Sunday, July 31, 2011

Classic Television {The Man From U.N.C.L.E.}

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was an immensely popular spy-fi show that ran for 105 episodes from 1964-1968 and was partly created by none other than Ian Fleming. It was also the last American show to premier in black and white.
UNCLE stood for the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement, the secret international organization responsible for maintaining world peace that everyone knows about. UNCLE is international and not governed or funded by any single governing power, rather like the UN but with guns, spies and secret offices worldwide.
The enemy and foe of UNCLE in almost every episode is THRUSH, a secret evil organization of wealthy evil criminal masterminds and henchmen bend on total world domination by any means. THRUSH has no political motivations, they just want power. Besides, someone has to employ evil masterminds.
UNCLE is headquartered in the basement of a tailor's shop in New York and is control by Mr. Waverly, who never seemed to go home and always sounded that he'd just been enjoying a three martini lunch.
Robert Vaughn plays Napoleon Solo, an American enforcement agent for UNCLE. He's your typical spy: the man about town, has an excellent tailor, lots of pretty girls and a good haircut. His role is that of James Bond; save the world, get the girl, look good in a tux and try not to cause too many explosions.

David McCallum plays Illya Kuryakin, a Russian enforcement agent. Illya is a more interesting character. He has several degrees, is an expert at just about everything, he quotes poetry, speaks several languages, is a master of martial arts and disguises and can blend into just about any setting. He also will occasionally get the girl, or at least the one's with actual personalities.
Originally, Illya was just a minor character (Napoleon was supposed to be The Man from U.N.C.L.E.) but he received such an overwhelming fan reaction from his one small scene in the pilot that he was made Napoleon's full partner halfway through the first season.
It's an equal partnership, although you will often see Napoleon hanging out at a party while Illya climbs to the second floor balcony, because David McCallum did most of his own stunts and was an actual gymnast whereas Robert Vaughn was a movie star.
Illya was the more popular of the two and David McCallum became known as the "blond Beatle" due to his huge following of fans. Illya is the epitome of Sixties Cool, particularly when he's wearing a turtleneck, sunglasses and hanging out with beatniks.

I've found it really hard to find any clips from the show, so here is a trailer that someone made that explains more about what UNCLE does every week. Plus you can hear the awesome theme music by Jerry Goldsmith and the famous bongo drums that played throughout every episode:


As to the format for the episodes, you can probably guess what it was: THRUSH is planning something nasty, Napoleon and Illya are send to find out what it is and stop it, thereby saving the world and getting the girl.
The slightly usual aspect about the show is that every week there was the innocent guest star, usually a girl but not always, who had some connection to the THRUSH threat of the week and Napoleon and Illya had to recruit them and use their assistance in order to save the world.
Although the show focuses on just those two characters, there are none of those moving character development episodes that modern television shows seem obsessed by. We know what they characters of Napoleon and Illya are like and that they're friends and are able to work well together and still get in a few wisecracks between the action. We cannot know about their personal backgrounds or what they do on their days off because they're spies and are too busy saving the world to get into any of that nonsense. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was made as pure escapism.
Since I couldn't find any clips, here is a clip show that someone made to "The Masochism Tango" by Tom Lehrer. This was also the first American TV show to use hand held cameras in some of the fight scenes.


