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Friday, January 12, 2024

January 12, 2024: AmericanStudying Columbia Pictures: Matt Helm and Casino Royale

[January 10th marks the 100th anniversary of the renaming, rebranding, and relaunch of Columbia Pictures, one of the foundational and most iconic American film studios. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of Columbia’s many film innovations over its first few decades, leading up to a special weekend tribute to one of our preeminent 21st century FilmStudiers!]

On two ways Columbia tried to capitalize on the popularity of the spy series that got away.

Most hugely successful film series probably have at least a studio or two who can look back regretfully at having passed on the chance to produce them—the Lord of the Rings films have a handful, for example—and in the case of Columbia Pictures, I can’t imagine a bigger “one that got away” in the studio’s century of history than the James Bond films. Columbia apparently had the chance to partner with Albert “Cubby” Broccoli’s Eon Productions to produce the Bond films when they first began to be adapted from Ian Fleming’s bestselling novels in the early 1960s, but the studio passed, and the result is only one of the longest-running and most successful film franchises of all time. (To be fair, Columbia did eventually become attached to the series in its 21st century incarnation starring Daniel Craig as the superspy, as part of the studio’s partnership with Sony Pictures; but still, that’s nearly 50 years of prior James Bond films that the studio could have been part of.)

It didn’t take long for Columbia to realize that they had missed out, and in 1965, with the fourth Bond film in four years about to be released, they decided to jump into the spy film game, working with a former producing partner of Broccoli’s (Irving Allen) just in case the Bond associations weren’t clear enough. But they did so in an interesting way: purchasing the rights to a serious and clearly Fleming-inspired spy series, Donald Hamilton’s Matt Helm novels (the first 9 of which had been published between 1960 and 1965, with another 18 to come before the series concluded in the 1990s); but deciding to make the film adaptations of those novels into silly spoofs, starring Dean Martin as a wisecracking, light-hearted revision of Hamilton’s tough-as-nails character. Four of a planned five such films were eventually produced, beginning with 1966’s The Silencers and Murderers’ Row and continuing with The Ambushers (1967) and The Wrecking Crew (1969); the films were relatively unsuccessful, however, and Martin abandoned the character before the fifth and final film could be made.

Well, if you can’t parody them obliquely, parody them directly, as the saying most definitely does not go. Producer Charles Feldman had acquired the film rights to Fleming’s first Bond novel, Casino Royale (1953), in 1960, and had tried unsuccessfully to make it for Eon Productions with Broccoli. So Feldman decided to make the film into a satire instead, and with the Matt Helm films not really taking off Columbia came on board as the studio. The resulting 1967 film was quite the sprawling affair, with five credited directors (including John Huston!), three credited writers, and a truly stunning list of actors on board, including former Bond girl Ursula Andress playing one of six “James Bonds” and none other than Orson Welles playing Bond’s chief adversary Le Chiffre. Casino Royale was significantly more successful than the Helm films (it grossed over $40 million worldwide, compared to the $7 million of the most successful Helm film), and, even more importantly I’m sure for the studio that had passed on Bond, became and remains a part of the James Bond cinematic legacy as well as the long story of Columbia Pictures.

Special post this weekend,


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