“If You Can’t Beat ’em, Confuse ’em.”
I’m really relieved to be past the pilot. For some reason, I found that to be a daunting task. Now we’re on to more fun episodes, like this one where they run into the mafia. Honestly, I always forget about this episode. It blends together with some of the other gangster-related stories. They do run into gun-toting crooks quite a bit: “Monkees in a Ghost Town,” “Your Friendly Neighborhood Kidnappers,” “Alias, Micky Dolenz,” “Monkees on the Wheel,” and “The Picture Frame” all have those types of antagonists. The Monkees live in a violent world, and they (mostly) don’t have any guns.
“Monkees à La Carte” was written by Gerald Gardner & Dee Caruso and Bernie Orenstein, directed by James Frawley and aired for the first time on November 21, 1966. At the start of the story, the Monkees are in an Italian restaurant, sharing a large cliché submarine sandwich. A nice old guy, Pop, is encouraging them to eat. That’s sweet; he hired them to play and he’s also feeding them. The actor playing Pop has an accent that’s hard to understand. A couple of unpleasant-looking men in suits come in and threaten and intimidate Pop into selling the place. Peter helpfully asks, for the benefit of the audience, if they are “hoods.”
The hoods do some very familiar shtick. Fuselli, the leader, throws a coin up, and Rocco, the henchmen tosses him a new one when he drops it. This echoes the entrance of Micky and Peter in “Monkees in a Ghost Town,” when they were pretending to be Big Man and Spider, and Spider hands the Big Man a coin to toss up. I was aware this was a homage to classic Hollywood gangster films, but wasn’t sure of any specific one. The pop culture-savvy group members of the Monkee Magic group suggested George Raft as the coin-tossing Guino Rinaldo in Scarface (1932).
The new owners fire the Monkees, and Davy confronts the larger one, Rocco, telling him to pick on someone his own size. Rocco’s about a foot taller than Davy, and he points out there is no one his size. I’m already impressed with Davy for standing up to this giant, and then he gets even braver: When Rocco pulls a gun, Davy brushes it aside and tells him, “You’re pretty tough with a gun in your hand.” Rocco punches him and knocks Davy and all the other Monkees back.
Since Pop is an underdog and a rare older adult that is kind to them, the Monkees have to help him out. Back at the pad, they have a meeting to discuss that. Mike has his gavel and wants suggestions from the “floor” about dealing with Fuselli, leading to a gag where Peter listens to the floor, the wall, and the ceiling. Davy, I guess dizzy from being hit (see the cute band-aid?), has lost his earlier bravery and thinks the gangsters are too tough. Mike’s already decided that they’re going to help Pop and ignores Davy’s protests that there wasn’t a vote. I love that they end the meeting by throwing papers all over the place, and I wish we could end meetings like this at work.
The Monkees go back to Pop’s former restaurant and ask Rocco for their jobs back. Rocco hires them to wait tables since they “work cheap.” The other Monkees stick this job on Peter. This sets up the main theme in this episode: sticking Peter with everything. Peter auditions, successfully carrying large stacks of plates across the restaurant. In the kitchen, Peter lets go of the tray, which hovers (if you look close, you can see wires) for a few seconds, and then falls.
The Monkees are all in waiter’s uniforms, lined up for inspection. Fuselli shows them how they deal with people they don’t like by cuing Rocco to slap Peter. Micky gets in Fuselli’s face to show him how the Monkees treat people they don’t like, After an intimidating glare from Fuselli, Micky also slaps Peter. Peter wants to know what he did to deserve that.
That was such a cartoon violence moment. It’s more fun to see an aggressive, obnoxious character get knocked around, rather than a laid back, passive personality like Peter.
Fuselli lists their jobs: Chefs, dishwashers, musicians, hat check girl, cooks, cigarette girls. Well, we know they can dress as girls so, okay Fuselli. Now it’s time for a kitchen romp to “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone” (Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart). This is another good plot-relevant romp. They run around the kitchen mostly; cooking, juggling plates, playing sides of meat like guitars, and dropping stuff. Don’t miss Peter sneezing on the salt shakers. Maybe he was hoping to make Fuselli and Rocco very sick? Mike gets tangled in spaghetti, and this was the same shot used in Success Story (shot later but aired earlier). The best part of this is Peter’s struggles with the pizza dough. He tosses it up and it doesn’t come down, so he gets a gun and tries to shoot it down.
Since their antics aren’t working, they go to the police station where they meet with the Inspector who is very intense, and possibly insane. The actor is hilarious, flipping emotional temperature in a split-second. He tells them they are dealing with part of the Syndicate, and “The Only members of the syndicate we’ve captured belonged to the Purple Flower Gang. But, we got all four of them!” Mike asks, “How’d you do that?”
The Inspector tells them they must connect Fuselli to the violent Syndicate. Micky says they’re violent too, and attempts to demonstrate on Peter again, but Peter evades him and they all run out. I’m glad Peter got away from him that time. Peter is my hero in this episode, he takes all the abuse and does all the work. It occurs to me that in most of the other episodes I’ve looked at for these posts so far, Peter hasn’t been given much to do. The character in previous episodes is good for a few sight gags, or to say humorously clueless lines but generally Mike or Micky do most of the useful things. This is an ensemble episode with all the Monkees working together to defeat a common enemy, but Peter is the standout, stand-up guy. And he’s STILL performing the best sight gags and lines.
