Monkees vs. Macheen: “Monkee Mayor”

“Nevermind the furthermore, the plea is self-defense”

“Monkee Mayor” aired October 2, 1967, and though that was a mighty long time ago, the story doesn’t feel dated to me. The ideas are still relevant today. It’s also one of those stories where the Monkees are working to help the underdog, instead of working for their own purposes. “Monkee Mayor” was directed by Alex Singer and written by Jack Winter, the same combo that did the previous episode in air-date order, “Everywhere a Sheik, Sheik.”

At the Monkees pad, Peter and Davy prep Mike to cut a ham, putting multiple rubber gloves on him (Like they did in “The Case of the Missing Monkee” when they impersonated doctors.) The neighbors, Mrs. Filchok, Mr. Swezy, and Mrs. Homer come in and take back the chairs, dishes, and table the Monkees had apparently borrowed. Why? Because the older folks are all being evicted. Their homes will be torn down to put up parking lots (“You don’t know what you got ’til it’s gone” – Editor]. Mike takes a look at the notice they’ve received and explains it’s impossible because it violates “every zoning regulation.” Just as he assures them, the sounds and the dust of the destruction begin.

Mike goes to city hall and asks the Secretary to tell the mayor that, “Michael Nesmith, private citizen, is here to see him.” He explains that innocent people are being thrown out because of the parking lot the city is building. She condescendingly asks if he’s making a complaint, then shows him through to the “Complaints” door that leads him back out onto the street. Mike walks right back in, determined to see Mayor Motley. She shows him through another door which leads him to a brick wall. Adding injury to insult, Mike gets hit in the head with a random mallet.

Mike comes back and now he’s angry. His yelling draws out Mayor Motley, played by Irwin Charone who was also the Producer in “I’ve Got a Little Song Here.” Mike introduces himself and stammers through his complaint. Motley keeps messing up his name, calling him “Niswash” like Bernie Class did in “I’ve Got a Little Song Here.” Motley distracts Mike with the following subversive speech: “Our country was founded in 1612 from across the shores,…from across the shores the pilgrims landed and found Indians, luckily they moved those Indians. Why, throwing people out of their homes is the American way!” He shakes Mike’s hand, thanks him for his opinion. Mike leaves, stammering and not realizing he’s been brushed off until he’s outside again.

Motley goes into his office to discuss the diabolical plan with a Mr. Zechenbush (Monte Landis). Zechenbush, who has a vaguely southern accent, wants to “ring” the entire city with parking lots so no one can go in our out without having to pay them. The mayor points out they would have to tear down museums, schools, hospitals, etc. Never mind that nobody would bother come to the town to park if they get rid of everything people would potentially visit. [I’m reminded of Flint, Michigan in the late ’80s. – Editor] It doesn’t have to make sense, because it’s evil! They don’t explain exactly who Zechenbush is (plot description on Wikipedia says he’s a ‘crooked construction tycoon) but he owns Motley in some way; he probably gave Motley a lot of money to get him elected we can assume. He’s a crooked lobbyist. Motley’s eagerly agrees with whatever Zechenbush says. I’m also curious about what town Motley is mayor of? They’ve established the Monkees live in Malibu. The story for this episode has such a small town vibe, that’s hard to imagine.

Mike goes home and finds the neighbors have moved in. He still wants to help them, he has motives for the greater good, “we don’t want a dictatorial government running the city” and “the rights of an individual citizen have got to be respected” and also pragmatic motives, “we’ve got to get all these people out of our house.” Micky comes to the conclusion that Mike should run for mayor. He’s the only one with “a hat to throw into the ring.” At that moment, he’s not wearing it. Repeating the gag from “Monkees on the Line,” Mike asks “where’s my hat” and someone throws it to him from off screen. Then Micky tosses it “in the ring.” Micky calls Motley to warn him that Mike is running for mayor and they’ll see him in the polls on Thursday.

The Monkees work on Mike’s political image. First Mike impersonates George Washington. (Peter did this first in “Monkees a la Mode.”) Davy vetoes this (“too honest”). Mike protests, “How can you be too honest?” Next, he’s “bearded weirdo” Abe Lincoln. Davy declares he “doesn’t have the looks.” Mike makes a terrific Lincoln. The third option is Lyndon B. Johnson, who was the president when this episode was aired. Mike as LBJ promises, “And so until this crisis is over, I will hunker down like a jackass in a hailstorm, dot dot dot.” Davy protests, “no politician would ever say a thing like that.” 

