Monkees vs Macheen: “The Monkees’ Christmas Show”

“Holy sh–! It’s the attack of Eddie Munster!”

Sooner or later it seems all sitcoms end up doing a “Christmas Show,” or holiday special. This episode, which first aired on Christmas, December 25, 1967, is The Monkees version. It amazes me that it debuted on Christmas day, since these days television shows are on a break and/or in reruns from December through January. The episode is low on adventure and danger, no spies or gangsters. The Monkees nemesis is Melvin, a little boy who hates Christmas. It’s a “slobs vs. snobs” type episode on the order of “One Man Shy,” “Monkees à la Mode,” or “Success Story.” Melvin is a Scrooge-like character, but not because he’s greedy or selfish. He’s simply decided that emotions, good feelings, and fun are not for him [Oh, he’s a Vulcan. – Editor’s Note]. He’s possibly the worst nemesis they ever faced!

The episode starts out with the Monkees pushing their way, Three Stooges style, through the door of a mansion where they’ve been hired (so they think) by a Mrs. Vandersnoot to play a party. The butler is confused by the mention of the party and by the Monkees in general. (Burt Mustin, who played the Butler also played the Tarzan-parody Kimba character in the episode, “Monkees Marooned.”) He exits to alert Mrs. Vandersnoot of their arrival.

Peter wants to buy presents for everyone with the money they expect to make from the gig. Mike requests that he not buy the kind of presents he bought last year, which leads to a little flashback montage. He gave Davy an extremely oversized sports jacket. He bought Micky a chemistry set that turned him into Mr. Hyde and caused him to decapitate poor old Mr. Schneider. For himself, Peter bought an intelligence test that vacillates wildly between genius and total stupidity, until it self-destructs. Mike decided not to open his present until July; it turned out to be snow skis.

Mrs. Vandersnoot enters and clarifies that she hired the Monkees to babysit while she goes off on a cruise. The Monkees want nothing to do with this, until she tells them the pay is $100 a person in advance for the 10 days. Mike is still uncertain, pointing out that “those things take a lot of attention.” Enter the “thing” in question: Melvin, a 10-year old boy, dressed like a little business man. Mrs. Vandersnoot begs her nephew to change his mind and come along with her, but he coldly turns her down, taking Mike’s hand and pulling all the Monkees out of the house. I think Aunty should stay home and find out what’s wrong with her nephew, but then there’d be no story, I suppose.

Little nephew Melvin was played by Butch Patrick, aka Eddie Munster of The Munsters. The Munsters was off the air at the time, having completed its initial run from 1964-1966. The Monkees makeup department went out of their way to make Patrick not look anything like Eddie. He looks to my eye to have been sprayed with a fake tan (could be real tan and maybe old film just made it look that way) and is coming across on my screen as orange. He also has highlighted light brown hair and wears glasses. For his part, Patrick did an acceptable acting job in this episode. I saw the episode a few times as a kid before realizing he was Eddie Munster.

After the opening titles, there’s holiday-sounding incidental music. Stu Phillips really went all out in this episode; the score is prominent throughout. At the Monkees pad, Melvin tells the boys to go about their business; he certainly doesn’t need them to entertain him. The flustered Monkees decide to play music to pass the time. Melvin sees Mike and Peter pick up their instruments and asks, “Isn’t it the height of conformity for both of you to play the same instrument?” They explain that one is a bass, but Melvin doesn’t see the difference. He’s been with them a few minutes and is already causing them to question their value as musicians. Evil.

Mike points out that Melvin’s a kid, and they should play a game with him. They demonstrate “Simple Simon Says.” Melvin asks if he can be Simon. They’re thrilled that he wants to play until he says, “Simple Simon says ‘what is 180 times 3 Divided by 2 minus 7.’” The Monkees struggle to figure it out, using a blackboard, etc. Mike thinks no one could figure that out in their head but Melvin proves him wrong: he turns into a computer for a few seconds and gets the correct answer of 263.

Micky claims he’s good with kids and steps up to entertain him. The childlike Monkees haven’t done that well with kids that we’ve seen. The kids from “Monkee Mother” dominated them and left them tied and gagged. In “Captain Crocodile,” the Crocodile Corp tried to kill the Monkees, though they did eventually win those kids over. The only kid that liked them from the start was precocious and glib Junior Pinter, also from “Captain Crocodile.”

After Micky fails at a few yo-yo tricks, Davy decides to try conversation, asking Melvin if he’s excited to be away from home and staying with the guys. Melvin puts him down, “It would be a lot more exciting if everyone around here didn’t act like such…kids!” The Monkees are better at having fun than he is; that’s for sure. Davy is emotionally wounded and limps back to the bandstand. Mike mutters, “That kid’s cool like a machine, there’s something strange about him…” Melvin turns into the computer again for a moment. Unlike the computer from “Monkee vs. Machine,” Mike can’t break this one in just a few minutes; it takes him the entire episode.

Micky decides they should use “child psychology” Since he’s a rich kid, they’ll take him Christmas shopping. That’s not really psychology. Also, though he is obviously from a rich family, there’s been nothing about him that would signal to the Monkees that he’s spoiled or into shopping and material things. He hasn’t indicated that he wants anything at all other than to be left alone. The extroverted Monkees can’t fathom it.

They take him to the department store, actually that same “ballroom” set that they used and redecorated repeatedly since way back in the first episode, “Royal Flush” where it served as the embassy ballroom. Peter tries out a red bike with a motor and rides around the store, totally out of control. (The salesman is played by Larry Gelman, who was also in “I’ve Got a Little Song Here” as the Director and “Captain Crocodile” as the stage manager.) Peter crashes into the Christmas tree and winds up on a stretcher. The Salesman charges them $320 for damages. After all the property they’ve damaged in these episodes, this is the first time anyone has ever charged them. He adds another $20 for the stretcher. Mike sarcastically cracks that it’s a “carrying charge.”

Back at the pad, a doctor checks on Peter and pronounces him fine. He charges them another $20. The Doctor wishes everyone a merry Christmas, tries to offer Melvin a lollipop, but Melvin declines and the Doctor leaves. Melvin grumps to Mike, “How can anyone seriously discuss Christmas.” Mike doesn’t know how to answer. Melvin asks for “facts.” Peter gives the date, “Well, it’s on Dec. 25. And it’s full of cheer and good light and good will and friendship and fellowship…” Melvin’s not having it. Melvin claims he’s never seen the “Christmas spirit.” [Hard to get into the Christmas spirit when the doctor is charging you twenty bucks. – Editor’s Note] He’s expecting it to be tangible, but Mike describes it as “people walking around smiling to themselves.” Mike asks Melvin to try a smile; Melvin fails at the task. That’s really sad, since he’s just a kid, and we’d like to hope a kid’s life hasn’t been that full of disappointment just yet. He ends up snarling and shouting, “bah, humbug,” much to Mike’s dismay. In case you missed the subtle point the writers were trying to make, Peter and Mike tell the audience the obvious: Melvin needs lessons on Christmas.

The plucky Monkees take Melvin to buy a Christmas tree. Mike tells Melvin about the evergreen branches and their meaning. An old woman approaches and takes the small tree Mike was holding. Proving that Melvin is right about the lack of existing Christmas spirit, she hits Mike with a karate chop to snatch it from him. There are no small trees left, and they can’t afford a big tree, so Mike takes them to the woods to cut one down. He swings the ax at a tree and doesn’t get too far. He just starts convulsing and gets the axe stuck. Peter and Davy go off to buy a tree. Micky comes running, excited about finding “holly and mistletoe.” What he actually found was poison ivy. Forces certainly are conspiring to make the Monkees look like fools in front of Melvin. Even nature doesn’t want them to have a Merry Christmas.

