Vintage Cable Box: “Rope, 1948”

“By what right did you dare decide that that boy in there was inferior and therefore could be killed??!! Did you think you were GOD, Brandon!!?? Is that what you thought when you choked the life out of him??!! Is that what you thought when you served food from his grave!!?? Well I don’t know what you thought or what you are but I know what you’ve done!!! You’ve murdered!!! You’ve strangled the life out of a fellow human being who could live and love as YOU never could and never will again!!!” 

Rope, 1948 (James Stewart), Warner Bros.

Rope is an insane film, and it’s made on the presumption of a gag, a practical joke, perpetrated by master filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock on his unsuspecting audience. This fits into Hitchcock’s theory of suspense. When questioned about the ideas of suspense, Hitchcock offered a simple scenario: two men sitting at a table talking while a bomb (that the audience can see) ticks away underneath. The audience wants to tell the men at the table to get out of there because a bomb is about to go off. That is suspense to Alfred Hitchcock. In Rope, it is not a bomb, but a dead body. I wouldn’t know how to begin describing what unfolds unless I did it from the false beginning, the anonymous entry of our two leads; these young men, Brandon and Phillip, college pals and roomies in a beautiful New York apartment, who decide, for no other reason than lazy curiosity and “moral superiority,” to strangle their friend, David, to death.

While Brandon (John Dall) is enthralled, amused, and satisfied by the act, his partner-in-crime, Phillip (Farley Granger) is horrified and disgusted, so we get two sides of a strange yet symmetrical coin. These are two “privileged” kids. They get everything (all the basic necessities and more) they want in life, and we, as the audience, are supposed to hate them. They (mostly Brandon, the obvious leader) decide to keep the body in a trunk with the rope that was used to strangle David, and then to use that trunk as the centerpiece for a dinner party they are throwing at which they have invited all of David’s closest friends as well as his mother and father, and their school housemaster (James Stewart). Phillip is unhinged, mainly because, I believe, he is worried about being caught. We never do get into Phillip’s head, while we, perversely, understand Brandon’s motivations, and his curious vanities.

The guests file in and the “fun begins,” to quote Brandon. He wants to make this a mad experiment. Perhaps he wants clinicians and psychologists to analyze this moment until the end of time, even as he rots away in a jail cell or a padded room. He wants to know why his victim, David, was so important to all of the invited guests: a young lady engaged to David, a former suitor to David’s betrothed, the victim’s parents, and the victim’s teacher. This creates a drama in Brandon’s head, and he enjoys it. This is like a dry-run of American Psycho, wherein we see these respected, wealthy socialites conferring with one another as despicable acts are committed. Strangely enough, the tone of the movie suggests black comedy, while the abbreviated sets and long takes suggest theater, at it’s broadest. It makes you wonder what other horrid acts Brandon and Phillip are capable of.

Jimmy Stewart acts as the anger and the conscience of the audience. Since the remainder of the guests are blissfully ignorant, Stewart’s character (who had previously speculated with the young killers on the nature of evil and the imposed eugenics of murder in a socialized structure) easily comes to the conclusion. He suspects Brandon and Phillip have done something terrible, unforgivable. He chastises his young charges, repudiates their callous indifference, and sentences them to death in his eyes for their misdeeds, and you’re damned if you’re not with him as he destroys them with his words. He has such power in his words that he owns the movie for as long as he’s in it. Stewart plays games with the attendees, questions them, and makes dubious statements, but what it all comes down to is watching Brandon and Phillip collapse under his interrogations. Rope is a powerful statement.

I received a very nice message from the administrator at the Vintage HBO Guides Facebook group, and I wanted to take this opportunity to thank all of my readers.  I’m forever grateful my work is being enjoyed.  Thanks!

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 Trouble With Harry, 1955”

“He’s asleep. He’s in a deep sleep. A deep, wonderful sleep.”

The Trouble with Harry, 1955 (John Forsythe), Paramount Pictures

Young Jerry Mathers hears gunshots and arguing in the idyllic Vermont countryside. He stumbles across a dead body. It’s a body everybody seems to know, with the exception of the strange artist Sam Marlow (John Forsythe). Along the way, he picks up various tid-bits, little nuggets of information with regard to the owner of the dead body, a disreputable sleaze from Boston named Harry. Introducing the cuddly, fiercely intellectual Edmund Gwenn, hunting for rabbits, mistakenly believes he has shot Harry dead when he comes across him. Along the way, he makes a date with neighbor Mildred Natwick for some blueberry muffins and elderberry wine.

Jerry runs home to tell his mom (cute Shirley MacLaine), and before Edmund can dispose of the body, they’re up to see Harry. Shirley seems awfully happy Harry has bitten the dust, as it were. Edmund can’t seem to get any work done, because the entire town trapses through; among them, an absent-minded doctor who trips over him, and a drifter who steals the dead man’s shoes. Enter the handsome Sam, who barters his art for supplies and food at the general store. Nosy sheriff Calvin Wiggs (Royal Dano) aims to level a fine at whomever he catches shooting off guns on his “posted” land. You get the feeling this is a small town, because everybody knows everybody.

The Trouble with Harry is an unusual film, even for Alfred Hitchcock. He (and his writer John Michael Hayes) make sure not to make enemies of his leads, even the shifty Wiggs. It’s almost a slice-of-life about small-town folk who get to know each other in a more intimate way as a result of a body being dropped in their collective lap. Out sketching later, Forsythe comes across the body. Being an annoying artist-type, he sketches the body. Edmund confesses to the crime he possibly couldn’t commit, whereas Forsythe speculates Harry was destined to die at this particular place, at this particular time, and that Edmund did the Universe a favor. When we’re having discussions about existentialism, we’re not especially interested in a murder-mystery. The Trouble with Harry is a black comedy.

