Hitting 50: Thunderball

tball-posterWith the latest Bond film, Spectre, in theaters, and considering I’ve been writing about 50-year-old things this year, it’s a good time to take a look at 007’s battles with SPECTRE a half-century ago in a film billed as “The Biggest Bond of All.”

Hitting US theater screens in December, 1965, Thunderball certainly would go on to be the biggest money-maker in the franchise’s history up to that point, and held that distinction for more than a decade, vindicating Eon Productions’ strategy of making each new entry bigger, flashier, louder and more expensive than the last. To paraphrase the old saying, “Nothing succeeds like excess.”

On the other hand, Thunderball was also where we first started seeing the negative effects of the “bigger is better” approach, as the film is bogged down by long, lingering shots of its opulent Bahamian locations and protracted underwater sequences, as well as a piled-on plethora of gadgets both big and small.  There’s an epic scale to the film that wasn’t found in its three predecessors, but on the human level, there’s not much to sink your teeth into; human beings — including Bond himself — tend to get dwarfed by the spectacle.

The pre-credits sequence sets the mood, as Bond assassinates an enemy agent (who’s in drag, because why not) and escapes from the upper floor of a sprawling mansion via jetpack (the Bell Rocket Belt in its most famous screen appearance).  The real-life jetpack pilot who performed the stunt insisted on the un-Bondian precaution of a safety helmet, so Connery has to don one as well for the sake of continuity, but at least Q-branch has gone the extra mile and painted it to complement Bond’s bespoke suit.

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Here we have in microcosm the whole spirit of “Classic Bond,” which is both ridiculous and awesome at the same time.  In the moment, the scene works, and in 1965 it was probably fairly astounding.  In terms of logic, however, it doesn’t really hold up: How did Bond get the jetpack up to the top floor?  If he’d flown in on it, someone would’ve heard it (it’s VERY loud).  If he’d carried it in the front (or rear) door and lugged it upstairs, one imagines that would’ve attracted some attention, as well.  Here’s where we’re really getting into the “Don’t think, just have fun” approach that will characterize the series for years to come.

Anyway, cue Tom Jones and his over-the-top rendition of the theme song (legend has it he fainted after hitting the last, extended note) and then it’s off to a secret meeting of that organization of global evil, SPECTRE.  In Dr No, it only got a name check. In From Russia With Love, we just saw a small office and a mysterious guy with a white cat with a handful of flunkies.  This time SPECTRE gets a massive Ken Adam set in all its stainless steel glory, with a large assemblage of no-goodniks plotting deviltry across the globe.  As in FRWL, bossman Ernst Stavro Blofeld browbeats a subordinate with threats of punishment before — surprise! — killing the co-worker next to him, instead.  But where in the earlier film death is dealt by a kick from a poison-toed shoe, this time the victim is rather more spectacularly electrocuted, his chair then lowered into the floor to return scorched and smoking.  And the meeting moves on to the next order of business…

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The Plot Du Jour involves the theft of atomic bombs, which SPECTRE manages by hi-jacking a British bomber and crashing it in the ocean, then removing the bombs via submersibles and a force of frog men.  The easily spotted wires holding up the model bomber don’t detract (much) from the wonderful audacity of the sequence, both on the part of SPECTRE and the movie-makers.  The various underwater sleds invented just for the film are impressive, though soon enough we’ll tire of aquatic sequences.

Moving to London, the spirit of visual one-upmanship continues as, instead of the customary one-on-one briefing in M’s office, Bond attends a much larger meeting in a massive mansion with giant paintings concealing equally huge maps and diagrams.  Here we get a rare (indeed to date, unique) glimpse of the entire Double-0 section.  Late as always, Bond takes the seventh seat from our left, suggesting we’re looking at agents 001 through 009, in order.  Interestingly for 1965 and the frankly chauvanistic Bond series, one of the Double-O’s is a woman.

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Soon enough Bond is off to the Bahamas to meet the Bond Girl and Bond Villain.  This is one area where it’s already become difficult to out-do what’s come before, but Thunderball takes a stab by giving one of them an eye patch.  In retrospect, it might’ve been more memorable if it had been the girl.