The doctor returns and treats Micky for a $20 case of poison ivy; with that the Monkees are officially broke. Undaunted, Davy shows Melvin how to decorate the tree they bought. He tries to demonstrate that he’s no longer too short to put the star on top of the tree, but he doesn’t quite make it and falls off the ladder, knocking it over. The doctor comes back for Davy and “generously” says they can pay him after Christmas.

Melvin is unimpressed as usual and tells them they’re “killing themselves over something that doesn’t even exist.” Mike finally capitulates, “If you don’t believe in the spirit of Christmas, then it doesn’t exist.” Rather than continue to witness them injuring themselves, Melvin returns to his house, where he has a maid and a butler to watch him. As he leaves, everyone looks sad, especially Melvin. Melvin wants the Monkees to prove him wrong, if they could just figure out how. You’ve got to feel a little sad for both Melvin and the Monkees.

The Monkees are puzzled about how they failed, given the amount of time, energy and money they spent on games, toys, and so on but then Mike realizes that the missing piece was “love.” Which is a bit heavy-handed and sentimental, but it was a Christmas episode after all.

Melvin goes back to his house and finds the butler and maid about to go out for Christmas Eve dinner. He tells them he prefers to be alone and they leave. Melvin sits down and looks into a shiny plate and tries to smile at his reflection. The score is an instrumental version of “Ríu, Ríu, Chíu”. He thinks back on the Monkees smiling faces, takes off his glasses and cries [Yeah, ’cause that’s what everybody wants to see – a child crying. – Editor’s Note].

Melvin pictures himself at the department store again, but in his imagination he plays with the Monkees, dances and has a good time. The score is an instrumental montage of “We wish you a merry Christmas,””Deck the Halls,” “Pop Goes the Weasel,” “Days of Christmas,” and general “la-las” through the scene. Melvin imagines himself actually acting like a kid. He imagines himself back at the Monkees pad, playing by the tree. (The old woman from the tree shop is there for some reason.) Melvin imagines fun with the Monkees that never really happened and continues to cry.

Up on the roof, real fun is on the way! Micky is dressed as Santa, and Davy as his elf in one of Mike’s hats and a “Jolly Green Giant” outfit from “Captain Crocodile.” Micky is reluctant to go down the chimney, but Davy helps him out and they both go crashing down, to Melvin’s surprise. After a fun gag where Micky blows dust on Davy, they give a spirited performance of “Deck the Halls” (with a subversive emphasis on “gay apparel”). Peter and Mike come in the front door with the Christmas tree and join in on the singing. Melvin laughs and cries at the same time. My daughter walks in while I’m working on this and remarks, “They broke him.”

The Monkees brings Melvin’s Aunt back from the cruise somehow. Melvin and his Aunt admit they missed each other but never told each other. They have a tearful embrace. He tells her what a great time he had with the Monkees. Davy and Micky bring over presents for Melvin to open and sit down with them. Mike and Peter stand in the corner and pretend to cry.

The writers didn’t go into Melvin’s back-story at all. His goal is to have no need of anyone, and he respects only facts and figures. On the other hand, he was secretly hoping the Monkees could cheer him up, while at the same time getting all smug when they failed. I think we can guess something about him. He’s living with his aunt instead of his parents so it seems there was a tragedy, death or some other event that took them away from him. He’s afraid to have feelings for anyone or to have any joy in his life, because it will be taken away from him like his parents were. That’s my theory. Whatever it was, I’m glad the writers let the audience fill in the blanks.

Once the episode storyline is over, the Monkees are back at their pad where they perform an a capella version of the Spanish song from the 16 century, “Ríu, Ríu, Chíu.” The song wasn’t originally intended as a Christmas carol but the lyrics mention the nativity of Christ and the Immaculate Conception. (Este que es nascido es El Gran Monarca / Cristo Patriarca de carne vestido /: The one who is born is the Great Monarch/ Christ the Patriarch Clothed in flesh).

After the song, the Monkees bring out the crew to say hello, since some of them would not get home for the holiday season. They introduce cameraman Irving Lippman, wardrobe master Gene Ashman, Jack Williams, the prop-man, Les Fresholtz, the sound man, Monkees stand-ins Ric Klein, David Pearl, David Price, the Monkee Girls (who work in the office and “take care of everything for them”), Gerry Shepard, the editor, and director Jon Anderson, just to name a few. All of this is over the end credits instead of the usual closing theme.

With this version of the credits and the preceding performance, “The Monkees’ Christmas Show” ends with a live variety show feel. The performance of “Ríu, Ríu, Chíu” is the standout moment that made it memorable. I’m not that into sentimental Monkees episodes, but how can I say anything bad about an episode where the Monkees try to help out a lonely kid? That wouldn’t be showing much Christmas spirit (though I’m writing this in October).The Monkees have cheered me up so many times, I can appreciate this story. God rest you merry, gentlemen. (Despite what the butler said.)

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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Monkees vs Macheen: “The Monkees on the Wheel”

“Dolenz’s Four”

“The Monkees on the Wheel” debuted December 11, 1967 and was directed by Jerry Shepard. Shepard was mainly an editor on The Monkees, but he directed “The Monkees Get Out More Dirt.” Episode writer was Coslough Johnson, who wrote “Monkees on the Line” and many more. The episode starts off with a stock footage shot of the Las Vegas strip, and the narrator sets it up [“Submitted for your approval…” – Editor’s Note], “Las Vegas, pleasure capital of the world, where each man seeks the things he loves most.” He repeats the phrase “the things he loves most” a few times, and we see a foreground of a casino. In the background, lecherous Monkees literally chase girls. Mike rubs his hands together as he tries to catch one, and Davy zeros in on a girl’s derriere. It’s pretty darn funny to see, and it sets up a tone that’s bawdier than most episodes. I’m thinking they were going for a Rat Pack, Ocean’s Eleven (1960) vibe on this one, doll-face!

The narrator tells us that some are here to “pursue their greed” and we meet the villains of the week, two gangsters planning a caper. Crooks and gangsters, etc. were the most commonly used opponents of the Monkees. This mini-gang has fixed the roulette wheel to land on 16 red. The Boss (David Astor) gives Biggy (Pepper Davis) instructions on how to win all the money from the casino. He can’t do it himself because he’ll be recognized.

In the main casino, Micky tries to pick up a pretty blonde called Zelda by giving her money for the slot machine. Once again, Micky has poor taste in women: he goes on and on about their endless love while she just wants to win money. When he’s out of coins, she tells him to, “buzz off, Charlie!” and walks away. Micky loses his temper and pulls the handle on the slot machine, winning the jackpot. She runs back to kiss his hand and tell him he has “magic fingers,” interested in him again now that he’s won money. Micky tells the camera, “I thought she only loved me for my money.” This episode is especially cynical. Many of them are and I’ve applauded them for it. In this episode the Monkees are fully participating, instead of being victims of a cynical story line.

Zelda is played by Joy Harmon who we previously saw in “The Picture Frame” as the squeaky-voiced bank teller. If you’ve never seen the film Cool Hand Luke, Harmon has a memorable scene where she washes a car in front of the prisoners. Given the overall girl-ogling tone of this episode, it seems perfectly appropriate to mention it in this recap.