Deciding Mike’s everyday look is perfection, they launch the campaign with Micky as campaign manager, Davy as aide-de-camp, and Peter as his campy aid. I always thought aide-de-camp was a military term. It’s Peter’s title that really amuses me though; this show is campy enough, no “aid” required. Peter treats Mike as though he were a ship being christened and tries to brain him with a champagne bottle. Fortunately Micky and Davy intervene.

They launch the campaign, counting down into the romp for “No Time” (Hank Cicalo). I dig this song, sort of a gospel sounding number. The tempo suits the violence of the romp perfectly. This song was written by the Monkees themselves, but credited to Cicalo as a “tip” for him because he was their recording engineer for The Monkees, More of The Monkees, Live 1967, and Headquarters. He also engineered some tracks for Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones as well as Michael Nesmith’s The Wichita Train Whistle Sings.

The romp itself is one of the best; funny, subversive and moves the story beautifully. The basic narrative is the Monkees promoting Mike’s campaign, and it all goes go horribly wrong. Mike judges a beauty contest; after he picks a winner, the losers beat the crap out of him. Micky helps an old lady cross the street and she beats him with her umbrella. Davy stops to kiss a baby and the Mom assaults him with kisses. This is juxtaposed with the Secretary smacking back Zechenbush for kissing her. Mike meets and greets the public, one of whom steals his watch. (Stand-in David Price is among the crowd.) Mike stops Peter from using a toy bazooka on Davy but then a bunch of well-dressed people pull guns on Mike. We see Zechenbush paying off all of these people to humiliate the Monkees. Delightfully cynical. Other visual highlights include Peter disappearing into a bottomless baby carriage and Micky hanging a “Mike Nesmith for Mayor” sign on his date’s behind.

After all that fruitless work, the Monkees come back to the pad to find that it’s been ransacked and the campaign posters vandalized. They consider who would have done this and Micky mentions that the cleaning lady comes on the second Thursday of every month with an “r” in it. (Yet in “The Chaperone,” she came Tuesdays.) Mike guesses the culprits were “goons from Mayor Motley’s office.” Speaking of Tuesdays, I found a fun interview with Michael Nesmith, promoting his new memoir, Infinite Tuesday. Check it out.

The Monkees go back to the mayor’s office to find out what he’s hiding. Conveniently, no one is around so they can sneak in and search the office file cabinets, closet etc. Very forward-thinking of them, in a criminal way. (This is five years before the Committee for the Re-Election of the President busted into the Democratic National Committee Headquarters.) Peter opens the closet and finds a skeleton dressed in a suit. (Nice visual pun!) Micky removes a key from the skeleton’s pocket to open the locked file cabinet, knowing it will work because “it’s a skeleton key.” In the cabinet, Davy finds the plans to turn everything into parking lots. Peter materializes an 1880’s Eastman View camera (similar but not the same medium format camera from “The Picture Frame”) out of nowhere. He takes a picture of the others displaying the incriminating evidence. Before they can escape, Zechenbush and Motley come back. The Monkees hide in the closet, Micky taking the skelton’s place inside the suit. There’s a funny gag when Micky, “the skeleton,” hands Zechenbush the key and Zechenbush thanks him. Zechenbush notices the camera. As the Monkees improbably sneak out in plain sight, Motley and Zechenbush obliviously discuss their paranoia that Monkees have seen the parking lot files.

At the pad, Peter develops his film. Turns out he took a picture of the file cabinet, not the plans. As in “Monkees on the Line,” the other three cover Peter’s eyes with his own hands in annoyance. Zechenbush, Motley, and the Secretary discuss finding dirt on Mike while they wait for him to make a play with the evidence they assume he has, but it’s no use. According to the Secretary, Mike’s had a “nothing life.” No arrests, no firings. Really? I’m pretty sure Mike has been fired (“Monkee vs. Machine”) and arrested but acquitted (“The Picture Frame”). I guess none of the insane things they’ve done have never made the papers, like: terrorizing an airport, riding a motorcycle through a Laundromat, or disrupting a televised boxing match.

