Monkees vs. Macheen: “The Devil and Peter Tork”

“The Devil Went Down to Hollywood, Looking for a Soul to Steal.”

“The Devil and Peter Tork” is a classic episode, a fan favorite that receives a lot of well-deserved praise. Like the previous episode, “The Monkees’ Paw,” “The Devil and Peter Tork” was inspired by a short story: “The Devil and Daniel Webster,” by Steven Vincent Benét, about a farmer who enters into a contract with “The Stranger” and is in danger of losing his soul. The mythical litigator, Daniel Webster, sets up a court case on behalf of the farmer and wins his soul back for him.

“The Devil and Peter Tork” first aired on February 5, 1968, but was shot nearly a year earlier, in April, 1967. The episode has a first season/early second season feel, due to both the Monkee’s hair and clothing styles and the more innocent (relatively speaking) tone. The reason for the delay, per IMDB trivia, came from the network reacting to the “Hell” lines that mocked NBC’s Standards & Practices division. A alternate rumor about the reason for the delay was that the network objected to the sly drug references in the song “Salesman.”

Story writing credits for this episode go to Robert Kaufman (1931-1991), with the teleplay by Robert Kaufman and Gerald Gardner & Dee Caruso. This was Kaufman’s first and only Monkees episode. He also wrote the story for Divorce, American Style, screenplay for Freebie and the Bean, and Love at First Bite as well as many other film screenplays and television episodes. Episode director was James Frawley.

The episode begins with Peter visiting a pawn shop, admiring the many instruments. It appears to be the same music shop from “The Spy Who Came in from the Cool,” only the set is lit in this episode to appear ominous and shady. Peter calls out to see if anyone is in. Mr. Zero startles Peter, touches his shirt, and smoke rolls off from his touch! It’s not the creepiest thing that ever happened on this show, but it’s pretty scary! Zero explains that the instruments belong to musicians who have fallen on bad times.

Zero invites Peter to look around. Peter immediately notices the harp and approaches it to look more closely. He tells Zero he’s always loved the harp. Zero-the-cynical says he’s sure Peter means “need or desire, no one loves things anymore.” But Peter knows how he feels; he loves the harp. Of course he doesn’t have any money. No problem, Zero simply snaps his fingers and a contract appears, “play now, pay later.” Peter signs it and carries the harp out the door (magically opened for him by Zero). Zero calls someone on a red phone and requests a reservation for one; he’s just purchased the soul of Mr. Peter Tork. Meanwhile, Peter carries the harp down the street on foot.

Back at the pad, Mike patiently explains to Peter that, though the harp is beautiful, he doesn’t know how to play it. Micky and Davy agree that Peter should take it back and they leave him to it. Zero appears in a puff of smoke and asks Peter why he needs Mike now that he has his harp? Zero wants Peter to believe that material possessions are more important than people. Mike wisecracks that he does the sweeping up, etc. Zero disregards his sarcasm by magically popping a broom into Mike’s hand. He goes after his quarry, telling Peter to play his harp. Peter tries it out, and it seems Zero has given him supernatural knowledge of how to play it perfectly. Zero promises to make Peter famous, but Peter is not interested in fame; he’s simply entranced with the beautiful music. Zero puffs away. Monte Landis is appropriately menacing as Zero in this episode. This is my favorite of all of his seven performances on the show. Born in Glasgow, he plays Zero with a British accent. This is a fitting choice, as American movies and television shows love to cast Brits as “evil” characters.

Mike, Micky, and Davy re-enter the scene when they hear Peter playing, curious about how he learned so fast. Peter explains that Mr. Zero taught him. He asks if they could add it to the act, and Micky turns into a newspaper salesman, “Extra, extra, group earns fame and fortune by adding harp into act” Skeptical Mike points out that, “no one was ever an overnight success” as he goes to answer the ringing phone. It’s Harry’s Booking Agency, calling to tell them that with the harp, they’re going to be an overnight success. Ha! Mike is bemused.

The story of their climb to fame and fortune is told with a montage. There are shots of a train, kids screaming from “Monkees on Tour,” and newspaper headlines: “Monkees Intro Harp” “Monkees Harp a Hit!,” and “Monkees Harp Happening.” More Monkees on tour footage with a transparent image of Peter playing “Pleasant Valley Sunday” on the harp superimposed.

Back at the Monkees house, Peter’s still playing. (I’ve got blisters on my fingers!) Micky, Mike and Davy look through the hundreds of offers from the mail. Zero pops in with a puff of smoke. The Monkees are not amazed. I guess when you can materialize props and costumes yourself, nothing surprises you. Zero asks Peter if he’s pleased and likes all the money he’s making. All Peter cares about is making people happy with the music. He is of course the perfect character for Zero to target, because he was always the least likely to look for a catch in any bargain.

