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.

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