Forsythe makes an agreement with Edmund that they’ll dispose of the body if they can prove Shirley’s innocence in the matter. To that end, Forsythe gets chummy with her. They have a mutual attraction for one another, as much as she tries to dissuade his interest. She’s not good with men. That won’t stop Sam. He loves her and he loves her son. They have a strange, flirtatious first encounter. I wonder if this movie would be a good companion piece with Rope; wherein we have characters debating treacherous action under the guise of intellectualism. Where Rope was more in the vein of melodrama, this movie is played strictly for uncomfortable laughter.

Negotiating Shirley’s scatter-brained take on her relationship with Harry, Forsythe (probably against his better judgement) courts her, and bands together Natwick and Edmund to create a more appropriate death scenario for Harry so that no one will face criminal repercussion. It complicates matters when each character takes it upon themselves to conceal Harry’s body without telling anyone else their plans. Along the way, love stories develop; one young and one old, and these are very charming entanglements. If a less experienced, perhaps younger filmmaker were to tackle The Trouble with Harry, he would, almost certainly, be accused of not understanding the value of tone in storytelling. In the hands of a grand experimenter, The Trouble with Harry is great fun and makes perfect sense.

Two Davids Walk Into A Bar presents a very special episode devoted to the five “missing” Alfred Hitchcock films re-released to theaters in 1983, and on home media in 1984 and 1985: Rear Window, Vertigo, The Trouble With Harry, Rope, and The Man Who Knew Too Much.

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. 

Monkees Vs. Macheen: “Wild Monkees”

“She told me to forget it nice; I should have taken her advice”

“The Wild Monkees” was directed by Jon C. Andersen, written by Stanley Ralph Ross and Corey Upton, and debuted November 13, 1967. Andersen also directed “The Christmas Show,” wrote the story for “I Was a 99-lb Weakling,” and co-wrote the story for “The Frodis Caper” with Micky Dolenz. I always figured this episode for a parody of The Wild One, the 1954 iconic film with Marlon Brando as Johnny Stabler, leader of the motorcycle gang, the Black Rebels. You know, the one with the famous line “What are you rebelling against, Johnny?” “Whaddaya got?” The Wild One is the original of the outlaw biker film genre that included films such as Russ Meyer’s Motorpsycho (1965), Hells Angels on Wheels (1967) with Jack Nicholson, and Raybert’s own Easy Rider (1969) though that film focuses more on social change and the hippie lifestyle.

“Wild Monkees” starts in an unusual way with Micky performing “Goin’ Down” (Dolenz, Jones, Tork, Nesmith, and Hildebrand) alone on a dark stage. Film editors show us multiple versions of Micky in different colored lights as he dances and sings. “Goin’ Down” is another song I really enjoy with the jazzy horn section (the song was arranged by jazz musician Shorty Rogers) and upbeat tempo, though the lyrics describe a man drowning himself after being rejected by a woman. Apparently Micky wasn’t super happy they used it in a Breaking Bad episode.

The story starts with the Monkees traveling for an out-of-town gig. They’re looking for the Henry Cabot Lodge (pun!) in that familiar dusty town that we’ve seen in “Hillbilly Honeymoon, “It’s a Nice Place to Visit,” and so on. Motorcyclists drive by and spray dirt all over them. Mike starts coughing from the dust, so Peter goes to get him some water from the car. When Mike drinks, he has a full body reaction to it and performs a great bit of physical comedy, leaping around, gagging, and doubling over. It’s basically a Bugs Bunny from “Hare Remover” tribute (when Bugs drinks the Jekyll Hyde potion). Peter admits he got the water from the gas tank. The Monkees find this amusing sign, “Henry Cabot Lodge and Cemetery. If you’re dying to have a good time see us.” Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. was a United States Republican Senator from Massachusetts and later was the Ambassador to South Vietnam from 1963-1964 and 1965 and served as Ambassador-at-Large 1967–1968, around the time this episode aired.

They pull the Monkeemobile up to lodge. Micky is unimpressed when he sees nothing but bored old folks on the porch. Micky: “Oh a virtual Disneyland for shut ins.” Mike, No it’s not man. They won’t let people with long hair at Disneyland.” The lodge manager, Blauner, assumes they must be the band. He comes out to greet them and assures them he’s expecting some young people – a “travel club” of lovely folks. Cut to the motorcycle gang outside, tearing the “Henry Cabot Lodge” sign down.

When the Monkees come down from putting their things in their room, they all fall down the steps. It’s a funny sight gag, aided by a shaky cam effect on the exterior of the lodge. Blauner makes it clear they’re not hired as a band; they’re here to be the waiter, bellhop, and gardener and if they happen to play music, great. Micky calls it the “old badger game” and starts to protest that he’s taking advantage of their need for money, but when he gets to the end of the sentence they’re all in uniforms for work (Mike gets a magically-appearing mandolin.). “The badger game” actually has nothing to do with tricking musicians into manual labor; it’s actually getting a man into a sexually compromising position, like with an with underage girl or someone else’s wife, and then blackmailing him. Blauner orders the poor Monkees to take care of the guests.

Right on cue, the motorcycle gang drive their bikes into the lobby. They’re well covered, with helmets, jeans, leather jackets, scarves, and sunglasses over their faces. When Micky approaches one and ask to help with the luggage, a very tall biker stands up. Davy approaches another biker and offers something to eat, then freaks when the biker stands up and is about a foot taller than him. Peter starts dusting and vacuuming a biker, who stands up and break the vacuum hose. Mike serenades another biker, which is noteworthy since at this point they haven’t made the big reveal.