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Claudine Auger as “good girl” Domino Derval is a looker (rumor has it she and Connery had an affair during filming), but for my money the standout is Luciana Paluzzi as the evil Fiona Volpe, Bond’s equal when it comes to separating sex from sentiment.  In a nod to Pussy Galore’s “conversion” from bad girl to good girl in Goldfinger, Fiona delivers a fun speech on how a mere roll in the hay with Bond isn’t enough to change her stripes.  Fair enough.  It just means she ends up dead in the next scene.

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So then lots of other stuff happens, way too much of it underwater.  In fairness, though, the final battle between two armies of frogmen is pretty impressive, despite playing out in something close to slow motion thanks to the pesky laws of physics.

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As if to compensate, the showdown between Bond and Largo unreels in near-superspeed, with portions shot “undercranked” like a Keystone Kops comedy short.  I have no idea what they were going for here, but it always feels like the producers said, “Yikes, all those underwater scenes put us 20 minutes over our time!  You’ve got 30 seconds to wrap this thing up!”

 

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Anyway, virtue triumphs and, with the bombs retrieved and the world once more safe for democracy, Bond is allowed some relaxing downtime with the lovely Domino as they float in a raft, waiting to eventually be picked up by boat.  Just kidding; a big plane zooms overhead and jerks them into the clouds via “skyhook” extraction.  Bigger and better, remember? Subtlety is for suckers.

And so we reach the end of Thunderball, great big gaudy Christmas present plopped down in US movie theaters on December 22, 1965 amid a marketing frenzy that would serve as a blueprint for blockbuster franchises to this day.

Yes, the end, but James Bond will return. And if you think this one was over the top, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

 

 

 

Hitting 50: Help!

Help!, the Beatles’ second motion picture, arrived in American theaters fifty years ago this month.  Like its predecessor A Hard Day’s Night, it was directed by Richard Lester and featured a number of new songs, a frantic pace and screwball humor, with the Fab Four playing a fictionalized version of themselves.  But where the first film was filmed in black and white, lending an almost documentary feel to the proceedings, Help! made the transition to living color and full-blown fantasy.

In fact color very much defines the look of the film, as the previous film’s city-bound and overcast “all England” locations give way to the blue skies and wide open locations in the Austrian Alps and the sunny Bahamas, and interior shots feature sets with brightly painted walls and lit with color gels.   Under cinematographer David Watkins, color practically becomes another character in the film.

 
help-colors

 

The plot, such as it is, centers on a ring that’s being sought both by members of an Indian cult and a pair of British mad scientists, but which is currently stuck on the finger of our favorite drummer, Ringo.  Beyond that basic notion, it’s mostly just an hour and a half of musical performances, slapstick comedy and pretty locations, strung together in just-short-of-random fashion.

The lads continue to demonstrate a flair for comedy, even if their accents and rapid-fire delivery can sometimes make the dialog a challenge for these American ears to follow.  Ringo probably fares best, especially in a scene where he explains to an incredulous police inspector that the cultists want to paint him red so he be sacrificed to their god.  “It’s a different religion from ours,” he says.  “I think.”

Just in case anyone’s still taking things seriously, at one point Paul is accidentally shrunk down to do doll size and has an “adventure on the floor.”  And hang on, girls: when he shrinks, his clothes are left behind!

 

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Cannily, the gag-a-minute approach only requires the stars to remember a few lines at a time, with the lion’s share of the work falling to the editors and post-production wizards to make it all somehow gel as a film.  And that’s a good thing, as all four of the Beatles later admitted they were usually too stoned to focus on much of anything during production, and even the shortest scene could take all day to capture between giggle fits.  Anyway, the genius of making the whole thing a madcap lark is that it almost renders criticism impossible.  “But it’s all so illogical!”  Yes, that’s what we were going for.  “Nothing makes any sense!”  Yep, that’s the idea.  And admittedly, it does kind of work. Films built around pop stars always involve ridiculous detours into the fantastic as characters suddenly break into song with mysterious instrumental accompaniment wafting in magically from somewhere off-camera (Heaven?) .  But whereas in the Elvis movies that just felt like a bizarre, almost supernatural interlude in an otherwise conventional romance or adventure, here launching into a spontaneous performance on electric instruments in the middle of a pasture, on a ski slope or on a beach is no more or less insane than anything else that happens.