UNCLE started out as an adventure series with bits of comedy mixed in. However, during the third season, with the rise in popularity of Batman, it became incredibly silly. Some of the episodes are so silly that they're almost unwatchable and the ratings sank. Even though they switched back to their old format for the fourth season, they were cancelled halfway through.
UNCLE was made by MGM for television and was filmed entirely on location on the MGM back lot, which is why you might recognize some of the sets or costumes from other MGM movies, or even just the sound stages which can fill in for just about any location in the world.
Aside from the merchandising profits from books, lunch boxes and replica gadgets, MGM also cashed in by releasing eight UNCLE movies, which were really just two episodes stuck together with some extra sex and violence footage thrown in. These films did extremely well overseas, where UNCLE wasn't shown, in some cases beating that year's James Bond film at the box office.
Just about anyone famous who was willing to appear on television guest stared on the show. Including Joan Crawford, Janet Leigh, Victor Borge, Nancy Sinatra, Sonny and Cher, Eve Arden, Joan Blondell, Cesar Romero, Anne Francis, Angela Lansbury and of course, Vincent Price.
But most famously in the ninth episode of the first season, William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy appeared on screen together for the first time and a full two years before Star Trek started! This is the only clip I could find of the entire series and it's from that episode. Shatner plays the innocent of the week and Nimoy plays a Russian. Also appearing are the guy who played Colonel Klink and Illya doing his impression of Trotsky

So, what about the costumes. Well, since there are too many episodes to screen cap and I didn't know which ones to pick to screen cap since they all have great costumes, here is one of the special features videos from the DVD which is a clip show of all of the girls from UNCLE and shows their awesome Sixties fashions, big hair and even bigger eye makeup.


The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is available on DVD in Region 1 and five of the feature films are available on Region 2 DVD. Or you could just download them from the bay of pirates if the DVDs aren't available to you. And you should, it's a terrific series and such fun to watch!

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Cinema Tuesdays {Lady of Burlesque}

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In an old house on Broadway that was covered in lights, lived fifty little girls in two chorus lines.
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For my burlesque month, I wanted to do one of the movies that Gypsy Rose Lee starred in for Michael Todd, but I haven't been able to find a copy and I can find a copy of almost any movie. Why hasn't Dita been doing her job and pushing for them to be released?
So instead, I'm doing Lady of Burlesque, which is the 1943 adaptation of Miss Lee's novel The G-String Murders. Although a bit watered down, thanks to the Code, it's still quite daring and a mostly accurate portrayal of backstage burlesque, or at least according to Miss Lee it is, and who are we to question her.
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Barbara Stanwyck plays Dixie Daisy, the headliner who spends her spare time fending off the advances of the cute comic Biff Brannigan with her quick wit. But then someone starts murdering her fellow strippers with their own g-strings, which is a horrible way to go and the cops suspect her! But despite cat fights, booze, comics, sabotage, broken sinks, police raids and general backstage bitchiness, Dixie still manages to solve the murders and get the guy by the end of the picture.
Also, Barbara Stanwyck is totally bad-ass!
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This is the G-String song, which is quite daring for a Code film, if you use your imagination for when they cut away from her bumps. And yes, she is really singing. Sorry for the water mark, I couldn't find an alternative video.

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You may have noticed that the quality of the screen caps is really crappy. That's because Lady of Burlesque is in public domain. Although this means that it is unlikely that it'll ever be restored, is does mean that you can download it completely legally here from the internet archive.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Musical Guest {Django Reinhardt}

[Portrait of Django Reinhardt, Aquarium, New York, N.Y., ca. Nov. 1946] (LOC)

Remember a couple of months ago during my Woody Allen month for Cinema Tuesdays, I covered Sweet and Lowdown about a jazz guitarist who idolized Django Reinhardt so much that he would faint at the sight of him? Well, I thought it was high time that I write a little post about him. Not only is M. Reinhardt one of my favourite jazz musician, he is also, quite possibly the greatest guitarist ever.
M. Reinhardt is famous not only for his unique style of guitar playing, as a result of a fire which left part of his left hand paralysed (see photo) but also for inventing a new style of guitar technique called "hot jazz guitar".
M. Reinhardt was born into a family of French gypsies and began performing the guitar publicly at a young age. In 1934 he hooked up with the jazz violinist St├ęphane Grappelli and together they put together the Quintette du Hot Club de France, usually for a jazz band, it had no percussion instruments. The Quintette remains one of the most original and interesting in the history of jazz. If you're not a fan of them, or have never heard of their name before, you will have heard their recordings in countless movies and TV shows. The Quintette performed and recorded throughout Europe until 1948, with a hiatus during the war as M. Grappelli stayed in England but M. Reinhardt returned to France. During my extensive research for this post (Wikipedia) I could not find out exactly how a gypsy jazz musician managed to survive in occupied France but it might have something to do with the fact that some Nazi officers loved his music.
Unfortunately, M. Reinhardt dropped dead of a brain haemorrhage in 1953 at the age of 43 just as he was moving in a new musical direction with the electric guitar. Despite this, he lives on in his recordings and through modern musicians who have been influenced by his style.
What truly makes Django Reinhardt a unique jazz artist and a genius musician is that when listening to other musicians you can hear their personality through their music but when you hear a recording of Django Reinhardt, you can hear his soul.