Davy starts to panic and begs his biker, ‘please don’t kill me.” The biker grabs Davy and kisses him instead. After the kiss, Davy wants to be killed until she reveals herself as a pretty blonde woman. She comments, “You’re cute” and kisses him some more. Davy’s reaction might now be considered homophobic but for the time was probably considered natural and they’re mining comedy out of that discomfort [Imagine that. What a concept! – Editor’s note]. All the women take off their helmets to reveal they are all indeed pretty women. Blauner orders the Monkees to make the guests “happy” so the Monkees walk them upstairs with their suitcases. Dude, Blauner’s pimping out the Monkees to these women. (I’m kidding, I’m totally joking.)

Next are short, intercut scenes of the Monkees trying to woo their respective motorcycle chicks, and failing miserably. Davy sits with Queenie at a table and struggles to open the wine for her. She grabs the cork with her teeth and spits it into Blauner’s mouth. The tall redhead, Ann, tells Michael that he reminds her of someone that she could cuddle with and go to whenever she felt sad. She reveals this to be a cocker-spaniel. That was more entertaining than it should have been, only because Mike’s reactions are so cute with her. Peter recites to his tall blonde partner, Jan, “a jug of bread, a loaf of wine, and thou beside me in the wilderness.” She thinks his poetry is beautiful but turns down his request for a date because, “let’s face it man, you’re a sissy.” Micky’s girl, Nan , has taken to calling him Fuzzy. Micky wants to kiss her, but she makes it clear he’ll get punched if he does. Micky condescendingly says “don’t be silly, my pet” and kisses her neck anyway. She punches him across the room. Well, she warned him.

The Monkees confer in their “room” which looks like it’s behind the set. Peter suggests they’re not being rough enough with the girls and Micky agrees. Peter and Micky were coldly rejected in those scenes but on the other hand they’re drawing a line about how they think men and women should relate. In other words, they think boys should be the tougher ones, not the girls. Never mind that Queenie kissed Davy twice.

Cut to them in Wild One-style motorcycle gang outfits, leather jackets and caps, sitting on bikes and for some reason in a classroom. There’s a pig with crossbones on the blackboard and another funny sign that reads “School of Hard Knocks and Bruises.” The Monkees take a pledge from the script and there’s a few fourth-wall breaking back and forth jokes about whether it’s a script or handbook. The point of the scene is that they are taking a vow to be dirty, violent, and offensive. They’re parodying the characters in biker films and their outlaw, outside-of-polite-society lifestyle. The Monkees want to become tough bikers (or pretend to be) in order to get these particular girls, even though they don’t really believe in this lifestyle themselves. There’s an undercurrent in this scene – could be the actors, could be the characters – that all of this biker stuff is absurd.

Of course motorcycle clubs aren’t just fictional, they became a subculture after World War II and I’m sure we’ve all heard of the Hell’s Angel’s. They’re highly organized with presidents, treasurers, etc. According to Wikipedia these groups have “a set of ideals that celebrate freedom, nonconformity to mainstream culture, and loyalty to the biker group.” Nonconformity and freedom kinda sounds like hippie ideals to me. There’s a relationship there, but not a full on match as hippies stand for peace and the bikers as depicted here are violent. Just like the man/woman thing, the writers are taking a (comic) stand on what bikers are like.

Now it’s the girls turn to fall down the stairs to the lobby. They’re wearing dresses and they run into the Monkees who are in their biker gear. Micky goes into a Marlon Brando impression to explain their change. He tries to demonstrate his toughness by breaking a table with his bare hands, but he fails. Davy makes the nonsensical claim their club is so tough they kill their new members for initiation. The girls say they are too tough for them. That’s why they left their boyfriends, Big Frank, Big Neil, Big Bruce, and Big Butch, leader of the Black Angels. Uh-oh. They didn’t mention boyfriends before. The Monkees recognize the Black Angels name and they start quivering with fear. They start backing out the front door and run right into the real gang, who are four actual tough and dirty-looking men. The Monkees turn and fall on their faces.

The Black Angels back the Monkees into the front desk. They tell Butch the name of their club is the Chickens. Wait, in “The Card Carrying Red Shoes,” Micky didn’t want to be a chicken. According to the Chicken Club rules, they’re not allowed to fight. Davy, always ready to take on a bigger guy, nearly loses his temper but the others talk him down.

Queenie tells Butch to leave the Monkees alone. Butch accuses them of turning his woman against them. He wants to know which one of them is after Queenie. Micky squeals, “None of us, we don’t even like her!” The other Monkees jump on him for that faux pas. The girls are offended and Butch is offended, “My woman ain’t good enough for ya huh, punk?” Wow, they can’t win.

Queenie confronts Butch and he shouts at her to shut up. She melts, “Oh, I missed you babe.” That’s cringe-worthy for me, but I can find many articles online stating that the women are voluntary participants in this culture that considers them property and their expected role is subservience. This little moment is pretty mild in that light, and kind of contradicts what happens in the conclusion of the episode. It’s also nice to know that women aren’t restricted to this lifestyle if they want to be part of the biker life. They have their own biker clubs.

Butch says tomorrow they’re holding their annual best riders contest and, “Winner gets to destroy everything in sight.” And that includes the Monkees. It’s implied but not said that he expects the Chickens to participate in the contest. That night the Monkees hold a meeting in their pajamas. Nobody’s tough in pajamas like that. Peter wants to fight because “they hurt my feelings.” Micky points out the arguments against it: As “chickens,” it’s unconstitutional, it’s fruitless in solving a problem and you can “really, really get hurt.” Mike decides the wisest idea is to leave, but they are blocked by Butch and gang as they head up the stairs.

Next day, the contest is set up outside in front of the lodge. Blauner sells peanuts and popcorn, etc. The Black Angels are lined up on bikes and they give their war cry, a sound like lions roaring. The Monkees give their war cry, which is more chicken clucking. Queenie announces the start of the contest. The Monkees scramble around comically to get on the bikes. Richard Klein, Micky Dolenz’ stand-in, is the racing official and fires the starting gun.

