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Saturday, December 02, 2006

Have Yourself A Merry Little James Bond Christmas

If you can’t think of sufficient reason to buy Thunderball yet again on video, here is one. The new DVD includes an NBC special not seen (at least by me) since the original broadcast date of November 26, 1965. Watching it again this week evoked happy memories of The James Bond Christmas Of 1965, a holiday phenomenon that ensnared a nation of pubescent boys anxious to Man Up and Be Like Bond. My mother sat in the den as The Incredible World Of James Bond played that Friday night, and peeked disapprovingly over her reading glasses as the documentary reviewed several bawdy scenes from the first three 007's. I was assured then and there that no such adult films would be in my offing, but how could she have known of clandestine encounters I’d already had with that mighty trio, or my steely determination to catch Thunderball upon its forthcoming engagement at the Liberty? They say forbidden fruit tastes the sweetest, and James Bond was nothing if not ambrosia to this sixth-grader.

My cousin and I had surreptitiously ventured forth to see Goldfinger the previous March. It seemed unnecessary to burden Mother with niggling details of my after-school plans for that day. Suffice to say she was already well aware of Goldfinger’s cheeky reputation, so much so as to see for herself, a thing I discovered to my horror as we departed the 3:00 show. I’d no more have expected my mother and aunt at a screening of Goldfinger than if they’d shown up for the double-feature of The Gorgon and Curse Of The Mummy’s Tomb, but a child’s life is filled with such surprises, and I was reassured by their apparent unawareness that we'd been in the auditorium only minutes before their arrival. Indeed, there was an almost Bondian satisfaction in our ongoing subterfuge at the supper table as they loudly declared that neither of us would ever be exposed to such fare. I needn’t emphasize the playground capital one derived from having seen Goldfinger. It was a rite of passage into exotic adulthood that seemed to hold out the promise of naked girls in bed, car chases (where you didn’t get hurt), sudden and violent fisticuffs (where you didn’t get hurt), and especially naked girls in bed. I’ve no doubt that scene with 007 and the laser beam awakened nascent castration anxieties among any number of my youthful peers, but nothing could have prepared us for the seismic reaction to a simple introductory line --- My name is Pussy Galore. We simply couldn’t believe it. Someone might just as well have detonated a cherry bomb in the auditorium. It was almost as good as that unexpected nude scene in The She-Beast that would take our breath away a couple of years later. We’d never again be as satisfied with the benign inanities of Son Of Flubber and its progeny. Having had such red meat as Bond introduced into one’s diet, how do you then go back? It was now imperative that I see Dr. No and From Russia With Love, and United Artists, perhaps sensing my anguish, re-issued both on a combo that summer. I suspect this is when most of us saw these for the first time, as Goldfinger was where Bond-mania really got rolling. To again checkmate my mother’s edict, I waited until an afternoon when she’d gone to visit relatives and asked my father’s permission to go, as he was largely indifferent to the Liberty’s bill of fare. By then, of course, drums were beating for the next 007, and it promised to be the Biggest Bond Of All …

Life magazine had a page size photo of Sean Connery bashing a woman in the face (though it turns out to be a man). NBC had its special. Best of all, Sears was out with their Christmas Wish-Book, generously salted with Bond toys and accessories. This stuff wasn’t cheap (see their ads), so no way could you have it all. I chose the attaché case. Leaving it closed and pristine that yuletide morning would today enable me to realize thirty-five hundred dollars for its sale, though as things turned out, the hinges were off that plastic valise within days of my opening same. Its contents proved more durable (I carried the billfold to school once or twice). Why would Santa bring the attaché case, yet forbid me to see the movies? Someone gave my brother a bottle of 007 after-shave. I seized that shortly after the bell rung on 1966, and have preserved it since. The acrid scent retains its pungency after forty-one years, and may yet deliver on its promise to attract Pussy (as in Galore). There was the infamous Gilbert James Bond Road Race set which pitted the Aston-Martin against a variety of pursuers --- only the thing wouldn’t work --- and Sears was faced with massive returns and complaints. Indeed, the seller’s own race to get these toys ready for Christmas had left them curbside. Action figures were less given to such complications, providing none of us (or a younger sibling) found a way of swallowing the model of Largo’s Disco Volante. Exhibitors were meanwhile angling for whatever Bond features they could book. The correspondence shown here reflects the plight of a West Virginia showman vying for a Goldfinger date in January 1966. He also mentions Thunderball as a good prospect because of the Christmas toys. Would it be going out of line to ask for them? The booker’s reply is telling. Goldfinger was pulled altogether in the Fall of 1965, and couldn’t be had (UA didn’t want it competing with the new Bond). Thunderball was available at 70% with a minimum one week’s engagement (the theatre in question was only open on weekends), and note that even on these terms, the booker was doubtful he could get a playdate before March (the pic had opened in December of 1965).