Mike chastises Micky for gambling, “you told me you wouldn’t gamble anymore” while Zelda and Micky pick up the coins. Mike reminds Micky that they need to go play a gig. It’s always nice when they manage to add a line that mentions that the characters are supposed to be musicians. Season two so far hasn’t shown them playing very often as part of the story. Micky absent-mindedly sets his winnings down for a moment on the roulette table, accidentally betting on 16 red.

Biggy missed his chance to place a bet somehow. He gasps when the Manager (I’d call him the dealer but IMDb says “Manager”), Rip Taylor, announces 16 red and Micky wins tons of money. Davy walks up to mention they’re supposed to be rehearsing. Biggy, who looks like a shorter Vic Tayback, tells Micky not to bet and crushes his hand. The three Monkees decide to leave, but Peter comes up and says you should never leave while you’re ahead. That seems like terrible advice but what do I know? I don’t gamble. Biggy tries to place his bet but Peter blocks him, putting Micky’s bet down again. When Micky wins again, the Manager freaks out because he broke the bank.

Back in their room, the gangsters talk about how to get the money back. The Boss tells Biggy to get Della the Decoy. Meanwhile, the Monkees carry Micky’s winnings back to their room on a stretcher. They consider what to spend it on; Mike says they should invest the money in something “worthwhile.” [Nesmith was quite the businessman. – Editor’s Note] There’s a quick montage of Micky, Mike, and Davy picturing hot girls while Peter imagines hugging a stuffed tiger. That was hilarious, and Peter was the only one who got close to his object of desire. Also, could be an allusion to the song, “Cuddly Toy” that’s used later in the episode and the notion of girls as “cuddly toys.”

There’s a knock at the door and Peter lets in Biggy, who’s got a vacuum and poses as the “maintenance man.” Since Davy and Biggy are about the same size, Davy doubts his claim, “Maintenance men don’t come that short.” Peter disagrees that Biggy’s short, “stand up and show him how tall you are.” Of course Biggy comes back with, “I am standing up.”

Next, Della the Decoy walks in the room, dressed in a sexy maid’s costume and the Monkees all go nuts for her. Peter: “Are you the maintenance man too?” Della: “Sure. Don’t you like the way I’m maintained.” The Monkees stumble over each other to try and pick her up. Behind them, Biggy’s making off with the money. Della’s not really a decoy, she’s more like Della the Distraction. Also, we’ve seen the Monkees interested in girls before but it’s usually romantic. We’ve never seen them this out-and-out horny. (Maybe Micky from time to time.) The Monkees make an over-the-top spectacle of being all over Della, instead of acting in character.

Back in the casino, the Manager chews the scenery, going on and on about his aggravation. In every scene that the Manager is in, Rip Taylor hams it up. In contrast, fantastic straight man Dort Clark enters the scene, playing yet another cop (we previously saw him playing cops in “Monkees a la Cart” and “The Picture Frame”). The Manager tells him his story.

The Monkees are still ad-libbing with Della until Davy halts the chaos to let her say her line, but she doesn’t have one. Biggy takes off with the money, and the Monkees realize they’ve been had. They start shouting for the police, who turn up immediately along with the Manager. (Mike sarcastically quips, “What took you so long.) The Policeman tricks Micky into signing a confession and arrests all four Monkees. The Monkees protest that they’re arresting the victim, not the criminal. As they’re led away, there are some unusual close-ups as the Monkees complain about police brutality, etc.

At the police station, the confession is shot with crooked Batman-type angles. The Monkees protest the illegality of this arrest and insist their money was stolen. The Policeman tells them to think of a better story than that, so Mike tells “Jack and the Beanstalk.” This scene (and the entire episode) is reminiscent of the confession scene from “The Picture Frame,” but not as funny. It becomes obvious the Monkees didn’t know the roulette wheel was rigged, so the Manager makes an offer: if they can get the money back in 24 hours he won’t press charges. Our boys are now thoroughly enmeshed in yet another criminal caper.

Back in their room, Mike suggests if they can’t find the crooks, they should get the crooks to find them. Peter suggests, “Why don’t we open a prison?” The other Monkees immediately jump on him for the “stupidity” of that suggestion. But not really; they’re clearly being ‘meta’ and reacting to the stale jokiness of the written dialog. As in the scene with Della, they’re way outside the actual episode and commenting on the story and the writing, not really acting in character to mock Peter. Mike “comes up” with an idea, which we hear as mumble, mumble, rhubarb, rhubarb.

The Monkees enter the casino dressed as gangsters in suits and sunglasses, except Peter who looks more like an accountant. Zelda recognizes Micky but he brushes her off. They step up to the Roulette wheel. Biggy approaches Peter; Micky recognizes him as the hand crusher (but doesn’t recognize him as the Maintenance Man.) Micky disguises his voice; I don’t know what he was going for, but he sounds like Wolfman Jack. He tells Biggy not to bother the Professor (referring to Peter.) Micky identifies himself as the Insidious Strangler and explains his gang is in town for, “Robbery, extortion, and murder.” Mike cuts in “sort of your regular tourist activities.” Except he clearly did NOT say that. It doesn’t match his lips at all and the above line was obviously dubbed in later in Micky’s voice. I can’t read his lips and would love to know what the heck he really said, and why it had to be dubbed over.

Micky identifies Mike as Vicious Killer and says he did two years of solitary confinement, standing on his head. The editors flip a shot of Mike upside down. “The Professor” tells Biggy they’re here to “take over this town and win all the money.” He starts to tell Biggy about his mathematical system, which is almost perfected. Biggy gives him the missing piece: 7+5 equals 12 (not 11). Peter gets excited, “My system is perfect!” Upside down shot of Mike repeating the line “isn’t that dumb.” All of the action above was intercut with shots of Rip Taylor, carrying on behind the roulette table. The Monkee gangsters go see the Boss in his room. Micky has a Three Stooges/James Cagney impression contest with the Boss. I think it’s a draw.

Peter explains his sure-fire gambling “equalization” system by handing Biggy and the Boss each glasses of liquor. Then, Peter does something uncharacteristically savvy: He gets the crooks falling down drunk while he bluffs his way through his “system.” The other three Monkees sit and let the Peter steal the show, cutting in once to ask the audience “Isn’t that dumb?” The crooks pass out and Micky, Mike, and Davy give Peter well-deserved applause. The Monkees look for the money and immediately ruin Peter’s clever plan by setting off an alarm. The Boss drunkenly wakes and decides, “It’s a deal: your system, my money.”

Back in the casino, the fake and real gangsters enter. David Pearl approaches Mike, smacks him in the nose, Three Stooges-style, and says “take this wizard Glick.” Mike tells him he’s not Wizard Glick and Pearl apologizes. He should have smacked Rip Taylor, who was Wizard Glick in the final episode “The Frodis Caper.”

The Policeman approaches Micky and explains he can’t take the stolen money without proof. The “Professor” tells the gangsters to bet 24 red. The Boss is in the casino, even though at the beginning he said he would be recognized (as a crook I suppose). Zelda approaches Micky again and keeps bothering him until he gives her money to play with. Unfortunately 24 red wins, even though the Monkees aim to lose so the Manager can recover his money. Peter bets absurd numbers that don’t exist (87 plaid) and continues to win. Zelda identifies Micky as “Magic Fingers,” outing him to the Boss. The Boss orders Biggy to “get them.”