They drive off, the Black Angels are way ahead of the Monkees. This becomes the romp, set to the Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones, Ltd, track “Star Collector” (Goffin/King), though the version in “Wild Monkees” has no Moog part. When the race starts, Peter never gets his bike started and stays at the starting line the entire time. The actors really ride the bikes so there is real footage of them riding through the dirt mixed with studio shots, such as Micky getting hit with newspapers and the stuffed chimp appearing on his back. David Price is a construction working eating lunch on the race route and Butch steals his sandwich. Micky ties Butch’s bike to a tree at a stop but Butch just pulls it out of the ground. David Pearl approaches Micky on his bike and dusts him with a feather duster, and steals his glasses. Black Angels win the race of course. The Monkees stand there with open arms expecting the girls to embrace them, but they all pass them and run to the Black Angels.

Butch wants to know who to destroy first but Queenie’s not having it. She tells Butch she’s tired of the open road. Queenie says, “Let’s settle down, we could build illegal motorcycles and raise little scooters.” Blauner suggests they could settle there and work for him. Interesting, that Butch agrees to go along with her and do what she wants, considering the stereotypical biker/biker’s woman relationship. He actually says, “My woman speaks for me.” It’s an unexpected feminist twist looking at it that way. Queenie and Butch kiss. As with “Hillbilly Honeymoon” and “Monkees Marooned,” we have yet another couple reunited by the Monkees.

I’ve always had a fondness for this episode. It’s great fun with the sight gags and many funny lines. I enjoy seeing the Monkees united in their fear and dislike for violence. I also like that they all get into this together; it’s not Peter or Davy dragging them into this with poor judgment, they’re all making the same mistake. It’s also a similar mistake they made in “The Monkees Get Out More Dirt,” pretending to be something they’re not in order to impress women. Speaking of women, there’s some notable dynamics going on between the sexes in this episode. A lot of the women on the show were delicate girls that Davy would rescue. There were plenty of dominant women, but this is a rare time that the dominant women are on the Monkees’ level age-wise. The biker women could take or leave the Monkees and the Monkees misunderstand their wishes completely. Of course this is a comedy so a lot of this is not meant to be taken seriously but I appreciate that the writers did something different. There’s a lot going on here: Feminism, pacifism, and male/female relationships.

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: “Vertigo, 1958”

“She’ll be talking to me about something. Suddenly the words fade into silence. A cloud comes into her eyes and they go blank. She’s somewhere else, away from me, someone I don’t know. I call her, she doesn’t even hear me. Then, with a long sigh, she’s back. Looks at me brightly, doesn’t even know she’s been away, can’t tell me where or when.”

Vertigo, 1958 (James Stewart), Paramount Pictures

There’s a story about writer Pierre Boileau, watching a newsreel in a packed movie-house some time post-war in Paris, and swearing he sees an old friend (whom he believed long dead) in the newsreel. His “logic brain” tells him this can’t be his dead friend, but the more irrational brain conjures images of ghosts and beseeches him to do some digging and find his friend. He must be alive! This is the seed of D’entre les morts, the source material for what could, arguably, be Alfred Hitchcock’s greatest movie, Vertigo. Personally, I think Hitch was drawn to the more perverse aspects of the story, but knew a top-notch mystery had to catalyze his effort at unraveling his romanticized fantasy world of San Francisco. Jimmy Stewart is his muse (and alter-ego) in this adventure.

After enduring a personal (and highly publicized) tragedy involving the death of a fellow policeman from a fall, Stewart’s John “Scottie” Ferguson suffers vertigo, a loss of balance and coordination as a result of his fear of heights. His best friend (and former lover obviously still in love with him), “Midge” (Barbara Bel Geddes) tries to help him in his recovery. He has retired from being a cop. He gets a call from an old school chum, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) to keep tabs on his neurotic wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak), who goes off by herself on long journeys, but seems to suffer a selective amnesia about where she goes each time. Sometimes she goes to a museum and stares at a painting of a woman who bears a striking resemblance to her. Stewart diligently follows her and takes notes.

Stewart becomes attracted to her, and being that he has no real job anymore, he obsesses over her, to “Midge’s” annoyance. “Midge” doesn’t want to hear about the pretty little rich girl with mental problems, and I can say I hardly blame her, but she is kind-of barking up the wrong tree here, and she can’t get a clue. Stewart follows her to the base of the Golden Gate Bridge, where she jumps into San Francisco Bay (ostensibly a suicide attempt). He rescues her, takes her back to his swingin’ bachelor pad, undresses her, and puts her in front of a roaring fire. She wakes, claiming to have no memory of the incident, quickly dresses, and gets the Hell out of there, yet she keeps leaving him a trail of crumbs to continue their developing relationship. As wounded (emotionally and physically) a person as Stewart is, what happens next is not only devastating but cruel.

Madeleine lures him to a Mission, jumps from a bell tower, and this time (we’re led to believe) successfully kills herself. This sends “Scottie” into a spiral of deep depression, catatonia, and self-hatred. He blames himself for Madeleine’s death. With “Midge’s” help, he slowly recovers, but then he begins to notice a woman with fiery red hair who bears a striking resemblance to Madeleine. Her name is Judy Barton (also played by Kim Novak), who’s more of a “common-sense” girl; smart and sarcastic. He tries to pick her up, but she sees right through it, so he takes the more “gentlemanly” approach by courting her. In a scene that nearly derails the movie, “Judy” comes clean to the audience (but not to “Scottie”) by writing him a note, confessing that she truly is Madeleine, and that she was paid off by Elster to pretend to be Madeleine, as Elster concocted a plan to kill his real wife and take her money. After writing the note, she thinks about it and rips it up.