James Bond would be a near constant presence for sixties dwellers. We never tired of watching him. Imitators could not approach the grandeur of Bond. I tolerated Matt Helm in Murderer’s Row, but walked out on The Wrecking Crew. Those Man From U.N.C.L.E "features" were a curiosity --- how could Metro be so brazen as to tender these TV paste-ups in exchange for our admission dollar? Derek Flint operated amidst fleabag trappings put to shame by opulent sets designed by Ken Adam for 007. Spoofs weren’t funny because they looked cheap. Euro attempts imported by American-International betrayed their origins with obvious dubbing and hacksaw editing. Their Spy In Your Eye toplined an exhausted Dana Andrews as its super-spy (and recovered $257,000 in domestic rentals as opposed to Thunderball’s $26.9 million). You had only yourself to blame for paying to see A Man Called Dagger, wherein Jan Murray was bent upon world domination. My adolescent head swirled with images of would-be Bonds, whose numbers approached those of counterfeit Men With No Names spawned by the impact of Sergio Leone’s westerns. The only thing worse were biker movies, so nasty and unpleasant as to be near impossible to sit through. You appreciated the Bond re-issue programs all the more after a year or so’s diet of the phonies. I could always depend on five or six guys going with me from school to see the Dr. No/Goldfinger duo, and later From Russia With Love/Thunderball. These tandem bills played unabated through the seventies. Being as none of us had dates during first collegiate months away from home, I drove a carload of freshman boys down to Charlotte for the Thunderball/You Only Live Twice combo at the old Tryon Mall Theatre (largest screen in NC!) in 1972. Having attended my thirtieth-year reunion recently, I encountered one of the group that joined me on that expedition, and asked if he remembered. He did, and vividly. Interesting how you can form friendships with a shared passion for movies (especially James Bond movies). Speaking of dates, I dragged a singularly unenthusiastic one to see Thunderball make a last theatrical stand as 1981 drive-in support for Mommie Dearest (talk about an unpleasant show!). By this time, the Bonds had been playing television for going on ten years, and those fossilized 35mm prints were seeing their final days of service. Loyal unto the end, I stuck by them to their wheezing twenty-five dollar flat rental finish. These once-glorious Technicolor originals are now so many guitar picks, but 007 lives on via DVD collections that at least approximate the quality of what we saw first-run, and are well worth the investment in all four volumes.


Blogger Tim Lucas said...

Thanks to your blog, John, I now know the exact date of that time when I was sent to bed early, for no apparent wrong-doing: November 26, 1965. I had an older neighbor friend who saw all the Bond films on opening day at Cincinnati's downtown Times Towne Cinema, who collected all the soundtrack albums and Corgi cars, and I had to be satisfied with his stories as they never played at our local neighborhood theater. (I still can't hear John Barry's "The Death of Fiona" without remembering his description of the scene.) The INCREDIBLE WORLD special was something I looked forward to with the greatest anticipation, as it would have been my own first taste of Bond, but I guess my mother and stepfather prefered to watch it alone and sent me to bed. I've now seen all the Bond films (save the new one) more times than I ever expected to do, but the memory of missing that broadcast still makes me grind my teeth.

"Mom, can I watch?"

"No, Mr. Lucas, I expect you to go to sleep!"

Now I can own the show on DVD -- and have a long and rueful laugh.

7:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you very much for the creativity that you put and descriptions of the movies that I wish I could see
Nata TCM lover

9:37 PM  
Blogger Background Bennie said...

Wow, John, your "James Bond Christmas" was like a virtual ride in Mr. Peabody's "Wayback" machine to my (misspent) adolescence!!! If this superb post is an example of your refined blogging schedule at a less frantic pace, I can certainly endure the wait!

Stolen glimpses of Honor Blackman in a paperback book of the era, "The Girls of James Bond" (or something to that effect), fueled many a young man's fantasy in my schoolyard that year. Most of us were denied access to Ms. Blackman's big-screen performance that year, but visions of Pussy Galore nonetheless danced in our heads!

10:55 PM  
Blogger Reel Fanatic said...

Interesting stuff ... Being ignorant of such things and too young, I had no idea there was such a thing as a James Bond Christmas special .. I already love Thunderball, so that just seals my decision to buy the DVD

6:27 AM  
Blogger Flickhead said...

Excellent, excellent post. I'm right there with you. Though for Christmas I got the U.N.C.L.E. attache case instead...second rate all the way.

I ran to the mailbox to get the newspaper every Wednesday to see if any new 007 reissues were out that week (films changed on Wednesday for us back then), and would go bonkers seeing the double feature ads. I nearly went out of my head for the "Spend a Night with James Bond" reissue: Dr. No, From Russia With Love and Goldfinger. I went to see that line-up on a Sunday afternoon, after finding a theatre showing them in chronological order.

There was another TV special released at the time of You Only Live Twice -- do you know if that's on the new DVD?

When a friend and I went to see Matt Helm's The Ambushers the day it opened, we were the only two people in the theatre!!!

