Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Vital Viewing (In Memoriam Edition)

 Amidst all the election news there's been a couple of permanent departures that I can't in good conscience let go by. 


 1930-2020


Sean Connery is best known for being the first actor to play superspy James Bond in a motion picture. For many of us, he was the best actor to play James Bond in a motion picture. But what were these movies? Well, for a long time, and long after Connery had left the role and others took over, these films were based on a series of rather violent espionage novels and short stories written in the 1950s and early '60s by Ian Fleming, whose day job was a kind of foreign correspondent-in-chief for a chain of British newspapers. When these very popular novels and short stories were adapted for big screen in the 1960s and beyond, they went through increasing structural changes that, in time, made them quite different from the original source material. Sean Connery made five Bond movies for producer Albert Broccoli: Dr. No (1962), From Russia with Love (1963), Goldfinger (1964), Thunderball (1965), You Only Live Twice, and Diamonds are Forever (1971). With the exception of Goldfinger, the Broccoli-produced Connery Bond films concerns the threat posed by SPECTRE, a powerful organization unknown to the general public (and sometimes, it seems, the military-industrial complex of the day) that's hellbent on...world domination? World destruction? They just like to do evil, let's leave it at that. Meanwhile, there's still that thing called the "Cold War", the epic struggle between the West, led by the United States, and the Soviet Union, with one side arguing in favor of democracy (with the further argument, one under some duress at the moment, that democracy is synonymous with capitalism) and the other side arguing in favor of an extreme form of socialism called communism (extreme in part because it can't seem to be realized without resorting to anti-democratic measures.) Not that any of that ideological stuff mattered much in the Bond movies, the epic struggle really just a way for SPECTRE to play the United States and Russia against each other, all part and parcel of doing evil. And Great Britain? It's role as a world power significantly reduced after World War II, it's often not taken very seriously by any of the major players ("Your pitiful little island has not even been threatened," archvillain Blofield says to Bond after he shows up unannounced in Diamonds Are Forever)  but that only works to secret agent 007's advantage, as he's constantly underestimated. He must be underestimated, or how else to explain why when they have him in their clutches such meanies as Blofield or Goldfinger or Dr. No don't kill him on the spot (though they usually off an assassin for failing to kill him) but instead keep him around, even treating him as a kind of guest. Or, if they do decide to kill him, a simple bullet to the brain won't do but it instead has to be something elaborate like a laser beam to the crotch. That may make the average man squeamish, but Bond's one thing he's ballsy, and in the end it just turns out to be a big waste of a power source.



Not that the suave Bond ever saves the world all by himself. His boss, M (Bernard Lee), provides him with backup if needed. M's lovelorn secretary Miss Moneypenny (Lois Maxwell) provides flirtatious moral support. Speaking of flirtatiousness, there's always the love (or lust) interest that's come to be known as the "Bond girl" (though, as indicated by the above picture,007 sometimes has to go through several Bond girls before finding one who will still be around by the end of the picture.) Usually following Bond around like a lost puppy is CIA agent Felix Leiter (such a nonentity that he's played by a different actor in every film.) And my personal favorite, the goofy spywares inventor Q (Desmond Lleweyln), who comes up with such novel killing devices as an exploding parking meter and cigarette rocket launcher. He's Thomas Edison by way of Northrop Grumman. 

If my prose still hasn't given you an idea what the typical James Bond movie was like in Sean Connery era, then watch this:


Film's kind of scratchy-looking, huh? It's either an old print, or the cameraman got in the middle of one of those gunfights.

Here's Connery himself, Scottish accent and all, talking about his famous character:




Connery mumbles that he had a difficult time getting through one of Fleming's books because it lacked humor. Now, I've read several of the Bond novels, and while I've found them easy enough reads--the foreign correspondent knows the who-what-where-when-and-why's of good reporting--I agree that the prose is about as witty as a shark attack. Fleming had a post-imperialist ax to grind, and took very seriously himself and his contention that the world had become a much more dangerous place once a Brit needed a passport to get into India and Ceylon, er, Sri Lanka. By contrast the movies were, as I said before, nonideological and nontopical, and thus more lighthearted. Sex, violence, and one-liners became the basic formula. In fact, the Bond films owe at least as much to such tongue-in-cheek Alfred Hitchcock suspense-thrillers as The 39 Steps and North by Northwest as anything written by Ian Fleming. There is one difference, however. In Steps and Northwest, the hero is an innocent bystander who gets caught up in an amazing adventure. Where Bond's concerned, evading assassins and then assassinating assassins are all in a day's work, a way of paying for the rent, groceries, utilities, and boxes of candy for his many girlfriends. If anything, there's more comic potential. And if Connery thought Fleming's fiction could use a few more laughs, just how good was the actor himself at providing them?