The Monkees are ready to throw in the towel since they have no evidence against the mayor, and no campaign funds. Micky enters with a bag full of checks from people contributing hundreds and thousands of dollars to Mike’s campaign. (The “little people” are mentioned here, as they were in “I’ve Got a Little Song Here.”) Micky says they can “blow this town wide open,” and the editors cut to stock footage of a building being demolished. Mike points out that’s exactly what they’re trying to prevent, so Micky re-states that they can blow the town “wide closed” and they reverse the film so the building re-assembles itself.. (The music here is an instrumental version of “Star Collector.”)

The Monkees spend cash. Micky goes to the newspaper and literally throws money at the publisher to put Mike on the front page and everywhere else. Peter wants a skywriter to write Mike’s name in the sky “with the sun dotting the “i”. But the pilot isn’t good enough, Peter wants Lindbergh! (Charles) then he decides, “On second thought, get me Rickenbacker! His penmanship is better.” Davy goes to the television station, directing the cameraman (played by Monkees stand-in David Price) when to give Mike close-ups for his TV appearance.

Back at the pad, Micky, Davy, and Peter give Mike a pep talk. Zechenbush walks in uninvited and Mike tells him he’s going on television to expose him and his “whole racket.” Zechenbush explains that the checks the Monkees spent were all from people that work for him, so Mike’s campaign is now also funded by Zechenbush. He’s figured out a way to own Mike and warns him to withdraw or he’ll “get him” and his friends. It seems they’re screwed.

The Monkees go to the TV station anyway. Davy, Micky, and Peter encourage Mike not to give up. Then, they sit and watch to see what Mike will do, and the neighbors watch Mike on TV from the pad. For the scene, they use that “Stand By” sign again, the one used for previous episodes “Too Many Girls” and “Captain Crocodile.”

Once he gets the signal, Mike begins to speak. He explains he began his campaign hoping to help people like his neighbors that didn’t have any power. He didn’t think it was right that no one would listen to them so he wanted to do something. Mike admits, “I got sucked up in the very forces I was trying to conquer” and his campaign was financed by an “improper source.” Though he was unaware and got tricked into doing this, he figures he’s “not smart enough to be mayor.” It’s very moving and aided by Michael Nesmith’s natural and non-actor-ly delivery. Trouble is, Mike is an honest and hardworking character, the kind you would want in public office. That same quality makes him unlikely to succeed at getting elected at the “dirty game” of politics. It’s a catch 22; someone who has the right characteristics to succeed at getting elected, may not be someone who should be trusted with leadership. It’s the ultimate cynicism of this story. 

Zechenbush and Motley entered the TV studio in the meantime. Motley is motivated by Mike’s words. He approaches and, in a callback to the earlier gag says his name correctly, and Mike corrects him, “Niswash.” I have to question Motley’s quick change of heart on this, but it is, after all, a 24 minute show. Just when you think Mike has accomplished nothing, Motely declares “one man’s honesty throws sand in the machinery.” Motley promises to mend his ways and make the town “a cleaner and more personal place to live.” Zechenbush slips out the back defeated.

Mike’s ill-fated campaign could be looked at as alternative to a protest. It’s interesting that the writers/producers didn’t go the protest route. Instead of Mike running for Mayor, they could have had the Monkees staging a protest of city hall. Protests were a big part of counterculture of the time. Creating chaos is a Monkees specialty, but instead of trying to change things from the outside, they try to make Mike an insider. But episodes like “Monkees a la Mode” have established the Monkees as outsiders. On the other hand, young people protesting may have been too controversial for a network sitcom. It also would have dated the episode and locked it into the 1960s. “Monkee Mayor,” as it stands, has a timeless appeal.

Next is a tag sequence as the neighbors thank the Monkees for saving their homes. The Monkees exposit that the mayor canceled his plans to put parking lots where their homes were, and Zechenbush is in jail. Micky wonders where the parking lot will be built, and a wrecking ball comes crashing through the ceiling, followed by a Rainbow Room performance of the song  “Pleasant Valley Sunday” (Goffin/King).

According to the Monkees Tripod site, this episode was originally titled “Micky for Mayor.” I imagine the original script called for Micky to run for office. But the job suits Mike better. Micky Dolenz is a fine actor, but Micky is tricky. Michael Nesmith comes off sincere. He’s compelling actor; he delivers the speech at the end and you feel bad for him. I actually teared up a bit. I get the feeling from listening to various episode commentaries that maybe Mike didn’t like acting much, or at least his own acting. On the IMDB he only has 11 acting credits. I know the world doesn’t need another actor but in a way, it is a shame. “Monkee Mayor” shows what an effective job he could do.

