THE BOOTLEG FILES: “CASINO ROYALE”

BOOTLEG FILES 220: “Casino Royale” (1954 made-for-television production starring Barry Nelson and Peter Lorre).

LAST SEEN: We cannot confirm the last public screening of this film.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: There was a standalone VHS release and the film was included as a special feature on the DVD for the 1967 “Casino Royale.”

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: Hey, it is James Bond!

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Probably not as an official standalone DVD, although one label appears to be offering an unauthorized dupe.

As every 007 fan knows, Sean Connery was technically not the first James Bond. Eight years before Connery hit the big screen as everyone’s favorite British secret agent, a very different concept of James Bond was presented on American television.

On October 21, 1954, viewers of the weekly CBS anthology series “Climax!” were treated to “Casino Royale” based on the Ian Fleming novel. However, the “Climax!” version deviated wildly from the Fleming concept at every imaginable level.

“Casino Royale” was an exercise in TV on the cheap. Even Fleming wasn’t immune to the penury surrounding the production – he was paid a miserly $1,000 for the story rights. “Casino Royale” was also designed as a live broadcast, which severely limited the scope of its production design. The entire show, running one hour with commercials, took place in a total of three rooms.

Back in 1954, Fleming’s work was barely known to American audiences. The novel “Casino Royale” was released the previous year, but it was not a best seller outside of the U.K. In adapting the work for an American television show, the “Climax!” producers felt the audience would not be able to connect with a British action hero. As a result, James Bond became an American working for “Combined Intelligence” (whatever that means).

To play Bond, the producers tapped Barry Nelson, who was a ubiquitous presence on television during the early 1950s. Nelson, who knew little of Fleming’s work, was instructed to play Bond in the manner of a Hollywood tough guy, in the style to George Raft or Humphrey Bogart.

“Casino Royale” opens with Bond barely escaping an assassination attempt outside of the eponymous gambling hall. Without showing any signs of agitation, Bond enters the casino and is contacted by the British operative Clarence Leiter (in Fleming’s book, he is an American named Felix). Bond’s assignment is to engage in a high-stakes baccarat game against Le Chiffre (Peter Lorre), a Soviet agent who is in hot water for gambling away too much of the Kremlin’s funds. Clarence knows the American can save the day, referring to him as “Card Sense Jimmy Bond.” The producers felt that viewers may not understand how baccarat is played, so Bond gives Clarence a fairly lengthy explanation of the game.

Oh, there’s also a beautiful woman, Valerie Mathis (Vesper Lynd in the Fleming book). She’s nice on the eye (Linda Christian) and she has a rocky romantic history with Bond. She also has her own counterintelligence activities at play.

“Casino Royale” puts its dramatic highlights on the baccarat game between Bond and Le Chiffre. Once the game is over, the action moves to the hotel where Bond and Le Chiffre are both guests. Le Chiffre kidnaps Bond and Valerie and instructs his henchmen to torture Bond (involving pliers and Bond’s feet, though just what happens is not clear). However, it is fairly obvious who is going to triumph before the closing credits.

“Casino Royale” ran into several hiccups during the broadcast. It was discovered the show was going to overrun its slot by several minutes, so several hasty last-second cuts were made in the script shortly before airtime. A few technical glitches marred the show – the boom microphone’s shadow is visible at one time, the sound drops for a few seconds in another scene, and there’s a brief problem with the lights when the scene shifts from one room to another. But beyond those hiccups, the show ran smoothly.

However, no one really cared. The program was not particularly popular with audiences and the producers of “Climax!” had no incentive to pursue the Bond character further. CBS toyed with the idea of making a weekly TV show based on 007, but discussions with Fleming never went far.

When EON Productions began offering its James Bond films in the 1960s, it acquired the rights to all of Fleming’s works except “Casino Royale.” Producer Charles K. Feldman was able to snag the rights from CBS and created his own 1967 production. But, sadly, Feldman’s “Casino Royale” played the material as a lame spoof that was even further removed from the spirit of Fleming’s vision than the “Climax!” show.

As for the “Climax!” version, no one at CBS thought about preserving a kinescope of the live broadcast (the networks in that era never rebroadcast live shows). For many years, it was considered lost. In 1981, private film collector Jim Schoenberger purchased a stack of unmarked 16mm film cans at a local flea market. Among the prints that he bought was a kinescope of “Casino Royale.” The print was not complete (the final two minutes resolving Le Chiffre’s fate were missing), but Schoenberger immediately recognized its historical value and donated it to the Museum of Television and Radio in New York. Another print was found several years later with the missing footage intact.

Over the years, “Casino Royale” has popped up for public viewing – at the Museum of Television and Radio, in a one-time broadcast on TBS in early 1990s, and as a VHS video from the Spy Guise label in the late 1990s. Spy Guise planned to create a DVD release, but MGM had acquired the rights to the “Casino Royale” property and prevented those plans from moving forward. In 2003, MGM included the “Climax!” version as a special feature on its DVD of the 1967 film.

However, “Casino Royale” continues to be bootlegged despite being an MGM property. Several web sites specializing in downloads of unauthorized film presentations have the title, and a company called Digiview Entertainment is selling a $1 DVD of “Casino Royale” (there is no mention of MGM’s copyright on the Digiview DVD).

But is “Casino Royale” worth seeking out? Clearly, it is more of a curio than a genuine prototype of the beloved film series. And Barry Nelson’s pugnacious, edgy wise guy interpretation thoroughly contradicts Fleming’s concept. It’s impossible to watch Nelson and imagine he’s James Bond – he’s more like Leo Gorcey on steroids.

Yet on its own terms – as a standard issue 1950s live TV drama – “Casino Royale” is strictly okay. The show moves quickly, if not logically, and some fun can be found in Peter Lorre’s sinister demeanor as he menaces the voluptuous (and considerably taller) Linda Christian. As a piece of standard issue 1950s entertainment, “Casino Royale” is benign. But the serious 007 addict will neither be shaken nor stirred – only a bit bored by the cheap proceedings.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free shits and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg videos and DVDs, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg videos is perfectly legal. Go figure!




Posted on February 15, 2008 in Bootleg Files, Features by
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