Friday, February 3, 2017

James Bond’s Richard Maibaum: Stirred, Not Shaken

If you grow up in SoCal, you’re apt to know some movie folk.  When I was a small tyke living in a Hollywood apartment complex, my playmate’s father was a long-time cameraman at Paramount, a man who’d worked on such classics as Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard. And just recently I met someone whose dad was a studio carpenter. His claim to fame? For Cecil B. De Mille’s The Ten Commandments he constructed the “stone” tablets that Moses carried down from Mt. Sinai.

Then there’s my friend, Matthew Maibaum, who descends from genuine movieland royalty. Matt’s father, Richard Maibaum, contributed to the scripts of over fifty Hollywood movies, including Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent, The Pride of the Yankees, and the 1949 Alan Ladd version of The Great Gatsby. But his real claim to fame derived from his long association with a certain famous secret agent. It all began over ice cream at Wil Wright’s in Hollywood. His friends Albert (“Cubby”) Broccoli and Harry Saltzman had enjoyed some success making low-budget war movies in England. Now they had a new idea. Broccoli handed Maibaum a paperback novel by a failed British spy named Ian Fleming, saying, “There may be something in it.”

Maibaum was stirred instantly by Fleming’s suave leading man, a chap named James Bond. He liked the possibility of action-adventure films set in exotic locales, but recognized that the outlandish elements of Fleming’s plots would only work if the scripts were laced with humor. In his hands, the Bond movies had the knack of making sly fun of themselves without resorting to buffoonery. As the filming  of 1962’s Dr. No, commenced, author Fleming was surprised that the filmmakers were not going for an elegant and brainy hero, on the order of David Niven. Instead they chose a brawny former Edinburgh milkman who’d also been a minor league soccer player, an underwear model, and a Disney musical star (of the forgettable Darby O’Gill and the Little People). The rest, of course, is movie history, with Maibaum writing 13 screenplays for a whole parade of Bonds.

Maibaum had started out as a serious playwright with social issues on his mind. While he was still a student at the University of Iowa, his anti-lynching drama made it to Broadway. He also wrote the very first anti-Nazi play, Birthright. Then his stage comedy about the insurance industry, Sweet Mystery of Life, was picked up by Hollywood and turned into a Busby Berkeley musical, Gold Diggers of 1937. After that he found himself in Hollywood to stay.

Unlike so many east coast intellectuals, Maibaum never believed he was lowering himself by writing for the movies. He was an affable man, tolerant of the beliefs of others, by no means a rabble-rouser. (Which meant he escaped from the Hollywood “red scare” of the 1950s totally unscathed.) Instead he was known for his gentleness, his wit, and his intellectual curiosity. My friend Matt remembers the day when his younger brother discovered in an encyclopedia the oddly shaped ring of islands known as Phuket, Thailand. Looking up from his Underwood cast iron typewriter, Maibaum was instantly fascinated by his son’s find. This was, he proclaimed, exactly where an exotic hit man would choose to live. That’s how Phuket became a location in one of the James Bond films starring Roger Moore, 1974’s The Man with the Golden Gun.

Richard Maibaum died at a ripe old age in 1991. His last Bond film was 1989’s License to Kill. What he would have thought of the latest and most serious Bond, Daniel Craig, is not for me to say.

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