It’s time to pay up though, as Zero pulls out his contract. Mike, the type who always looks for the downside, grabs the contract and looks it over. (Peter Tork wise-cracks in the DVD commentary that Mike was always looking at contracts.) He quickly discovers that Peter has sold his soul to the Devil. Peter innocently says he doesn’t believe in devils. Zero says this makes Peter’s soul more interesting because innocence is “at a premium.”

This is an interesting thought. Can the Devil take your soul, if you don’t believe in him/it? Or is it like the film The Usual Suspects, “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he did not exist.” [“And like that … he’s gone.” – Editor’s Note] Does disbelief of evil give it great power? Or are you still innocent if you don’t acknowledge the existence of good and evil? As Shakespeare said, “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” Humans give those concepts power, they aren’t inherently true and don’t come from anyone but us. These are all possibilities to think over anyway.

Micky thinks Zero’s joking, as I would. Zero proves his power by snapping his fingers, shattering the chair that Micky tried to sit on, making Davy’s shirt vanish, and giving Mike that damn broom again. They all are convinced, yep, he’s the devil. That’s their proof? The Monkees themselves have made many a prop and costume appear out of nothing. Come on, impress me Mr. Zero.

According to the contract Zero gets Peter’s soul by midnight. (Shouldn’t it be on Peter’s death?) Mike points out that it’s only 8 p.m., and Peter wants his other four hours thanks. Zero agrees, undoes his mischief, and vanishes. The other three Monkees huddle around Peter, who admits he’s scared. He starts to say, “I don’t want to go to h—” but is cut off by a flash of hell-red lightning and a romp to the song “Salesman” (Craig Vincent Smith).

Woo hoo! I love this song and this romp. Zero sits on a throne with sexy female devils at his feet. The lady devils bring Peter to Zero and jab at the Monkees with devil forks. This is all mixed in with footage of Mike singing the song in the Rainbow Room. The Monkees get their own devil costumes, and they run around and dance etc. This is one of the better romps of the later part of the season. There’s a colorful, cheesy-yet-creepy vibe to it and great editing. I don’t know how this played to people in the 1960s. I’ve seen plenty of Vincent Price movies from that time with this same look.

After the romp is the classic dialogue:
Mike: So that’s uh, that’s what [cuckoo] is all about.
Davy: Yeah, [cuckoo] is pretty scary.
Micky: You know what’s even more scary?
Peter: What?
Micky: You can’t say [cuckoo] on television.

I love Micky’s cocky expression as he delivers the stinger. “Salesman” is on the album Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones, Ltd. The riff always reminded me of the Beatles’ “Taxman” and that was probably by design. The lyrics describe the life of a door-to-door salesman in cynical terms. The line that might have scandalized standards and practices is, “There goes salesman and he’s sailing high again /He’s sailing so high, high, sailing so high.” Considering the drug references that got by in episodes like “The Monkees Paw” and “A Coffin Too Frequent,” I doubt this was an issue. The joke above about not being allowed to say “hell” seems the more likely reason for the network delay of the episode.

Apparently “hell” had been said around this time on Star Trek. Captain Kirk said, “Let’s get the hell out of here” in the 1967 episode, “The City on the Edge of Forever.” It’s listed here on TV firsts. I’m guessing it was still considered pretty outrageous at the time. Wow, racy!

As the Monkees discuss what to do, Zero returns. The boys try to stall for time but Zero isn’t having it. He pulls Peter to the door, telling him he’ll like it “down there.” Then comes the most sweetly selfless moment ever on The Monkees:

Every time I see that scene, it gets to me. Davy Jones does it so sincerely. Zero turns him down of course, so Micky and Davy grab Peter and have a tug-of-war with Zero. Mike on the other hand, stands back and uses his brain. He tells Zero that if the contract is valid, there’s nothing the Monkees can do. But, he wants to take that contract to court to test it. Mike is taking more of the Daniel Webster role in this, despite the way the episode is named; he asks for the trial and makes the compelling argument toward the end.

Zero claps his hand and materializes a hellish, red-curtained, fire-lit court. Presided over by Judge Roy Bean, the jury consists of “twelve condemned men from Devil’s Island.” Yeah, I’m sure that’ll be fair. [Don’t they get a voir dire? – Editor’s Question] Roy Bean, if you were wondering, was a famous judge in late 19th Century Texas. He was known for his “unusual rulings” and was portrayed after his death as a “hanging judge” although he only ever sentenced two men to hang.