 

Throughout 2015 and '16, I published a series of posts, what I like to call an online book, about Star Trek, a TV show I'm sure you've all heard of, whether you're a fan or not. In one of those posts (or chapters) I focused on Leonard Nimoy, and noted that though his famous Spock character was essentially dramatic, the actor at times could easily and successfully play him for laughs, comparing him to Connery's Bond, which led to this digression: 
It should be no surprise that Nimoy's Spock could be funny. In a way he reminds me of Sean Connery's James Bond. Starting with Dr. No in 1962, Connery on his own added humor to the narrative by the way he said a particular line or even his deadpan expression upon witnessing something amazing, be it a technological display theretofore unbeknownst to science or his own hairbreadth escape from certain death. Eventually the producers and writers caught on to what Connery was doing and started adding intentional comic material, until you get to Diamonds are Forever, an out-and-out comedy. 

 I didn't mention Q in the above paragraph, but whenever he and Bond shared a scene, the movie would suddenly turn into a cloak-and-dagger version of vaudeville:






OK, enough comedy. Time for some sex and...



...violence.




I said earlier that SPECTRE was the villainous organization that Bond mostly did battle with during the Connery era. But it was not so in the Fleming novels. Starting with the first, Casino Royale, in 1953, the bad boys were usually agents of SMERSH, a real-life Soviet counter-intelligence organization that operated mostly during World War II. Fleming, though, kept the fictional SMERSH up-and-running throughout the 1950s until it began to resemble an organization that had succeeded it, the KGB. So where exactly did SPECTRE come from? A thaw in West-East relations toward the end of the 1950s gave Ian Fleming reason to believe that the Cold War was drawing to a close (as it turned out, the Bay of Pigs, the construction of the Berlin Wall, and the Cuban Missile Crises were all right around the corner) and so came up with SPECTRE as a replacement for SMERSH. At least, somebody came up with SPECTRE. Here we come to some real life intrigue, though intrigue involving not international affairs but international copyrights. Whereas most James Bond screenplays were based on Ian Fleming novels, 1959's Thunderball was an Ian Fleming novel based on a James Bond screenplay, though one yet unproduced. This was still a few years before Dr. No, and the only screen rights sold so far were for Casino Royale, and that was originally small screen rights, making its debut on American television in 1954 (Bond was played by American Barry Nelson as an American.) MGM acquired the big screen rights shortly thereafter, and then just dithered. Tired of waiting, Fleming got together with Irish filmmaker Kevin McClory and British screenwriter Jack Whittingham to cook up an original Bond screenplay, eventually titled Thunderball. But McClory didn't know Fleming was also writing a novel, and when he got his hands on an advanced copy, sued for plagiarism. There was a protracted court battle (during which time Dr. No, From Russia with Love, and Goldfinger had all become box office hits.) An out-of-court settlement gave McClory the film rights to Thunderball. To get that movie made, he joined forces with Albert Broccoli, producer of the first three Bond movies, though with the understanding that McClory could do a remake if he wanted at some future date. That future date turned out to be 1983. By that time the James Bond film franchise was still going strong with Roger Moore now playing the legendary secret agent. What chance in Hell or Hollywood did McClory have with his own film?  



Sean Connery had first decided to end his association with Bond in 1967 following completion of You Only Live Twice. So the role went to male model George Lazenby, extremely good-looking but not much of an actor, though he has his defenders. Actually, they're not defending Lazenby so much as the movie as a whole, 1969's On Her Majesty's Secret Service, which has its share of excellent stunts, special-effects, and exotic locations. As a further added attraction, the Bond girl this time was someone who was already a star, Diana Rigg of The Avengers fame (but, man, oh, man, can you imagine if Connery and Emma Peel had appeared in a movie together? Patrick Macnee would have ate his bowler.) The movie took in less money than previous Bonds, but was still a hit, and the producers were willing to do another film with Lazenby. Surprisingly, it was Lazenby himself who refused to go on. Different reasons have been given for this decision, but underlining all of them is the neophyte actor simply hadn't enjoyed the experience. Connery had his own problems with Bond, but willing to return to the role once enough money was thrown at him. Perhaps because On Her Majesty's Secret Service had ended on a dark note (I don't want to give anything away but it does involve a drive-by shooting), the comedy quotient was ramped up considerably for this new 007 outing. In fact, Diamonds Are Forever owes at least as much to Rowen and Martin's Laugh-In as anything written by Ian Fleming. It proved to be a template for the rest of the 1970s and the first half of the 1980s, sex, violence and blackout gags becoming the basic formula, even after Connery left once again and was replaced by Roger Moore, who basically smirked his way through the series. Connery, meanwhile, worked steadily through the 1970s and early '80, starring, or at least appearing in, the mainstream films Murder on the Orient Express, The Man Who Be King, Robin and Marian, A Bridge Too Far, Time Bandits, and Outland. Some of these films were more well-received than others, but Connery's presence was always counted as a plus (even the post-apocalyptic flop Zardoz, where he appears in a mankini.) When asked about the possibility of some day reprising Bond, his usual reply was something along the lines of "never".


