Monkees vs. Macheen: “It’s a Nice Place to Visit”

“Just a Loudmouth Yankee, I went Down to Mexico”

I’m glad season two started with such a bang. “It’s a Nice Place to Visit” was shot May 30-June 2, 1967, except for the musical number, “What Am I Doing Hanging Around?,” which was shot August 2, 1967 as part of the Rainbow Room musical numbers. James Frawley directed this episode, which aired on September 11, 1967. Treva Silverman wrote it. She’s one of my favorite Monkees writers, and in my recap for “Monkee See, Monkee Die,” I mentioned some of her other credits. “It’s a Nice Place to Visit” spoofs the western film and television genre. Westerns were at their peak in popularity from the 1930s-1960s and shows like Bonanza and Gunsmoke, as well as the less traditional science-fiction fusion, Wild, Wild West, were on the air at this time.

The story begins with the Monkees sitting on the broken-down Monkeemobile. They’re stranded on a very familiar set on the Columbia Ranch that was used in “Monkees in a Ghost Town” and other episodes that I mentioned in that recap. Mike reads a sign that says “Welcome to El Monotono, Mex.,” which translated means “monotonous.” Since this is a musical show, it could also be a pun on “monotone.” Despite the other sign that says, “Yankees, Go Home” the Monkees decide to enter the cantina. Either the town hates Americans, or they’re Mets fans.

Mike wears a new version of his green hat, with six buttons, mimicking the Monkees eight-button shirts. He also has a new deeper voice, which I like. On May 23, 1967 Mike went to the hospital for a tonsillectomy. Besides presumably improving his health, the other result was that when he recovered, as Davy Jones put it, “his vocal presentation changed.” (Thanks to the book The Monkees Day-By-Day by Andrew Sandoval for this info and date.)

A pretty waitress, Angelita, comes to the table and Davy instantly falls for her, despite the mockery and annoyed protests of the others. They exchange names and Davy shares that Angelita means “Little Angel.” She asks what David means and Mike snarks from the table, “David means business, baby.” Funny line and unexpected out of Mike’s mouth. Davy asks her out, but the bartender chases the Monkees away because Angelita is El Diablo’s “girl.”

There’s a bandit at the bar, complete with sombrero, poncho, and bandolier, who warns them that El Diablo says they must leave. When did El Diablo say that? The Imdb lists this character name as Jose (Nate Esformes,) and he is the only one of El Diablo’s men who has dialogue. He throws a knife at the Monkees to make them leave.

Season two launches the new opening sequence with different images of them fooling around. This is the opening I remember from syndication and it makes me feel at home. After the opening, there’s some incidental music that sounds like The Magnificent Seven theme. The show goes all out with the homage in this one.

Lupe, the mechanic, tells the Monkees that their car will need a new motor. Lupe is played by Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez, who performed in many westerns with John Wayne, including Rio Bravo and Wings of the Hawk, as well as western TV shows Laredo and The Texan. Peter Whitney (El Diablo) and Nacho Galindo (bartender) also had many western television and film credits under their belt. The clever casting was a nice touch.

The Monkees don’t have the money to fix their car so they go back and ask the bartender for a job. Despite what happened earlier with Davy and Angelita, he agrees. In the next scene, the Monkees play “What Am I Doing Hangin’ ’Round?” (Michael Martin Murphey, Owen Castleman) in matching blue Monkees shirts. The editors mix in the Rainbow Room performance with the cantina footage from the episode, and though they decorated the background to match the episode, it was clearly shot at a different time. I’ll go into the Rainbow Room in a later recap but here’s some basic info.

The cantina is packed and hopping, and the bartender hands them their payment. The Monkees plan to take the money and leave town. But not so fast: Davy wants to say goodbye to Angelita and kisses her many times. An extra runs into the bar shouting, “El Diablo is coming!” There are more extras than usual, giving it a feature film vibe. El Diablo enters wearing the furry vest that we saw on Boris in “The Spy Who Came in from the Cool” and on Marco in “Son of a Gypsy.” Four gun-carrying bandits accompany El Diablo as he strides into the bar while Angelita and Davy are still making out.

