Friday, July 9, 2010

A Piece of Shat: The Man From U.N.C.L.E. – “The Project Strigas Affair” (11/24/64) and 12 O’Clock High – “I Am the Enemy” (11/08/65)

(Spoiler warning: Final notice—danger, danger, Will Robinson! There’s a darn good chance I’ll telegraph the endings of these episodes not because I’m a heartless bastard but because of the completist in me. If you haven’t seen these shows, then reading this post is strictly verboten! Sorry…I got a little carried away, what with the 12 O’Clock High and all…)

Thrilling Days of Yesteryear concludes the singular blogathon event of the summer—Shatnerthon!—with a look at two more entries on William Shatner’s extensive television resume. First up, an episode of the cult TV classic that successfully capitalized on the 1960s craze for spying and espionage: NBC’s The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (1964-68).

In “The Project Strigas Affair,” U.N.C.L.E. (United Network Command for Law Enforcement) operatives Napoleon Solo (Robert Vaughn) and Illya Kuryakin (David McCallum) are given an assignment by their boss, Alexander Waverly (Leo G. Carroll): it seems that a Balkan diplomat named Laslo Kurasov (Werner Klemperer) has gotten a little power-hungry, and needs to be taken down several pegs before he seriously exacerbates the already-present tension between the United States and the U.S.S.R. Solo and Kuryakin decide to do a Mission: Impossible mind f**k on Kurasov by leaking to him “secret” information about a nerve agent called Strigas (“strike gas”)—which allegedly can put an entire city to sleep, allowing an invading army to waltz in and seize control…and of course, cutting down on the collateral damage.

To carry out their plot, the two men enlist the help of Michael Donfield (Shatner), a chemical engineer who’s trying (unsuccessfully) to run a small pest-control business with his wife Anne (Peggy Ann Garner). Illya has donned a Rollin Hand-like disguise of an East European operative named Colonel Michaelovitch Donyev to further the “diabolical scheme”—but his presence arouses the suspicion of Kurasov’s aide-de-camp, Vladeck (Leonard Nimoy). After a very close call in which the caper is almost blown, U.N.C.L.E. successfully discredits Kurasov (with the help of a conniving, two-timing stooge played by character great Woodrow Parfrey) in the eyes of his government by successfully slipping him the secret formula…to floor wax!

Because future Star Trek compadres Shatner and Nimoy appear in this episode (though they really only have two scenes together—which would stand to reason, since they play characters on opposite sides) “Strigas Affair” is one of the most popular of U.N.C.L.E. installments…in fact, it was one of the first to be released to home video. I enjoyed getting the chance to revisit it (I first saw a good while back when American Life was the Good Life network—in fact, my copy originated from those reruns so I was pleased to find this site, which had the screen caps I needed sans the “Good Life logo” on them) and I have to say that this is one of my favorite Shatner performances. He’s really engaging here; no trace whatsoever of those beloved dramatic histrionics that would come to plague him in later television outings—and it’s also obvious that he had quite a bit of fun filming this one in the process. There’s a scene in “Strigas” where Shatner’s Donfield is being accompanied by Solo to meet with the contact that will give him access to Kurasov, and he’s squirted in the face with the milk from a bottle being carried by a woman pushing a baby carriage along the way. Of course, the fluid acts as a tranquilizer that soon puts Shat on his ass and he cracks: “I think I just had my 11:00am feeding” as he slumps to the ground. (Solo puts him in a cab driven by Illya and then chases after “momma”…when he gets to the abandoned baby carriage he finds a tape recorder used to simulate the baby cries—so he shuts it off and remarks to a crowd that’s suddenly formed around him: “It just needed to be burped.”)

As a sidebar, “Strigas” was recently the subject of a post at the rib-tickling weblog Shatner’s Toupee—which discusses the hairpiece used by the Shat in this landmark episode. The picture to your left is a screen cap of the reaction Bill has to David McCallum’s removal of his wig in one of the scenes: “Love at first sight? A kleptomaniac impulse?” The episode is treated in a wonderfully tongue-in-cheek manner, but I particularly enjoyed this interesting observation from the blog’s authors:

Interestingly, U.N.C.L.E. stars Robert Vaughn and David McCallum would soon end up with a similar problem to that which Shatner and Nimoy experienced on Star Trek. Namely, the "unusual" co-star becoming more popular than the "ordinary" lead. Rumors abound that the two stars did not get on. Yet, whereas Kirk and Spock had a great on-screen chemistry, the dynamic between Napoleon Solo (Vaughn) and Illya Kuryakin (McCallum) is a little less easy to define. Nonetheless, the series remained popular and ran for four seasons.