Maybe “Judy” thinks she and “Scottie” can have a life together. Maybe she thinks he’ll overlook the whole murder thing and be her man for all time, but then as convicted assassin Arthur Bremer once said, “How many things go right in this crazy world?” This is where “Scottie” goes nuts, or so we assume. He makes “Judy” over. He has her wardrobe changed. He changes her makeup. He has her hair bleached and dyed blonde, and puts her in those expensive outfits Madeleine wore. When the effect is complete, it’s hideously staggering. “Judy” just wants his love, and he abuses her with his compulsion. All that’s needed to complete the effect is the necklace “Judy” brandishes. It appears to be the same necklace worn by the woman in the painting.

This seals the deal for Stewart so he drives “Judy” to the Mission where he leads her to the bell tower. “Judy” confesses to her crimes, and just when you think these crazy kids could make it work, a nun startles her and she falls to her death. This is the textbook definition of a “downer” ending; a powerful statement in the burgeoning modern film industry, but depressing as all Hell. Defeated by the failure of The Wrong Man, he had many projects in development, but he chose Vertigo, his darkest, most romantic movie (surpassing Rebecca). He was a brave filmmaker. North by Northwest would be his next trick on audiences. Stewart is sympathetic, despite some of his character’s more grotesque choices – he’s unusual here, not the strong voice of moral authority and compassion, but a flawed human. This would be his and Hitchcock’s last collaboration as Hitch had blamed Vertigo’s poor box-office performance on Stewart’s age as a romantic leading man against the much younger Novak (though Novak and Stewart would subsequently appear in the much more successful Bell, Book & Candle). Vertigo is my favorite Alfred Hitchcock movie.

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: “Rear Window, 1954”

“Nothing has caused the human race so much trouble as intelligence.”

Rear Window, 1954 (James Stewart), Paramount Pictures

Freshman year of high school, we had a cocky, smarmy English teacher who enjoyed watching us fumble through Shakespeare, and apparently lived to correct our pronunciations of various phrases and outdated language. In the middle of the semester, he directed our school play, It Had To Be Murder!, based on the Cornell Woolrich story, which would also be adapted as Rear Window. I read for the part of “Jeff”, but was given the part of Doyle, “Jeff”s” cop buddy, who ignores him and lectures him on the U.S. Constitution. Our teacher had an interesting take on how to tell the story. He wanted us to pretend there was an enormous window at the edge of the stage, and when the principal characters are looking at what they think is a murder, we’re actually looking out into the audience. Where “Jeff” is supposed to fall from his window into the courtyard, he simply falls off the stage. The actor playing him, ironically, shattered his coccyx, but luckily he didn’t have to do an encore.

James Stewart is our “Jeff” for this movie. He plays adventurous photographer, Lionel “Jeff” Jeffries who, when he isn’t convalescing (with a broken leg set in a heavy cast) in his tiny one-room apartment in New York’s Greenwich Village, or dodging his gorgeous girlfriend’s demands for a more serious relationship, enjoys peeping on his neighbors across the courtyard. He even has nicknames for them: Ms. “Lonely Hearts,” Ms. “Torso,” etc. Traveling salesman Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr) seems doomed to care for his sick wife forever until one night, as “Jeff” drifts off into sleep, he hears (or thinks he hears) the sound of breaking glass and a woman’s scream. The next day, Mrs. Thorwald is nowhere to be seen, so he starts putting pieces together. At first, his girlfriend, Lisa (Grace Kelly) doesn’t believe him, but then she starts putting her own pieces together. His Nurse, Stella (hilarious Thelma Ritter), is all in and begins to speculate about what Lars did to conceal the body.

Lisa’s big pitch is Mrs. Thorwald’s purse. There’s no way she would leave her purse behind if she were going on a trip (this is Thorwald’s alibi to Doyle). My wife always disagrees with her line of reasoning. Maybe she just doesn’t like being pigeon-holed, but it is a woman doing the pigeon-holing, for what it’s worth. Try as he might, “Jeff” can’t convince Doyle to launch an investigation. Doyle tries to tell him about the difficulties of obtaining a search warrant, so “Jeff” puts the two women in his life in danger by sending them out to dig up the garden where they suspect Thorwald has buried his wife’s body parts. Lisa takes it one step further by breaking into Thorwald’s apartment, where she finds his wife’s wedding ring! This is very exciting and suspenseful, especially when Thorwald realizes somebody is watching him from an apartment directly opposite his across the courtyard! You’re seriously on the edge of your seat watching this as it unfolds.

There are beautiful character moments in Rear Window. Lisa (and Thelma’s) bravery in the face of “Jeff’s” obvious impotence in the situation; constricted by a wheelchair and a broken leg. The sarcasm and quick humor of everyday New Yorkers. Lisa and “Jeff’s” near-constant arguments and debates about their relationship and “rear window ethics.” “Jeff” is somewhat turned on by his girlfriend’s courage. What’s even more staggering is that all of this occurs within the confines of a tiny New York apartment. This is a fantastic movie and goes in my top five of Hitchcock movies. Speaking of five Hitchcock movies, August marks Alfred Hitchcock Month on Vintage Cable Box, wherein I will review the five movies (the “missing Hitchcocks” or the “forbidden five”) that were re-released in 1984, and then shown on cable the next year. These were the movies that introduced me to Hitchcock.

Special thanks to Bronwyn Knox for supplying the artwork.

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: “National Lampoon’s Vacation, 1983”

“O God, ease our suffering in this, our moment of great despair. Yea, admit this good and decent woman into thine arms in the flock in thine heavenly area, up there. And Moab, he laid its down by the band of the Canaanites, and yea, though the Hindus speak of karma, I implore you: give her… give her a break.”