10:45 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Sounds like we had similar experiences here, Tim, although thankfully I wasn't put to bed that night, and did manage to see the entire special on NBC. Otherwise, I might well be in ongoing therapy today! (really liked your "No, Mr. Lucas, I expect you to go to sleep" line) And as for the second Bond special, Flickhead, I'm informed it will be on the new DVD Special Edition of "You Only Live Twice" which streets next week. This is another program I recall well, having written a "review" of it the day after the 1967 broadcast for my homemade monster magazine, "Dracula's Digest."

12:22 PM  
Blogger Poptique said...

Hi John - good to hear Welcome to Tokyo Mr Bond will be on the YOLT disc. I wonder what they'll put on Her Majesty's Secret Service (didn't that have a couple of cinematic shorts)...

Have you seen the new Casino Royale yet, and if so what did you make of it? (and the 1967 version for that matter - I've just written my thoughts about it on my poptique blog)

5:40 PM  
Blogger Tim Lucas said...

Incidentally, John, the U.N.C.L.E. features weren't "TV paste-ups." According to an interview that Tom Weaver recently conducted with Robert Vaughn, the features were made first and foremost as features and were given bigger budgets than the regular show episodes. The movies were thus cannibalized (and shown, in one or two cases, only in black-and-white) and cut into two-parters for television. Vaughn said that he is prouder of the features than of the TV series itself, per se, because they had better guest stars, better locations, and more money to spend. These came out on an import DVD, apparently no longer available, which I now wish I'd scored at the time.

8:48 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Tim, I'd still maintain these U.N.C.L.E. films were paste-ups as far as US theatrical audiences were concerned, even though they were exhibited in overseas territories as "new" features (in fact, there were five additional U.N.C.L.E. adventures released in foreign markets that were not shown in US theatres). Of those U.N.C.L.E. movies shown in the US, all were "adapted" from episodes previously shown on television, so even if they were initially intended as first-run features, they ended up being first-run on TV, then pasted-up for a second shot at theatres --- and that's where a lot of patrons realized they'd been duped. Many foreign markets, having no access to the series on television, would have experienced these as fresh product, and that as much as anything explains the strong rentals these shows recovered in those territories, and why Metro released five more of them to those markets.

9:40 PM  
Blogger Flutopia Unchartered said...

i know this is an off topic post but i am a big fan of your blog since i am an avid fan of anything classic myself. I check your blog as much as possible whenever i go online and i always check your monday glamour where you post some classic hot chick..although i have to admit that i don't get to see every classic hollywood beauty you feature in your blog but i am surprised that i haven't seen a post about anne baxter..i just saw ten commandments lately with my mom and as far as i can remember i haven't come across her in your blog or is it just im not looking hard enough..anyway im just curious..your blog is very much amazing it's so nice to look at the past and i hope you'd continue to educate and mesmerize us with more posts about classic hollywood..thnks!!

11:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was a little young for the Bond movies, but certainly aware of them--I had both the Bond and Man From Uncle gun-filled briefcases. I was a big UNCLE fan. Didn't see a Bond in the theatre 'til Man with the Golden Gun.

My dad had a near-full set of the paperbacks, but I get the feeling he enjoyed the knock-offs (esp Flint and Matt Helm) more.

I was discussing this era with my friend last week--comparing when Bond-mania was huge. I won't say the series has been coasting since Connery left--maybe since Spy who Loved Me. In the 90s, they were indistinguishable than most other big, dumb, loud action movies.


3:24 PM  
Blogger Director Robert said...

It's a relief to see your new posting, GPS--you had us a little worried. As a kid seeing Goldfinger in the theater, I was so naive (unlike some world-weary Carolina youths) I had no idea why Pussy Galore's name was funny. Even worse, my parents declared that the family budget couldn't handle abooby-trapped briefcase full of weaponry and forged documents. Nor could I wield a Johnny Seven One-Man Army. Thanks for taking me back to my deprived childhood, John, and driving me into therapy once more.

1:58 PM  
Blogger That Little Round-Headed Boy said...

John, thanks for this wonderful post. I was jonesing like crazy for that James Bond Road Race game looking at those pictures. It reminds me of how I had the GREEN HORNET Corgi (?) car, the Black Beauty, with the plastic missiles that shot out of the front grill and the whirligig that shot out of the trunk. Ah, childhood.

10:58 AM  
Anonymous brickadoodle said...

Like a good martini old memories were stirred, not shaken, by your breakdown of the 007 mystique. No one played the Commander like Connery, the one true Bond, and in my book with no heirs apparent. I was a fat little ten-year-old white boy in the backwater South when I first saw Goldfinger with all its sex, fast cars, newfangled laser death rays, and rampant homicide. Every little boy dreamt of growing up to have Connery/Bond's cock-eyed suavity, rockhard six-pack belly and bear rug chest. But, unfortunately, forty years later, I turned into Gert Frobe.

11:12 PM  
Blogger tbonemankini said...

Love all the comments on the "SPY"craze...a lot of TV shows like BURKES LAW & HONEY WEST rode the bandwagon along with UNCLE,WILD WILD WEST,GET SMART amongst the plethora of films,books egg....until BATMAN started the SUPERHERO craze....and off they went again....the Xmas catalogues are a great way to trace the longevity of each craze.

9:38 AM  

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