The Monkees attempt to get fingerprints is foiled by Fuselli wearing gloves, and their plan to record an incriminating conversation is ruined by the usually mechanically adept Micky screwing up with the tape recorder. (A common problem for the Monkees, see Davy in “Royal Flush“) Next, they go for breaking and destroying. They sneak into the office, in bandit masks, planning to use explosives to blow open the safe. Instead, they blow up the desk and scramble to replace it with the still intact safe. Micky looks at the camera and assures me, “They’ll never know the difference.”
Fuselli holds a meeting with the Syndicate, which gives the Monkees an opportunity to help the police arrest them all at once. Out in the dining area, the Syndicate introduces themselves, including a female gangster, Big Flora. Peter gets into it and offers his own introduction, and he really deserves the applause they give him.
The Monkees want to stay and listen to get the goods on the Syndicate but Fuselli gives them the boot and breaks out the big map, used to divide up the city among the Syndicate members. The Monkees re-enter disguised as the Purple Flower Gang, looking fabulous in cool gangster suits with white flowers in the buttonholes and fake mustaches. Flora questions the flower color, but Micky covers this in his gruff “gangster” voice.
Peter slips up and says they’re hungry, so now they have to also be the waiters to serve themselves food on Fuselli’s orders. In the kitchen they “choose” to see who will go get the Inspector, but end up just making Peter go. Of course they do.
At the police station, Peter is immediately arrested as part of the Purple Flower gang. He protests that his flower is white, but crazy inspector offers a call-back gag, “Don’t try to kid me, I know how tough it is to find purple flowers.” They put him under hot lights, and shake him down, then play nice and offer him coffee. He enjoys the attention and being fed. Truly, the police are treating Peter better than the other Monkees do in this episode. Peter takes credit for every criminal activity including the sinking of the Lusitania, the Great Train Robbery etc.
At the restaurant, Micky, Davy, and Mike run back and forth, quick-changing costumes from crooks to waiters as the meeting continues. The Syndicate members continue to fight over Fuselli’s map. Mike and Davy turn it into a giant game of tic-tac-toe. The chaos-loving Monkees start tearing up the map and handing out the pieces of paper. Davy stuffs some of the map into a gang member’s mouth. As the crooks start fighting, Micky and Davy shake hands on a job well done and look at us knowingly. This is one of their favorite maneuvers, delaying the antagonists by creating chaos and confusing them.
One hood says this room isn’t big enough for all of them, so the Purple Flower gang volunteers to split. The real gangsters start pulling out guns and shooting. Under the table the Monkees agree they’d better do something. Micky stands up to stop the proceedings and calls a cute young woman in a fur coat to the scene.
Thank you, James Frawley. Or the writers, or whoever came up with that. That was a really well-placed use of a unexpected, unrelated joke.
The shooting continues. Micky pops up behind the shoulders of various bad guys and tries to get them to stop: Five people should be able to get along! (Bang!) Four people should be able to get along. That was a funny, dark joke. This is a weird, bloodless bloodbath as bodies drop on the table but no blood effects are used. The gangsters are disposable, and their faux-dramatic deaths are played for humor, theyre not deaths we feel in anyway. Under the tables, Davy and Mike coolly ignore all the chaos and gunfire and continue to play tic-tac-toe. Every crook is dead, and the Monkees are not at all bothered. They got out of the situation by letting the adversaries destroy themselves.
Peter brought the police, hurray! But no, as the Monkees, still dressed as the Purple Flower Gang, are the last men standing, the Inspector arrests them. More of “Stepping Stone” is heard with some footage from other episodes, the most relevant being the bits of them walking around the cell in Ghost Town, playing with the flood lights from “I’ve Got a Little Song Here” mixed with the prison break bit from the pilot.
They don’t show us how they straightened things out with the inspector. Maybe Pop helped, because here he is, in his restaurant saying “Play for me boys, play like you used to.” The performance is separately shot footage of “She” (Tommy Boyce, Bobby Hart) with the band in grey suits and a blue background. They do some interesting angles, with Mike blurry in the foreground and the focus on Micky, who is singing. On a shallow note, Micky looks very handsome. Shots of the band are mixed in with some old black and white footage of women in bathing suits and circus performers, and other footage of people dancing. I don’t get the relevance.
Maybe I won’t forget about this one next time. There were many funny lines and this must hold the record for the most deaths in a Monkees episode. There are other violent episodes for sure. In “Everywhere a Sheik, Sheik,” a character dies on screen from poisoned meat. Many more bullets are fired in “Hillbilly Honeymoon” but we never see bodies. When we see the thugs in “Your Friendly Neighborhood Kidnappers” they are putting a guy’s feet in cement, so surely he’s about to be a corpse. Something about dark humor like this always appeals to me. On a show like The Monkees, it’s even better because it’s unexpected. It’s one of the things that keeps me coming back to the show as an adult, laughing at things that, most of the time, we’re expected to take seriously.
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.