 

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In about a year’s time, the Monkees would borrow this approach of stitching together short, comedic scenes shot in multiple locations with “concept” musical performances and build a TV show around it, becoming something of a popular sensation and earning more fan mail than any performers on the tube (though Mr Spock and Ilya Kuryakin gave them a run for their money).  Also in its no-holds barred use of garish color, Help!‘s inspiration is seen in shows like Batman, also a year away at this point.

There are three sequences that always stick out for me. One is our first look at the Beatles’ London flat(s).  In this fictionalized version of their lives, they all live happily together in a giant space that’s part swingin’ bachelor pad and part carnival funhouse (and which they’re able to casually enter and exit without being mobbed by throngs of screaming girls).

In a neat touch, the music stand on the electric organ is filled not with sheet music but with vintage issues of Action, Jimmy Olsen and Superman comics (I look at exactly which ones here).

The next wild scene comes when the lads try to travel incognito to the Bahamas, arriving at the airport in disguises designed to look ridiculously over-the-top but which, amazingly, end up closely mirroring the looks the Beatles will grow into in just a few years time.  Well, at least in the case of John, George and Ringo, anyway.    Paul just looks like he’s impersonating Eric Idle.

 

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The other amazing scene comes in the Bahamas, when George rides on the back of the villains’ car in what strikes me as a fairly dangerous stunt.  In the Beatles Anthology book, George notes in surprised hindsight that the Fab Four were plopped onto skiis for the Austrian scenes and simply told to perform, despite having no experience whatever on skiis.  His point was that no one seemed overly concerned at the prospect of one or more of the films’ stars ending up seriously injured.  If anything, the car stunt is even more outrageous; from what I can tell that’s really George on the trunk as the car careens down a mountain road at a not inconsiderable rate of speed.

help-car

George doesn’t mention this stunt in Anthology, but he does note that the film provided his first introduction to Indian culture, a development that would have a huge influence in his life and music, and eventually, if briefly, lead all four Beatles to explore transcendental meditation under the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.

Also interesting for me as a 007 fan is the influence of the Bond films, starting with composer Ken Thorne’s homage to the famous Bond theme (tacked on to the start of the title song, at least on the “Red Album”).  Goldfinger had exploded onto pop culture just a year earlier and was likely still in release as Help! was being filmed.  In one scene where the femme fatale tries to remove the ring from the finger of a slumbering Ringo, the accompanying music is clearly inspired by John Barry’s Goldfinger score, specifically the scene where Bond finds the late Jill Masterson covered in gold paint.   And in a “blink and you’ll miss it” gag, one of the villains doffs his headgear and throws it at someone, adding his own “swisshhh!” sound effect to mimic Oddjob’s deadly bowler.  However, as the “headgear” in this case is a turban, it merely unravels en route and falls to the floor.

As a film, I have to agree with the consensus that Help! is inferior to A Hard Day’s Night, and the first time I saw it, it didn’t really hold my attention to the end.  But as time goes on and 1965 slips further into antiquity, I think it takes on a greater value as a sort of filmic time capsule.  It’s got a lot of great footage of the young Beatles near the end of their “moptop” phase, the groovy fashions, interior designs and vehicles of the mid-60s, a few really clever gags and, of course, plenty of awesome music.  Also, taken in the context of the times, it takes a fairly ingenious approach to the old problem of how to make a movie starring non-actors.  Probably its greatest charm is that it presents the Beatles not quite as they were, but as we liked to imagine them; witty and carefree, shuttling around the world from one romp to the next, all living happily together in one groovy flat and prone to breaking spontaneously into song.

Verdict: Still looking Fab at 50

 

Hitting 50: Lois Lane, Nut Case

Superman’s one-time supremacy on the newsstands meant that by 1965, girl reporter Lois Lane was well-established as the first (and I think, still only) character to headline a comic by virtue of being the girlfriend of a superhero.  Given that it’s a book about a character with no super-powers — a single, working woman in the big city —  it might be tempting to consider this a feminist milestone of sorts…provided you never actually read the books.

The reality is that Superman’s Girlfriend Lois Lane was written by middle-aged white men, like all other DC comics of the era, so she’s not so much a character as a collection of, at best, comedy cliches and at worst a sort of paranoid misogyny.  One part Lucy Ricardo and one part Delilah, her endless schemes are usually portrayed the sort of “hare-brained” notions “only a woman” could come up with, but on another level she’s arguably Superman’s greatest enemy: if her plans ever succeed, she’ll destroy his career either by revealing his identity or by trapping him in…gasp…holy matrimony.  Or both.

