21 August 2011

"Would You Believe. . .?": For "Get Smart" Fans Only!

Many Friday nights these weeks you will find me down at my stepmother Amy's place, sitting with her on the couch and enjoying Channel 3's reruns of "Get Smart."

The show, which was utterly hilarious to me and my brothers as kids in the 1960s, is still pretty funny.

If you weren't watching the show back in its original run, between 1965 and 1969, it is hard to communicate its wacky cultural impact.  The catchphrases and comic tropes and ridiculous gadgets featured in the spy spoof were a part of everyday life.  Every fan knew about the Cone of Silence, the invisible wall and the falling net in Max's apartment.  Even non-watchers might know about the Shoe Phone.  Most kids wanted one. I sure did. 

A huge amount of the show's charm and success came from Don Adams' portrayal of the bungling Agent 86, Maxwell Smart of CONTROL.  Smart was, in a word, not.  But he thought he was.  He was sure he was in control and slick and attractive to women.  No matter how many times he failed--and he managed to bungle everything he attempted--he always managed to get up, brush off his lapels, and utter some priceless line with his usual barely-shaken aplomb.  

It is hard to imagine the character played by anyone but the amazing Don Adams.  Adams brought just the right note to Maxwell Smart, so we could laugh at his consistent remarkable ineptitude as well as his unflagging braggadocio and still find him charming, not overbearing.  He was brilliantly teamed with beautiful Barbara Feldon as Agent 99 (just a notch less than a perfect 100), whose support and love and help for her partner went a long way to help us tolerate and even root for him as well.

It is no surprise, then, that most of the show's memorable catchphrases were lines spoken by Maxwell Smart.  Adams gave them a hilarious, pretentious flourish that stuck.  At least three of these have become a part of the language.  People still use them, though they may not remember where they came from right off hand:

-"Missed it by THAT much!"
-"Sorry about that, Chief!"
-"Would you believe. . .?"

and I can't resist another:

-"I asked you not to tell me that!"

That is just four of a whole bunch of memorable phrases from the show.  There is a comprehensive list of these, including links to recordings of most, at this astonishingly detailed website.  (It illustrates a credo of mine that we all benefit from other people's obsessions.) 

When I was watching the show as a kid, the names Mel Brooks and Buck Henry meant nothing to me.  Truly, it was only years later, after Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles that somebody told me "Get Smart" was a Mel Brooks TV show.  Thinking about it, it made too much sense.

Watching the show now, it is soooo Mel Brooks! His broad, overplayed, childishly hilarious humor infuses the whole thing. Last night's episode featured a couple of KAOS agents who would become continuing characters, Ludwig von Siegfried and Shtarker, two classic Mel Brooks ridiculously excessive Nazi caricatures.  Think "Springtime for Hitler."

The show's opening credit sequence sticks in people's minds.  Its details are the stuff of trivia contests (What color was Agent 86's car?  How many doors does he go through, all told?) and the answers depend on which of the show's 5 seasons you are talking about.  As kids we acted it out over and over and over. 

It is almost hard to remember what made the opening sequence so clever, I've seen it so many times.  What happens in it?  A car pulls up at a curb.  Agent Maxwell Smart jumps out and runs inside one of several different buildings, depending on the season. From here on the action was always the same.

Max is seen going through a series of doors and finally ending up at a phone booth.  But each of the sets of doors is different in some clever way.  The first doors clearly belong to an elevator.  The dial above them reaches zero and the doors draw aside to reveal. . .not an elevator but Agent 86 coming quickly down a long flight of stairs.  

The point of view reverses to follow Max as he walks down a long hall, through the succession of doors.  The first set of heavy, metal, riveted doors swings inward to close with a boom behind him.  He now faces what looks like a blank metal barrier until it splits into doors that slide quickly to each side as Max hurries through.  They boom shut behind him.  Next, a single metal door slides up and closes back down with a clang.  Max is seen walking quickly toward what looks momentarily like prison bars, until they, too, simply painted on panels, split in the middle and slide swiftly apart.

After they close, Max opens the door of a classic old-time telephone booth.  (Don't forget that door when giving your trivia answer!)   He puts a coin in the phone's slot and dials 3 numbers, immediately hangs up the phone and turns around to face us, arms folded.  The music stops and Max disappears, dropping down through the floor of the booth.  A two-note flourish finishes the theme song, underlining his astonishing exit.

After watching this again last night, I thought, "Hm. . .what is it about this that seemed so clever or interesting when we watched it as kids?  Why could we not get enough of watching it, so that we acted it out in the living room as it ran?" Specifically, what was it about those doors?

Well, for one thing, each of the 5 doors had its own trick.  They all looked and opened differently.  That in itself was fun.  

But that couldn't have been the only spark there, I thought.

Then it hit me. What a difference a historical perspective can make!  When "Get Smart" aired, from 1965 through 1969, there was something especially exotic about those sets of doors that Max walks so confidently through:  those doors were clever gadgets of espionage because such doors did not exist in real life at the time, as they do now!  

There were no real-life doors that, somehow magically sensing your presence, slid quickly apart to close as swiftly behind you, as these do!  The only sideways-sliding doors in those days were the stately, slow doors of elevators.  Those could hardly be called "automatic," as you had to press a button to hail the elevator and then wait and wait for them to finally open.  Real life came to imitate art and eventually make such sets of automatic sliding doors a commonplace part of our urbanscape.  It is no surprise that they are still commonly referred to as "Star Trek doors."

As we have all heard, in that show, the doors were operated by stagehands stationed inside the walls who would yank them apart on cue.  Blooper reels where the doors don't open in time, or open crookedly or unevenly as cast members walk right into them are evidence of this.

So the same was true with the "Get Smart doors."  Each set of these was a stage effect, operated on cue by crew members.

The fact that now we watch this sequence without that added note of delight at these clever devices shows how things have changed in 40-plus years.

In some ways, at least, we have caught up to "Get Smart."

Is the Shoe Phone next?