"Minor Swing" is my favourite.

This is the only video I could find of the Quintette performing

This is an interview with him from the late Forties and the only example I could find of him speaking.

"Djangology" his last major composition.

Any suggestion for which musician you want covered next?

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Cinema Tuesdays {Gypsy}

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1962's musical biography Gypsy is loosely based on Gypsy Rose Lee's memoirs, which was in turn, loosely based on her own early life first in vaudeville and then in burlesque.
It stars Natalie Wood, who was coached by Miss Lee herself.
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It tells the story of Gypsy and her younger sister, the actress June Havoc back when she was Baby June.
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Gypsy was famous for Madame Rose, the determine monster of a stage mother. Rose wanted to be a star herself, but a teenage marriage and early motherhood forced her to focus her ambitions on her two young daughters, whether they liked it or not.
Rosalind Russell plays Madame Rose, who's more like Auntie Mame as stage mother rather than the monster that we've heard that Gypsy's mother actually was. Having read Gypsy's memoirs, I think that even she glossed over how terrible her mother actually was. As much as I love Miss Russell, I think that had Ethel Merman reprised her role from the Broadway version, Rose would have been shown as a monster, rather than a likeable character we feel sorry for.
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Madame Rose is determined to turn Baby June into the star of vaudeville, regardless of how lousy the act is. And Baby June must always be Baby June, at least in the eyes of her mother.
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And poor Louise must always be a forgotten tomboy and ten years old for years, since Louise has no talent, or at least Madame Rose hasn't figured out what her talent is yet.
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And then Baby June, now being billed as Dainty June elopes with one of the boys from the act and leaves her family in the lurch, but that was how June Havoc was able to escape.
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So, the act becomes Rose Louise and her Hollywood Blondes, only the act is still lousy and Louise doesn't have any talent, but Madame Rose isn't going to let that stop her career. I mean, Madame Rose isn't going to let that stop Louise's career.
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The act is then accidentally booked into a second rate burlesque theatre as the act that's supposed to keep the cops out. This isn't exactly how Louise transformed herself into Gypsy, since they had to move into burlesque after vaudeville died.
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And in real life, Madame Rose wasn't so vehemently against burlesque and Louise was the one who pushed herself into stripping since she wasn't going to be a child performer forever.
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"Momma, I'm a pretty girl"
I absolutely love this dress!
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Much to Madame Rose's chagrin, Louise does actually have a talent after all: the striptease and she is able to become a star all by herself and she no longer needs her mother.
Even though this is a Code movie, I would have liked to see Natalie Wood recreate some of Miss Lee's acts that show her as a classy and witty strip teaser, which the emphasis on the tease, since Miss Lee became famous for her humour and her gimmick was that she talked when she was stripping. But I suppose we should be grateful that the censors allowed bumps and grinds in the movie at all.
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Poor Rose! What's she going to do now that she isn't wanted as a stage mother.
As terrible as Rose actually was, Lousie would never have become Gypsy Rose Lee in real life had it not been for her mother's drive and determination and inheriting her mother's talent for self promotion, which is what her memoirs are all about.
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