Sunday, November 29, 2015

Even Spies Need Mistletoe: "The Man from U.N.C.L.E." Meets Christmas!

A Very Merry MeTV Blogathon continues here with a look at an episode of the popular 1960s' espionage adventure series The Man from U.N.C.L.E.!

Kicky and cool, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was TV's answer to James Bond.  Ultra-stylish, action-packed, mostly fun rather than slavishly realistic, U.N.C.L.E. featured two of TV's all-time favorite leading men pairings.  The suave actor Robert Vaughn who turned heads as super spy Napoleon Solo and his cohort Illya Kuryakin played by the slightly exotic David McCallum were the duo to beat.  In a time when many charismatic actors graced the TV screen, none were more compelling than these two.

First hitting the air in the Fall of 1964, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was an entertaining reflection of the times when international tensions were dominated by America's Cold War with the Soviet Union, and the series' one Christmas episode -- "The Jingle Bells Affair" from Season Three and airing on December 23, 1966 -- was all about the dichotomy of Capitalism vs. Communism.  Certainly nobody today could rationally disagree that Christmas here in the U.S. -- and elsewhere -- is now an all-out take-no-prisoners assault on consumers' pocketbooks, but back then when corporations didn't dominate all you might still convincingly offer the premise that the freedom to buy was the essence of democracy.  And so hangs the tale of "The Jingle Bells Affair."

In a simple logline, "The Jingle Bells Affair" tells the tale of the Kruschev-esque leader of an unnamed European nation who, somewhat like Scrooge, learns the true meaning of Christmas.  Rather than be a Grinch and spoil the fun of the plot, I'll merely point out some of the highlights worth watching for in the episode.

First off, prepare to enter an adorable time machine courtesy of a sampling of footage from New York City's Macy's Thanksgiving Parade.  Actual parade footage including from 1965 when the Underdog balloon made its debut is irresistible, as are scenes from outside and inside the real Macy's store.  Macy's gets a super plug in "The Jingle Bells Affair" with actor Kent Smith playing Mr. Macy who tours Chairman Goz (Akim Tamiroff) around the store.  As Napoleon Solo himself explains, the parade "marks the beginning of the Christmas shopping season."  Indeed!

We also get some terrific views of vintage stoves and TV sets during the store tour!

Actors!  In addition to Vaughn, McCallum and Leo G. Carroll as Mr. Waverly (who appears briefly at the beginning and the end of the episode), we get to see some extremely well-vetted character actors doing their stuff.

As Koz, Akim Tamiroff is gruff yet appealing.  The Russia-born actor had a vigorous stage career in Europe which eventually brought him to the U.S. where he moved into the movies and then into TV roles.  Actor Kent Smith played Mr. Macy; he had a long career and is a familiar face in classic movies and TV series.

Character actor Leonid Kinsky plays the bumbling would-be assassin in the episode.  With a background much like Tamiroff -- European beginnings, then to the U.S. -- he had a long career including memorable roles in movies such as Casablanca.

Like Tamiroff and Kinsky, actor Leon Belasco who plays Chairman Koz' treacherous security chief Radish also was born in Europe and emigrated to America where he found success as an orchestra leader and popular character actor in movies and TV.

Veteran English character actor J. Pat O'Malley shows up as a Santa school instructor. Though he definitely made his mark in movies and on Broadway, he's probably best known for his unbelievable list of TV roles from the early 1950s until the early 1980s.  You will have seen him in everything!

Actress Elen Willard played the winsome yet completely capable Salvation Army worker.  She ceased her acting career in movies and TV after "The Jingle Bells Affair" but adds an intelligent and genuine charm to her role.  The Salvation Army also got a huge plug in this episode; possibly it would have done them more good during the holiday season if the hour had aired earlier than two days before Christmas!

"The Jingle Bells Affair" was written by William Fay, a successful short story author who had solid TV credits including several Dr. Kildare episodes and many Alfred Hitchcock Presents on his resume.  Director John Brahm, European-born and with a career trajectory like many the other participants named above, had a solid list of feature credits -- including one genuine classic The Lodger in 1944 -- and a long resume in TV directing segments of many of the most popular series from the early 1950s until the late 1960s.

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. "The Jingle Bells Affair" airs tonight (Sunday overnight) at 2am on your local MeTV affiliate!  Be sure to visit the Classic TV Blog Association and the MeTV website for more information on all the wonderful holiday episode blogs coming your way!

In the meantime, here are a few more shots from the episode to keep your holiday spirit simmering!

Happy Viewing!


Rick29 said...

Fun post and I love the pics! THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. was an entertaining show that never took itself seriously and this episode is a prime example. Kent Smith had to be one of the busiest actors of his era (well, next to Whit Bissell).I remember him from his Val Lewton movies of the 1940s.

Lisa said...

Thanks for the comment, Rick! I'm always drawn to his portrayal as the spineless architect Peter Keating in "The Fountainhead"!

You are sure right about not taking itself seriously, especially this season according to the ultra-aficionados. Seemed more like Batman in some scenes and sounded like it, too!

One of my favorite series as a kid -- totally in love with Illya!

Thanks again!!

Joanna said...

Hahahaha! Our 2 stars tied up in a turkey pen. Yeah, the humor of this show keeps it entertaining into the 21st century. Thanks for writing about this one.