  So how did producer Kevin McClory get Connery to return to the fold? Well, first off, he didn't return to what some Bond fans consider the "canonical" fold. That would be the body of films produced by Albert Broccoli (and these days his daughter Barbara) through Eon Productions in collaboration with various Hollywood studios. As far as those fans are concerned, 1983's Never Say Never Again, like the election results according to Trump, never happened, But of course there is such a film. McClory's way around Connery's reluctance was rather ingenious. Instead of asking Connery to star in a Bond movie, he merely asked him to write a Bond movie, which he did (though it was eventually rewritten by others.) This then gave Connery a stake in the movie's success. What better way to assure an successful James Bond movie, then have the actor best known for the role appear in it?


Never Say Never Again has all the components we'd expect from a Bond film: stunts, exotic locations, and beautiful women (in this case Kim Basinger and Barbara Carrera.)  When it comes to sheer spectacle , it was no match for the "official" Bond movie that came out the same year Octopussy,  which had all those things to the power of ten. But then does a Bond film always need to be a spectacle? The first few were much more modest compared to what came later. Instead, those films had that quality that comprises so much of good fiction: a person dealing with a problem, or problems, in an interesting, even entertaining, way. What makes the problem-solving so entertaining in Never Say Never Again is the suggestion that perhaps Bond is getting a bit too old for this kind of thing anymore. He tires out more easily, bruises too easily, and  his self-confidence seems a bit shaken at times, Connery's familiar deadpan expression is there, but it increasingly gives way to a less-familiar one of unease. Nevertheless, at the end of the day...



...he's still Bond, canonical or not.

..............................................................................................................................................

 1940-2020

 
 

Alex Trebek was not the first host of Jeopardy, nor, initially, was he the most famous. Jeopardy was created in 1964 by talk show host Merv Griffin, who also moonlighted as a game show producer (or maybe he was a game show producer who moonlighted as a talk show host.) Even 56 years ago, the concept would have been regarded as ancient by students of broadcast history. A contestant is asked a question, and if that person gets it right, there's some kind of prize, usually money. Except this time there was a twist: the question was in the form of an answer, and the answer in the form of a (not-always grammatically-correct) question. The gimmick was enough to make Jeopardy by the end of the 1960s the second-highest rated game show on daytime television (right behind Hollywood Squares), and its host, Art Fleming, a household name. So identified was Fleming with Jeopardy that his name is referenced in Stephen King's 1978 novel The Stand, and he appears in Weird Al Yankovic's 1982 parody video "I Lost on Jeopardy." The quiz show itself was off the air by that time, but Griffin wanted to bring it back as a syndicated companion to his popular Wheel of Fortune, giving him a whole hour of television. He asked Fleming to return as host, but the native New Yorker balked when he found out the new version was going to be taped in Hollywood. Alex Trebek had hosted several daytime games shows in the 1970s, the most successful being High Rollers (a show I recall watching, but for the life of me can't tell you the point of the game.) Trebek auditioned for and won hosting duties on the new Jeopardy, which went on the air in 1984. This version of Jeopardy, seen in most TV markets between 7:00 and 7:30pm, very quickly became a ratings sensation, its fame eclipsing the original. By the time Fleming died in 1996, he had become somewhat of an obscure figure, though I suppose he'll live on as long as The Stand remains in print. Meanwhile, what was Trebek's secret? Well, I suppose you can say it was the game show rather then the host, except his contract kept getting renewed through thick and thin and cancer treatments. The man was 80 and had he not got sick, he might have hosted it right up until he was 90 or beyond. I imagine it was a combination of his ability to keep pace with a fast-moving show--he was the play-by-play announcer as game show host--his modest handsomeness (with or without a moustache), and a certain affability.  Here he is (minus the moustache) on 60 Minutes:



Now here's Trebek (with the moustache) way back in 1984 hosting his very first Jeopardy:




Part of Trebek's job was to remind people when they forgot to put the answer in the form of a question:




That was no big deal in the first round. In later rounds, though, it could be held against you, none more so than in Final Jeopardy:



All she had to do was ask.