Finding Davy with “his woman,” El Diablo makes him dance by shooting at his feet He wants Davy to beg for his life and the other three Monkees come down and join in. Angelita, on the other hand, boldly describes Davy’s finer points to El Diablo: his beautiful mouth and eyes, his “ tiny, tiny ears.” She’s really playing fast and loose with Davy’s life. El Diablo chooses to kidnap Davy instead of killing him.

I’m going to take a moment to mention how gorgeous this episode is. There’s a cinematic quality including some rare aerial shots, for instance when El Diablo enters. We see a lot more tight close-ups than usual, including cool shots of the ceiling fan shadow on the actor’s faces. Irving Lippman was the cinematographer for this; he shot 56 out of 58 Monkees episodes (the exceptions were “The Pilot” and “Monkees on Tour”). Making this resemble a feature film makes the comedy even tastier. If you haven’t seen this one in a while, go pop in that disc and watch it just to appreciate the cinematography.

Davy has now become the “damsel in distress,” and the episode switches from being about Davy’s love life, to a western pursuit and rescue mission. After Micky fails to get help from the townsfolk, the Monkees fret outside the cantina. Mike points out they have to sneak into the bandit camp so they instantly pop (Pop! Pop! Pop!) into bandito costumes, complete with mustaches. They look fantastic, but Mike has doubts, “Don’t you think we ought to take something else with us, like a club card or some badges?” 

The original line is from the western, Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) starring Humphrey Bogart, and goes like this, “Badges? We ain’t got no badges. We don’t need no badges. I don’t have to show you any stinking badges!” Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles uses Micky’s version. Here’s a link to a video montage with variations on this line.

The Monkees get in the car and drive off. We don’t see them park anywhere; they run on foot into the bandit camp, firing their guns and shouting. El Diablo’s gang ignores them and continues to drink and poke the fire. The Monkees think they’ve intimidated them, but the bandits surround them, guns drawn. Jose (aka the bandit with all the dialogue) takes them to El Diablo. If you’ve ever seen the film Three Amigos (1986) I’m convinced that film took inspiration from this episode. Facing El Diablo, Mike fast-talks that his leader, Micky, “the greatest bandit in the world,” wants to join forces with El Diablo.

Funny dialogue as the Monkees create their “bandit” personas on the fly:

El Diablo: “They call me El Diablo. Also known as the bandit without a heart.”
Micky: “They call me El Dolenzio. Also known as the bandit without a soul.”
Mike: “And they call me El Nesmitho. Also known as the bandit without no…without any conscience.”
Peter: “And they call me El Torko. The bandit without a nickname.”

In an episode with many funny scenes to choose from, this is one of the best. The Monkees are bluffing as usual, and they are so spectacular and awkward at the same time. Of course they’ve done this kind of scene many times in the first season. Peter Whitney makes a funny and intimidating straight man and part of the humor for me is the notion that he’d buy the Monkees as bad-asses. The gorgeous close-ups are a nice touch also. As a topper, Mike and Micky try and fail to execute that cool gun twirling trick, but Peter Tork succeeds.

The Monkees must pass a series of tests for strength, skill, and bravery to join the bandit gang. My favorite part of this sequence is Peter’s mock-diabolical attitude and menace as he beats El Diablo at Go Fish, that game of “skill and determination.” After the Monkees miraculously survive the tests, El Diablo hosts a celebration for the new “bandits” at a long outdoor table. The Monkees don’t want to drink but El Diablo insists, so they toss their wine over their shoulders. When they go to make another toast, they crash cups which somehow still have wine in them. Peter sneaks off to locate Davy; Mike making the excuse to El Diablo that Peter got sick from the wine.

Peter finds Davy is tied up and guarded. He tries in many ways to tell the guard about the party over the hill, but to my tremendous amusement, the guard can’t understand until Peter says, “booze.” Peter needs to free Davy but doesn’t know how to untie a square knot. Repeating a gag used in “I Was a Teenage Monster,” Davy pulls out his supposedly tied-up hand to demonstrate a figure eight for Peter. Back at the party, Mike and Micky tell El Diablo that now they “need some air” and El Diablo is amused at the notion that they can’t handle their liquor.

