Monkees vs. Macheen: “Don’t Look a Gift Horse in the Mouth”

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“The Year of the Monkee (Horse)”

"Don't Look a Gift Horse in the Mouth"

One of the wonderful things about this television show is watching it with my nine-year-old daughter. I discovered The Monkees when I was five on WKBD 50 Detroit. (“In Detroit, the kid’s choice is TV 50”) Last summer, I was feeling a bit down and was looking for something to cheer me up when I noticed IFC was running The Monkees. And what a great thing to be able to share with her, this show that I fell in love with as a child. She especially likes this episode, and I can see why it might appeal to children. It has animals and a little kid; silly comedy, fun sequences. The Monkees are the Nicest Guys in the World, helping out the boy the way they do.

“Don’t Look a Gift Horse in the Mouth” was the first episode shot after the pilot but the 8th one to air on October 31, 1966. (Another shout-out to Melanie Mitchell, whose book, Monkee Magic, allowed me to see the shooting vs. airing order of the episodes.) The episode was written by Dave Evans and directed by show producer Robert Rafelson. Compared to the pilot, which moves very fast, this one takes it’s time to show the Monkees interacting together, and to make them likable; make them, in fact, into sweet, selfless good guys. There is more character development and less style and techniques. For instance there are no screen titles at all, nor do I notice much in the way of breaking the fourth wall. The main thing that is missing for me though is the usual dose of ironic and subversive humor that was present in most episodes. That type of humor is one of the elements that kept me enjoying the show well into adulthood.

The first part of the episode is a screwball comedy with lots of wacky misunderstandings. It starts with Davy alone on the beach (like “Royal Flush”). A little boy brings him a horse (a real horse – Editor) and asks him to watch it. The kid runs off and vanishes, leaving Davy stuck with the animal. By the look on Davy’s face, he knows he’s screwed.

I never would’ve thought Peter would be the one to do the cooking but he’s made cream of root beer soup for Mike and Micky. Micky gives his review of the meal by turning into a werewolf and howling all over the place. Peter says “here we go again” and it cracks me up that this is common behavior for Micky. Mike helpfully salts his hand and offers it to Micky for a snack. Henry Cordon is back as nasty landlord Babbitt, and he enters with his villainous organ theme music (dun, Dun, DUN). Micky’s howling convinces Babbitt they’re keeping a dog, which they’re not allowed to do or he’ll kick them out. Micky awkwardly explains he was just doing his werewolf impression.

Babbitt lays down the law.

Just as they get rid of him, Davy enters with the horse from the entrance by the windows, with a comical apologetic look on his face. Mike looks stunned as they roll into the opening theme. Davy explains how the kid abandoned him with the horse on the beach. Mike is worried about Babbitt and the conversation turns into a wacky verbal mix-up that Micky tries to sort out by howling again.

The noise brings back Babbitt. The boys try to hide the horse in the bedroom but he won’t budge. Mike tells Davy and Peter to hide in the bedroom and somehow convinces Babbitt that the actual horse is Peter and Davy in a horse costume. Both the werewolf bits and Davy bringing the horse were really nice scenes, with lots of character interaction.

None-too-bright landlord taken care of, Mike wants to get rid of the horse, but he still won’t move. Davy stands there looking at the other three like they’re the idiots. They think the horse is hungry and feed him some of the root beer soup, which sounds like a bad idea. Sure enough, the horse licks it and collapses.

See, somebody appreciates good soup.

Mike goes to see Dr. Mann, who has a huge mustache and magnifying glass. After more wacky verbal mix-ups, the vet agrees to come see the horse. Mike gets so flustered in this scene. One of the charming things about the Mike character/Mike Nesmith performance is the awkward, stammering bits he does. He’s natural, he’s affable, and it’s funny. Micky and Davy are pretty slick but Mike’s charm comes from seeming a little unsure sometimes, despite being the leader. This scene was good example of using that.

Mike and Dr. Mann

There are a lot of out-of-focus shots in the episode, including some here when Mike brings Dr. Mann back to the pad. There is also a grainy look that makes me think it was shot on a higher speed film stock to accommodate the later outdoor setting.

Anyway, Dr. Mann finds Peter and Davy in an actual horse costume so he starts examining them. Even by The Monkees standards this is all very silly.

Yegads! This is worse than I thought!

They hear a knock and assume it’s Babbitt. Now they have to hide the vet. But it’s their nice, elderly neighbor Miss Purdy with a cake to share with them. Miss Purdy faints when she sees the horse and then two more times when she sees Dr. Mann in the horse head and finds out he’s a veterinarian. “Why did she faint?” My daughter wants to know. “Well um, I guess people were more fragile in the 60s?” But my actual guess is that writers thought fainting was really hilarious back then. To prove my point, Mr. Babbitt strides in, preparing to catch them with all kinds of animals but he collapses when he hears Peter talking from inside the horse costume.

