“Of Mice and Monkees”
If I were introducing this show to someone, I would start with this episode. Not that it’s necessarily the best or the funniest, though it is very funny. Here, the show’s usual comedy beats are hit hard and hit well; the onscreen captions, breaking the fourth wall, the great guest cast, slapstick humor, and use of stock footage. The writers/producers took on American Literature, Westerns, Gangster Films, and Television in general. It’s a fast moving episode and when I think back on the series, this is the first episode that comes to mind. If I couldn’t get someone to like The Monkees upon seeing this, then it wasn’t gonna happen.
Our story starts out with a road trip. It must have been long, since it required a change of shirts, out of the matching red and into an assortment. Even the road signs are meta; they pass one that reads “12 Miles to Clarkesville [sic].”
The boys are lost and out of gas. The get out of the car and onto a Western set that was previously used for the “Your Friendly Neighborhood Kidnappers” chase scene. Mike says “It’s a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t wanna live here.” This is unintentionally (I think) clever, since he is standing on part of the same Columbia Ranch set that is used for the second season episode “It’s A Nice Place to Visit,” and also the episodes “Hillbilly Honeymoon”, “The Wild Monkees”, “The Monkees In Texas”, and in the feature film “Head”, so I guess Mike practically does live here.
The Monkees split up to look for help, Mike and Davy going one way and Peter and Micky the other. Davy and Mike walk up to one of the ghost town buildings and have a cowboy gunfight fantasy, where Mike in white fights himself in black (“Kill us both, Spock!” – Editor). Davy plays the instigator who ends up getting shot.
Peter finds a triangle and plays it, alerting the two bank robbers who were hiding in the jailhouse. The bad guys, Lenny, played by Lon Chaney Jr., and George, played by Len Lesser, follow the usual pattern of Monkees bad guys we’ve seen so far: a dumb character and a smarter character who bosses the dimmer one around. These two particular bad guys are also a spoof of the John Steinbeck novella Of Mice and Men, and the film of the same name in which Lon Chaney Jr. played the Lenny character.
If you’ve never had the chance to read Of Mice and Men, check it out from the library. It’s a moving story. Admittedly the homage in “Ghost Town” is not that deep, and was probably tossed in because they had cast Lon Chaney Jr.
“The Monkees in a Ghost Town” was written by Robert Schlitt and Peter Meyerson, directed by James Frawley, and aired on NBC – October 24, 1966.
Lenny and George come out to shoot at Mike and Davy’s feet. Mike tells George, “You’re pretty tough with a gun in your hand.” They use this line again, but to funnier effect in “Monkees à la Carte.” George orders Lenny to use his famous line, “You ain’t goin’ no place!” He leaves to look for the others, telling Lenny to “keep these two on ice.” Lenny takes it literally, so Davy helpfully conjures a block of ice to offer to Lenny. Lenny shoves Davy and the ice away causing Davy to hide behind Mike. That seemed out of character to me because in most episodes Davy’s the first to stand up to bigger guys.
Mike asks Lenny what he wants. Lenny gives one my favorite speeches in the series, just for the sheer unexpectedly faux-profound nature of the response.
There’s something very sympathetic and charming about Lon Chaney Jr. himself. With his sensitive, eyes, face, and earnest line delivery, he’s not the typical thug. Still, he tosses Mike and Davy in a jail cell.
Peter and Micky observe all this from their hiding spot. Peter exposits everything that’s happened so far in typical television style. Micky follows this with one of the best moments when The Monkees ever broke the fourth wall:
As part of the Of Mice and Men take-off, George and Lenny talk about “how it’s gonna be” when the Big Man gets there. It’s a shorter conversation than in the book though; they’re going to “take their cut,” no elaborate plans or talk of rabbits. Micky and Peter overhear that the gangsters don’t know the Big Man yet. Micky gets an idea that comes complete with Peter holding a light bulb over his head, similar to the gag from “Kidnappers.” Onscreen captions tell us to “Stay tuned for Micky’s idea.”
I love the Micky and Peter character interactions in this episode. Their comic styles and characters complement each other, Peter exuberantly following Micky’s crazy lead.
Here comes the idea: the two boys burst into the jailhouse in gangster garb, pretending to be the Big Man and his henchmen, “Spider.” Micky performs his James Cagney impression, which he will use again and again. Watch Peter’s face, especially around the business with the coin; it looks like he’s about to lose it. George figures out quickly that they’re fake because he never heard their car. It’s a shame, because it was quite a performance from Micky and Peter. They hear Lenny’s famous line again “You ain’t goin no place.” We’re told to “Stay tuned for Micky’s next idea” and into the cell they go with Mike and Davy.
