Books: The man with the golden touch
Sunday 11 October 1998
by Cubby Broccoli with Donald Zec
Boxtree pounds 16.99
F or any post-war adolescent, the name of Cubby Broccoli (and Donald Zec for that matter, who assists Broccoli with his autobiography) has a cosy Sunday-afternoon familiarity. That an Italian Hollywood producer should enter the pantheon of celebrities affectionately remembered by the British public is unusual enough; but Cubby - you feel compelled to use his nickname - moved in upper echelons as a friend of royalty, of international power-brokers, and of the highest grade of film stars. In partnership with the producer Harry Saltzman, he created the Bond films, the most lucrative film series in history, seen by over half the world, and it is clear that the lenient generosity of spirit with which we accept those films stems from Cubby's flamboyant life.
This is a biography from the old film school: no tales of rampant ego, incompetence, prodigious cocaine abuse or spousal assault here. As Zec puts it, "real achievers tend to reject the stereotypes of their trade", and Cubby was a real achiever. Born close to the start of the century and the birth of cinema, he rose from the immigrant melting-pot to witness the Lindbergh flight and learn that anything is possible for those who dare to try. First a farmer, harvesting - yes - broccoli, then he worked for a casket company, and sold Christmas trees. Yet Hollywood was young and small enough to allow him to meet Cary Grant and befriend Howard Hughes. Next came jobs in cosmetics and jewellery sales - "You're selling hairnets?" asked an incredulous friend - and finally a break at 20th Century Fox.
He worked for Hawkes on The Outlaw, made his debut as an aspiring producer on Avalanche, and entered a three-picture deal with Alan Ladd at a time when the only way to make a film about ice-breakers was by boarding one and sailing north. Ladd's wife controlled his scripts - "Alan Ladd does not steal a horse," she complained of a plot-line - and the films were mediocre. But there were small gems, tales of wartime derring-do like The Cockleshell Heroes. A young Tommy (later Sean) Connery auditioned for one of these, and failed to land the part. Cubby needed one hit to pull his own company out of trouble. The idea of filming Ian Fleming's hero held long-standing appeal, but stalled. Meanwhile, he made The Trials Of Oscar Wilde whose star Peter Finch had his hopes of an Oscar dashed by the American Legion Of Decency, who objected vociferously to the subject matter.
Here, the narrative shifts into fast-track as Saltzman (ex-Canadian theatre) and Ian Lancaster Fleming (Ex-Eton, Sandhurst, Boodles) enter the picture. Together they brought Bond, whose option was slipping from Cubby's hands, to public attention.
Fleming's description of the character was "rather of Hoagy Carmichael", but with "a thin vertical scar down his right cheek, faintly piratical". Cubby knew that getting the tone of the script right was crucial. He also understood enough about 007's creator to see that Bond must be British. Cary Grant turned down the role. Connery was muscular, tattooed, and had a rough-house charm that mitigated the character's suave snobbery. According to Fleming's stories, Bond was expelled from the Scottish public school Fettes, where Connery once delivered milk to the tradesman's entrance. Connery played the part as "a sexual athlete who would look great in Savile Row suits". Mailbaum and Maniewicz (writers) joined Barry and Binder (music and title sequences) to form a formidable, distinctive team, and Bond sprang invincibly to life.
The films created glamour from the postwar years of austerity, and grew in the heat of newfound sexual freedom. They required crews like international armies, mobilising around the world with Cubby in command. Typical of such success stories, debilitating battles were fought to protect the property rights in the law courts, yet the series survived.
Amiability, rather than expose, informs, and enjoyable explanations abound - Goya's portrait of the Duke Of Wellington, glimpsed in Dr No's study, drew a big audience laugh at the time because it had been sensationally stolen. The souring of the relationship with Connery is detailed with good grace, although an unflattering picture of the actor emerges. But even here, Connery's accusatory, ambivalent attitude to the Bond family is no more than something we have come to expect from stars who are rather too handsome and well-paid. What emerges - as anyone attending his memorial in the Odeon, Leicester Square, will testify - is a sense that Cubby was the last of a breed. Irrepressible, benign, an old-time professional who would cook for his crew, who never forgot his dues, he remembered above all that film-making could still be a privilege and a pleasure; something that many of today's hypertense young producers would do well to consider when they're screaming into their mobile phones.
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