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: “Silkwood, 1983”

“It doesn’t matter whether you work in plutonium or dog food because they ain’t gonna give you a thing, there’s nowhere left to go! You close this plant down and then what? You’re gonna be up in Washington, but we’re gonna be down here outta work!”

Silkwood, 1983 (Meryl Streep), ABC Motion Pictures

Karen Silkwood is a trouble-maker. At Kerr-McGee, she handles the processing of plutonium and uranium dioxide as it is converted into fuel pellets for nuclear reactors. The interesting idea about Silkwood and her co-workers is that they are not scientists, but technicians working on an assembly line. Nuclear power is a job of work, not ideals and definitely not science. They know enough to do their work, and very little more. She and her co-workers are overworked and underpaid; they complain about having to work extra hours on short notice and the power plant runs efficiently with no-nonsense supervisors and bitchy subordinates.

Though depicted as lazy and irresponsible with self-destructive qualities, Karen (as portrayed beautifully by Meryl Streep) is fiercely independent and defiant (even at the cost of her own safety and well-being). She loves her estranged children, her co-dependent lesbian roommate, Dolly (Cher), and her on-again off-again boyfriend, Drew (Kurt Russell). She almost seems to work hard at making terrible mistakes, which I find oddly fascinating, especially with regard to the way strong female characters are written in films these days. Women written today, by contrast, appear to be perfect, beautiful, patient, and unrealistically saintly creatures. By humanizing a character like Karen Silkwood, we can more readily identify with her and her struggle.

One day, Karen’s co-worker, Thelma, is “cooked”, meaning she’s been exposed to radiation, and is forced to undergo a humiliating cleaning process involving vigorous use of steel wool.  Karen worries about cancer as she relentlessly chain-smokes.  Boyfriend Drew has a plan to one day quit the power plant and set up his own small bait-shop dealership, but Karen thinks he’s just dreaming.  You get the sense most people employed in this part of the Country have very few options.  One night, after cleaning up, Karen tests positive for radiation and is required to provide urine samples for the next few weeks.  She begins to notice her supervisors are falsifying reports and re-touching photographs of faulty welds in fuel rods.  She checks her union manuals, does her homework, and figures out she and her fellow employees are being deceived.

As Kerr-McGee management clamps down on union meetings, Karen decides to take her complaints to Washington and the Atomic Energy Commission.  When she tells her representatives (Ron Silver, Josef Sommer) about the re-touched photographs, they realize they have a case against the plant.  Oddly, the narrative is broken up with episodic moments, such as Dolly’s latest girlfriend, a snooty funeral home beautician (Diana Scarwid), and Karen’s brief dalliance with Ron Silver in Washington and resulting break-up with Drew.  She gathers up enough physical evidence to meet with a reporter from The New York Times, but she never arrives for her interview.   She was found to have died in a mysterious car crash.

Silkwood, the movie, is a strange case.  The movie was given a DVD release, but went out-of-print, and has never enjoyed a Blu-Ray run, though it had been transferred to 1080p for HD broadcast television.  This is a movie that received five Academy Award nominations, including Best Actress, Best Director (Mike Nichols), and Best Original Screenplay (credited to Nora Ephron and Alice Arlen).  Nichols does his usual best (for the time) at letting his actors direct his film.  He gives enormous creative license to Streep, Russell (in his first dramatic role), and Cher in bringing the patina of the surroundings to life.  Rising stars Fred Ward, Craig T. Nelson, Anthony Heald, and David Strathairn all make memorable appearances in the film.

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: My Bodyguard, 1980

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“It’s not the gum that’s the worst.  It’s the boogers that scare me.”

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My Bodyguard, 1980 (Chris Makepeace), 20th Century Fox

Chris Makepeace is the epitome of what is now being called, the “beta” male; sinewy, bony, full of emotional mush, eternally trapped in the wonder years, and always praying for thicker muscle tone. He’s a small young man with soft features, expressive eyebrows and an unruly mass of hair on the top of his head. Besieged by his eccentric relatives, he (perhaps) involuntarily takes a back-seat to his hotel manager Dad, Martin Mull and libidinous grandmother, Ruth Gordon. They all live in the hotel Mull manages. It’s possible one could look at Makepeace and decide he is privileged, but Mull’s job indicates the upper-tier of a desperate working class.

