BOOTLEG FILES 542: “The James Garner-Mariette Hartley Polaroid Commercials” (1978-85 series of 250 TV commercials).

LAST SEEN: Some of the commercials can be found on YouTube.


REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: There is no other way to enjoy these commercials except through unauthorized online video postings.


When James Garner passed away last week at the age of 86, the media coverage focused on his memorable work in movies (including cult favorites like “The Great Escape,” “The Americanization of Emily,” “Grand Prix,” “Marlowe” and “The Notebook”) and his hit TV shows “Maverick” and “The Rockford Files.” But for a certain generation (myself included), Garner might be best loved for a wonderfully witty series of TV commercials for the Polaroid camera line that paired the actor opposite Mariette Hartley.

For a number of years, Polaroid recruited prominent actors to advertise their products – most notably in 1972 when Laurence Olivier brought a theatrical intensity to his promotion of the SX-70 camera. In 1978, James Garner was tapped as the celebrity spokesman for the company. At the time, Garner’s career was enjoying a second peak via “The Rockford Files,” and the easy-going star seemed like a natural choice for speaking about the user-friendly camera.

However, Garner’s initial commercial didn’t seem to have the right sense of style – it seemed a bit too much of an obvious sale. Recognizing that Garner had a flair for light romantic comedy, Polaroid decided to pair him with a female co-star that could match his sense of humor.

Mariette Hartley was not an obvious choice for the part. After her first break as the female lead in the 1962 Western “Ride the High Country,” Hartley’s career was mostly based in one-shot roles on TV programs. And while she turned up in many major programs – including “Twilight Zone,” “Star Trek,” “Gunsmoke” and “M*A*S*H*” – she was not a household name. Indeed, I can recall during my childhood years when I only knew Hartley as “Leonard’s mother,” in reference to a role she played in one of my favorite small screen offerings, the Disney TV movie “The Mystery of Dracula’s Castle.”

So how did Hartley wind up in Polaroid commercials? “I auditioned,” she recalled. “I found myself in a group of all these pretty, model types. When that happens, I know I’m not the one they’ll want. But they asked me to come back.”

The Garner-Hartley commercials cast the stars relaxing in leisure-time activities: on a sailboat anchored in a marina, at a stable, in a garden, unwrapping Christmas decorations, and so forth. The commercials followed the pattern of Garner discussing the camera’s features and benefits while Hartley offered a gentle comic nudge that softened the sales pitch. Garner would photograph Hartley and the pair would watch the photograph develop before their eyes, all while keeping a good natured banter.

For his part, Garner happily allowed himself to be the butt of many jokes. In a commercial where he is using a handheld mirror to score an over-the-shoulder shot from his camera, Hartley establishes a sense of the actor’s vanity with the mirror by claiming, “He takes it everywhere.” When she wants to try to duplicate the over-the-shoulder trick, Garner proclaims a sense of mock vanity by insisting, “Nobody touches my mirror.”

Later on, in a holiday season commercial, Hartley tries to find out what Garner is planning to give her as a gift. “You press a button and it gives you a prize,” he says. Hartley offers faux puzzlement and asks, “You got me a gumball machine?” When she realizes her gift is a Polaroid camera, she points out that he gets those devices for free – at which point Garner pretends to be flustered, acting like an exposed cheapskate.

Because of the unusually strong rapport between the actors – the joking was never harsh or sarcastic, and the pair seemed to enjoy being together – many viewers came to the conclusion that Garner and Hartley were married when the commercials started to air. In retrospect, it seems to be an interesting conclusion – except that there was nothing in the actors’ lines that confirmed they were supposed to be married. And since Hartley was not a household name at the time, her lack of recognition resulted in people identifying her as Mrs. James Garner. Hartley facetiously acknowledged this public error by creating a t-shirt that read “I am not James Garner’s wife!” while her son had a similar t-shirt insisting that he was not Garner’s offspring.

In 1979, Garner and his wife Lois hit a rough patch in their marriage and separated (they later reconciled). But during this period, some celebrity gossip writers tried to create mischief by insisting that Hartley was to blame for the separation. “What has that got to do with me?” she told People Magazine. “He has not discussed his personal life with me, nor I mine with him. It’s a damn good thing my husband has a sense of humor!”

As Hartley’s identity became established with the public, she began getting higher profile roles and won an Emmy Award for an appearance on (of all things) “The Incredible Hulk.” She even made a guest appearance on Garner’s “The Rockford Files.” As this happened, the Polaroid commercials began to push the envelope a bit further in pretending Garner and Hartley were a couple. In one spot, they are getting ready for a formal party – he’s in a tuxedo, she’s in a designer gown. When she spied a Polaroid camera under his arm, she asks, “You’re taking that to the party?” And he replies: “Why not? I’m taking you!”

While the Garner-Hartley commercials were popular with the public, Polaroid would still seek out other actors for their commercials. The company went to the cinema A-list by recruiting Liv Ullmann and Christopher Plummer for advertisements. But with the possible exception of the Olivier commercial, the Garner-Hartley pairing comes to mind whenever Polaroid advertising is considered.

According to the Chicago Tribune’s Michael Phillips, Polaroid produced 250 commercials between 1978 and 1985 with Garner and Hartley. In an interview with Phillips, Hartley paid tribute to her late co-star.

“He taught me so much about comedy,” Hartley said.  “We’d shoot the legalese, you know, the first 20 seconds or so, and then we’d ad-lib, improvise, our tongues in our cheeks. People got attached to us, and nobody could do that sort of thing with such grace and humor as Jimmy. I just loved working with him.”

The commercials have never been collected into a home entertainment package, nor is it likely that they ever will. A number of these commercials can be found in unauthorized postings on YouTube – and I can say that having not seen them since their initial broadcast so many years ago, it was a thrill to reconnect with the charm and sparkle that Garner and Hartley brought to the small screen. In many ways, their work represented a zenith in TV commercial presentations, and I can’t imagine their unique magic being duplicated again.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free s***s 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 material, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg DVDs is perfectly legal. Go figure!

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