Then, the tone of the episode changes  to become more laid-back and outdoorsy, beginning with Davy riding the horse on the beach. He finds the boy who explains he can’t keep Jeremy (now we have a name for the horse) because his father thinks he costs too much. Jonathan (whose name they have not said yet) wants Davy to talk to his father. I guess he thinks his Dad is susceptible to English accents like the rest of us!

They drive out to the kid’s father’s farm in a jeep, no Monkee-mobile. I wonder if the jeep is borrowed and has a trailer for the horse. They don’t give us a clear shot of it, so who knows? The father says the horse is useless and too expensive to care for (Why did you buy it, Dad? – Editor). Davy offers to pay the original investment but they don’t have $100 of course. Mike offers to pay it off by offering their labor on the farm for a week. Farmer Fisher wisely takes one look at this bunch and wants to try them out for a day first (The whole thing smacks of a “Paper Moon”-style scam – Editor).

Fisher wakes up the Monkees at sunrise; they’ve been sleeping in the barn in their farming overalls. He gives them their list of chores that they are too sleepy to comprehend. Later, they are enthusiastically doing chores when Jenkins, a suave looking farmer in a leather jacket, comes and mocks the kid’s father for having “city slickers” working for him.

They don’t mention the character names here. It takes 2/3 of the plot to mention the kid’s name is Jonathan. And we never hear the adult farmer’s names. I got the names from the IMDB because I didn’t want to call them “Farmer” and “Other Farmer in a leather jacket.”

Peter gets ready to feed the hogs, but Micky has to demonstrate the hog call for him. It brings chickens (“now why don’t you try the chicken call?”). There’s a funny call-back gag where Micky’s attempt at a hog-call reaches Babbitt back at the house, who thinks they’ve got some other animal in there.

You know, it's just as well the hogs didn't come. Why's that? I forgot their food.

The Monkees aren’t very good at the farm chores. They’re supposed to milk the cow but start playing catch/football/kick the can with the milk bucket, inspiring my daughter to say “They’re just too much fun for this work.” The game leads to an accompanying romp to “Papa Gene’s Blues” (Mike Nesmith), the Monkees song my daughter and I are most likely to be found singing out loud. There’s a romp/fantasy sequence where they picture themselves as bullfighters, complete with stock footage of real bullfighters, and costumes. Mike mirrors the stock bullfighter using the moves on the cow. He successfully gets milk, but Peter spills it all over Fisher. Fisher is now done with them.

The episode uses the usual guitar wipes, but here there’s this weird dripping transition to this next scene. Maybe representing the milk spilling?

Davy says a sad goodbye to Jonathan and apologizes for failing him. Jenkins pulls up and says the horse is useless anyway. Davy and Jenkins make a bet that Davy can beat his horse Charlemagne in a race*. If Davy wins, Jenkins will pay the $100 for the horse. If Jenkins wins, he gets to keep the Monkees guitar. The Monkees are far too nice, putting their guitar on the line like this to help this kid. I don’t get what’s in it for Jenkins either, unless he needs a guitar and bragging rights for Charlemagne?

(*Note from the Editor – farm horses are not the same as race horses. There is a world of difference between both horses, involving a regiment of training and exercises that farm horses would not be required to accomplish.)

Micky does his WC Fields impression while giving Davy advice on how to race and Davy and the horse have racing silks (… blouse and cap worn during a race …) from somewhere. Various methods are used to start the race: a bugle, a racing checkered flag, and a gun. The racing scenes are set to “All the Kings Horses” (Michael Nesmith). The racers race, the other Monkees jump around on the beach; the farmer and his kid cheer. Davy wins! Even the father is happy about it. Davy gives him the money (exactly $100, suspicious – Editor) (You’re viewing this with 21st Century cynicism – Editor’s wife) he won to keep the horse, and Fisher invites them back to visit, but not to help with the chores.

Tag sequence where another kid approaches Davy, this time with a camel.

Davy and the camel.

The others haul him out of there and we hear more “Papa Gene’s Blues,” with some of the performance video used in “Monkees In A Ghost Town”, where they’re wearing the gray suits. Mike looks like he’s having so much fun playing this song, and he does that wink to the camera that the character did from time-to-time.

Mike's wink.

So there we have it. The Monkees help the underdogs as they did in “Monkees vs. Machine,” “Monkee See, Monkee Die,” and other episodes later in the run. (I won’t count “Royal Flush”, though they did help her selflessly, because a princess about to be a queen is not an underdog.) I have to admit, if my daughter hadn’t enjoyed it so much, I would have had a hard time finding so many positive things to say. I always found this one a little dull and not as funny, and I didn’t understand why the Monkees were being so altruistic when the stakes weren’t that high this time. But I have a final word from my daughter, who wanted to know: “Why did you wait so long to show me The Monkees, Mom?” Better late than never.

Guest Cast

by Bronwyn Knox

Every couple of weeks, “Monkees vs. Macheen” examines the crazy, spirited, Ben Franks-type world of the Pre-Fab Four: David Jones, Micky Dolenz, Michael Nesmith, and Peter Tork alias The Monkees.

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