George tells them to “have fun,” cuing a romp to “Tomorrow’s Gonna Be Another Day” (Tommy Boyce/Steve Venet). I dig this song. I know it sounds a lot like “Last Train to Clarksville” but I like the lyrics and the way they drop out the instruments on the chorus. The romp includes footage of them in their Foreign Legion costumes and jumping around in the red bathing suits.
After the romp, Micky’s next idea is for them to dig their way out of the cell. They borrow the shovel from Lenny who buys their lie that they want to play baseball. He loans them his ball, and in another nod to Of Mice and Men he accidentally pulls a (live) (Not dead. That would be horrible. – Editor) mouse out of his pocket.
Very soon after the first song, we go right to another romp: the montage of digging/baseball set to “Papa Gene’s Blues” (Michael Nesmith). This one smartly combines the cell-confined baseball game and the boys digging with their heads popping up in various locations to be nearly run over by stock footage: surfers, stampeding cattle, an oncoming train, camels in Egypt, a real baseball game. They get done with the song and the hole, but they’ve dug themselves into the next cell. They ain’t going no place.
Here comes the Big Man, and guess what? She’s a woman! She’s Rose Marie (1923-2017) from The Dick Van Dyke Show, in fact, and she’s fantastic. The Monkees producers and writers created terrific female villains; the Big Man, Madame Roselle, Madame Olinsky, and more in later episodes that are all bad-asses. They did so well that I never thought about the fact that they were women. I took it for granted because the writers didn’t make a big deal of it either. The only reason I’m mentioning it here is because of the gag of switching expectations: The “Big Man” is really a woman.
The Big Man explains she used to be the Big Man’s wife, but he got too big. She slaps and tosses George around earning her cheers from the Monkees. The feeling isn’t mutual, and she orders the boys killed. She’s distracted by the fact that they’re a singing group though, and shares that she used to perform as Bessie Kowalski. The Monkees use this delay of their execution and ask for one last performance, Micky’s plea taking the form of a Jimmy Durante impression.
Bessie joins them around a player piano where she sings loud and off-key, “Everybody Loves My Baby” and “Hi Neighbor.” Rose Marie could obviously sing very well in real life, but a good singer can play a bad singer with style. They would know exactly what to do “wrong” and tackle it with confidence. Just as intelligent actors can play the best dumb characters with self-awareness. Case in point: Peter Tork.
Mike prompts Davy to call for help on the turn-of-the century wall phone. The first call reaches a Native American stereotype with two phones: an old-fashioned one and a multi-line. The second call reaches “Chester” who can’t get Marshall Dillon to help, but can get Bob Dylan to write about their problem. Bessie wants to wrap it up and shoot ’em, but they convince her to perform “The Monkees” theme song, and Lenny and George join in. Davy trades his maracas for Lenny’s gun, which leads to a shootout with the Monkees crouched behind the bar. Bessie keeps singing the entire time, oblivious to the gunfire.
The shootout has several funny gags, including stock footage of the “Calvary” (“Don’t trust the Calvary”). There’s also a carnival shooting bit with the Monkees popping up and down and stock footage of war ships firing at each other. Davy says the good guys never run out of bullets, right before he runs out of bullets. Figuring that they’re not so good after all, he tosses the gun over the bar and it fires spectacularly, shooting George’s gun out of his hand. Peter picks it up and Lenny helpfully prompts him with his “famous line,” with slightly different wording.
As the police take them away, Bessie decides they’ll work up a showbiz act in jail, Bessie and the Bullets. The police reward the Monkees for catching the crooks but immediately take it away because they’re getting a ticket for being parked in a no parking zone and other violations. The Monkees start the car somehow, though they never found gasoline.
What a great closing line for an episode that has so much fun with show biz conventions. “Monkees in a Ghost Town” wasn’t perfect, but for humor and style they knocked it out of the park. The stock footage, the onscreen captions, and other humor around styles of story writing such as “good guys not running out of bullets,” “your famous line,” and pointing out the exposition all contribute to the excellence of this episode. Let’s not forget the brilliant touch in casting the iconic Rose Marie and Lon Chaney Jr. and having the Bessie character wanting to be in show business. Micky himself is nearly a walking, talking showbiz reference because of his ability to do voices.
This episode was a minute short so they have more interview footage. Mike changes the name on his chair to “Lauren St. David” because he doesn’t want anyone to recognize him. Davy shows us some lighting gels and Mike pretends to do a card trick with them.
Many of the episodes have a quick pace, but this one seems especially short with the two songs so close together and the time-killing interview. A special thank you to Melanie Mitchell, author of Monkee Magic. Mitchell also has a script-to-screen project where she compares the original script with notes on what appeared in the final episode. From this I found that a lot was cut: there was another character removed, a useless girl for Davy, and extra dialogue from the two male gangsters. It was interesting to read; I don’t think they missed out on anything by changing it. Also, the Of Mice and Men spoof wasn’t present; I’m guessing because that came into play after casting Lon Chaney Jr.
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.