A commenter on this post also notices that Klemperer and Shatner have been reunited here after appearing together in the Stanley Kramer-directed Judgment at Nuremberg (1961): "Here's a guy that was never ashamed of showing the bald head!"

“Strigas Affair” was written by Henry Misrock and directed by television veteran Joseph Sargent (his first U.N.C.L.E. assignment), and because this episode is so much like Mission: Impossible it’s a wonder Misrock wasn’t asked by Mission creator Bruce Geller to do some scripting for the series. The presence of so many familiar television faces—Klemperer (“Hooooogannnnn!!!”), Nimoy, Parfrey, Susanne Cramer (as “Mr. Smith”) makes this show a particular joy to watch…and I was pleasantly surprised by Garner’s turn in this outing as well. Garner achieved fame as a child actress back in the 1930s and 1940s, culminating with her star-making performance in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945)—but although she continued to work in films and television she never really managed to capture the success of other moppet thesps turned adult actors like Natalie Wood or Elizabeth Taylor. But I really thought she was great here (I’ve seen her in other venues, notably reruns of old TV favorites like Naked City, Have Gun – Will Travel and Perry Mason)—she could be the love child of Janet Leigh and Tuesday Weld.

For our next Shatner romp, we must step into the WABAC machine and journey back to WW2…in other words, we need to sit down and watch a second season episode of the cult WW2 series 12 O’Clock High, which ran from 1964-67 on ABC-TV and was based on the book and 1949 theatrical film of the same name. Those of you who can’t enough of Bill’s signature hamminess as Trek’s Captain James Tiberius Kirk will love “I Am the Enemy,” an entertaining vehicle that casts His Shatness as Major Kurt Brown, a disgruntled German-American flyer holding a major grudge against his countrymen…and who, to put it in the politest way possible, is such un dickhead formidable to his fellow flyboys in the squadron. Brown has earned himself quite the reputation—he’s nicknamed “The Iron Major”—for never aborting a mission and before the opening credits of High start to roll, he’s currently on his eighth go-round at attacking some sub pens at St. Nazaire. Informed that his bombardier has been hit, Brown asks another crew member (Walter Gregg) if the bombardier is breathing. When informed that he is, Brown tells his man to “prop him up”: “If he can breathe, he can work that bomb sight.”

So you can see why Brown’s a popular guy. The mission to bomb the sub pens is a success, but the bombardier on that run isn’t going to make it, according to the chaplain who gives Brown the bad news. This allows Shatner to engage in some first-rate scenery-chewing with this little lecture:

One of these days we’re all going to grow up…chaplains, along with the rest of us…we’re going to stop wasting ourselves on sub pens and railroads…we’re going to bomb Germans…in their homes, in their streets, in their churches…until they fear the very thought of us…until all of them are either dead or terrified

Nazis…he hates those guys. Brown’s state of mind has not escaped the attention of Colonel Joseph Anson Gallagher (Paul Burke, High’s star), the commander of the 918th who arranges for Brown to have a chinwag with Brigadier General Ed Britt (Andrew Duggan), who can’t decide whether Brown is either “a dedicated flyer or the luckiest show-off in the E.T.O. (European Theater of Operations).” Britt suggests a promotion for Brown, to command the 82nd Group—because we all know how assholes get ahead in both business and the military—but Brown refuses because it will take him out of the cockpit and strand him on the ground. Britt is committed to promoting Brown, who promises he’ll run the 82nd the way Gallagher commands his outfit—he’ll fly wherever and whenever he has to.