National Lampoon’s Vacation, 1983 (Chevy Chase), Warner Bros.

There’s no tradition like a new tradition, and I think I’m creating a new tradition. There are holidays, and there are holiday movies, and there are movies we play on certain holidays. We’ll watch A Christmas Carol or Scrooge or even Scrooged on or around Christmas. I know people who love to watch the Star Wars franchise movies on May 4th (we usually run them around New Years), but I have an idea for a Father’s Day tradition: National Lampoon’s Vacation. It is just about the perfect movie to play to commemorate the struggles of loving, responsible dads out there, and Chevy Chase is our embodiment of a hero despite his complete inability to achieve his goal. He has one goal: to take his family to “Walley World” (the most famous “Disney World” analog in the history of cinema).

Clark W. Griswold (Chase) is on a mission; a quest, a “quest for fun.” Roughly three-quarters of the way into the film, Clark sits down with his son, Rusty (Anthony Michael Hall), and shares a beer with him. As Rusty drinks the whole can down, Clark tells him about how he never had fun on all the vacations his father planned. This time, he’s determined to have fun and, at this point, he doesn’t care what he has to do to have that fun. His stubborn-streak and capacity for maintaining his composure in the face of his outright idiocy is truly inspiring to watch. Audiences tend to take comedy for granted: if it’s funny, it works. Chase’s performance is one of his most tragic, and he manages to create a fully-realized character even as the first frames of the film are unspooled. He takes Rusty to a dealership to get the new car, a “little sports thing,” for the trip. Salesman Eugene Levy cons him into buying the Family Truckster in “metallic pee.”

Clark plans out the whole trip on the computer. He has foreseen every contingency, every circumstance, every situation that might pop up, but that’s where the comedy kicks in. Comedy is like God, and we are the chorus. If you want us to laugh, tell us your plan. Of course, nothing works out as planned. They get off on the wrong exit in St. Louis. In one of the funnier (but also politically incorrect) sequences, Clark asks for directions back to the expressway, but is given a ridiculous runaround as his hubcaps are stolen and the words, “Honky Lips” are spray-painted on the Family Truckster. Next up is Dodge City, where he, unwittingly, antagonizes a barkeep who shoots him with blanks that causes their daughter, Audrey (Dana Barron) to go temporarily deaf. After that, they make the requisite trip to their white trash in-laws, headed by Cousin Eddie (Randy Quaid).

Staged publicity photograph!

Eddie and his family are there to frighten Clark and his wife, Ellen (Beverly D’Angelo) and keep them struggling in the middle class, paying taxes and behaving like good citizens. Eddie and his family represent those twisted few who fall between the cracks in a system designed to keep people trapped in collective “caste” systems in our nation. Clark loans Eddie some money to keep his crew afloat. From there, his finances are scuttled. Ellen is no help. While I absolutely adore Beverly D’Angelo (she’s very easy on the eyes, as they say), she is largely unsympathetic. I’m convinced her job, in the film, is to antagonize Clark, poo-poo his plans, and then cut him down when he suffers personal setbacks. Beverly, being a serious dish, makes it hard to stay mad at her. Eventually, she does give in to her husband’s lunacy, but only when she feels less desirable because of Clark’s infatuation with a “Mystery Girl” (Christie Brinkley) in a hot, red Ferrari who flirts with him on the open road.

Too often in today’s media and pop culture, fathers are given short shrift, treated as annoyances, regarded as morons with impossibly beautiful, open-minded, ethereal wives. It makes you wonder how these couples found each other in the dating pool, and then what made them decide to marry and have children. While Chase makes easy work of Clark Griswold, he also provides moments of reality and introspection in his wacky world. He bursts into tears at the thought of missing out on his children growing up. He wants to be desired, loved, and trusted, and he barely holds onto his sanity by way of the trip to “Walley World.” Director Harold Ramis directs a very funny script from John Hughes, with inspired bits from Levy, John Candy, Brian Doyle-Murray, and Imogene Coca that compliment the madness of his original source material: a short story he wrote for National Lampoon titled “Vacation ’58.” Released 34 years ago on July 29, 1983, National Lampoon’s Vacation is still one of the funniest movies ever made.

Sourced from the original 1983 Warner Bros “clamshell” VHS release, which was among our first movie purchases on tape. The movie continued to receive different format releases, and is available in Beta, DVD, Laserdisc (using the same art design as the clamshell release) and Blu Ray formats. The accompanying essay gives us a crisp synopsis while promoting the National Lampoon legacy. “After 2,000 miles of madcap calamities, the Griswolds ultimately arrive at Walley World. Again, alas, their quest for “fun” is riotously derailed in an action-packed comedy finale.” I have both the original Warner clamshell, and the recent Blu-Ray release. This is very interesting to me, because while I complained about the pan-and-scan format of a movie like Sudden Impact (filmed with the Panavision process), what we see in Vacation is what was shot; an open-matte format that gives us more visual information than the Blu-Ray release, which crops the top and bottom of the image in order to fill the 16:9 viewing area of modern televisions.

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. 

Monkees vs. Macheen: “The Card-Carrying Red Shoes”

“I Don’t Want to be a Chicken” or “Eastern Promises”

“The Card Carrying Red Shoes” debuted November 6, 1967 and it’s another Cold War, spy-themed episode; along the same lines as “The Spy Who Came in from the Cool” and “Monkees Chow Mein.” Of the three, this is my least favorite. Regarding the title, the phrase “card-carrying” can refer to membership in any organization, but it was used to describe members of the Communist party during the 1940s-50s McCarthy era. The second part of the title, “Red Shoes,” alludes to the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, later loosely adapted into a film in 1948 about a ballet dancer. The title at least is clever, but they never explore or parody the notion of ballet, spies, or contrast of Eastern/Western ideas; it’s all just a weak device to put the Monkees in a situation.

