Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Commercial Review: THUNDERBIRD WINE AD (196?, James Mason)

Stars 5 of 5.
Running Time: 22 seconds.
Notable Cast or Crew: James Mason.

Submitted, for your consideration: Thunderbird. The American Classic. What's the word? Thunderbird. How's it sold? Good and cold. What's the jive? Bird's alive. What's the price? Thirty twice. That's just sixty cents, ladies and gentlemen. Now for those of you still asking, 'What the hell is Thunderbird?,' let me lay it out for ya. It's a low-end, fortified wine. Also known as a blockparty breakup, a poverty punch, or a gutter punk champagne. A cheap n' grubby beverage, which, despite possessing a translucent 'white wine' hue, is known to turn the mouth a tenebrous, inky black. Existing somewhere on the chemical spectrum between Clorox, gasoline, and rubbing alcohol, it's like something out of STREET TRASH.

Over here we have James Mason. Veteran actor of stage and screen and a memorable collaborator of Alfred Hitchcock, Carol Reed, Stanley Kubrick, Michael Powell, Nicholas Ray, Tobe Hooper, Sam Peckinpah, and George Cukor, among others. Nominated for three Oscars, he's played General Rommel, Brutus, Captain Nemo, Joseph of Arimathea, and Humbert Humbert. He even had his own TV show for a little while: THE JAMES MASON SHOW. His deep, velvety voice has delivered exquistely-worded put-downs to co-stars as disparate as Charles Bronson, Cary Grant, and Marlon Brando. A class act if there ever was one. So, you're probably wondering why I even brought him up in the context of Thunderb–

Now that may be the finest celebrity endorsement I have ever witnessed, this side of Bronson/Mandom.

James Mason begins with a moment of hesitation...

You can see it in his nervous eyes and his stiff demeanor. He knows exactly what he's about to endorse. In fact, he may have grown that seedy moustache expressly for the occasion. He's come to grips with the sacrifices that must be made in the name of earning a living, yet still he finds it difficult to maintain eye contact with the viewer. He looks downward, using the excuse of a steadier pour.

"I like the unusual flavor of Thunderbird wine. It's an exceptionally good drink for every occasion."

He slowly pours himself a glass. He hasn't lied to us yet. Not directly. Perhaps he does like that unusual chemical taste in the same way that some of us enjoy the occasional whiff of gasoline from a passing automobile. And note that he doesn't say it's an exceptionally good drink per se, he simply finds it well-suited for every occasion, just as I find Drain-O well-suited for every occasion I have to unclog a pipe.

"Thunderbird has an unusual flavor, all it's own. Not quite like anything I've ever tasted."

Still he looks away. He even uses the descriptor 'unusual' once more. He's falling apart. Under that silken neck scarf, he is sweating buckets. You can't tell because he's a pro, but he's never lied to his public before. He still manages to avoid coming straight out and saying that 'Thunderbird is worth your time and money because it is delicious,' though, which is admirable. I like that sculpture, too.

"I suggest that you try Thunderbird. It's really delightful."

'Delightful' is stretching it. And James Mason knows it. That's why he toasts us with his tumbler-of-Thunderbird-on-the-rocks-with-lime-garnish as he says it. It's an old magician's trick: sleight of hand, distraction, and visual flourish. I like that he never takes a sip of Thunderbird. Now most will probably cite advertising laws and so forth, but I'll always hold that he can't bring himself to do it. It's also possible that the fumes have generated some kind of temporary paralysis.

Ah, and only now do we see that it's officially described as an aperitif, which might be the most egregious example of false advertising yet. Perhaps it could stimulate an appetite for slow-roasted packing peanuts served with rubber cement sauce, or something of that nature. I have to assume, though, that James Mason has tried Thunderbird at least once, or else he wouldn't realize the necessity of so carefully tiptoeing through his adjectives. But it's all in that first look–

It's only for an instant, but he really does look like a turtle out of its shell. The bird may be alive, but the Mason's mortified. And yet, at the same time, he looks scuzzier than Humbert Humbert at his scuzziest. This is the look of a man who is about to hawk some toxic chemicals in the form of a wine bottle. Then again, it doesn't resemble wine in any way, so let's say it's the look of a man who's about to hawk some toxic chemicals in the form of a bottle of bottom-tier Triple Sec. It's like that Philosophy 101 conundrum whereupon if you grab the carrot to feed yourself, someone across the world who you don't know dies. Except here, it's James Mason's livlihood versus a couple of dozen melting bums and dissolving hobos. It's the cycle of life, and it's all laid out quite beautifully. Thank you, Mr. Mason. Now pass that Thunderbird. Let her gentle wings soar.

-Sean Gill


J.D. said...

Ah, Thunderbird. Whenever I run out of Liquid Drano it's there to finish off the job. Rotgut wine and Mason - where could you go wrong?

Sean Gill said...

I tried recently to obtain some Thunderbird in conjunction with this article, but the few liquor store owners I asked in Brooklyn (I even went to the good ones with bulletproof glass windows) said that the city has pressured them not to carry bum wines due to the element they attract. Readily available though, however puzzlingly, were the rancid hobo flavorings of Wild Irish Rose and Johnny Bootlegger. I was told to try the stores by 40th and 8-9th Aves in Manhattan, so I may have to stop by in the near future to get a handle on the unusual flavor of Thunderbird wine.

BIBLEMAN said...

what a very classy commerical any others brits done a commerical like this

hey sean when i watched thunderbird on youtube i found an old commerical for Paul Masson Champagne Commercial staring Orson Welles and theres also an outake of one where hes really drunk


Sean Gill said...


Thanks for stopping by– those Welles commercials are pretty great. I feel like there's no shortage of material of him being drunk and belligerent in his old age on those commercial shoots. Ridiculous!