In June of 1965 (but with an August cover date), Superman’s Girlfriend Lois Lane #59 gave the world what I consider probably the best-ever example of everything the book was about.  That is to say, it’s pretty messed up.

(NOTE: This post is lifted from my old Confessions of  A Superman site, if you’re interested in reading more of my observations on the Man of Steel in his heyday).

In the lead story, “Lois Lane’s Super-Perfect Crime,” Lois receives from friendly aliens an elixir that grants her invulnerability, making it possible, she reasons, for Superman to finally take a wife without fear that his enemies will strike at him through her (his eternal excuse for NOT wedding).   The only catch with their invulnerability formula, say the aliens, is that she’ll have to consume at least one glass of milk every day to ward off its dangerous side effects.

All that’s left now is to clue Superman in on this happy development, so Lois quickly arranges a meeting with the Man of Steel and explains the whole thing in a logical and rational manner.  Haha, just kidding!  Instead she summons him to a rocky ravine and uses dynamite to dump an avalanche of boulders on herself while Superman looks on in horror.  As he digs her out in a state of shock and grief, he’s astonished to find her hale and hearty.

Naturally a little thing like invulnerability is handy indeed when you live a life as peril-filled as Lois Lane’s.  In fact, it’s fair to say the term “trouble magnet” was invented with this gal in mind.

To Lois’ consternation, her newfound ability does not move Superman to immediately pop the question. Quite the contrary; when asked on a television chat show when he’ll get around to marrying, Superman answers quite frankly, “Never!” and Lois, watching the program, flips her wig.

Naturally Lois assumes that “marriage” for Superman means marriage to her.  If you’re thinking this tirade is a bit over the top even for Lois, you’re right.  It seems she forgot to drink her daily glass of milk the night before, and that “side effect” the aliens alluded to is, well, insanity.  Oops.

As fate would have it, Superman picks this very day to reveal to Lois and Lana Lang the secret hiding place of a deadly Kryptonite ray gun (honestly, won’t he ever learn?) and Lois takes advantage of this opening with a plot to rid herself of both Supmern and Lana, killing the former while disguised as the latter.

Based on eyewitness accounts and Lois’ (true) testimony that only she and Lana knew about the Kryptonite gun, Lana is convicted of Superman’s murder and months later, she’s executed in the electric chair.  All is well for Lois, until one night she finally drinks a glass of milk and comes to her senses (really, months between glasses of milk?  For shame, Lois!).  Lois does the honorable thing and confesses to her crime, but the courts rule she was insane at the time and let her go.  That’s small comfort to Lois, who’s killed her friend and her true love and has to endure the angry stares of people who know what she did.

Luckily the whole thing is revealed as an hallucination; Lois experienced a dizzy spell after drinking the invulnerability formula and imagined the rest of the story.  She quickly demands an antidote to the formula to keep her vision from coming true, and the aliens wave their farewells.

So the old “it was all a dream” ploy leaves us (and Lois) unsure of just what she might really be capable of (though the image of her murdering Superman can’t help but linger), but the second tale in this issue is less ambiguous about her character.  In “Lois Lane’s Romance With Jor-El,” the girl reporter interviews a scientist who’s drawn up plans for a massive tower that, if built, could aim a ray at the Earth’s core which would prevent the sort of atomic reactions that might explode the planet.  When Lois asks if the invention might have saved Krypton, the scientist agrees it could have, and gives Lois the plans for the tower so she can share them with Superman. “Superman, nothing!” she thinks, ” I’m going to follow this up myself!”

Borrowing an experimental time machine from Professor Potter, she travels to Krypton, careful to pick a time period where Jor-El is still young enough to actually build the tower before it’s too late.  When she arrives, Jor-El has yet to marry his steady girlfriend, Lara.  Deciding the Jor-El of this time period would scoff at claims Krypton was doomed, Lois presents the tower as a defense against alien attacks aimed at the planet’s core.

Someone might want to tell Lois that if she has just succeeded in saving Krypton, she won’t find Superman waiting for her on Earth to hear the news.  Anyway it’s a moot point since she returns to her time machine to find it non-functional, and realizes she’s stuck on Krypton.  Immediately she decides to make the best of it by stealing that hunky Jor-El away from Lara (“If I can’t have the son, then why not the father?” she thinks, doing her bestJoan Collins impersonation).