The point has been made that a quiz show is no true measure of a person's intellect or even breadth of knowledge, that it all depends on how the questions come up. In other words, luck. Well, if that's so, than the man on the right, Ken Jennings, is the luckiest man alive. For the first nineteen years of the Alex Trebek era, there was a consecutive five-day limit on how much a contestant could win. In 2003, for reasons that I suspect had a lot to do with all the attention being paid to Who Wants to Be a Millionaire at the time, the rule was changed to make it open-ended. As long as you reached Double Jeopardy, answered the question (or is it questioned the answer?) right, and bet right, you could conceivably play until you dropped dead. Well, Ken Jennings didn't drop dead in 2004, but during his record-setting 74-day streak that turned him into both a celebrity and a millionaire, people were beginning to wonder if they'd ever again see a Jennings-less episode of Jeopardy. Well, yes, the day after his 75th appearance, when he finally lost a game. Since then he's appeared on Jeopardy many more times in various tournaments featuring other past winners, including winners from before the 2003 rule change, always coming in second, making his original streak indeed seem like a fluke. Well, earlier this year there was a "Greatest of All Time" tournament, and here's the question/answer that came up right for the lucky Jennings:   


In case you're wondering about this Iago person:




"I do beseech you–
Though I perchance am vicious in my guess,
As, I confess, it is my nature’s plague
To spy into abuses, and oft my jealousy
Shapes faults that are not–that your wisdom yet,
From one that so imperfectly conceits,
Would take no notice, nor build yourself a trouble
Out of his scattering and unsure observance.
It were not for your quiet nor your good,
Nor for my manhood, honesty, or wisdom,
To let you know my thoughts."

(My, he does go on, doesn't he?)



I started this post with James Bond, so it's only appropriate that I end it with this 1980s Jeopardy promo, in which Alex Trebek has his own Bondian moment:





The pickup line in the form of an answer.


 

 

17 comments:

  1. While I never took too much notice of Connery, I've subsequently learnt he was not a particularly nice person. I've seen some of his Bond movies but they don't excite me much. Btw, a AAA for effort for this post.

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    1. AAA? Andrew, here in the US, that's the name of an auto club. Does this mean I get a free tow if my car breaks down?

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  2. Hello Kirk, I was wondering why you did not do a post commemorating Sean Connery. I never saw a complete Bond film or Jeopardy episode, but both were a huge part of popular culture. I did like Don Adams and Barbara Feldon in the Get Smart parody of the Bond image and gadgetry. I might yet watch the films if I come across a dvd set. Jeopardy I never cared for; I always thought there was something smarmy about it. Still, it feels bad to see an entire era closed like this, however inevitably.
    --Jim

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    1. Jim, I'm a Get Smart fan, too. You may recall I wrote quite a bit about it, plus showed clips, when co-creator Buck Henry died last year.

      I thought I knew what "smarmy" meant until you used it in a sentence just now. I looked it up, and see that, among other things, it means "insincere". Unless it's rigged, I don't know how a game show can be insincere. Do you mean you found Alex Trebek insincere, and thus smarmy? I'm sure at times he forced himself to be super-friendly to the contestants when he didn't really feel like doing so. Part of the job of being host, I suppose.

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  3. Alex, I'll take "Stop the Steal" for 300.

    Hi, Kirk!

    Thanks for filing such a complete report on the lives and careers of Sean Connery and Alex Trebek. I saw Connery's first five 007 films. The action that unfolded on the big screen, the glamour, sex, violence and exotic locations all captured my teenage imagination. It became my goal to someday marry Ursula Undress. Until then I wanted Pussy Galore. Connery became associated with his James Bond character to such an extent that I refused to watch Moore or other actors who took the role in later releases. In more recent years I enjoyed Connery's work in The Untouchables, The Presidio, Indiana Jones, Hunt For Red October, The Russia House, Rising Sun and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. I enjoyed the Connery interview clips. He seemed polite, reserved, modest and frank. What was all that banging noise going on in the background during the first interview? Were they at a construction site? He appeared sloshed during the second Q&A session.