Romp to “The Door into Summer” (Chip Douglas, Bill Martin), from Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd. The cast runs around the roulette table. Della the Dish distracts everyone. Davy plays a spinning wheel game and kisses girls. Joy Harmon steals the scenes and looks to be having fun. She pulls all the slot arms, until she gets to Micky. She pumps his arm like he’s a slot machine; Micky grows taller and gives us a lascivious smile. Everyone keeps sneezing over yellow roses that are in the casino. Mike eats the rose petals in a callback gag to “The Picture Frame. The story finishes with the gangster collapsing on the roulette table.

Peter, Mike, and Davy demonstrate the tag sequence, which Mike explains as, “some complete laugh riot at the end of a show.” They demonstrate a “here we go again” tag. Peter and Davy discuss how’ll they’ll never get involved in gambling again and then realize Micky’s missing. Mike cuts in to explain; now they’ll cut over to Micky playing with “the gambling machine.” Micky wins a bunch of slots and he gives his all his money to Della in his hat. He smiles at the camera with his tongue hanging lustfully out as they walk off screen together. While Micky does his thing, there’s these quick-cuts back to Mike, Peter and Davy and Mike saying “and now you cut back to us.” Mike: “And we’re supposed to give a pained look to the camera. Isn’t that funny kids.” Sarcastic laughter. Seems like a fitting way to wrap up this particular episode.

But wait, there’s more! Next is an alternate performance film of “Cuddly Toy” (Harry Nilsson) For this version the Monkees are on stage in vaudeville-inspired striped jackets and straw hats. Davy dances by himself, no Anita Mann this time, while the others play instruments. This is followed by the outtakes from the “Monstrous Monkee Mash” episode, which aired after this episode on January 22, 1968. There are several repeat takes of Mike and Micky in their Werewolf/Mummy costumes trying to get through their dialog. (You can hear James Frawley directing, “Go again.”) Mike can’t say the punch line because he’s laughing so much. On the last one, he finally finishes his sentence and Micky looks confused at the camera.

To me, this episode had a different tone than the others. Some of the jokes were dirtier than usual for a kids show. As a five year old, I wouldn’t have understood it. As a teenager, I loved it for being naughty. It’s also unusual for the amount of fourth-wall breaking. As in “Hillbilly Honeymoon” and “Wild Monkees” they draw a lot of attention to the fact that it is indeed a television show. They reached a point where instead of parodying everything else in Hollywood, they made fun of themselves. The Monkees seem to be rebelling against the format of their very own show when they break down the tag sequence and mock their usual treatment of Peter, etc. They don’t leave the audience out of this; we’re in on the joke. I like this, but I also like it when they’re truly engaged in the story-lines. Fortunately, there were a few more of those episodes left before the series ended.

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.

Monkees vs Macheen: “Monkees in Texas”

“Welcome to Videoranch!”

“The Monkees in Texas” places the boys in familiar territory : The Western. The earlier season two episode, “It’s a Nice Place to Visit,” was an excellent parody of film Westerns. “Monkees in Texas,” written by Jack Winter, is aimed at the television Western, and parodies popular shows such as Bonanza and The Lone Ranger. This episode uses anachronisms for the story and comedy – the costumes on the guest cast especially, but also the set and the storyline, are designed as though the Monkees somehow drove back in time to the late 19th century, while they themselves maintain their psychedelic 1960’s style. This is in service of the parody, as TV shows like Gunsmoke  (which aired against The Monkees on the CBS Television Network) took place in the old west. This device also puts the Monkees in a situation where they’re out of place once again.

The Monkees pull up to a house in a desert setting, driving a golf cart instead of the Monkeemobile. For the most part, the sets used in this episode were on the Columbia Ranch. Zilch, A Monkees Podcast recently had an episode packed with information about The Monkees use of these Columbia Ranch sets in various episodes. This particular episode used a part of Columbia Ranch know as” the Berm.” More information can be found here.

Once they get out of the cart, Mike explains to Peter, and the audience, that they’re in Texas at his Aunt Kate’s house. (Michael Nesmith was born in Houston, Texas.) The Monkees hear gunfire and duck for cover. Two women in 19th-century Western costume ride up on horses, and Mike identifies one of them as his aunt. Three masked men in black arrive and shoot at the women while the Monkees run inside to help Mike’s aunt.

The women shoot rifles out the window at the bandits as the Monkees enter the little green house. Aunt Kate greets Mike briefly and tells the Monkees to “grab a rifle.” Of course they all try to grab the same rifle. Aunt Kate clarifies that there’s one for each of them on the rack. There’s a Marx-brothers type scramble when Peter keeps putting the guns back on the rack as the others try to hand them out. The Monkees wind up cocking invisible guns. The younger woman, Lucy, gives them one of those “funniest looks from everyone we meet.” They try again, and each shows off their weapon: Micky, “Winchester seventy-three,” Davy, “Colt forty-five,” Mike, “Smith and Wesson, thirty-eight.” It’s all very faux-manly, except Peter who takes an anti-violence stance with a bottle of champagne, “Vintage sixty-six.”

The Monkees help defend the house, except Peter uses a finger gun and “fires” by saying “bang-bang-bang!” Peter explains to Davy, “Well, I hate violence. Besides I have more shells than you.” (Peter also used a finger-gun in “Monkee See, Monkee Die.”) The lead bandit asks, “Have you had enough, nesters?” Mike corrects them, “The name is Nesmith!,” a callback gag to the times Mike’s name has been mispronounced (“I’ve Got a Little Song Here,” “Monkee Mayor”). Aunt Kate corrects Mike that “nester” means farmer, so Mike politely allows the bandit to go on.

The bandits open fire at the house and Micky comments, “they’re throwing everything at us but the kitchen sink,” setting up the site gag when the bandits roll a flaming sink at the house. After the opening titles, Davy solves the problem by turning on the faucet and letting the water put the flames out. They all cheer Davy. It is pretty amazing since the sink’s not connected to any pipes. The sexist bandits realize, “that ain’t just women” firing at them, and they retreat. The Monkees celebrate and the women stare at them incredulously.

This is the first of two Emmy jokes in the episode. The Emmy’s were given out on June 4, 1967, so by the time this was shot in October of 1967, James Frawley, who directed this episode, had already won the Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Comedy for “Royal Flush” and The Monkees won for outstanding comedy series.

Lucy halts their celebration, “I wouldn’t be too happy about that, they’ll be back.” (Lucy is played by Bonnie Dewberry, who was also Dr. Mendoza’s daughter in “I Was a Teenage Monster.”) Micky, Peter, and Davy are eager to leave Aunt Kate’s now that the gunfight is over. Mike insists that they stay for family loyalty and bravery etc. but mostly because the bandits “killed our golf cart.” They cut to a shot of the golf cart, turned over on its side. Maybe that’s why they didn’t use the Monkeemobile. Micky and Peter go to get some help. Kate advises them to look more “Western” so they’ll fit in better. They don’t like strangers here, and the young Monkees are pretty strange.

Kate explains that Black Bart and his men have been trying to drive her off her land for about a year. The name Black Bart is an allusion to a real life outlaw, who robbed stagecoaches in the late 19th-century. Mike introduces Kate to Davy and then realizes he doesn’t know Lucy, the younger woman. She takes off her bonnet and flusters Mike with a shake of her long blonde hair, giving Mike the setup to be comically awkward.