First day of school at Lake View High in Chicago, Makepeace can’t find a seat in his classroom.  Enter Moody (slicked-back sleaze Matt Dillon) who presents the teacher with an apple while young Joan Cusack makes eyes at him.  Makepeace runs afoul of Dillon by first taking his seat, and second by joking about his name, Big Moody or “B.M.” for short.  This is rather brave for a sensitive soul like Makepeace’s Clifford Peache, whose mouth-breathing fast friend informs him Moody takes “protection money” from the students in exchange for, I would guess, his service in keeping the smaller kids safe from hulking school outcast, Ricky (Adam Baldwin).  It isn’t long before Dillon and his toadies harass Makepeace and shake him down for lunch money.  They figure because Clifford transferred from a private academy, he must be rich.  He swears he isn’t.  What’s the big deal here?  I went to a “private academy” a long time ago on a scholarship.  I also had a number of bullies.

Even after Moody is busted for extortion, the befuddled Dean lets him off with a week’s detention.  This spells trouble for Clifford because it compels Moody to make it his mission in life to terrorize the young man.  Bullies don’t understand or care for logic, and if they feel they are not sufficiently feared, they step up their respective games.  If there’s anybody the kids fear more than Moody, it’s got to be Ricky.  What confuses me is the physical characteristics of these sophomores.  A lot of them look like they’re 10 years old, and some of them look like they’re pushing 30, Baldwin included.  Moody’s campaign of harassment continues unabated, and Clifford is forced to consider other options.  He reaches out to Ricky for protection, but Ricky isn’t initially interested.  What, obstensibly, starts as a teenage nightmare becomes an interesting character study.  Clifford decides to make Ricky his project, and the two bond.

Baldwin strikes an imposing figure compared to Makepeace (and even Dillon), but he has a soft-spoken and gruff way about him, and he saves this coming-of-age tome of self-discovery from mediocrity.  Makepeace helps him find the correct cylinders for a motorcycle he has been rebuilding and then they take to the road in triumph.  The narrative beats are very similar to a love story, but this is about the beginnings of a true friendship.  Unfortunately the story gets bogged down under the weight of ancillary characters Mull, Gordon, and a surprise turn by John Houseman.  We understand that Makepeace’s family is composed of unusual and often, batty people, but it feels out of place here, as if director Tony Bill had envisioned a more epic and episodic story about a few weeks in the life of a kid he obviously adores but felt didn’t have the strength to completely carry the story.

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Despite my issues, I still enjoy this movie, and I feel the sting (a personal feeling) of all my bullies of younger years.  I was a bony, skinny young man, and then I had a growth spurt at 18.  After that, the kids stopped messing with me, but I’ll always remember a beloved Timex wristwatch stolen right off my arm, by a kid half my size.  When I confronted him, I could tell he smelled my fear.  He got right up in my shit while his friends stood behind me, probably waiting for me to make the first move.  I didn’t make a move.  I was frightened.  I was crippled with my fear, and I was ashamed.  Bullies aren’t always about superior height or muscle power.  It’s an attitude.  An attitude I could never successfully emulate.

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: “Summer Lovers”, 1982

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“When there is not enough space, there is pressure.”

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“Summer Lovers”, 1982 (Daryl Hannah), Filmways 

Good-looking young couple Peter Gallagher and Daryl Hannah take a summer house on the Greek island Santorini.  Fresh from college graduation, I gather Gallagher is itching to settle down, but he becomes infatuated with a French archaeologist named Lina, on assignment at a nearby excavation site.  He follows her around like a puppy dog, and pretends not to spy on her, which is totally what he is doing, and she is aware of it.  These days, that would considered some form of harassment.  Meanwhile, Daryl, obviously bored, reads up on advanced (and ancient) sexual practices and techniques.  She speaks to Gallagher of her bondage fantasies.  Later that night, he agrees to be tied up, while she drops hot candle wax on him.

Peter accompanies Lina to a nude beach.  She strips down.  Uncomfortable, he also strips, but very quickly hides his shortcomings, as it were.  I wonder if these people ever worry about skin cancer.  Ultimately liberated by his nudity, he jumps into the water and swims.  He and Lina swim to a secluded cove and make love.  He confesses to Daryl, telling her he’s confused, doesn’t know what he wants to do with his life.  Daryl is pissed.  She takes off, and heads to a bar where she lets a kid hit on her.  Meanwhile, Gallagher hooks up with Lina again.  The kid takes Daryl back to his house, offers her drugs, which she declines.  She fends off his advances and leaves.  She can’t bring herself to make love to another man.  While Gallagher firmly believes he has an “open” relationship with Hannah, her feelings are hurt.

Daryl rushes off to confront Lina, but this other woman is sweet and accomodating, she can’t bring herself to hate her.  She tells Daryl she doesn’t want to destroy her relationship with Gallagher.  They start hanging out together, as an unusual threesome.  Gallagher becomes uncomfortable (yet again!) at the prospect of his girlfriend and his lover becoming friends.  This film could be easily re-edited as a comedy.  I can’t help but feel sorry for Lina, who appears to be caught in the middle of good old fashioned American Jealousy.  A sexually liberated, young French woman, Lina doesn’t immediately understand their problems, nor does she seem to care.  Daryl tells Peter she likes the girl.  Songs by Tina Turner play in montage pieces in a foreshadowing of the kind of cinema for which the eighties would become known.

One night, the three of them share a glass of wine, kisses, and finally sex.  With the initial tension out of the way, they’re finally having fun to the strains of “I’m So Excited”.  Regardless of the heavy adult content, this movie feels like innocent fun, a call-back to a different time where everything seemed to be permitted, and nothing was particularly sacred.  The use of popular songs (disco, new wave, and rock) of the time, and the patina of early MTV-style cinematography and editing contribute to a wonderful yet dated appeal.  Indeed, once Gallagher and Hannah, shed their inhibitions and get with Lina, it finally feels like they’re truly enjoying their vacation, which is weird.  The three spend an enormous amount of time nude in the film, and enjoying each other’s company.  This is another case (as with “Blame It On Rio”) of a mainstream movie that would never be made today, or if it were, it would be severely neutered for the sensibilities of today’s audiences.

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Director Randal Kleiser had previously shown his skill at telling stories involving young people with 1978’s mega-hit, “Grease” and 1980’s “The Blue Lagoon”.  In 1984, he would direct “Grandview, U.S.A.”.  The film is beautifully shot, but the youthful cast seem lazy and uninterested, and spend more time taking their clothes off than putting them on.  In a movie filled floor-to-ceiling with unabashed nudity, there are no sex scenes.  While a very interesting character study of post-college frustration, boredom, and rebellion, I would not classify “Summer Lovers” as romance.  Perhaps a “Graduate”-like drama about a different generation; the children of the first boomers in an era of prosperity and promiscuity, doing things they will one day regret but always remember.

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: “Max Dugan Returns”, 1983

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“Listen. I’m trying to keep so many people happy, all at the same time, and I’m not one of them. But don’t give up on me. I’m worth it, I promise.”

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“Max Dugan Returns”, 1983 (Marsha Mason), 20th Century Fox

Timid schoolteacher Nora McPhee (Marsha Mason) is having a rotten day. Her refrigerator breaks down. Her car is stolen, and with it her graded test papers. She meets-cute with the investigating officer Brian Costello, (Donald Sutherland) who takes a shine to her that isn’t strictly professional, and the feeling is mutual. He gives Nora a motorcycle, and in the middle of a riding lesson, they apprehend a liquor store robber.

Later that night, Nora’s estranged father, Max Dugan (Jason Robards) appears out of nowhere wanting to reconcile. He arrives wearing a black raincoat and hat, carrying two briefcases. He offers her a thick stack of bills for a drink. Max invokes anger in Nora over his abandonment of her family. He tells her he is going to die in about six months, and that some disreputable people would like to see him go a lot sooner.

Some discussion fills in the blanks. Max studied real estate in prison, bought several pieces of property, only to have it appropriated by (I assume) eminent domain as a result of a casino development. He gets a job as a blackjack dealer with the casino, and for seven years, ingeniously embezzles the money back, to the tune of some-odd $600,000. He wants to leave the money to Nora and her son, Michael (Matthew Broderick), or at the very least, buy back his relationship with his distrustful daughter, and also to spend time with his grandson.