Directed by James Frawley, the episode begins with a sign letting us know we’re at the Druvanian National Ballet. Inside the theater, Micky, Peter, and Davy stand around the rehearsal space with some odd instruments. Those are the only Monkees you will see this episode; Mike is absent from this one. The two lead dancers, Ivan and Natasha, enter arguing. Ivan keeps checking Natasha’s red ballet shoe and she’s tired of it. Ivan is played by Vincent Beck who was also in the episodes “Royal Flush” and “Son of a Gypsy,” playing similar characters: big dumb thugs with Eastern European accents.

Davy and Micky complain that they lugged their own instruments to the hall but have to play “weird” Druvanian instruments. Nicolai, who seems to be in charge of the ballet company, checks to see that they are ready. Micky can’t figure out which end to put in his mouth. Davy points out that it’s a string instrument, so naturally Micky puts his mouth to the string. Micky seems compelled to reply to Nicolai in imitation of his accent. He claims they’re ready but Nicolai points out that Peter is playing a lamp. I know this is all just to set up Natasha escaping in their instrument trunk, but the jokes could have been better. Especially since hiring the Monkees but not letting them play their own instruments doesn’t make sense. I want to see ballet dancers rock out to “Star Collector” Yeah, baby.

Ivan looks inside the red shoe to make sure the microfilm is still in the toe. Ivan and Nicolai discuss their plan to sneak microfilm out of the country. These spies are from a fictitious country known as Druvania instead of the U.S.S.R. Monkees writers do like making up fictitious nations; we’ve also seen Peruvia, Harmonica, and Nehudia.

The rehearsal begins and Ivan sends Natasha twirling into Peter. She looks up at him and notices, “What a face.” She sneaks into their trunk, which should still be full of instruments. Ivan and Nicolai notice Natasha is missing. The Monkees help look for her but Nicolai yells at them to get out. They leave like cartoon characters, bumping into Nicolai and Ivan on the way out and annoying them as much as possible.

Back at the pad, the Monkees note the increased weight of the trunk. Natasha pops out and threatens to shoot them with a finger gun but then makes a real gun materialize in her hand. She warns that she’ll shoot if they make a false move, except for Peter because of his face. She starts stroking Peter’s hair, kissing his cheek etc. Davy is puzzled since she’s going against the established premise that he always gets the girl. Peter meta-comments, “It can’t be you every week Davy.” Right on, Peter.

The music changes to a “very special episode” instrumental as Micky tries to gently teach Natasha and the audience a lesson on gun violence. “Now look miss, you know guns never really solved anything. They’re not the solution to the problem; they’re only a coward’s way out. Wouldn’t you rather talk it over instead of hiding behind a gun?” Shamed, she hands over the gun to Micky who immediately reverses his attitude, “All right, hands up! You’re taking orders from me!” Bravo, that was the funniest bit of the episode, mostly because of Micky’s acting.

Natasha dramatically poses on the lounge and declares that this was her last chance to stay in America. Peter promises to fight to the death to help her stay. Davy points out that she’s a big star and this could lead to an international incident, war, the whole world could be destroyed, etc. Peter, clearly puffed up by Natasha’s attention says, “Don’t worry, if the world is destroyed, I’ll take the responsibility.” Micky replies, “With a little more ego, he could be president.” [Poom! – Editor’s Note] Peter suggests that Micky and Davy go see the Druvanian ambassador. Wow, look at Peter with the ego and the smarts. I like it. The above scenes with Natasha at the Monkees pad were the best in the episode. It’s a shame because I think there was some wasted potential here; they could’ve developed a story about why she wants to stay in America instead of the MacGuffin microfilm.

Micky and Davy go to the Druvanian embassy and introduce themselves to ambassador Nyetovitch. They explain that they’re there about a ballerina. Nyetovitch describes Natasha to a tee, and then claims he never heard of her and throws them out. In the next scene, he’s on the phone with Ivan and Nicolai, establishing that they’re in on this microfilm-stealing plot together.

At the pad, Natasha chases Peter around, and he resists her affection. He leaps all over the furniture and hides behind a chair. Natasha is impressed: “Such agility, such grace. It makes me love you more!” Peter: “In that case, I take it back.” Editors reverse the film and he moves backwards and ends up in her arms. Peter continues to deny her. I don’t get it. Natasha is an adult woman who really likes him and is alone with him in his own apartment. But he was fine with letting fickle 15-year old Ella Mae kiss him back in Swineville. I like that all these females make the moves though.

They hear a knock. Natasha hides in the trunk while Peter answers the door. On the other side, Ivan decides to break it down and runs at it, just as Peter opens it. Oldest joke in the world. Peter gets bowled over by the two foreigners and hits his head. Ivan and Nicolai don’t look very hard for Natasha; they just resort to kidnapping Peter.

Next scene, Natasha updates Micky and Davy on the situation. Davy wants to go back to the theater but Micky thinks it’s “risky.” Natasha stands up on the furniture to give them a pep talk, bringing up American patriots like Paul Revere, Nathan Hale, and George Washington. Inspired, Micky and Davy march off chanting, “Together we will march, together we will fight, together we will win.” Cut to them marching into the theater, ending the chant with “…together we will find ourselves in places we don’t have any business being…” Just like every episode.

