One of the best things about the development of physical media has been the opportunity it gives to preserve rare works of cinema and television. Wether it be that cult classic you loved in college, or the single season sitcom you remember liking as a child, it is always a joy to find that one show you’ve been waiting years to see. This is the euphoria I felt when I finally got my hands on Warner Archive’s DVD set of the 1966 television series, The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. While I’d watched its namesake, The Man from U.N.C.L.E, and even loved the Guy Ritchie’s 2015 cinematic reboot, I’d never had an opportunity to get my hands on this treasure. Until now, that is.
The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. follows April Dancer (Stefanie Powers) and her lovable partner Mark Slate (Noel Harrison) as the two hop the globe, solve crime, and generally look mod and fabulous in service of the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement. That’s right, they’re secret agents. The series premiered in the fall of 1966 on NBC as a counterpart of the ultra-popular, The Man from U.N.C.L.E..
First and foremost, the television series aims to capitalize on the wave of spy television hitting networks during the middle of the 1960s. As westerns started to wane in the public eye, secret agents and private eyes filled the forming vacuum. You know these shows, The Man from U.N.C.L.E, Burke’s Law, Mission: Impossible, Get Smart and Honey West to name just a few. The lone season of The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. aired Tuesday nights in 1966, opposite the drama Daktari and the long-running war drama Combat! It certainly had its work cut out for it.
Word of The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. begins popping up in newspapers during the fall of 1965 as The Man from U.N.C.L.E. premiered its second season. Development of the spin-off moved quickly. The Thanksgiving 1965 issue of the Minneapolis Star reports that actress Jill St. John was considered a top candidate to play the lead role.
Interestingly, papers in late 1965 report that it was actually Mary Ann Mobley who won the lead role. (Those familiar with classic TV know this wasn’t their final decision). Now, Mobley does play April Dancer in the show’s unofficial pilot, a February 1966 episode of The Man from U.N.C.L.E., entitled “The Moonglow Affair”. The episode partnered Mobley opposite Norman Fell as Mark Slate.
It’s shortly into March that the The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. finally takes shape. The March 2, 1966 issue of The Evening Sun out of Baltimore Maryland writes,
“Stefanie Powers will be the “Girl from U.N.C.L.E.” replacing Mary Ann Mobley who did (the) spinoff– Miss Mobley didn’t do badly, but they may want someone with a bit more color. Tranquil is the word for Miss. Mobley.”
Meanwhile, the Courier-News out of Bridgewater New Jersey reports later in the month– March 23rd to be exact– Noel Harrison joined the cast.
Some of the earliest period reviews of The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. mention the biggest thing to remember about the show (and The Man from U.N.C.L.E., for that matter). The series is campy. It’s very campy. This is seen at its most over-the-top in “The Mother Muffin Affair”. The episode features a guest shot by The Man from U.N.C.L.E. himself, Robert Vaughn, and features the legendary Boris Karloff as the big baddie, a colorful figure named “Mother Muffin. Karloff plays the role (like the trooper he is) in full drag, complete with make-up. However, he never bothers to sound like anyone but Bois Karloff. Meanwhile, episode 17 “The Faustus Affair” features Raymond Massey as “B. Elzie Bubb” and yes… he spends the entire episode running around in a very large, cartoonish devil costume.
Now, taking this all into account, this leads both U.N.C.L.E. installments to fall into that category of “this seemed so cool when I was a kid!?! What happened?”. Through more adult eyes, or even from a contemporary perspective, for the show to “hold up”, the camp must be acknowledged. More than that, it’s part of the experience and the aesthetic of the U.N.C.L.E. universe. Leaving behind this camp, leaves The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. in danger of feeling like an over-the-top series which hasn’t aged that well. Perspective changes everything.
In fact, the show is actually quite good when it steps away from the camp. Episode 13 “The Little John Doe Affair” features a scaled back story. While Slate is laid up with a broken leg, Dancer goes undercover to protect a mob informant Joey Celeste (Pernell Roberts) from a hitman (a surprisingly intimidating Wally Cox). From the early scenes, Powers brings great chemistry with Roberts, who at this point was still fresh off his Bonanza departure. The two are a great fit, and as the episode comes to a close, they seemed to be mining a bit of depth into April which left me wanting more. Season two should have a contained a lengthy love triangle featuring April having to decide between Celeste and Slate. It should have happened!
That being said, the series makes a great use of Powers and Harrison as a pair. While Noel Harrison was a relative newcomer to a role of this stature (most early press material touts him as Rex Harrison’s son), he quickly finds his footing with the pace and lighthearted tone of the show. He’s never granted a moment to truly shine with versatility– at least in this first half of the season–, but he’s a charming partner in crime for April and both easily pull off the flirtatious banter common in the scripts.
At the same time, The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. is a fun viewing for fans of classic television. Even in early episodes of its (only) season, the show’s guest stars are a fun who’s who of mid-1960s television. Boris Karloff, Raymond Massey, Pernell Roberts and Wally Cox have already been mentioned in this review. There are also fun appearances by Edward Andrews, Edward Mulhare, Leslie Uggams, Tom Bosley, Dom DeLuise and Bernard Fox to name a few. It’s easy to get excited about each passing episode with such a dynamic collection of character performers filling the call sheet.
Finally, it’s lucky that The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. was on the receiving end of a good, solid restoration and an equally good DVD release. Fans of television from the middle of the twentieth century will know that this is not always the case, especially for a single season show. It happens just as often that a series like this would end up in the public domain, or even forgotten outside of scratchy renderings on YouTube. Watching the DVD, The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. looks absolutely immaculate. The colors, the costumes and the set design are bright, vivid and delightfully mod. This is candy for the eyes, and it is a thrill to see such a gem like this preserved so well.
Ultimately, The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. is a classic television show which needs to be viewed through a very specific lens. There’s a way for the 1965 spy thriller to fall almost humorously flat; at the same time, the campy series can still be a heck of a lot of fun. It really doesn’t take itself seriously, and perhaps, we shouldn’t either.
Stay turned for my review of the second half of this DVD set!
The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. is available on DVD through Warner Archive.
Podcaster at Hollywood and Wine, historian and filmmaker studying contributions of women in Classic TV. Film critic for Geek Girl Authority. Classic film lover for Ticklish Business.
You can find me on Twitter @kpierce624!