Zero calls old west gunfighter Billy the Kid as his first witness. Billy agrees that Zero kept his bargain and made him the most famous gunfighter in the West. Mike loses the “choosing fingers” contest with the other Monkees and has to take the first defense. He steps up to question “Mr. Kid” but is easily intimidated and backs off.

Zero wants to wrap it up, but Micky insists they call another witness on the fourth-wall-breaking-grounds that, “the television show’s not over.” Zero swaps out Billy for the renowned pirate, Blackbeard, who recites, “Yo ho ho and a bottle o’ rum, I smell the blood of an Englishman.” Davy takes that as his cue and stands up to question him. Blackbeard sways his rum bottle back and forth until Davy gets seasick.

Zero smugly calls infamous warmonger Attila the Hun. Micky steps up to the challenge, promising to be like Spencer Tracy from Inherit the Wind. (Never without a show-biz reference, that guy.) Attila doesn’t speak English so they start a conversation in faux “foreign” language. Attila backs Micky to the table with his sword until Mike stands up and shouts gibberish that makes Attila back off.

Micky: “What’d you say?”
Mike: “I don’t know!”

The judge is ready to pass sentence, but Mike’s not through. He calls the defense’s first witness: Zero himself. Zero materializes the contract for evidence. He claims in exchange for fame and fortune, Peter gave up his soul. Mike argues that Zero didn’t give Peter anything in exchange for his soul. Peter didn’t want fame and fortune; he just wanted to play the harp. Zero argues, “I gave him the ability to play the harp… in return for his soul.”

Poor Peter. He’s always the most sympathetic Monkee and I really feel for him here. This episode scared me a bit when I was a kid. I was raised Catholic so Hell was a real concept. I’d say this episode and “Son of a Gypsy” (thanks to the hot poker) were the two Monkees episodes that disturbed me the most. But I don’t mind; I like being scared. An episode with any kind of emotional impact is going to stick with me much longer. I was really worried for Peter. But never fear; Mike is here. He argues that Peter’s love of the harp and music gave him the power to play, not Zero. Micky and Davy listen thoughtfully and attentively while Zero laughs at his ideas.

Here’s where Zero makes his mistake. He takes the supernatural power away from Peter and materializes the harp. Mike tells Peter to go play. Peter is frightened, but Mike insists that no one can give Peter the power or take it away. Peter sits down and plays a beautiful instrumental arrangement of “I Wanna Be Free.” Of course, it’s not that simple. You can’t just do something because you love to do it. BUT, for the sake of this being a 30 minute show, let’s say for Peter, “love” equals many, many hours of practice, therefore what Mike says is meaningful and credible.

The jurors and the witnesses are touched; they’re even moved to tears. Zero is no longer laughing. This bit does parallel the original story, if we compare Peter’s playing of the harp to Daniel Webster’s way with words as described here:

“For his voice could search the heart, and that was his gift and his strength. And to one, his voice was like the forest and its secrecy, and to another like the sea and the storms of the sea; and one heard the cry of his lost nation in it, and another saw a little harmless scene he hadn’t remembered for years. But each saw something. And when Dan’l Webster finished he didn’t know whether or not he’d saved Jabez Stone. But he knew he’d done a miracle. For the glitter was gone from the eyes of judge and jury, and, for the moment, they were men again, and knew they were men.”Steven Vincent Benét, “The Devil and Daniel Webster”

Just like Webster, Peter has performed a miracle of restoring the humanity of the judge and these hard, bitter, hell-bound men. With his playing, Peter makes an argument in his own defense, and earns his name in the story title. He finishes playing and the judge declares him “not guilty!” Defeated, Zero snaps himself back to hell. The Monkees hug and celebrate.

This is a truly wonderful episode. Not so many laugh-out-loud moments as I normally expect, but a well done story, sensitively acted. I know it’s not perfect, but I like it so much I don’t feel like picking nits. This is one of the most emotionally engaging stories for me, included with “One Man Shy” and “I’ve Got a Little Song Here.” These are also the episodes that revolve around the non-actor characters, Mike and Peter. Not a coincidence I’m sure; there’s something about their less practiced acting style that makes them relatable, easy to empathize with. Or maybe they just lucked into better stories being written around them.

The last bit of the episode is the bouncy, energetic Rainbow Room performance of “No Time” (Hank Cicalo). This tune has a gospel feel and is therefore a great way to end this particular episode. Happy New Year, everyone. I hope you all have a wonderful 2018 and don’t have to make any deals with the Devil.

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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