Nyetovitch catches them and Micky covers that they’re investigating the disappearance of Natasha. Nyetovitch asks if they’re from the MKBVD. Davy explains they’re investigators from the BVD. This is a joke reference to the underwear company, made in order to set up a punch line about “under where” from Micky. Even Micky didn’t look like he enjoyed saying it. Meanwhile, Ivan and Nicolai have Peter hostage in a dressing room. Ivan pets Peter’s hair and asks what he knows about the microfilm. The Druvanians really like to pet Peter. Ivan and Nicolai agree to “brainwash” Peter, leading to Peter performing a dish soap commercial and squirting Ivan in the eye for an unfunny sight gag.

Micky and Davy are now dressed in obligatory stereotype Ukrainian dancer costumes and looking for Peter. They talk to a dancer, expressing their worry that Peter might be in front of a firing squad. The dancer goes to a stage door and asks a young man, who is facing a firing squad, if he’s Peter. Finding that he isn’t, the dancer politely apologizes and shuts the door, and the audience hears gunshots. That’s the kind of dark and surreal humor I usually like, but when the episode is so weak there is no build up for it.

Ivan notices Davy and Micky, so Micky uses his Russian accent to explain that they’re “replacement dancers.” Ivan pulls them to the center and demands they dance. They start dancing like they’re at a discotheque. Ivan stops them and demands Russian dancing. They start kicking their legs and dance right out of the theater. Dumb Ivan slowly figures out that they are the musicians. At the pad, the Monkees read a letter warning that Peter will be killed unless Natasha returns to perform. Micky says they will all go to the theater, and he has a plan.

I don’t think he has a plan. It certainly never becomes clear. As I wrote in the recap for “Monkees Marooned,” I like to see the Monkees take over with some crazy scheme of their own and drive the plot. Watching them wander aimlessly backstage and get frightened off is boring. Mike’s absence doesn’t help. According to IMDB trivia, he had a part written but for “reasons unknown” does not appear. “I was a 99-lb Weakling” was still good without Mike, because the story was better. Mike might have helped this episode a bit. He brings a certain connection to the audience with his sarcasm, dry humor, and as the frequent straight man. Whenever things get ridiculous, he’s the one to break the fourth wall and let on that he’s aware of it. It makes it all more relatable and grounds the episode in some way.

In the dressing room, Natasha tells Ivan and Nyetovitch that she refuses to perform unless they let Peter go. Nyetovitch demands she dance her “Chicken Lake.” (Like Swan Lake, only stupid.) He asks about the shoes. Ivan picks up Natasha’s foot and assures Nyetovitch that they’re “really fine.” They carry on like this with lots of suggestive eyebrow wagging. If I were Natasha, I’d be thinking they were two men with a foot fetish, rather than two spies. (I have to supply my own entertainment in this episode.) I don’t think she knows or ever finds out that there is microfilm in her shoe. The microfilm is pointless and not even original since they also used this device in “The Spy Who Came in from the Cool.” They leave, and Micky and Davy sneak in. Davy produces a glass out of nowhere for Micky to eavesdrop on the spies.

In the next room, the three bad guys discuss the plan to shoot Peter on the cymbal crash after Ivan’s leap in the performance. Davy tells Natasha they’ll look for Peter but she needs to keep Ivan from leaping. She stands up and immediately sprains her ankle. Someone who knows the plan has to go on in her place, so Davy grabs a chicken costume for Micky, who starts muttering “I don’t want to be a chicken” He breaks the fourth wall to mention The Monkees recently deceased Associate Producer Ward Sylvester with the line “Ward, I don’t want to be a chicken.” Micky comes out in the chicken suit and Ivan arrives to take Micky out onto the stage, never noticing that Micky’s a lot taller than Natasha.

Classical music plays (Tchaikovsky according to Monkees Tripod site). I guess this is the romp as there is no dialog for these next sequences. Micky stops Ivan from leaping with various cartoon tricks: weights, a tire, nailing him down, and laying an egg. Meanwhile, Davy goes to the orchestra pit to distract the cymbal player. Peter is left with Nicolai backstage, where they perform Keystone Cops and Benny Hill type antics with each other, with a girl in a towel, and with girls in chicken outfits. With a little imagination, they could have had some fun parodying Swan Lake or ballet in general. Instead it’s a poor imitation of a Looney Tunes cartoon. Anyway, Natasha ties up Nyetovitch and they stop the naughty spies.

Aftermath: Natasha at the Monkees pad. They discuss that she’s allowed to stay in the country. Peter hopes to date Natasha, but she says she needs more than just a face; she needs someone she has something in common with. She introduces them to Alexa, who looks exactly like Peter in a Ukrainian dancer outfit. For the last few minutes, I get to see one of my favorite performances from the Rainbow Room, Davy singing “She Hangs Out” (Jeff Barry). This is a fun, upbeat song from the album, Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones with lyrics about underage lust (but harmlessly so). The lyrics remind me a bit of the song Elvis song “Little Sister,” written by Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman.

I didn’t mention the writer of the episode at the beginning like I usually do because it relates to my final thoughts. Treva Silverman was the writer, but IMDB trivia tells me Silverman didn’t like how script editors Dee Caruso and Gerald Gardner rewrote the script and decided to use the name Lee Sanford for her credit. In my opinion, Silverman wrote some of the best and wittiest Monkees episodes (“I’ve Got a Little Song Here,” “One Man Shy”) but this one is a dud so I can imagine why she didn’t want credit. I’m curious to know what she originally wrote. The villains in “The Card-Carrying Red Shoes” have little personality. I can’t believe they couldn’t get any comedy out of Leon Askin (Nicolai) from Hogan’s Heroes, for pity’s [Or Pete’s sake, you might say. – Editor’s Note] sake. Ondine Vaughn has a lot of energy but the writers might have done something more with Natasha. Peter could have shown her around America, or compared the life of a young adult in the Eastern block to a typical American youth, or something. I know it’s easy for me to shoot out ideas from 50 years in the future, but ultimately this turned out to be a boring episode that I don’t ever need to watch again.

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.