Micky and Mike come rushing up to Davy and Peter. Micky unties Davy in nothing flat, and they dash for the Monkee mobile. There’s an amusing, surreal bit as they attempt to drive away: A parking lot attendant (played by comedian Godfrey Cambridge) appears out of nowhere and charges them 50 cents for parking. They accidentally run over his foot as they leave. In my mind, it’s a predecessor to the Blazing Saddles gag where the heroes stall the bad guys with a random toll bridge. “Anybody got a dime?”

El Diablo orders Jose to go after the Monkees, but Jose runs into a tree. There’s a lot of drinking and drunk humor. Also, most of the action of this episode takes place outside, a key feature of the western genre.

The Monkees are now back in El Monotono, because the car’s out of gas. Mike deals with Lupe while Davy kisses Angelita some more. Suddenly, Jose rides up and hands Micky a note, declaring that El Diablo wants to challenge him to a duel at high noon. It’s Micky he wants to challenge, even though Davy’s the one currently kissing “his woman.” When it’s a Hollywood spoof, Micky’s your man.

Micky and Mike immediately agree they’re going to “split” rather than fight. One of the sources of humor here is the opposition to real westerns where the hero is always impossibly tough and brave. (Clint Eastwood, John Wayne, etc.) The Monkees, while quick and clever, are not usually tough or brave. (Though pulling off con after con takes some nerve.) As it’s almost noon, they all rush for the car, but Angelita pleads with them.

That’s my favorite joke in the entire series. The line is clever, and Micky’s delivery kills me every time I watch it. He’s one of the all-time funniest television actors.

The Monkees are now all in western-style good-guy clothes with Micky in all white. Notice how handsome Micky is photographed here. He’s switched from bandito to brave western hero. The dialogue combines tough talk with fourth-wall breaking humor:

Peter: Are you scared?
Micky: No, I’m not scared; I’ll welcome this duel. The symbol of good against the symbol of evil, and I know I’m gonna be the victor.
Davy: Because the symbol of good always wins?
Micky: No, because the lead in a television series always wins.

The Monkees bring him all his lucky guns and holsters, and one of them is his lucky “Hobaseeba”–another sound-alike to the “No Time” song lyrics like Davy used in “Monkees in the Ring.” Micky collapses from the weight of so many guns and holsters and the others carry him off.

Now for the showdown, another important plot point in your classic western. Micky walks into the square while a “western” trumpet version of “The Monkees” theme plays. (According to IMDB trivia, the church bell rings only 11 times, not 12.) There’s a lot of witty lines, and then they duel. El Diablo fires about a dozen times and every bullet misses. Micky gets cartoony, mocking him, “You missed!” He runs off as El Rompo to “What am I Doing Hangin’ ‘’Round?” commences.

El Rompo is a gunfight between the two groups: the Monkees and El Diablo’s bandits. It’s a standard Monkees romp and the one weak point in the episode, lots of running around that resolves improbably with tying the bad guys up. Notable moments are when the Monkees are shooting on the same side as the bandits and we can see Davy with a copy of The Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. There are a couple of shots used in the second season opening such as the holster falling around Davy’s legs, and Mike’s hat getting shot off. The shows ends with credits and the lovely, “For Pete’s Sake” (Peter Tork, Joey Richards) replacing The Monkees theme song

Excellent Monkees comedy, heightened by adherence to western conventions such as: natural settings, good guys vs. bad guys, a chase or pursuit, and a final showdown. The cinematography, the casting, and the writing shows the huge effort put into making this half hour spoof resemble a real western. The production values heighten the comedy of the Monkees antics. The sight gags, dialogue, and the performances were all top notch. I realize this story isn’t profound or complex and I do have other favorite episodes, such as “I’ve Got a Little Song Here” which touches my heart and “Monkees à la Mode” which epitomizes the themes of The Monkees to me. However, “It’s a Nice Place to Visit” is my pick for funniest episode. It’s obvious the episode has had an influence on comedies that came after. Unfortunately, this set the bar high for season two, and many of the later episodes didn’t live up to this level of attention to detail and comic energy.

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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Vintage Cable Box: The Woman in Red, 1984

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“Come and get it, Cowboy.”