The next day, Dugan buys fancy new appliances for Nora’s dilapidated kitchen, and shiny electronics and toys for Michael. He turns Nora’s modest Venice home into a palace. With Dugan and Nora trying to conceal his identity from Michael and Costello, they concoct an awkward story about winning prizes on a game show. Nora and Dugan argue constantly over Michael’s sense of values. Nora believes in working hard to get the things she wants, and she detests Dugan’s easy short-cuts through life, but they call a truce and try to work through their differences. Nora’s relationship with Costello complicates matters.

A dedicated officer and an extremely curious soul, Costello doesn’t buy Nora’s explanations about Dugan’s identity. He doesn’t understand Nora’s family suddenly coming into all these riches, and for a while, he represents a kind of benevolent antagonist, as does Dugan. It seems everybody in Nora’s life want to provide for her and her son, while she approaches hysterics juggling Max’s return to her life, her befuddled son, and the advances of Donald Sutherland.

“Max Dugan Returns” is a wonderful and damned charming movie. It speaks to a world filled with the fantasy of human expectation. Max Dugan is a Santa Claus character who enters the dismal lives of his loved ones, and pays back a debt that was never assumed. What Nora wants is validation and acknowledgement from her father. Dugan wants forgiveness. Ultimately, Nora protects him and he protects her. I remember absolutely loving this movie, and watching it now, it still holds up. I can’t tell you what this movie means to me, except to say that I never knew my own father. I always wondered if he would show up with a briefcase full of cash, and a ridiculous excuse for his life-long absence at the ready.

Herbert Ross directs a tight and economical Neil Simon screenplay. The back-and-forth between Mason and Robards is superb. Robards, especially, is a treasure. He has effortless chemistry with Mason, Broderick, and Sutherland, and he is a true joy to watch. Mason, for her part, works very well as a character type she made famous – that of the clever, wild-eyed, neurotic woman from “The Goodbye Girl” and “Chapter Two”. “Max Dugan Returns” is the very definition of a feel-good-movie. It doesn’t pull it’s punches, and it doesn’t feel forced. If life gets you down, try to dig up this 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: “Death Hunt”

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“That look on your face would turn good whiskey into sour piss.”

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“Death Hunt” , 1981 (Charles Bronson), 20th Century Fox

“This motion picture is based on a true story” is written in schlocky big-and-bold red titles; Charles Bronson is “Death Hunt” – not quite, but wouldn’t it be cool if his given Christian name were, indeed “Death J. Hunt”, or whatever? I mean, talk about the coolness factor. Here we are in the wild, white Yukon with some splendid Steadicam-aerial photography and we’re thrust into a literal dog-fight. The year is 1931, so it’s probably not illegal yet. Bronson runs afoul of the locals involved when he rescues one of the dogs involved. You get that steely-eyed Bronson trademark gaze. He gives the owner (the great character actor Ed Lauter) $200 for the wounded dog and leaves.

Lauter isn’t having any of it. He takes up arms with an Alaskan version of a posse (among them Carl “Apollo Creed”/”Action Jackson” Weathers, William Sanderson, and Maury Chaykin) to apprehend Bronson. Bronson nurses the dog back to health, feeds him and bonds with him. The heavies case Bronson’s hunting shack, but he is ready for them, and he plugs one of them. Lauter alerts the authorities (in this case, Mounties Andrew Stevens and Lee Marvin, who knows Lauter is lying) and they lead the hunt for the so-called “Mad Trapper”.

The movie’s story depends on Bronson staying one step ahead of his pursuers, which he does with aplomb. He is skillful and resourceful, but unfortunately an act of self-defense is added to his perceived list of crimes. It’s amazing to me (looking at the movie now) how quickly this narrative moves. We have to remember, the movie was made at a time when action/adventure movies didn’t have to be nonsensical, bloated epics. The editing is lean, action-oriented and economical. The scenes between Marvin and Bronson ooze testosterone. Both men have desperation in their eyes. Marvin wants an end to the violence. Bronson just wants to be left alone.

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When Marvin and Stevens’ caravan of vengeance-minded soldiers set out to capture the Trapper, he rigs his property with booby-traps, digs a trench in the middle of his cabin, and positions his guns at strategic points. The Peckinpah-inspired scenes of violence are well choreographed, and the liquored-up, tense dialogue of Lauter’s posse is hilarious. Marvin’s character is lost in his own idealistic past while Stevens represents a future of two-way radios and explosives.

