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Slapstick Traces

[whitespace] The Roots of Austin Powers.

By Richard von Busack

My good friend Mike Monahan and I worked together on a book with the provisional title The Second Best Secret Agents in the Whole Wide World. We intended to encompass the whole great era of the '60s spy film, chronicling its hallucinatory extremes.

For whatever reason, our agent couldn't sell it--though he came close enough to that goal that our hopes were thoroughly dashed. Still, Monahan stuck with it, amassing an enormous archive of spy memorabilia. With the encouragement of John Cork at the Ian Fleming Foundation, Monahan now has a database of some 750 spy films. He's going to publish his findings soon. This winter, he's making his first trip to England, to attend the premiere of the new James Bond movie, The World Is Not Enough.

Monahan and I did our research before the success of the first Austin Powers movie--the comedy proved that we weren't the only ones who remembered the trash and treasures of the spy-movie era with obsessive love and fondness. The weekend that the sequel--Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me--became a hit, I visited Mike to ask him about the roots of Mike Myers' satire.

Monahan: The Austin Powers movies are full of references to all the spy movies that came out in the '60s. Powers wears those thick-rimmed National Health-issue glasses that Michael Caine's Harry Palmer wore to remind us that he was working class. Powers is a fashion photographer, which was Matt Helm's cover. Austin Powers also has a lot of David Hemmings in him from Blow Up.

One of the less well-known sources for Austin Powers is a British TV show called Jason King. Peter Wyngarde played the detective/spy: a fey, outrageously foppish womanizer with horrible teeth and fashion sense that leaned toward silk scarves, crushed velvet and frilly cravats. Broadcasts of Jason King popped up here in the States very rarely. But the character was very popular in England, having graduated to his own show from another adventure program called Department S.

Another apparent influence was Adam Adamant Lives!, in which a Victorian secret agent is frozen in his time and thawed out in swinging London. A lot of the team on TV's The Avengers worked on the show. The name Austin Powers might be taken from the ultracheap Jeffery Hunter's spy film Dimension 5. Justin Powers was the name of the time-traveling spy Hunter played. The spies in this one use time travel belts to foil an A-bomb attack on L.A., but they can only travel about one week.

Metro: In Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, Dr. Evil blackmails the world with a laser beam mounted on the moon. You were telling me that there actually had been a '60s spy movie with a mad criminal who had installed a laser beam on the moon. Was it Secret Agent: Superdragon?

Monahan: No, it was also Italian, though. It was titled Lighting Bolt, AKA Operacionne: Goldman. There was a mad billionaire beer baron who was sabotaging American space missions so that no one would know he had built a laser up there.

Metro: A mad beer baron, interesting! Presumably no relation to Kurt Kazner's beer baron villain in the Matt Helm movie The Ambushers. And I thought beer was our friend.

Monahan: This villain in Lightning Bolt was a burgermeister type. He had an undersea headquarters, just like Curt Jurgens had 20 years later in The Spy Who Loved Me.

Metro: There are many Bond references in the films, but Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me has a line where Powers says that In Like Flint is his favorite movie.

Monahan: The production design of the Austin Powers movies is very much like the sets for the Flint movies. Of course, there are some differences; [007 film production designer] Ken Adams' stainless steel covers Dr. Evil's headquarters, and its centerpiece is a swiveling chair just like the one the bald villain Blofeld used to like to sit in. Mostly, however, the film looks like Our Man Flint and In Like Flint.

Metro: The two James Coburn Flint movies were very jolly, like musicals without the music.

Monahan: And the Austin Powers movies are musicals, in a way. Depressing, though, is the soundtrack of Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me. In the first film, they chose songs with styles mirroring each other in the '60s and '90s to fit the tone of the story. It was fun. But, due to the first film's success with the right "target audience," the new soundtrack is just another hollow corporate music grab-bag. Another example of "death by success."

Metro: What about the lethal fembots in the Austin Powers movies?

Monahan: In the '60s, a couple of movies came out updating the 1920s spy "Bulldog" Drummond. The author of the novels, who used the pseudonym "Sapper," was a big influence on Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond. The second Bulldog Drummond movie, Some Girls Do, has beautiful killer robots. But Myers may have got the idea from the two beach-party movies about the mad scientist Dr. Goldfoot (Vincent Price) and his assassin robots: Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine and Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs.

Metro: About dwarves: you know that quote by Darryl Zanuck in John Gregory Dunne's book The Studio? Zanuck, who was then head of 20th Century-Fox, was urging a director to add a dwarf villain to a movie: "There's something insidious about a dwarf." Watching Mini-Me, Dr. Evil's little-person assistant in The Spy Who Shagged Me, I was trying to remember which of the spy movies had dwarf villains. I remember that Little Jack Little plays a midget Israeli secret agent in The Nasty Rabbit.

Monahan: What about Herve Villechaise in The Man With the Golden Gun? You don't get much smaller than that.

Metro: I guess there's something insidious about bald guys, too. Milton Reid turns up in the Bond films; he was a slaphead, a professional wrestler who looked like Tor Johnson. He's one of Dr. No's assistants. Reid has a bigger part in The Spy Who Loved Me, where Roger Moore throws him off a roof. Supposedly, he's an extra in the big Indian dance number in Casino Royale.

Monahan: There's also bald Theo Marcuse, who turns up again and again in '60s spy films.

Metro: I remember Marcuse trying to push secret agent Mike Connors off the top of the colossal Christ of the Andes in Kiss the Girls and Make Them Die.

Monahan: Ah--that was another baldie, Oliver MacGreevy. Marcuse is in Last of the Secret Agents?. The bald guy is always the assistant villain, though, except in the Bond movies.

Metro: Ernst Stavro Blofeld, the Polish criminal mastermind who creates SPECTRE, was a relatively normal-looking guy in the books: he's huge and fat, but he has hair, anyway. Later on, he's got a chewed-up nostril from syphilis.

Monahan: The producers of the Bond films cast Donald Pleasance, probably because he'd just played the villain in Fantastic Voyage. Pleasance was not an intimidating man, so they were trying to disfigure him for the movie, first with a hook and then with a hunchback. Eventually, they shaved his head and gave him that scar down the side of his face, just like Dr. Evil

I just saw that TV program E! about what it was like behind the scenes on the new Austin Powers. Myers said that the scene where Fat Bastard starts singing the "Baby Back Ribs" theme from a Chili's commercial was ad-libbed. Supposedly, Myers had just heard the commercial that morning and couldn't get the jingle out of his head.

Metro: See, I never would have got that joke, because I always zap the TV commercials with the clicker.

Monahan: Myers is like a benign Dennis Miller. He just spits stuff like that out, like he's got some weird pop culture-based Tourette's Syndrome. It seems that as the franchise goes on, they'll be more and more like the Pink Panther movies; the plot will just be an excuse for jokes and riffs.

Metro: And more product placement, too. It got really aggravating in the new movie.

Monahan: Yeah, in the same E! special, they interviewed the guy who plays Mini-Me, Verne Troyer, and he had a cup of coffee with the little Starbucks logo turned to the camera during the interview. The moment you start to see that kind of product placement, you know they've just dropped a movie in the killing jar.

Metro: And another thing! In the Austin Powers movies, they explain the product-placement jokes, just like they explain so many of the other jokes.

Monahan: You have to be Alfred Hitchcock to get away with that kind of joshing of the sponsors.

Metro: I hope the next Austin Powers can do without lovely jokes like the one where Austin mistakes a pot of diarrhea for a pot of coffee.

Monahan: If only Myers had the guts to put that gag closer to the Starbucks plug!

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Web extra to the June 17-23, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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