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The Woman in Red, 1984 (Gene Wilder), Orion Pictures

I had not planned to cover The Woman in Red until next year, but Gene Wilder’s passing prompted me to look at the movie again. As far as I know, the movie did not premiere on HBO until 1986 when we had already moved back to Philadelphia. We missed our HBO so much we bought a satellite dish (at a cost of $30 a month), and installed it on our rooftop (at a time when Philly did not have cable television below the Broad Street line). What I most remember about the movie was the heavy promotion it received during it’s initial release. The publicity and the advertisements thoroughly peddled Kelly Le Brock and the memorable (if tedious) music of Stevie Wonder.

San Francisco advertising executive Gene Wilder is negotiating a hi-rise ledge and wondering what he had done to find himself in this position.  He recalls that one day four weeks ago, he was sitting in his car in a parking lot when he spotted a woman in a red dress walking down the street.  She passes over a grate, which blows hot air up her dress, revealing her matching red panties.  She turns back, stands over the grate and starts dancing.  From then on, Gene is smitten.  He is immediately infatuated with her, and tries to set up a date with her, but mistakenly reaches co-worker Gilda Radner instead.  He seems happy yet unsatisfied in his marriage to Judith Ivey, recalling Tommy Noonan’s roving eye and boredom in The Seven Year Itch with Marilyn Monroe.

His friends are of no help to his burgeoning infidelity and thoughts of desertion.  They ogle women constantly and screw around behind their busy wives’ backs.  Joseph Bologna (fresh from Blame It on Rio) is a cad, and Charles Grodin plays a character he knows best: well-meaning and mild-mannered, but with a touch of hysteria.  All is not well as Bologna is informed his wife is divorcing him, so the central fear of loneliness is a preoccupation in Wilder’s character.  Evidently, men are all big talk until the shit hits the fan.  Interestingly, because Wilder refuses to discuss his feelings of ennui with his wife, he comes across as a gibbering idiot on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

Ivey, livid over Bologna’s impending divorce, and all the terrible stories that accompany it, informs Wilder she is a violently jealous woman.  Her revelation horrifies Wilder.  Meanwhile, Gilda awaits her “date” with the clueless Wilder, who never arrives because he had no idea he was making a date with her.  In an unusual montage, we see Gilda sitting alone in an empty restaurant, Bologna sleeping and drinking alone next to pictures of his children, and Wilder unable to sleep next to his wife in the bed they share.  The next day, a furious Gilda keys his car and breaks his antenna.  When he discovers his mystery woman had a love of horseback riding, he arranges a meet-cute with the girl at the stables.

The two hit it off, and once Le Brock shows even the mildest of interest in Wilder, his life turns around.  He is happy and confident.  He buys new clothes, and tries to give himself a new hairstyle, to which his friend hilariously compares him to Robert Redford.  As with Dudley Moore and Bo Derek in 10, Wilder manages to get Le Brock into bed, but before he can consummate his lust, her husband arrives home early, and he must escape, by climbing out on the aforementioned ledge.  Where Moore was turned off by Derek’s casual attitude regarding sex, Wilder’s screenplay and direction emphasize the loneliness of his character.  He photographs Le Brock as though she were a goddess just out of his reach.

With a charmingly dated appeal, this is a movie made for the PG-13 rating.  While PG-rated movies in the late 70s/early 80s treaded lightly when it came to certain kinds of violence and off-color language, the introduction of the PG-13 rating promised movies with adult humor and themes that could be watched and enjoyed by kids.  This was the promise, but it was not kept.  PG-13 movies were produced (starting in the early 90s) to guarantee as many asses in the seats as PG movies did twenty years before.  The Woman in Red is a rare example of a movie that would be rated R (restricted audiences) if released today.

Gene Wilder never set out to become a comedic actor.  It was only when collaborators such as Mel Brooks and Woody Allen discovered his gift for controlled mania, and an unerring capacity to stretch the imagined boundaries of sanity with every character he played, were we truly witness to the birth of that comedic legend.  His first film was 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde.  Brooks cast him as the neurotic accountant Leopold Bloom in The Producers.  He would appear in Start the Revolution Without Me and Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, but it wasn’t until 1972’s Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask) that he began to make a name for himself as the reluctant comedian.  He would make Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles for Mel Brooks, as well as a series of successful comedies with Richard Pryor.  In addition to The Woman in Red, he would write and direct The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother, The World’s Greatest Lover, and Haunted Honeymoon.

I’m gonna miss him.

A very special thank you to Christopher Hasler for suggesting this title.

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: “Silent Movie, 1976”

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“Non!”

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Silent Movie, 1976 (Mel Brooks), 20th Century Fox

In 1976, Mel Brooks was the King of Comedy.  A year-and-a-half previous, he had directed two of the greatest movies (let alone comedies) ever made in Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein.  The creative world was his.  He could’ve followed up those two incredible gems with any project that piqued his interest, and he instead chose to take a giant step backward in the evolution of film with a silent movie (appropriately titled Silent Movie).  I always wondered if executives at Fox were worried about this peculiar choice.  If the lack of dialogue wasn’t enough to worry the studio, the subject matter (that of lambasting the studio process and the run of billion-dollar conglomerates insinuating themselves into the creative visual arts) would be sure to give them pause.  Brooks’ power was such that he could do whatever he wanted at the time.

Brooks (in his first starring role) plays washed-up director Mel  Funn, who (along with his buddies Marty Eggs (Marty Feldman) and Dom Bell (Dom DeLuise), convinces Big Pictures studio chief Sid Caesar to finance his latest work: a silent movie.  Caesar, weary from threats the studio will be taken over by evil corporation, Engulf and Devour (obviously a play on Gulf & Western and their acquisition of Paramount in 1966) agrees on the proviso Funn can sign big Hollywood names to the production.  Funn, Eggs, and Bell immediately set out finding stars for their movie.  The three attack Burt Reynolds in his shower.  They have lunch with James Caan in his wobbly trailer.  They dress in suits of armor to woo Liza Minneli.  They race in electric wheelchairs with Paul Newman.  They dance with and court Anne Bancroft.  Somewhat miraculously, these actors agree to star in Funn’s silent movie, all except for Marcel Marceau, who famously delivers the only line of audible dialogue (see above quote).

Enter Engulf and Devour.  They have an evil plan.  Knowing Funn’s past, they engage sexy vixen Vilma Kaplan (the very hot Bernadette Peters, with her explosive pelvic thrust) to seduce Funn, and then discard him so he’ll take up drinking again.  Eggs and Bell catch on to the scheme and warn Funn, who is so disillusioned and distraught (believe me, I can relate), he crawls into an enormous bottle and is declared “king of the winos”.  Unbeknownst to him (and Engulf and Devour), Vilma has fallen head-over-heels for our pal Mel.  Lucky bastard!  Vilma, Eggs, and Bell pour a hundred cups of coffee into him, sober him up, and start making the movie.  Engulf and Devour executives steal the print of the finished movie before it’s official premiere, so it’s up to the gang to get the movie back, screen it, and save Big Pictures Studios before the conglomerate can complete their take-over.

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Hi Burt!

This is such a damned fun (and funny movie), it’s unusual to watch without narrative-building dialogue quite honestly getting in the way of the sheer physical humor that propels what we see on the screen.  This is a story that doesn’t scream out for dialogue; doesn’t require dialogue.  The three leads (Feldman, in particular, channeling Harpo Marx) are perfectly suited to the exaggerated mannerisms and pantomime necessary to the humor.  Silent Movie is a delicious experiment that would not be repeated in quite this way ever again.  Recently, in viewing and commenting on 2013’s Deadly Prey sequel, The Deadliest Prey (directed by David A. Prior), I bemoaned the terrible dialogue that kills the movie for me, mainly because, in my view, if you don’t have decent actors, it’s going to make the production even worse.  When you remove dialogue, you remove a potential flaw, and if you can’t write good dialogue, don’t bother trying.