The men constantly put each other through frenetic games of machismo, and all Bronson can do is shake his head and listen to their endless tirades. In the middle of the long Alaskan night, they blow up his cabin with dynamite, and he is forced to take to the snow, but not before cutting down most of them. Ultimately, the posse divide into separate groups, so that they don’t have to split the reward money. They kill each other off as a result of their incompetence until it finally comes down to Marvin and Bronson.

Charles Dennis Buchinsky appeared in “House of Wax” with Vincent Price. His first lead role was in Roger Corman’s “Machine-Gun Kelly”. He became a ubiquitous presence in revenge fantasies, starting with Michael Winner’s “Death Wish” (spawning four sequels), “Hard Times” as well as becoming a staple for Cannon Films (along with Chuck Norris) with “10 to Midnight”, “Murphy’s Law”, and “Kinjite: Forbidden Subjects”.

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: “Author! Author!”

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“Don’t you ever, ever, ever tell me I look good for my age again!”

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“Author! Author!”, 1982 (Al Pacino), 20th Century Fox

Johnny Mandel’s appropriately cheesy music informs us we are about to spend an hour and forty minutes with a sensitive, high-strung, and passionate man. Ivan Travalian is your typical, over-educated New York lunatic, who also happens to be a marginally successful playwright with a Brady Bunch-sized family of children from a previous marriage to estranged wife Tuesday Weld. Lucky for him, he likes his wayward adopted family, and they love him. Depressed and anxious though he is, he tries to do what’s best for the extended family, struggling to get his play produced (to his specifications) while courting his leading lady Alice (Dyan Cannon).

A few days ago, I put up my review for “Deathtrap”, another movie about a playwright, also made in 1982, and also starring Cannon. Several movies were made about writers in this time period. Perhaps their work was more intriguing in the early eighties than it is now. This may be the last time we are witness to an Al Pacino who had not yet become the gregarious, overpowering, over-the-top actor most audiences are familiar with today. He would follow up “Author! Author!” with “Scarface” the following year.

The script is an uncomfortable balance of humor and drama, because of Ivan’s tense, charged relationship with his wife. Pacino’s reptilian eyes never seem to blink, and when they do, you miss it. He stares everybody down, and he is truly frightening when he is angry. His life falls apart when he suspects his wife of cheating on him. The performances in the movie, though eccentric and varied in intensity, never feel less than geniune. Watching it, you feel you know these people. Pacino has incredible chemistry with the young actors who make up his “family”. Ivan has unusually frank discussions with the kids about his life, his paranoia, his assorted neuroses, and his depression.

Ivan and his agent (played by a burly, bearded Alan King) convince Alice to take a part in his play. In the midst of rehearsals for his new play, English With Tears, Ivan’s family suffers upheavals. There was never a more beloved stepfather, as all the children don’t want to be broken up and dispersed to other, newer families. They would rather stay together, and it is touching to see one of Ivan’s stepdaughters add up the number of fathers, mothers, grandfathers, and grandmothers she has because of her mother’s romances. He hooks up with Dyan Cannon at the insistence of his son, who encourages him to find happiness. Soon, she moves into his already-cramped townhouse. Tuesday comes home and flips when she discovers the new living arrangement, even though she’s there to tell him she’s moved on with her life, despite his plea for her to return.

With “Author! Author!”, we have rich, complex characters that lead unusual inner lives. Pacino repeatedly forgets (or refuses to remember) other people’s names. His children know way too much about his sexual life. Tuesday Weld’s character is a mass of emotional contradictions. Dyan Cannon appears to be the most stable character of them all, despite her emotional unavailability. Ivan is a fascinating person, owning up to his responsibilties as a provider for his family, but also exhibiting arrested behavior; he is not the weary man-child audiences have been subjected to for the last 10 years in cinema.

This is a much better film than the critics of the time would have you believe. Evidently confused as to the characters and their manic moods and motivations, Roger Ebert, in his review, writes that it isn’t necessary for Pacino’s character to be a playwright, but I think he misses the point. “Author! Author!” is old-fashioned melodrama and theatricality; even extending to a scene where Pacino absconds with his kids and hides his two runaway stepdaughters on the roof of his house. Above all the histrionics, the tirades, and the bittersweet machinations of the script, we never forget that this is a story about a typical, over-educated New York lunatic who loves his children.

Special thanks to my beautiful, brilliant wife for suggesting this title to me.

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.