Lara offers to let Lois room with her, and is rewarded with betrayal, as most of Lois’  girlfriends eventually are.

At the beauty salon, Lois tries to turn Lara’s hair green but ends up accidentally dyeing her own.  When she recovers from that boo-boo, she tries to win over Jor-El at a dance all three attend.  That too goes badly, so Lois gets even bolder, altering Lara’s datebook so she’ll miss a romantic moonlight appointment with Jor-El, then disguising herself to take Lara’s place.

Okay, now tell me Lois isn’t a complete sicko.  Anyway Lara sure thinks so when she walks in on this scene and slaps Lois in the face.  The next day, Jor-El prepares to activate the newly-constructed planet-saving tower in a public ceremony, but the tower and the town it’s next to have mysteriously disappeared.  Only then does Lois realize the tower has been built on the outskirts of Kandor, famously shrunken and stolen by future Superman foe Brainiac.

Suddenly, getting off of Krypton has become a bit more of a priority (since nothing can stop it from blowing up now), so Lois returns to the time machine to try it out again.  Luckily the atmospheric anomaly that rendered it inoperable has been counteracted by a second weather effect and now it works again.  Lois takes her leave, but before returning to the present, she sets her dials only a few years forward, and stops at the El home to stalk a very young Kal-El.

Okay, I’m pretty sure that sort of thing would get you locked up in any state in the Union.  Once the shudder of disgust passes, check out the groovy Kryptonian architecture on Jor-El’s house.  Wooden siding , neatly trimmed hedges, a white picket fence and a healthy, green lawn?  Turns out Kryptonopolis looks a lot like Mayberry, NC.

Over on his “Deck Log” blog, Commander Benson has already ably covered the third story in the book, “Superman and Batman’s Joke on Lois Lane,” but I figure it’s worth including these panels to give you the gist of Lois’ character in the tale:

Okay, so in the course of just one issue we see Lois murder Superman and frame her “friend” for the deed (albeit in a dream), try to steal Superman’s father away from his mother (at one point making out with him while disguised as someone else), snatch an unsuspecting couple’s toddler from his yard for an inappropriate display of affection and plot to marry Bruce Wayne only because she thinks he’s really Superman.  And remember, she’s supposed to be the hero of this book.

In fairness, of course, it must be noted that this sort of behavior was pretty standard for our favorite girl reporter and yet Superman always came back for more, making him what psychologists would call a “co-dependent,” every bit as messed up as Lois is.  Bruce Wayne, at least, seems to understand this, as indicated in this panel where Lois willfully misinterprets the teachings of Norman Vincent Peale:

So, that’s Lois Lane in a nutshell.  Where she belongs.  Fifty years on, her name is still linked to Superman’s as half of one of fiction’s great “love stories,” but why, when she’s at best just a nuisance to him, is beyond me.

Hitting 50: Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD

fury_st135Fifty years ago this month, the world met Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD.

Okay, so technically we’d already met Nick a couple years earlier as a tough-as-nails three-striper in “Sgt Fury and His Howling Commandos,” but that book was set in World War II; now the character was being brought into the very-60s world of high-tech espionage to cash in on the spy craze then sweeping the entertainment world.  As writer/editor Stan Lee said in his 1975 book, Son of Origins, “We were going to out-Bond Bond and out-UNCLE UNCLE.”

Certainly in the pages of a comic book, where artist Jack Kirby’s boundless imagination could churn out gadgets and vehicles and massive secret facilities free from the constraints of a TV or movie production budget, that seemed like a goal they just might achieve, even if at first blush, Fury didn’t seem the superspy type.  Where James Bond and Napoleon Solo (and an-ever mounting number of competitors) tended to be impeccably dressed, highly cultured smoothies with expensive tastes in wine, women and cars, Fury was a working-class Joe who grew up on the streets of Hell’s Kitchen and remained, in 1965, essentially the same tough-talking, cigar-smoking roughneck he’d been on the battlefields of Europe.  With his tendency to bite the “g’s” off the ends of verbs while chomping on a stogie, he seemed closer in temperament to Lee Marvin than 007, and with Kirby drawing him, he could go for months without a proper shave.

