliff. Later, as Grant escapes the custody of U.S. intelligence, he walks on a ledge and into a woman’s hotel room. “Stop,” she says wistfully. It’s not that big a leap to the humor that Richard Maibaum and other screenwriters used in the early 007 movies to provide relief after a tense scene.

The Man From U.N.C.L.E., which like North by Northwest was filmed at MGM, also may have been influenced to some degree. Grant’s Roger Thornhill was, afterall, an innocent sucked into the world of espionage. The MGM television show utilized such characters as a surrogate for the audience. And, of course, U.N.C.L.E. ended up employing regular Hitchcock supporting player Leo G. Caroll, whose Alexander Waverly wasn’t all that much different than North by Northwest’s mysterious “Professor,” who is some kind of high-ranking U.S. spymaster.

Finally, Saul Bass provided Hitchcock with stylish titles for North by Northwest. Bass’ titles aren’t the same as the stuff Maurice Binder or Robert Brownjohn would turn out, but the title sequence was, and is, memorable: