Monkees vs Macheen: “Monkees in Texas”

“Welcome to Videoranch!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fun dialog moment:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Bronwyn Knox

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

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Monkees vs. Macheen: “Hitting the High Seas”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Bronwyn Knox

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

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

“Us loners got to stick together.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vintage Cable Box: “Poltergeist, 1982”

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

Poltergeist, 1982 (JoBeth Williams), MGM/UA

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

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

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

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

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

No screaming in the pool!

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

Tobe Hooper

1943-2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monkees vs. Macheen: “A Coffin Too Frequent”

“Tea and LSD” 

“A Coffin Too Frequent” was directed by David Winters, who has wide range of credits. He started out as an actor and was in both the stage and film versions of West Side Story. He quickly became successful as a choreographer, working on the film Viva Las Vegas and Shindig!, a variety show that featured Monkees guest-caster, Bobby Sherman. The Monkees was Winters’ directorial debut; he directed “Monkees Blow Their Minds” in April 1967, and “A Coffin too Frequent” in September 1967. Winters has many credits as a producer; notably he produced and directed Alice Cooper: Welcome to My Nightmare, and he directed, acted in, and produced The Last Horror Film.

“A Coffin Too Frequent” first aired on November 20, 1967. Why (oh why) did they never do these creepy episodes closer to Halloween? Writing credit went to Stella Linden, the only woman besides Treva Silverman to have writing credits on a Monkees episode. Born in England, Linden came to Hollywood in 1950. She wrote the film Two A Penny and a couple of episodes of the television series, The Count of Monte Cristo, which starred George Dolenz (Micky Dolenz’s father) as Edmond Dante. She also has a couple of acting credits.

The episode begins with the Monkees all going to bed in the same room. This is a change; in “I’ve Got a Little Song Here” and “Your Friendly Neighborhood Kidnappers” for example, they showed an additional downstairs bedroom. They’re all in the wrong beds so they do a fast-motion switch, settling down just in time to hear creepy laughter from somewhere in the house. Peter tries to soothe them with this notion: the only person that could be in the house is a burglar. There’s a comic pause and then panic as they get out of bed. Downstairs, tux-wearing Henry is lighting candles. Henry is played by George Furth, who we know and I love as Ronnie Farnsworth in first season episode, “One Man Shy.”

As he sets up, Henry mutters to himself about how Elmer will make him rich and famous. The Monkees sneak up behind Henry with a rope and a net, and they would have captured him, except Peter sneezes and they deploy the net on themselves instead. Henry turns around and tells the Monkees it’s almost twelve o’clock; they have three minutes to leave. I guess he must have a convincing tone of voice, because the Monkees do one of their classic fast-motion scrambles to run upstairs, get dressed, and pack in seconds. On their way back down, Peter magically levitates a trunk above the stairs for a few seconds. It falls, Wile E. Coyote-style. This is the first of many magical occurrences in this episode.

When the Monkees get to the bottom of the stairs, common sense hits Mike, and he realizes there’s no reason for them to be leaving; it’s their house. Henry produces their lease and Peter reads that they’re required on this exact date to vacate the place from midnight to sunrise. As little sense as that makes, it also makes no sense that Henry has their lease. The landlord, Mr. Babbitt, could have made an appearance.

The Monkees obediently head out the door but run into Mrs. Weatherspoon, played by Ruth Buzzi of Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In. Laugh-In didn’t debut until 1968 but it’s worth mentioning that she specialized in playing old-lady characters like Mrs. Weatherspoon. Although Buzzi was only in her early 30’s in the late 1960s, dowdy Gladys Ormphby (the lady who hits everybody with her purse) was her most famous character on Laugh-In.

After the opening titles, there’s eerie organ music. Nice touch. Mrs. Weatherspoon doesn’t want the Monkees to leave; she wants them to witness Elmer’s return from the dead. The Monkees aren’t feeling it. Micky explains, in his best Boris Karloff, “It’s not the passing beyond that bothers us so much, it’s the coming back.” They make excuses to get out: they’re just going out for a sandwich, a cup of coffee, and to make a phone call. But Mrs. Weatherspoon has a large Mary-Poppins style bag with her and she has what they require in her bag for each excuse. The most impressive part is when she pulls a visibly full and uncovered fine-China cup of coffee out of her bag and hands it over. (Mike holds the cup/saucer in later shots displaying to the camera that it’s now empty and clearly glued together.)