But like most everything else from Marvel in this period, it worked.  It really was time for the comic industry to get its own superspy (why hadn’t someone thought of it before?) and Lee and Kirby delivered the goods in their patented, thrill-a-minute, out-of-the-frying-pan-into-the-fire style.  One of them (probably Kirby) came up with the idea of giving Nick an eyepatch, which besides granting him an instantly recognizable “look” also added a sense of mystery and intrigue, like the guy in the Hathaway shirt ads (which may have inspired the move).  Immediately our interest is piqued: What happened to Nick during those “missing years” and how did he lose his eye? (He’d still had it as recently as Fantastic Four #21).

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Strange Tales #135 opens with Fury reclining in what looks like a hi-tech bathtub, as technicians take a cast of his body and warn him not to speak or even move, as it could prove deadly (yet they still let him smoke his cigar!). Quickly he learns the purpose of the procedure: a virtual army of automated simulacrums called Life Model Decoys (or LMDs) are being created from a mold of Fury’s body to act as decoys for enemy assassins.

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The LMDs will prove one of the most useful of all the gimmicks introduced in the series, as over the years Nick Fury will be “killed” in the pages of various comics, only to reappear later with the revelation that the victim was “only an LMD” (Dr Doom would pull the same gag repeatedly with his “Doombots.”)

Next up, Fury’s ushered into a sportscar filled with gadgets and weaponry to rival 007’s Aston Martin, but true to their promise to “out-Bond Bond,” Stan and Jack give this one a trick even Q can’t match.

fury_carThat’s right, this car can fly.  And fly it does, right up to the strip’s real show-stopper, a creation blending the superspy trifecta of gadget, vehicle and hi-tech headquarters in one massive Kirby masterpiece, the SHIELD helicarrier.

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Brought before a collection of high-ranking government officials and billionaire industrialist Tony (Iron Man) Stark, Fury is presented with a proposition: sign on as director of SHIELD (Supreme Headquarters International Espionage Law-enforcement Division) and keep the world safe for democracy.  At first he demurs, but when his uncanny instinct for imminent danger, his ability to form and act on an instant plan of action and his natural command ability combine to save the assembly from a hidden bomb, everyone in the room, even Fury himself, knows SHIELD has found its leader.

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A mere 12 pages into the saga of SHIELD, a plethora of amazing creations have already been introduced, with many more in the pipeline, but ultimately the greatest invention is SHIELD itself.  With it, Marvel takes a major step forward in its efforts to weave a web that connects its full universe. With Tony Stark on board as SHIELD’s benefactor and tech provider, we have a link to Iron Man. Through Fury’s war career we have a tie to Captain America, who will operate as a quasi-agent for SHIELD as time goes on.  Over time, Nick will show up to advise, assist, irritate or harass every superhero group and loner in the Marvelverse as SHIELD extends its reach across borders and into people’s lives with “Big Brother” tactics so far-reaching and ubiquitous they make the NSA look like pikers.  Not that it isn’t handy having an omnipresent, international police force: When (I kid you not) Godzilla stomps his way into the Marvelverse the 70s, SHIELD steps in as the logical agency to deal with rampaging, giant lizards on a monthly basis.

In time, the real-life hi-jinks of the CIA and other intelligence agencies would cause us to look at espionage with a more jaded eye, and Nick would often be portrayed in a less sympathetic light, walking a thin line between all-knowing protector and Machiavellian schemer and sometimes coming down on the wrong side of that line.  I won’t even get into what his personal saga has devolved into in recent comics: Suffice to say any character strong enough to hang around for 50 years will eventually be rewarded with a hopelessly muddled continuity that sucks all the fun out of the original concept.

fury-jimnick-slurpeeBut in May of ’65, when Strange Tales #135 hit the stands, things were looking very bright for ol’ Nick.

They’d get even brighter in a few years when artist/writer Jim Steranko arrived to remake what had been essentially a plainclothes “war book” into something more sleek and stylish and “of the moment,” infusing innovative graphic design with a frequently psychadelic sensibility, and outfitting Nick in a tight-fitting tactical suit that brought him closer, visually, to his superhero brethren, thus opening the door to merchandising possibilities (Nick would eventually end up as an action figure, but when I was a kid we had to settle for a 7-11 Slurpee cup!)