Mike: “I’m afraid I don’t know this lady here… oh my…”
Aunt Kate: “Don’t you remember your baby cousin Lucy?”
Mike: “Huh? Lu—Lucy! Are you Lu—well, what, well, whatever happened to the buck teeth, the knobby kneed, uh, stringy haired, bad complexion, little girl that I used to hang around with?”
Aunt Kate: “That’s your other cousin, Clara. She still looks the same.”

Micky and Peter’s idea of looking “Western” is a Lone Ranger and Tonto look, parodying the popular Texas Ranger and his Native American friend characters of radio, television, comic books, and films. Micky and Peter are “The Lone Stranger” and “Pronto.” (Looney Tunes also did a Lone Ranger parody, “The Lone Stranger and Porky” in 1939). Peter is unsure of his outfit, as he should be since they both look like they’re wearing little kid’s Halloween costumes. But Micky reassures Peter that he looks very “psychedelic” because of the peace symbol and beads. [“Dirty hippies!” – Editor’s Note]

Micky and Peter enter the Marshall’s office and explain the trouble at Nesmith’s ranch. The Marshall (played by actor James Griffith who appeared in many Western television shows) is unavailable to help because he’s shooting his own TV show, and then has an Emmy dinner—for Emmy reference #2. He suggests they go to a saloon and hire outlaws.

Back at the ranch, Davy spots three men riding towards the house and warns the others. However, Kate identifies the men as friends: The Cartwheels, Ben and his two sons, Mule and Little Moe. This is a parody of the Western TV show Bonanza and the main characters Ben Cartwright and his sons (“Hoss” and “Little Joe”). Cartwheel insists Kate should sell her ranch to him for her “protection” of course. Kate politely turns him down.

Fun dialog moment:

Ben Cartwheel (to Davy): “Hey, uh, water my horse, will you, son?”
Davy: “Water your horse? I’m not a stable boy!”
Ben Cartwheel: “I don’t care about your mental condition; water my horse!”

Micky and Peter enter the saloon as a Western-style version of “The Old Folks at Home” (Stephen Foster) plays. (Davy performed this song in “The Spy Who Came in from the Cool,” and “The Case of the Missing Monkee.”) They get another of those “funny” looks, this time from the bartender. Micky bumps into a mustachioed cowboy at the bar, who is clearly Davy. A saloon girl grabs Micky, who protests with, “Not now, this is a family show!” The bartender is skeptical of this, “Family show?” When Micky and Peter look for hired guns to fight Black Bart, they meet Sneak and Red. There’s a misunderstanding, and Red ends up recruiting Micky and Peter into Black Bart’s gang. (Red is played by Len Lesser, who played George in the Western/gangster-flavored episode “Monkees in a Ghost Town.”)

I’ve seen it noted that the “bubble gum” joke was meant to be a reference to the Monkees “bubble gum” image. Could be, but I’m going to take it a different way. The “family show” joke suggests that the writers/producers make many of the jokes subversive and aimed at adults. With the bubble gum vs. tobacco, Peter ordering milk from the bar, and Micky’s line about the “family show,” and all of the gun violence and the Monkees playing around with the guns pretty much consequence free, they’re making fun of the idea of what a kid’s show is supposed to be. Most recent kid’s shows I’ve watched with my daughter are sanitized and full of “lessons.” No thanks. (Please, no morals.) At the same time, the Monkees act like kids most of the time, and they put kid’s jokes in an adult context, such as real Westerns which tend to be violent and aimed at adults, etc. The contrast makes The Monkees an unusual show. Other shows that pull this off successfully tend to be cartoons like Looney Tunes or Animaniacs.

I’ve been really enjoying this episode so far. These scenes in the saloon are my favorite because of the parody of Western clichés, funny dialog and sight gags, and a brilliant “tough cowboy” performance from Micky. High points include Micky missing the whisky bottle the bartender slings at him, the men with “prices on their heads,” Micky proving that he’s “fast on the draw,” and the excellent straight men: Sneak, Red, and the Bartender.

Peter and Micky hang out in Black Bart’s shack, where Micky plays cards with Red. Sneak busts in and declares that now’s a good time to attack Nesmith’s ranch. Peter sneaks out of the hideout and rides a horse right into the front door of Aunt Kate’s house to announce that Black Bart and his men are coming. When Davy rushes to get help, he accidentally falls on the horse the wrong way and rides it backward. He finds Ben Cartwheel, who instructs Davy to tell Kate he’s coming with his men. Davy makes the return trip backwards too; cool trick on Davy Jones’s part.

Mike digs up a jar of dirt from Kate’s ranch and takes it to the saloon. He asks for the Assayer’s office. The bartender replies, “This is it” and a sign identifying him magically appears. The Assayer/Bartender looks in Mike’s jar with that oft-used giant magnifying glass and tells Mike that the gook in the jar is “crude.” Mike misunderstands and leans in, “Oh. That’s okay, go ahead and tell me anyway.” The Assayer explains that “crude” is oil. Before Mike can leave, the Assayer asks for payment, so Mike puts some of the oil on his hand. Mike was very much like Jimmy Stewart (who, among other films, was in many Westerns) with his polite, unassuming demeanor in that scene.

Black Bart walks into his hideout without his mask, and if the audience didn’t catch on before, he is Ben Cartwheel. Bart wants to know who betrayed them to Kate. Red identifies the “Injun” as the one who went to the ranch. Ignoring the pejorative term for moment, clearly the joke is that Peter looks nothing like a Native American. Micky pretends not to know Peter, but when Bart orders Micky to kill Peter, he admits Peter’s his best friend. Red and Sneak draw guns on Peter and Micky.

A narrator’s voice employs the cliché, “Meanwhile, back at the ranch…” Mike tells Kate she’s going to be rich because of the oil on her property. They wait for the Cartwheels to save the day, but in case they don’t arrive, Mike tries to get John Wayne on the phone, yelling at the operator because, as in “The Prince and the Paupers,” he has trouble working these antiquated phones. It’s also a callback gag to “Monkees in a Ghost Town” when Davy tried to call Marshall Dillon from Gunsmoke. Kate hands rifles to Mike and Davy.

Black Bart and his men arrive at Kate’s ranch. They have Micky and Peter tied up and dressed like part of the gang. Their hands are tied, but they ride the horses away from the bad guys anyway. Bart lets them escape, figuring they can simply “kill them on the other side.” That doesn’t make any sense, but whatever facilitates their escape, I suppose.

Micky and Peter ride up to the ranch and tell Kate and the others that Cartwheel and Black Bart are one in the same. She doesn’t believe it:

Aunt Kate: “Ben Cartwheel’s the kindest millionaire in the whole valley. He wouldn’t hurt a fly.”
Micky: “Flies, no, but if you’re a human, he’ll kill ya!”

Between not catching on to Black Bart’s true identity, and not noticing that she had oil on her ranch, Aunt Kate is not the sharpest Nesmith. It seems the cycle had been going on for a year before the Monkee arrived: Black Bart and the bandits shoot at the women, and then Ben Cartwheel comes by and offers to buy the ranch. However, Kate wasn’t scared off; she was shooting right back and determined to hold onto her property. The Monkees contribution to moving the story along was brains (and comedy), not tough-guy gun slinging; Mike discovered the oil, and Micky and Peter discovered Black Bart’s true identity.