In the course of “Enemy,” Major Brown makes the acquaintance of a young woman named Elizabeth Hoffman (Elen Willard)—in fact, Gallagher asks Brown to be a gentleman and see her home from a bar one night…and because Brown is a blueprint for Kirk, it’s implied that he went at her at warp speed by the time they got back to her place, if you know what I mean…and I think you do. Elizabeth then becomes the sympathetic ear to Brown’s frustrations with the air—which are aggravated by an incident in which Brown is forced to abort a mission due to an attack of appendicitis experienced by his navigator (described by the “Iron Major” as “a bellyache.”) Despite his paranoia and obsession with exterminating every last Kraut in Deutschland, Liz admits to Kurt that she’s fallen in love with him…and that she’s also German, which Kurt doesn’t quite accept in the spirit it’s meant:

Yikes! He really doesn’t like Nazis. Because of Liz’s feelings towards him, Kurt starts to behave more like a human being rather than the über pilot that’s getting on everybody’s wick. He suffers a migraine headache shortly after a briefing that threatens to “wash him out” as a pilot…but Gallagher’s convinced that if Brown is becoming more human, it will make him a better flyer. Unfortunately, Gallagher’s instincts don’t quite measure up to the caliber of those of Naked City’s Detective Adam Flint—the other television icon played by actor Burke—and Brown is hit badly during a mission that otherwise is a success. He’ll be grounded for quite a while…but he’ll also have Liz to lean on in the meantime.

“Enemy” isn’t one of the stronger episodes of 12 O’Clock High, a show that’s acquired quite a following among WW2 buffs (it was featured in reruns on the History Channel for many years, as evidenced by the logos on these screen caps—and why it’s never been released to DVD like the more critically-acclaimed Combat! is a mystery because, again, war buffs would eat it up with a spoon) but it was a pleasant diversion and a chance to revisit a show that I don’t remember a great deal about…it had a brief run on ABC during the 1960s and suffered in its last season when the network insisted on all its programming being in color—it was harder to match up the extensive WW2 stock footage (this also was the kiss of death for Combat!, which bowed out shortly afterward as well). It features solid performances from the show’s semi-regulars Duggan and OTR veteran Barney Phillips (a one-time partner for Jack Webb’s Sergeant Joe Friday on Dragnet until the network suits complained that he and Webb looked too much alike), but I have to admit I wasn’t too impressed with actress Willard (though she was a favorite of the casting director on High, appearing in the earlier “Pressure Point” and “The Ticket”). Shat is game enough to try a German accent though it’s admittedly vague…prompting one Internet wag to remark: “It’s good that it’s only vague, because it’s atrocious.”

I’d like to wrap things up by congratulating Chuckie/LAMMY Award-winning blogger Stacia Jones for initiating the Shatnerthon and doing a first-rate job of hosting it. I have to admit that, while I’m not quite the Shat acolyte that Stacia is, I enjoyed participating because it gave me the opportunity to veg out and watch some classic television…and as you probably know by now, there’s nothing more I enjoy in this world wide web than getting my couch potato on with vintage boob tube action or a classic flick. Kudos and victory laps to her Stacianess for a mission well accomplished.

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5 comments:

Stacia said...

So, so awesome. I love Werner Klemperer beyond all reason, by the way. Isn't this the episode that Shatner was referring to when he said he had met Nimoy before "Star Trek" but didn't remember it at all? Anyhow, I haven't read TOO deeply because I don't want to get spoiled, as I hope to watch this episode ASAP.

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

I love Werner Klemperer beyond all reason, by the way.

Moi aussi. Others have harsh words for his signature series, Hogan's Heroes, because it dared to poke fun at the Nazis but I thought Klemperer was a first-rate farceur and deserving of every Emmy they handed to him. (I also used to do a pretty good Klink impression until this damn parathyroid operation left me sounding like Joe E. Lewis.)

And when Klemperer agreed to do a bit on The Simpsons...ah...magic, mon chere...

tintorera said...

Did you know that Hogan's Heroes has been quite a success here in Germany? Just saying... make of it what you will.

And I like Shatner's accent in 12 O'Clock High almost as much as his effort to play a German soldier in "The Promise" (Alcoa Presents: One Step Beyond, 1960)

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

And I like Shatner's accent in 12 O'Clock High almost as much as his effort to play a German soldier in "The Promise" (Alcoa Presents: One Step Beyond, 1960)

I've got a fairly good smattering of One Step Beyonds here at the house but that one's not in my collection. Sounds like one I'll have to track down some time.

Mike Doran said...

Just got here (5 years late, but what the hell ...).
MeTV reran "The Project Strigas Affair" twice in one week - once as part of a Nimoy tribute, and again today (3/5/15) as part of the regular sequence on H&I (formerly MeTOO).

About Peggy Ann Garner:
I may have the dates wrong, but wasn't this episode made during her marriage to Albert Salmi?

Just askin', is all ...