Sadly, when Steranko left the strip, he took most readers with him, and Fury’s solo book was cancelled before it even hit issue 20.  But growing up in the 70s, I almost preferred it that way; Nick seemed to work better as a guest star, breezing into some other hero’s life when he was least expected, and always bringing with him excitement and intrigue.  More than once, I bought a comic I wouldn’t ordinarily have purchased (I’m looking at you, Spidey!) because I flipped through and saw Nick Fury was in town.

And why not?  Nick was always dependably Nick; timeless and dated all at once, a link to both the Swingin’ 60s and World War II, lugging around next year’s technology.  In army fatigues or a tech suit, on a halftrack or in a jetpack, battling Nazis or Hydra, he was always the same tough-talking, straight-shooting guy he’d ever been, the one constant in an ever-changing Marvelverse.

whattheUm, yeah.  Well, anyway…

I guess sooner or later, time changes all of us.

 

Hitting 50: Emma Peel

emma-knife2It’s hard to believe I share a birth year with Emma Peel, but that’s probably because I made my 1965 debut as an infant, while Emma showed up fully grown.  And rather nicely so, at that.

For the uninitiated, Mrs Emma Peel was the female half of The Avengers, the British dynamic duo that debuted on American airwaves in 1965 (even though the show had been around, with a different female lead, for a couple seasons already in the U.K.). Legend has it Emma’s name derived from the writers’ shorthand description of what the still-in-development character was to bring to the show: “Man Appeal” or “M. Appeal.”  This she delivered in spades, as legions of male admirers could attest.

I was a late joiner to those legions, having had to wait until the early 90s before I could finally see the show on cable’s A&E Network.  Until then, my exposure to the The Avengers concept was limited to The New Avengers, a short-lived, Emma-less revival in the late 70s that aired on the CBS Late Movie on Friday nights.  Suffice to say it wasn’t the same.

If ever a show was tailored to my oddball sensibilities, The Avengers was it.  At its center was the cool and quirky superspy John Steed (Patrick Macnee), who worked for a mysterious arm of British intelligence and came equipped with a sword-umbrella and a bowler hat with a steel crown good for konking foes on the noggin.  Like James Bond and other 60’s favorites Jonny Quest and The Wild Wild West, this was “spy” fare only in the 60’s pop culture sense; not political intrigue or anything remotely close to real-life espionage, but fantastic and fanciful battles with diabolical masterminds and their nefarious (if preposterous) schemes against mother England and the world. Episodes from the 1965 season involved robotic assassins, telepaths, weather-controlling devices, enemy submarines parked in Scottish lochs and man-eating plants from outer space.  Things would get even crazier the next year, with the addition of color.

duo4Also, for a confirmed Anglophile like myself, the show offered an idealized, fairy tale version of England, from a travel brochure-worthy London to gorgeous country estates, and populated with all manner of delightful eccentrics daft enough to make Steed, with all his affectations, seem positively normal in comparison.

Well, perhaps not normal, as Steed is held up repeatedly within the context of the show as the very exemplar of all that is British, what with his impeccable manners, his mastery of all things sartorial and culinary and his ability to handle any danger with imperturbable calm and wit.

And then there was Mrs Peel, in the (pleasing) form of Diana Rigg. Smart and capable, fearless and intrepid…and far from incidentally, quite lovely.  Where Steed represented the best of English tradition, Emma represented the future, with her trendy outfits and progressive attitudes.  And of course the “Mrs” signaled she was a widow, with all the “wink, wink, nudge, nudge” connotations that would have carried back in the day.   No mere “damsel in distress,” she was Steed’s equal in most respects, and his superior in others: accomplished artist, karate expert, crack shot, CEO of a major corporation; there was nothing she couldn’t do.  For every baddie Steed clobbered, Emma probably took out three.  When, in “The Masterminds,” the pair needs to infiltrate an exclusive club of geniuses, Emma passes the entry test with ease, while Steed only squeaks by because he cheats, with her help.