The good guys run inside, Micky giving Bart a saucy British “two-fingered salute” gesture before he shuts the door. I doubt he meant that as a peace sign, though maybe it passed that way to the censors. The gunfight launches a romp to “Words” (Tommy Boyce/Bobby Hart). It’s a very cartoonish romp, with lots of knocking bad guys on the head. The somber song is pretty, but doesn’t suit the action. Other notable elements are: Davy kisses Lucy for no reason, there’s a cameo shot of photographer Nurit Wilde, and the gun with the “Bang” flag reappears. Once again, despite all the gunfire, the romp allows the Monkees to save the day without anyone getting hurt. Black Bart and his men retreat at the end of the song, riding away from the ranch in defeat.

Oddly, after the romp, the editors stick in the same shot from the beginning of Lucy saying, “I wouldn’t be too happy about that, they’ll be back.” After which, they immediately go into the performance clip of “Goin’ Down” (Dolenz, Jones, Tork, Nesmith, and Hildebrand). This creates an unsatisfying ending. The romp wrapped the story up when the bad guys left; we don’t really need a tag sequence. But it would have been nice if they had done some quick scene instead of repeating Lucy’s line. I wonder if some footage got lost or was unusable.

This is still mostly a fine episode though. The plot was tight and moved along nicely and the writers/producers knew their source material well enough to make it fun. It would almost fit in well with the first season; it’s relatively innocent compared to other Season two episodes as far as all four of the Monkees really committing to the episode. They each had a part to play in the story and they all engage with the plot and don’t mock what they’re doing. The guest cast plays it straight and lets the Monkees be the joke-makers. If it wasn’t for the lack of narrative closure, this might have been one of my favorites.

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.

Monkees vs. Macheen: “Hitting the High Seas”

“We’ll scuttle the story and run her a-ground!”

“Hitting the High Seas” was directed by James Frawley and written by Jack Winter, who wrote four other episodes that I listed in my recap for “The Picture Frame.”  Fun note about the title: the book, Monkee Magic by Melanie Mitchell, notes that it’s a pun on hitting the high “C’s,” as in the musical note. This episode is included in The Monkees DVD/VHS “Our Favorite Episodes” as Davy Jones’ favorite. Though the Amazon description of that box set notes this may not be entirely the case as he states “Royal Flush” is his favorite on the DVD box set commentary. Jones gives commentary for this episode as well.

Micky, Davy, and Peter sit in a bar discussing their recent firing from a failed gig. They overhear two sailors, Frank and Harry, discuss an available job. Noam Pitlik, who we saw in an earlier episode, “Everywhere a Sheik, Sheik,” as Shazer, plays Harry. The old sailors describe the perfect men needed for the job, while the Monkees counter with demonstrations of their qualifications. “They’ve got to be strong.” Micky destroys furniture. (Yet he wasn’t able to do so in “Wild Monkees.”) “They’ve got to be able to use their hands.” Davy juggles. “They’ve got to have knowledge of the seven seas.” Peter names random bodies of water. The sailors wonder where to find “hard drinkin’ guys like that.” The Monkees heartily drink their milk. (Yes, milk – it does a body good.) One of the sailors asks, “what about these kids here?” The Monkees magically pop into sailor costumes. Frank and Harry tell the Monkees where and when to meet them if they want the job.

Cut to the sailors on the phone discussing their success in finding the “dumbest suckers” they could. This makes no sense at all because from what we see later, they don’t need the Monkees to execute their plan. Davy Jones mentions on the commentary track that many of the Monkees adventures were about playing the kinds of fantasies kids would have. Pirates would naturally be among kid’s fantasies (I know it was one of mine), so I guess whatever contrivance it takes to get them on the ship will do.

The background music by Stu Phillips is a cheerful sailor cartoon theme. Frank meets all four Monkees on the deck of the ship. Davy Jones mentioned on the commentary that this was a beautiful boat that the four of them actually considered purchasing. The Monkees have no idea how to sail. Frank tosses a million directions at them, and Mike tries to follow along with a book of instructions. Fortunately, someone has labeled the main sail and the ropes needed to adjust it, but they mess it up anyway. Micky, Peter, and Davy get seasick and take pills to cure it. Mike takes one, but like Micky’s bug-attracting insect spray from “Monkees Marooned,” the pill makes him seasick. He goes below deck, never to be seen again.

The Monkees that are still standing meet the Captain, played by Chips Rafferty who, I’m sure was not coincidentally cast as he was in the films The Wackiest Ship in the Army and Mutiny on the Bounty. During roll call he orders them to cut their hair, but they refuse. In response, the Captain plans to have them “keel-hauled and lashed” until Micky identifies Davy as the great-great grandson and heir to Davy Jones’ locker. The Captain is awed to have a Jones on his ship. He lightens the punishment “swabbing the deck” and makes Davy his cabin boy. [“These pipes are CLEEEANN!” – Editor’s note]

Inside the ship, Davy tries to deliver food to the Captain but keeps running into various other fictional captains. First up is Micky, dressed as Captain Ahab from Moby Dick. He also finds Peter as an 18th-century pirate, getting slapped for forcing a kiss on a girl. Micky re-appears as Captain Hornblower and blows a little horn, “groovy, sock it to me, yeah.” Captain Horatio Hornblower was a fictional captain in the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars and was the subject of novels, films, and radio. According to his characteristics listed on Wikipedia, Hornblower was tone deaf, so he probably didn’t play the horn or anything else. Also, like Mike, he tended to get seasick.

Davy finally finds the right Captain, who’s now in conference with his parrot, Horace. He overhears the Captain and the parrot discuss a plan to steal gold. In the commentary, Davy Jones mentions that Micky was the actual voice of the parrot. Davy thinks they’re “crackers.” Nice pun. Hanging out in their bunks, Peter and Micky play and sing a little bit of “Tear the Top Right Off My Head” (Peter Tork) on acoustic guitar. Davy rushes in and tells them his fears about the Captain. On the spot, Davy comes up with an idea for them to sneak into the Captain’s room at night. Micky will imitate the parrot so they can find out more about the Captain’s plan.

Cut to the execution of Davy’s plan. Peter tapes the real parrot’s mouth shut and Micky engages the Captain, pretending to be Horace. The Captain used to be captain of a ship called the Queen Anne, and he wants to rob it in revenge for being kicked off the ship. Next day on deck, Micky tries to brush this off as just a fantasy the Captain has created to compensate in his mind for his childhood frustrations. Davy mentions in the commentary that Micky made those lines up. The script just said they should be “talking” so they improvised their own dialogue [Now that’s some solid professional television writing! – Editor’s Note]. The Captain appears on deck in a Jolly Roger hat and pirate costume, and the rest of the crew are suddenly dressed as Hollywood pirates. They hoist the Jolly Roger and reveal the canons. Micky tries to convince himself that the Monkees are now the ones trapped in a fantasy.

Maybe there’s something in that. What if the entire series was just a fantasy in the four Monkees minds, created to compensate for their failure to make it as a band? All the crazy things never really happened; they just imagined being chased by space aliens, international spies, and bank robbers and tangling with corrupt royalty, con-men, and mad scientists. Not to mention the Devil himself. Now that’s a trip!

The Captain shares his plan to rob the Queen Anne of Gold bullion. The Monkees are now in their own version of pirate costumes. My daughter pointed out that they look like Halloween costumes for little kids. (She keeps going on in adoration of Davy’s hat.) There is something very Peter Pan and the Lost Boys about this whole story. The Captain proclaims that anyone afraid to go through with his scheme should step forward; of course the Monkees do, but quickly retreat when told they’ll be dropped off in the middle of the ocean. I still don’t see why Frank and Harry needed to trap the boys into joining the crew for this. They didn’t really need inexperienced extra crewmen to rob the Queen Anne, did they?