Henry, the scheming weasel, is now on board with the Monkees staying if it will please his aunt. They still want to leave, but this time Boris, a big guy pushing a wooden coffin, blocks their path. When I say “big guy,” I mean a Richard Kiel/Ted Cassidy sort of big guy. Boris is played by Mickey Morton, who stands over 6 feet, 7 inches, according to the IMDB [He’s like a scary (er) James Coburn. – Editor’s Note]. He is a variation on the Monster character played by Richard Kiel in first season episode, “I Was a Teenage Monster.” Intimidated, Mike agrees that they’ll witness anything.

This leads nicely into a fantasy sequence with the Monkees in a hilarious courtroom drama, as in “Dance, Monkee, Dance.” In this version, Davy’s the defendant, Mike’s the witness, Micky’s the prosecutor, and Peter is the judge. They each have large helpful signs around their neck to identify them. It turns out “the witness” is the brains behind the operation and they’re all in on whatever the crime was. Peter’s face and voice are the funniest parts of this scene. It’s pleasant surprise when he’s funny in ways that don’t involve him being “the dummy.”

Back to reality, Peter sneezes, and Mrs. Weatherspoon leaps into action, deciding he’s sick and taking him upstairs to bed. Henry explains to the remaining Monkees that at dawn Elmer’s spirit will rise, blow the trumpet, and leave. Micky, Davy, and Mike want out (and are thoughtlessly leaving without Peter) but are blocked again by Boris carrying tons of suitcases. Considering they’re only staying until sunrise, it really is a lot of luggage. Upstairs, Mrs. W. forces gallons of tea on Peter. Hilariously, it seems she had all these full teacups in her bag. That is one magic purse.

Micky and Mike hang out with Henry by the coffin. (Mike didn’t have the wool hat in the earlier scenes, but suddenly he’s wearing it.) Mike and Micky are skeptical of the idea that Elmer’s coming back, but Henry explains he’s invented a pill that’s supposed to help somehow. (?) Henry pulls out a bottle of aspirin “in disguise.” Cynical Mike makes a little LSD joke.

Mike: “You see, he gives us the pill and we believe Elmer came back from the dead. We also see pretty colors and things climbing up the wall. Boy, I betcha it does a lot of things.”
Henry: “I told you, I am a scientist.”
Micky: “Mad scientist?”
Henry: “No, but I will be if he keeps making those remarks.”

Davy decides to get to know Boris. He tells him he used to do an act called “High/Low” with a big guy. Davy and Boris go into a vaudeville soft-shoe performance, singing “Tea for Two” (Youmans/Ceasar). Well, Davy sings, Boris just grunts in time to the music. It’s a possible predecessor to the scene in Young Frankenstein where Victor and the monster perform “Puttin’ on the Ritz.” (One of my favorite scenes in the movie.) It’s also neat that it’s “Tea for Two,” given Mrs. Weatherspoon’s tea obsession. It’s going great until Henry ruins it, declaring he has total control of Boris. Boy, he’s possessive and insecure; this character is a variation of Ronnie Farnsworth.

Peter interrupts with calls for help. Upstairs, Mrs. Weatherspoon has wrapped Peter in a plastic bubble. Micky and Mike perform several rounds of physical comedy shtick, trying to get upstairs to help him. First they’re lifeguards, then fireman, and then keystone cops. Each attempt ends in them crashing into Boris, Davy, and Henry. Finally, they get upstairs and Micky and Davy pull Peter out of the bubble. No idea where Mike disappeared to for this scene. Maybe he’s hangin’ with Elmer.

Davy wants to talk to Mrs. Weatherspoon alone, suspecting that Henry is a crook. Henry sends Boris after Davy. Boris slowly chases Davy around the bedroom. There’s a funny moment where Davy scares Boris off by showing him his own reflection, and then checks himself out in the mirror [and his new haircut!], clearly enjoying what he sees. Eventually Boris catches Davy and tries to strangle him, until Mrs. Weatherspoon calls him off. Specializing in aggressive nervousness, George Furth chews on his hankie during this scene, just like he chewed on his cape in “One Man Shy.”

Mrs. Weatherspoon sits down to talk to Davy and Peter alone, while Henry and Boris listen at the door. The scheme is that if Henry gets Elmer to rise from the dead, she’ll give all her money to Henry’s foundation. Davy stands up and opens the door, and the eavesdropping Henry and Boris fall right in. Mrs. Weatherspoon suddenly vanishes. What the–? She really does have magic powers.