But lest the show be interpreted as outright propaganda for the Women’s Lib movement, it should be noted that few opportunities were missed to exploit Emma’s sex appeal, as she ended up clad in the flimsiest of outfits on the flimsiest of excuses, from leather catsuits to mini-skirts to bikinis to harem girl costumes and the like.  In later episodes, she would favor tight-fitting body suits known as “Emmapeelers,” often with holes artfully cut out to display flesh.  In the infamous “Touch of Brimstone” episode, she’s put in a black teddy with high-heel boots and a spiked dog collar, and attacked by a whip-wielding villain.  Apoplectic American network executives pulled that one from broadcast (but, it was rumored, enjoyed it privately at their Christmas parties).

emmapeeler

Steed’s previous partner had been Mrs. Cathy Gale, in the person of actress Honor Blackman.  Partial to leather outfits and adept at tossing bad guys across the room with her judo prowess, she made a huge impact on pop culture in the U.K. before leaving the show to take a step up (or down, depending on your point of view) to the role of “Pussy Galore” opposite Sean Connery’s James Bond in Goldfinger.  Unfortunately for her, this move came at the same time production of The Avengers transitioned from videotape to film, enabling its export to America, where a new, larger audience would assume Emma Peel was the first to knock down a lot of gender barriers that Cathy Gale had in fact already shattered.

merryquipsThat said, Emma brought something new to the mix in the form of warmth and humor and a genuine affection for Steed.  Where Mrs Gale’s relationship to Steed was often adversarial and prickly, Mrs Peel’s was cozier and more openly flirty.  For instance, there was the scene in “Death At Bargain Prices” where Emma goes undercover as a department store salesperson and Steed shows up as a “customer:”

STEED: “I asked the chief predator where to find you.  He said, ‘our Mrs Peel is in Ladies’ Underwear.’ I rattled up the stairs three at a time!”

EMMA: “Merry quips department on the fifth floor, sir.”

There’s certainly an attraction between these two, but they handle it the same way they handle all those insidious death traps, or the alarmingly frequent discovery of corpses in unexpected places: with breezy wit.  Fans watch closely for hints of what might have gone on between scenes (“Did they or didn’t they?”) and a certain current of romantic tension does add to the show’s charm (YouTube is rife with fan films accentuating their “special moments” to the accompaniment of various schmaltzy tunes).  But unlike, say, Moonlighting, Remington Steele or other shows that mix romance and crime-solving, with The Avengers it was never more than a subtext, very much secondary (at best) to whatever evil plot was unfolding, and never more than friendly flirting.  Thus, happily, we never reached the dead end we did with those other shows when the relationships eventually, inevitably passed the point of no return.  We never had to endure a scene where Mrs Peel said, “We need to talk about us…”

That said, it’s no less heartbreaking when, out of the blue, the presumed-dead Mr Peter Peel shows up very much alive and (understandably) wants his wife back.   Steed gets a last, chaste kiss (on the cheek!) and then Emma’s out of his flat, and his life, crossing paths on the stairway with the next girl in line, Tara King (Linda Thorson).

goodbye

But while on screen Emma was rejoining her husband, in real life Diana Rigg, like Honor Blackman before her, was leaving Steed for James Bond (that bounder!).  As the Countess Teresa deVincenzo alias Tracy Bond in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, she would present us with arguably the most important woman in 007’s life, and the only one who could get him to walk the aisle.  Alas, Bond isn’t the domestic type, so she also ends up dead in the end (Oops! Spoilers!).  Often, the “Bond girl” roles went to freshly discovered ingenues whose primary “qualifications” involved certain body measurements, but with a new and untried actor (George Lazenby) as Bond, and given the comparative gravitas inherent in the Tracy role, casting a known draw and proven talent like Ms Rigg made sense.

It might have worked too well. In his 1973 book, “James Bond Diary,” Roger Moore recalled attending a private screening of OHMSS hosted by Bond producer Harry Saltzman:  “When the lights came up, Harry said, ‘Well, what do you think of my new monster?’ Bob Goldstein, a Hollywood producer present, said ‘You made a mistake, Harry. You should have killed him and saved her.'”

Tracy would cast a long shadow, her marriage to Bond being one of the very few “canon” events in the series’ history, alluded to in the films of two (arguably 3) subsequent lead actors.  Meanwhile, Diana Rigg (now Dame Diana Rigg) would go on to more triumphs and remains in the spotlight at age 76 thanks to her award-winning performances on Game of Thrones.

Our Emma, though, would remain untouched by age or mortality.  She’s preserved forever as we last saw her, on the stairs of Steed’s flat, in her trendy outfit and with that ever-present air of casual confidence and good humor.  On her way out, she leaves Steed (and us) with the reminder to “Always keep your bowler on in times of stress, and watch out for diabolical masterminds.”

Words to live by.