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Sunday, February 24, 2008

Cloak and Dagger Comedy (originally published 8/02)

One hit movie based on a comic persona might be a fluke. Two hits might be a lucky streak. A third hit in a row, however, must be conceded to be a trend, and the character in question must be acknowledged as a genuine crowd-pleaser. With the runaway success of "Goldmember," Mike Myers has firmly established Austin Powers as a bona fide box office gold mine.

For all the originality of these films, however, they are by no means unique. Myers has based his Austin Powers series on a formula with a long tradition of commercial success. In fact, films poking fun at the espionage genre have been around almost as long as the movies they lampoon. For a sampling of the forerunners of Austin Powers, look for these spy parodies on home video.

"All Through the Night" (1942). Spy films, and therefore the films that seek to parody them, fall into two broad categories: pre-Bond and post-Bond. This wartime spy spoof is a prime example of the pre-Bond era, poking gentle fun at such World War II espionage dramas as "Confessions of a Nazi Spy" (1939). Like its more straight-faced cousins, this light thriller takes as its bad guys a group of Axis fifth-columnists infiltrating the United States. However, instead of a G-man pursuing the enemy spies, in this picture we have a New York City bookmaker and racketeer, played by Humphrey Bogart, finding himself mixed up with the Nazi infiltrators through a bizarre series of events. Bogie handles the comedy well, supported by a first-class cast of character actors, including William Demarest, Phil Silvers, and Jackie Gleason. The film's promotional trailer is reproduced below, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies.

"My Favorite Blonde" (1942). Bob Hope plays a second-rate vaudevillian who falls in with a beautiful blonde British agent played by Madeleine Carroll. They travel across the country together, she to deliver secret plans to the Lockheed plant in Los Angeles, and he to take a booking with the penguin to whom he plays second banana in the act. Along the way, they are pursued by Nazi agents, played by the always menacing George Zucco and the exotic Gale Sondergaard.

"Our Man Flint" (1966). With the screen premiere of James Bond in "Dr. No" (1962), the look and feel of spy movies changed for good. The adventures of 007 presented parodists with a challenging target. Parody, after all, is based largely on exaggeration. When the original material is as far out as the original Bond films, it takes some doing to exaggerate it enough to create a comic effect. This lampoon rises to the challenge admirably, with James Coburn as Derek Flint, superspy extraordinaire. Somehow he manages to out-sleuth, out-gadget, and out-womanize 007 himself. A sequel, "In Like Flint," was released in 1967.

"Casino Royale" (1967). Here is another Bond parody, this time featuring Bond himself. Before Ian Fleming sold the movie rights to the entire Bond series to Cubby Broccoli, he had sold the rights to "Casino Royale" individually. That made it fair game to be acquired for parody purposes. The impressive cast includes David Niven, Peter Sellers, Deborah Kerr, Orson Welles, and Woody Allen.

"What's Up, Tiger Lily?" (1966). Speaking of Woody Allen, leave it to him to come up with a whole other approach to spy movie parody. For the sum of $66,000, he simply bought out the rights to a low-rent Japanese spy picture. Then he replaced the original dialogue with new lines dubbed in by American actors in English. The combination of cheap visuals, shot in deadly earnest, and Allen's relentlessly silly dialogue makes for a fun show.

"The Tall Blonde Man With One Black Shoe" (1972). This entertaining French film mixes genre parody with satirical social commentary, pointing out in an amusing way the debilitating effects of the paranoia that espionage necessarily breeds. When a simple, innocent fellow is mistaken for a secret agent, he becomes the center of a fruitless web of intrigue. The absurdity of the situation reminds us that absurdity lies at the heart of all espionage movies. Even the serious ones are based on an existential joke, having to do with the use of deceit and guile in the advancement of noble ideals. Some of them just work a little harder at making the joke funny.

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