The Monkees go back to their bunks to figure out how to stop the Captain from his crazy plan. Micky decides they should follow the Hollywood examples of Munity on the Bounty and Captain Queeg from The Caine Mutiny. Peter goes off to incite mutiny among the rest of the crew. Davy’s still skeptical so Micky convinces him with more references to the 1935 and 1962 versions of Mutiny on the Bounty, “How about, if Clark Gable and Marlon Brando can do it, we can do it?” The look that passes between them is pretty funny, looks like that line was made up too.

Peter whispers to everyone on deck, and you can see David Price and David Pearl are among the crew members. Micky gets up in front of the crew and calls the Captain out on deck. He asks the Captain to turn over his sword, and when he refuses, Micky orders the men to “seize him.” No one moves. Micky asks what Peter said to the men? Turns out it was a general “mrm mrmmmr mer” Davy and Peter deny being part of any mutiny, but Frank identifies them as being with Micky. The Captain orders them all to walk the plank. Horace sits on the Captain’s arm during this bit and he does his own thing, chewing something off the captain’s jacket.

Standing on the plank, quick-thinking Micky stalls by warning that if they jump in, the Captain will never know “the secret.” The Captain almost bites, but Peter ruins it by asking, “Hey guys, what is the secret?” The crew is distracted from drowning the Monkees when the Queen Anne approaches. They turn away from the Monkees and prepare the cannons to attack the other ship. Harry and the Captain crack me up with their little argument about when to fire.

The Monkees decide to save the Queen Anne. This action forms the romp to “Daydream Believer” (Stewart). The Monkees steal the cannons and there’s sword fighting, rope swinging, and pistols. A couple of fun moments include Micky and Peter’s mirror-image eye patch, and Peter driving pirates away with his guitar playing. In the end, the Monkees finally drop a net on the Captain and his men. After the fight, the Captain of the Queen Anne congratulates the Monkees for saving the ship, the gold, and the passengers. A bell keeps ringing and Davy comments on it. Davy Jones mentions in the commentary that the bell wasn’t part of the episode it was actually ringing on some other ship. The captain ignores him and announces they are all First Mates of the ship. Who’s the Captain? It’s Horace the parrot, of course.

Last up is a lip-sync performance of “Star Collector” (Goffin/King), the version of the song that utilizes a Moog synthesizer. Davy Jones mentions the Moog in the commentary and states that Micky owned one of the first existing models. The inventor of the machine, Robert Moog, brought it to the recording session and they played it for this song. In the clip, the Monkees are all in white turtleneck sweaters. It looks like someone made Mike a matching hat, but he never wears it, it just sits on a stand in the front. It’s all very psychedelic with trippy lights, colors, and fast editing. Micky has giant drumsticks and at one point, Mike grabs one to mimic his guitar playing.

This was never a favorite of mine but, paying closer attention for this recap, I discovered some things to appreciate. There are some laugh-out-loud bits, and there’s a storyline that works on that “good clean fun” level. The rugged sailors, Captain, Harry, and Frank, add a believable touch to the fantasy. The episode moves along quickly and is fun and entertaining. On the downside, there’s not as much subversive or Monkees-like humor. It’s almost as though any comic actors from any situation comedy of the time could have made the same episode. It was fun to play the episode with commentary, hearing Davy Jones point out various moments. Clearly he remembered it fondly and had some fun working on the show overall. The three Monkees that are in the episode look like they had a good time, which is always nice. As Davy Jones said, it’s still “bright and light and kind of fun.”

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.

Vintage Cable Box: “Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone, 1983”

“Us loners got to stick together.”

Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone, 1983 (Peter Strauss), Columbia Pictures

So three babes straight out of a Poison music video crash land on a planet of freaks who abduct them, as love-starved freaks are want to do. I’ve never understood that. Are women some incredible commodity in the future (or even in a galaxy far, far away)? Enter Wolff (Peter Strauss), a carbon-copy Han Solo, who picks up on a message rewarding a lot of money (or “credits” as the case may be) for the safe return of the heavy metal babes. His hot android engineer, Chalmers (Andrea Marcovicci) activates the drive system (if you know what I mean – heh) and they’re off to collect some space booty. Wolff’s ship houses a spiffy all-terrain vehicle that recalls James Cameron’s Aliens. The big problem is that Strauss seems too cultured (especially with his scholarly voice) to be a no-good, son-of-a-bitch, bastard salvage operator and part-time pirate. Maybe he was a disgraced Sociology professor.

They land on the alien babe planet in the middle of a skirmish. The visuals are strictly Mad Max, and it occurs to me now there was some effort set aside to make this a serious science fiction movie. Chalmers is killed (or deactivated) and the babes are taken away, but that doesn’t stop Wolff from finding his quarry. The alien freaks in this movie remind me of the mutants who crash Wyatt’s party at the end of Weird Science. Scrappy foul-mouthed (and stinky) orphan Molly Ringwald tries to steal Wolff’s wheels, but apparently she can’t drive a stick (a common problem with space orphans). With the promise of food, he takes her along as an adviser on the mysterious freak planet. Sick of her stench, he throws her in a lake and dumps soap all over her. Wolff hooks up with fellow countryman, Washington (Ernie Hudson) who offers a partnership to find the space babes, but nothing comes of it. What? Dispensing with Hudson’s character keeps the clash between Strauss and Ringwald more entertaining.

Of course all of this tension is meant to make us like the characters. Wolff, up until the point he saves a malnourished Molly Ringwald (the both of them suffering dehydration on a planet of poisoned water), comes over as an insufferable prick, but I blame the humor producer Ivan Reitman and his recruited writers, Len Blum and Daniel Goldberg, injected into David Preston and Edith Rey’s otherwise somber first draft. The script obviously parodies 2001: A Space Odyssey, Barbarella (itself a parody), Star Wars, Buck Rogers, and the Mad Max movies, but the material would’ve better served the comic timing of a Bill Murray or a Dan Aykroyd. Indeed, with Elmer Bernstein’s music, Spacehunter plays like a precursor to Ghostbusters. Meanwhile we have the great Michael Ironside (who really doesn’t need ghoulish makeup to look ghoulish) as some kind of a hideous, spider-robot creature with a taste for hot alien space babes, because why not?

In the end, Wolff rescues Molly and the space babes (with an able assist by Hudson) and dispatches Ironside, but the story feels lop-sided. Like 48 Hrs., we spend more time getting to know our protagonists than we do understanding or assessing Ironside’s motivation; as a spider-robot thing, he needs life essence to function and only women will do. Works for me! This is another in a series of hip and goofy space comedies such as Ice Pirates and the Reitman-produced/Goldberg and Blum written Heavy Metal made two years previous. While the movie was originally photographed and shown in 3-D, the film elements removed from the process hold up surprisingly well. In fact, this is one of the better-looking 2-D movies (even with some very cheesy animated visual effects) made from 3-D, unlike Jaws 3D and The Man Who Wasn’t There. Director Lamont Johnson directed several episodes of the classic Twilight Zone television anthology series, including “The Shelter” and “Kick the Can.”

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird).  We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images.  We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates.  About $25-$30 a month.  Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties. 

