Sunday, 16 March 2014

The Man From UNCLE: The Hula Doll Affair

After my post on The Off-Broadway Affair I had a doubt as to whether The Man From UNCLE could possibly be satirising American society as much as I thought it was. On the against side is that I am of course seeing this matter through the eyes of an outsider, & The Man From UNCLE is hardly heavyweight televisual social commentary.
However watching this episode I am confirmed in my view that there is at least a heavy streak of social satire, if not commentary, in this series. For one thing this episode continues the Thrush-as-corporation theme, with an at times advantageous comparison to UNCLE, right from the words of the man in the tailor's at the start: 'I bet Thrush ain't so cheap'. Additionally this episode satirises that great American institution of the family, through the medium of the Sweet family, who have made Thrush the family business. A more classic spy thriller theme is also added by the necessity for the UNCLE agents to rescue the M4 in a heatwave before it explodes. This is of course given a humorous - literally - overcoat with the gags about air conditioning.
The point of the satire is one that ought to have been very uncomfortable for any 'company man' who had the self-awareness to compare his own company with either Thrush or UNCLE. The bottom line is that Thrush's security is non-existent. Beyond the gimmicky trick of hiding behind a gents' outfitters - Thrush & UNCLE really are the same - they have an actual UNCLE agent in their boardroom posing as an (apparent) agent from Thrush Central with a deciding vote. Employing so many family members is asking for the sort of compromised characters that actually run the show in this episode. Nor is UNCLE actually run any better - since UNCLE doesn't seem to do anything other than fight Thrush, it is very poor management that they have *no* idea where Thrush headquarters is. Thrush clearly knows where theirs is, shown by the device of the blind pencil-selling little person. Thrush - only ever painted as the baddies - is shown operating by policies & procedures, showing the criminal fraternity is just like every other organisation. The point I am making here is that anyone working for a large corporation should watch this & compare these incidents to some of the cock ups in their own organisation. I feel this undercurrent of reflection on society may partly explain the unpopularity of series 3 - anyone with any self-awareness should be made uncomfortable by watching this.
I loooove the character of Mrs Sweet. The irony of course is that she is exactly the sort of compromised character that Thrush's human resources policies attracts & nurtures: I do however feel that her initial proclamation that she is a Thrush woman before a mother more convincing than her later statement to her sons that of course they will always come first. I love Kuryakin in the next door wardrobe giving a commentary on her preparing dinner to Mr. Waverley over Channel D.
What I like visually best about this episode is the Thrush board room. It is very obviously a set, with apparently no attempt to suggest anything outside the windows, but it has all of the attributes of 1960s luxury. There is a whole wall clad in stone, the carpet is deep pile: it would have been fabulously expensive to build at the time. I think one of the reasons I like it so much is that it is so of its time & so looks terribly dated now. The leatherette upholstery of the chairs would be uncomfortable at best to sit on. The wood looks as if it might be laminate. I assume those huge round things on the table are ash trays. There is even a bar. They don't make board rooms like that any more.
Unusually for me I don't really have a major criticism of this one, & I've even just watched it twice in close succession, always a sure test of a TV programme. Plot-wise it is a conventional spy drama of the time, given a Man From UNCLE veneer. It is capable of some deeper understandings. The characters are drawn with broad strokes but are not caricatures (except the pencil-seller, who was obviously intended to be very obvious). I like the pantomimic aspects, such as Illya appearing in no time with a taxi, & the sons' faces when they realise their own mother is 'Number 26'.
Best line:
Mr Waverley (on hearing over Channel D that Illya is with a woman): 'This is the sort of thing I expect from Mr Solo.'
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4 comments:

Mike Doran said...

Chicago Calling:

"The Hula Doll Affair" is an example of the comedy takeover of UNCLE.

The Sweet Brothers were two of US TV's most popular stand-up comics:
Older brother Simon was Jan Murray, a Borscht Belt veteran who'd become hugely popular in early TV, hosting game shows. Murray worked very well with contestants from the audience, making them comfortable on stage, while still getting laughs for himself.
Like a lot of comics, Murray had acting ambitions; he did more than a few dramatic shows, often playing villains. This episode was one of a number of such appearances.
Younger brother Peter was Pat Harrington Jr., whom you might recall as "Guido Panzini" from "The Bow-Wow Affair", op cit. (Boy, do I get a kick out of that ...) Harrington did several other UNCLEs, different roles each time, showing off mimicry, dialects, and disguises; "Peter Sweet" was probably closer to how he looked and sounded in real life.
And "Mama Sweet":
The classic comedy fans in the audience doubtless recognized Patsy Kelly, who went back to Hal Roach comedy shorts in the '30s.

Norman Felton's producer in this season was an old Hollywood hand named Boris Ingster, who liked to keep old friends from his days at RKO and other studios working, both before and behind the cameras. Read the credits and you'll see a Who's Who of Old Hollywood.
In a sense, the UNCLE shows were in competition with Batman, not just for the "hip, camp" crowd, but for the rising generation of old movie buffs; Batman was run by another old RKO hand, Bill Dozier, assisted by Howie Horwitz, who'd spent the '50s and '60s at Warner Bros TV, using the same philosophy. Compare Batman and UNCLE credits, and you'll find many of the same names, crossing over like crazy.

Something I forgot last time:

One of Girl From UNCLEs Big Gets was for an episode called "The Mother Muffin Affair", about a sweet old English lady whose sons were Thrush thugs.
In this show, Robert Vaughn crossed over to play Napoleon Solo opposite Stefanie Powers's April Dancer.
And as "Mother Muffin" - Boris Karloff.
In full drag, and with no wink - Boris was playing a lady.
I think you have to see this one for yourself.

... and on that note (?) ...

John said...

Ah Mike, thank you for another illuminating comment. I don't mind the comedic element of MFU myself, although I know it gets roundly criticised by the fans. And I'm now going over to Amazon to order the Girl from UNCLE!

Mike Doran said...

John:

You mean you've never seen The Girl From UNCLE?

Friendly Warning (sort of):

The US fandom, who disliked Man From UNCLE's switch to comedy, absolutely hated Girl From UNCLE, which they considered too far over the top for words.

Fortunately, time seems to have been kind to the old Girl; it's seen these days as a period piece, that period being The Swingin' Sixties! (I think that's a registered trademark.)

When US television went to full color in 1966, the whole medium went hog wild - not only Batman and the two UNCLES, but everything else in the adventure mode.
When The Avengers made its triumphant return to the ABC network in January of '67, it seemed almost restrained, at least in comparison to Batman, the UNCLES, the Irwin Allen SF series, The Wild Wild West, Tarzan, The Monkees (also known as the Pre-Fab Four), and several others I'll recall once I hit Publish.
I'm not sure how many of these US shows made the Transatlantic crossing; I can see from your sidebar just how few UK shows from this era made it over here, which does limit my capacity to comment on them.
Even my best efforts can meet up with obstacles: I've picked up some DVD sets of Minder, and I find they require multiple watchings for me to even begin to penetrate the British slang (one example to serve for many).

Anyway, good luck and Godspeed with The Girl From UNCLE!
( ... and should this result in another string of posts around here ...
... well, you were warned!)

John said...

Mike I think I've seen it on TV a long time ago but have no recollection at all of it.
Another string of posts is welcome!