She’s gone down to stop Micky from sneaking a peak in the coffin by whacking him with her umbrella. He falls over stunned; that’s one magic umbrella. All four Monkees sit with her and explain they want to help her. They’re not as anxious to leave anymore, and I’m okay with that. I can buy they’ve gotten to like Mrs. Weatherspoon a bit, or at least feel sorry for her as a victim of Henry. It’s consistent with the show that they like to rescue the underdogs. She calls them “angels” and there’s a fantasy clip of Micky, Peter, and Davy as angels jumping around in the clouds with harp music. Apparently, only three out of four Monkees are angels. Back in reality, Micky breaks the fourth wall to tell us, “Now that’s a trip!”

The Monkees decide they need to look inside the coffin, but it’s being guarded by big, bad Boris. Mike coaches Micky into attacking Boris but that doesn’t get them anywhere; Micky ends up hurting his head on Boris’ formidable body. A couple of cool details about Boris’ appearance: He has an impressive scar running over his forehead and left eye, and is wearing a big gold earring in one ear. All three of the guest cast, Henry, Mrs. Weatherspoon, and Boris have this pasty, grey-tinted makeup and dark circles under their eyes, adding to the creepy tone of the episode.

Séance time. This is the second séance the Monkees have participated in; the first one was in “Monkee See, Monkee Die.” The cast sits in a half-circle of chairs around the coffin and holds hands. Creepy Theremin music plays as the camera pans around the circle and treats us to everyone’s comically nervous facial expressions. Except Boris, who retains his “sucked-a- lemon” face the entire time. Henry says, “And now the trumpet will blow.” The trumpet plays “charge!” (as it did in “Monkees Marooned”), which Mrs. Weatherspoon declares is “their song.” Micky is still in the circle in the previous shot, but then his voice comes from the coffin, “I say Henry that you are a crook.” Adding to the episode theme of magic in the air, quick and clever Micky has somehow replaced himself in the circle with Mr. Schneider. (Though in some shots there’s a continuity error when Mike has his hand in his lap instead of holding the dummy’s hand.)

Micky-as-Elmer strings Henry along. Henry says Elmer was supposed to rise but Micky says “you cheated Henry; you tried to cheat the dead…” Henry confesses, and then he begs and pleads. Micky reveals himself in the coffin and Henry sends Boris to slowly chase after the Monkees. Considering how plodding Boris is, they could’ve run out and grabbed a real (not keystone) cop at anytime. But the only location that exists in this episode is the Monkees pad.

Romp to “Goin’ Down” (Dolenz, Jones, Tork, Nesmith, and Hildebrand) begins. Good song choice, since there are horn arrangements used in the song. Notable continuity error in the romp when Henry stands near the totem pole and throws lit candles. They end up in a body shaped ring around keystone cop Mike–who’s standing by the same exact totem pole wall. Mrs. Weatherspoon is super energetic for an old lady, dancing and swinging from the ceiling. Mike seems to be missing from much of this romp footage, but everyone else gets in and out of the false-bottom coffin. Somehow Mrs. Weatherspoon, Micky, Davy, and Peter get Boris and Henry tied up and stuffed in the coffin. This romp featured some really spiffy editing; the editors make a lot of mini cuts in the action to time it well with the music.

Tag sequence as Mrs. Weatherspoon leaves, but now she’s wearing a mini-dress and tights. Since Mrs. Weatherspoon is magic, did she really need Henry to bring Elmer back? Once she goes, they all compliment Micky for helping her. The boy scouts call to offer Micky an officer’s commission. The Monkees compliment his horn playing but Micky suddenly realizes he doesn’t play the trumpet. We hear the trumpet blow and see an arm come out of the coffin holding a trumpet. It seems likely that it’s Davy’s arm since he’s suddenly not standing with the other three. All the same, the other three Monkees stare at the coffin and cough in fear. (See what they did there?) This is followed by the “Daydream Believer” (John Stewart) Rainbow Room performance clip, which always makes me smile.

This is another of those “guilty pleasure” episodes for me. I know it’s not exemplar, but I really enjoy it all the same. It’s a rehash of previous, better material, especially “Monkee See, Monkee Die” with the con game and the séance, and “I Was a Teenage Monster” with the giant, intimidating character and the unscrupulous scientist. It also borrows from “Dance, Monkee, Dance” and even “Monkee Mother.” Despite all that, there’s lots of great comedy and entertaining details. The courtroom scene, the “angels,” Davy and Boris, and other little quick bits that make me laugh out loud. The guest cast was wonderful. Ruth Buzzi is hilarious of course, Mickey Morton is scary and funny, and George Furth is a reliable foil for the Monkees. I even appreciate the fact that managed to tell a story all on the one set. They kept it simple and made it work.

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: “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.