Vintage Cable Box: “Poltergeist, 1982”

“A terrible presence is in there with her. So much rage, so much betrayal, I’ve never sensed anything like it. I don’t know what hovers over this house, but it was strong enough to punch a hole into this world and take your daughter away from you.”

Poltergeist, 1982 (JoBeth Williams), MGM/UA

I had not intended to cover Poltergeist for a few months, but sometimes the unexpected passing of a filmmaker prompts a publication. Vintage Cable Box started at the end of August, 2015 with a write-up of Wes Craven’s Swamp Thing. Easy Money was intended to be the first article, but Wes Craven’s death changed the schedule. Garry Marshall passed away in July of last year, so I rushed Young Doctors in Love, as did Gene Wilder’s death preceding The Woman in Red. Haven’t we had enough untimely death? Our heroes are dropping like flies!

Before Poltergeist, director Tobe Hooper’s main claims to fame (or infamy, as the case may be) were The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in 1974 (I’ll never forget the death of Kirk) and an excellent television adaptation of Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot in 1979. A personal favorite of mine, The Funhouse, was released in 1981. Poltergeist, in 1982, appears in the eye of a visual effects super-storm, preceded by Raiders of the Lost Ark, and enveloped by Ghostbusters with striking, visceral animations created by Industrial Light & Magic and supervised by Richard Edlund. After Poltergeist, Hooper would direct Lifeforce (1985), a remake of Invaders from Mars (1986), and a criminally underrated sequel to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

Without the combined elements of Hooper, Steven Spielberg, ILM, and the music of Jerry Goldsmith, Poltergeist would be just another horror movie; a generic hodge-podge of ghost movie tropes, jump-scares, and repetitive horror conventions. The Freelings (JoBeth Williams, Craig T. Nelson) are a good-looking, pot-smoking couple living in a planned community in Orange County; part of a new real estate development bulldozing over an ancient Indian cemetery (always a bad decision, especially in horror movies), and they begin to notice strange occurrences on the property (their property specifically). Chairs and other pieces of furniture seem to move of their own volition. Late one night, their youngest, Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke), starts talking to the static in the television. Well, that’s peculiar.

“But the mother and child reunion Is only a motion away…”

The next night, Carol Anne disappears and little Robbie (Oliver Robins) is attacked by a monstrous tree outside his bedroom. The Freelings call their friendly neighborhood ghost-busters (Beatrice Straight, Richard Lawson, Martin Casella) who then sub-contract to the diminutive, iconic Zelda Rubinstein to “clean” their house of supernatural disturbances. As with most people, nobody likes to be evicted, and the spirit world collides with the material world with slimy veracity. In the film’s climax, the skeletons in the burial ground come alive and terrorize JoBeth and the children as Craig packs up their belongings so they can get the hell out of there. My only question is why does the spirit world have such a ridiculous hard-on for this family and nobody else?

No screaming in the pool!

The Poltergeist franchise suffers from unfortunate coincidences and controversies. Both Dominique Dunne (who played eldest Freeling daughter, Dana) and O’Rourke died tragic deaths at young ages. Two other actors associated with movies in the franchise also died of medical ailments. Speculation about the “Poltergeist Curse” has led people to believe this was due to the production using real human bones and skeletons during the film’s climax. It’s also rumored Spielberg directed most of the movie because, in an early press release, Spielberg stated Hooper wasn’t “…a take-charge sort of guy.” I don’t doubt Spielberg brought a considerable amount of input to the movie. He co-wrote the screenplay, which was based on his story. He produced the movie, but the shots and set-ups are Hooper’s. Poltergeist is Tobe Hooper’s film, from start to finish.

Tobe Hooper

1943-2017

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird).  We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images.  We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates.  About $25-$30 a month.  Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties. 

Vintage Cable Box: “The Man Who Knew Too Much, 1956”

“Sorry we were gone so long, but we had to pick up Hank!”

The Man Who Knew Too Much, 1956 (James Stewart), Paramount Pictures

In what may have been (for the time) the boldest examination of American exceptionalism and “xenophobia” (though I hate to bandy that term in the wake of overuse), The Man Who Knew Too Much provides thrills and agonizing suspense. Indiana tourists in Marrakesh witness the murder of an new acquaintance. Before the man expires, he imparts information about a planned assassination of a statesman in London to wide-eyed patriarch James Stewart. In order to keep this revelation a secret, double agents disguised as a British husband and wife abduct Stewart’s (and wife Doris Day’s) young son, Hank.

Fearing reprisal, Jimmy and Doris take it upon themselves to rescue their son without the aid of local authorities. They keep mum on the assassination plot, travel to London (where former singer Day is given a hero’s welcome), and follow up on clues given to Stewart by the dead man. In an amusing twist, Ambrose Chapel is revealed not to be a person, but a place. Stewart causes havoc on the namesake taxidermist, and it takes a while before he can clear up that misunderstanding. Notice how briskly this plot unfolds? We’re in Marrakesh for a little while, and then we’re in England. Stewart and Day next meet up at the chapel where Hank is being held.

The assassination will occur at the clash of symbols during the allegro agitato’s climax of Arthur Benjamin’s Storm Clouds Cantata at the Royal Albert Hall during a performance for the visiting Prime Minister. The Prime Minister is to be the target. Doris Day lets out a blood-curdling scream that distracts the would-be killer and alerts the audience to the situation. Later, she uses her showcase song, “Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be)” (introduced in this movie), to let Hank know she and his father are nearby. Jimmy and Doris find themselves to be reluctant heroes in a story of political intrigue, and that’s what makes The Man Who Knew Too Much an incredibly fun movie to watch.

What is most intriguing about The Man Who Knew Too Much are the unusual character motivations at play. Even before the thrills begin, Doris Day’s character is revealed to be paranoid (she’s always commenting on curious onlookers) and somewhat insecure in her decision to marry a doctor, though she does want to have another baby. Jimmy Stewart’s character seems to have little patience or respect for cultures and practices outside of his perceived friendly and familiar American traditions (his adventure in a Marrakesh restaurant is particular cringe-worthy). British and Moroccan law enforcement is portrayed as downright lackadaisical, inefficient, and incompetent.

Between the years 1954 and 1956, Alfred Hitchcock made two movies per year; an incredible body of work from Dial M for Murder to The Wrong Man. After this highly energetic, creative period, he would begin to slow, averaging one movie every year until 1960’s Psycho (his most commercially-successful film) and the resulting cloud of notoriety that would dog his steps until his death in 1980. Because of Psycho, Hitchcock’s name would become synonymous with psychological horror and shock. He attempted to revise his legacy with an old-fashioned monster movie in The Birds (1963), and another case study of neurosis with Marnie (1964) before returning to political intrigue and espionage with Torn Curtain and Topaz, but none of these films would equal the financial and critical success of Psycho. In a way, he was consumed by his own success.

That about does it for Alfred Hitchcock month. The five “missing Hitchcocks” were re-released to theaters starting in October of 1983. The next year, the movies made their premieres on cable television as part of a Hitchcock retrospective on The Movie Channel. This was my Hitchcock education for a time until home media increased his popularity even more. For more fun stuff about Hitchcock, check out the “Missing Hitchcocks” episode of my podcast, Two Davids Walk Into A Bar, as well as David & David and Gene & Roger: A Siskel & Ebert Podcast.

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird).  We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images.  We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates.  About $25-$30 a month.  Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.