    I well remember Art Fleming as the host of Jeopardy and his appearance in Weird Al's video. I was not a regular viewer of Jeopardy with either host, but Alex Trebek is immortalized at Shady's Place as permanent host of my series Rock Jeopardy featuring contestants Shawn & Gus from Psych.

    Thanks for doing such a thorough job on this In Memoriam Edition, good buddy Kirk!

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    1. Shady, had I not coupled Connery with Trebek, I probably would have spent more time, and showed some clips, from his post-Bond career, but what happened is Connery died right before the election, and I knew I was going to want to do a post about the election (I ended up doing three), and then Trebek dies (the Grim Reaper is VERY inconsiderate of my schedule), so I had to make some cuts, and I wasn't going to cut Bond. I will tell you my favorite post-Bond Connery role was as Indiana's father in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Steven Spielberg has said the Jones movies were partially inspired by the Bond films, so you can say he was paying Connery back.

      As for all the banging in the first Connery interview, it was filmed on the set of Goldfinger, so workmen may have just been getting ready for the next scene. The second interview is from the set of You Only Live Twice and by that time Bond fatigue was beginning to set in.

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  4. Great post. I am a fan of the Bond films. Those early Connery movies were both groundbreaking and incredible. Connery created such a distinctive and iconic character. He will always be remembered. I have not read any of the books but they have been on my radar since the 1980s!

    Alex Trebek was a class act. I was saddened to hear of his passing.

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    1. Brian, the Fleming books are not great works of literature, probably wouldn't even still be in print were it not for the Bond movies, and contain moments of racism, xenophobia, sexism, and homophobia (not surprising considering the novels were written in the 1950s.) That said, the ones I've read were nice little potboilers. Just don't take them too seriously.

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  5. Sean Connery had a reputation of being a miserable bastard in person, whereas Alex Trebek was apparently as nice off-screen as he was on-screen.

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    1. Debra, I was unaware of Connery's reputation until after his death, when some negative things started to come out. All I can say is that anything complementary I've said about Connery has to do with his acting and nothings else. If he was a miserable bastard, then I'm glad I didn't know him and feel sorry for anyone who did.

      At least he wasn't President.

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  6. RIP Sean, a Scottish legend! Donno Alex, sorry.

    Must admit, I did prefer Roger Moore as bond - he oozed sex appeal and was so suave and dashing! Hmm yes :-D

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    1. Ananka, don't tell me you also preferred Roger Moore to James Garner as Maverick.

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  7. I would watch Jeopardy off and on. I was never any good at it until they would have a category that was in my wheelhouse. Then all 5 questions were very easy.

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    1. I think that's how it is with most people, Mike.

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  8. My parents are huge James Bond fans. I can remember their watching the many movies on television, and then buying them on VHS, laser disc and eventually DVDs.
    You mentioned The Stand...I read that way back when in college. I was freaked out by it then, being a biology major and realizing that it could come to fruition. At the start of the pandemic, I pulled out the Complete and Uncut version, which I purchased in 1990 (pre-ordered in fact) but never read. Not sure where the paperback novel I originally read is, and that's weird given I keep books that I love.
    The first bond movie I enjoyed was Moonraker. Perhaps it was because my buddies and I went and saw it in the movies. Our parents had to purchase the tickets for us as we were all under 16.
    I remember Weird Al doing the song "I Lost on Jeopardy" and watching the video on MTV, when MTV was more about the videos and less about reality show contests.

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    1. JM, you know what other pop culture reference from The Stand stands (no pun intended) out in my mind? It's the first week of the pandemic, before anyone even KNOWS there is a pandemic, and somebody on The Today Show sneezes while being interviewed by Gene Shalit. Within a month the Project Blue flue ends up killing 99.4% of humanity, and that has me wondering: Did Shalit end up succumbing to this flue, or was he one of the lucky few that survived, and if so, did he end up in America's two remaining population centers, Las Vegas (in which case he's still doomed) or Boulder, Colorado? I guess we'll never know (for the record, in the real-life non-Stephen King world in which we live, Gene Shalit is still alive as of this writing, though he's been retired from The Today show for about ten years now.)

      I have seen Moonraker. I like how Bond gets Jaws (Richard Kiel) to switch sides in the movies finale.

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    2. That's "flu", minus the e.

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In order to keep the hucksters, humbugs, scoundrels, psychos, morons, and last but not least, artificial intelligentsia at bay, I have decided to turn on comment moderation. On the plus side, I've gotten rid of the word verification.