I had meant to write this review for quite some time, but I found myself almost consistently distracted by the beauty and talent of Bernadette Peters.  She is seriously sexy in this movie (and in most everything she does).  To my wife’s ire, I required a drool bucket when we sat down to watch the movie.  She also had to pick my jaw up off the floor after watching Vilma’s interpretation of Lecouna’s “Babalu”.  Men!  Anyway, this is the last installment of my tribute to Mel Brooks, who turned 90 yesterday.  God bless him.  In my life as a writer (and sometime filmmaker), I always go back to Mel; a testament to the timelessness of his material.  My wife and I often quote his gags, one-for-one.  Most recently, I rewrote a scene in my own movie, Total Male Fantasy No. 10, in which I instructed my lead to replicate a particular bit from one of Mel’s movies.  It’s odd.  You would think I revere a Welles, or a Kubrick, or a Hitchcock, but no – it always comes back to Mel Brooks.  Please make another film, Mel!

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A picture of Bernadette because … damn!

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: “To Be Or Not To Be, 1983”

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“Listen, if I don’t come back, then I forgive you for anything that happened between you and Lt. Sobinski.  But if I do come back, you’re in a lot of trouble!”

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To Be Or Not To Be, 1983 (Mel Brooks), 20th Century Fox

The story goes that Mel Brooks sought out the widow of Ernst Lubitsch to get her blessing with regard to a remake he wanted to produce for 1941’s Jack Benny classic, To Be Or Not To Be.  Lubitsch’s widow approved, and Brooks chose Alan Johnson (celebrated choreographer of many films including The Producers from 1968 and director of the notorious Brooksfilms flop, Solarbabies) to direct the film.  I can only assume Brooks decided not to direct because he wanted to focus on producing a faithful remake of a film with potentially controversial subject matter, and stay true to the dramatic material. In fact, this movie (and The Twelve Chairs) is as close to drama as Brooks would ever permit.

Brooks (with wife Anne Bancroft) play Frederick and Anna Bronski, reknowned actors (world famous in Poland!) and owners/operators of the Bronski Theater in Warsaw.  Despite warnings of imminent German incursion, Bronski reasons the show must go on; including a politically satirical musical number featuring a buffoonish Hitler (played by Bronski).  The Ministry of Information threatens to shut down his theater if he doesn’t remove the offending material.  Frustrated, he relents.  Meanwhile, Mrs. Bronski conducts a romantic affair with a brash, young Polish Lieutenant Sobinski (Tim Matheson) during Bronski’s center-piece, Highlights From Hamlet, in which he destroys Shakespeare with his hammy performances.

Soon after, the German war machine rolls into Poland.  Sobinski tells Anna he must leave immediately and connect with the Royal Air Force in England.  The Germans shut down Bronki’s theater, confiscate their possessions (including their home), implement gas rationing, and start rounding up dissidents and enemy agents.  The Bronskis reluctantly start hiding Jews in their basement.  Anna’s homosexual dresser, Sasha, opens his modest apartment to the Bronskis.  The brave Sobinski discovers that a respected member of the underground, Professor Selitski (José Ferrer), is a double-agent for the Germans.  Selitski acquires a list of Polish Underground members.  Sobinski is ordered by the British to paratroop back into Poland and kill Selitski.

Anna, in spite of her obvious infidelity, persuades her husband and his troupe of actors to help Sobinski.  First, Bronski must impersonate Colonel Erhardt in order to obtain the list from Selitski.  After Selitski is dispatched and the list is destroyed, Brooks masquerades as Selitski for the benefit of Colonel Erhardt (hilarious scene-stealing Charles Durning) and his bumbling assistant, Schultz (Christopher Lloyd).  Sobinski devises a plan to steal an aircraft and fly the Bronskis, the theater troupe, and all of the Jews (cleverly disguised as clowns) in hiding out of Warsaw to safety in England.

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This is such a fun film I have to admit I enjoyed it much more than the Jack Benny original that inspired it.  Film lovers in my age bracket respond more to Brooks than Benny.  Jack Benny, while a hilarious entertainer, was not in constant rotation on cable television in those days.  Even today (like Ernie Kovacs), it’s difficult to find a good portion of his surviving material.  When I was a kid, Mel Brooks was the king of comedy, and when To Be Or Not To Be debuted on cable, The Movie Channel ran a retrospective of his films.

What impresses me the most about To Be Or Not To Be (above the remake’s requisite respect for the original) is the very thin line the film negotiates between hilarity and pathos.  As an actor, this is Brooks’ strongest performance of all his movies.  In fact, all of the performances (particularly Bancroft) are on equal par.  These are a group of committed and energetic actors giving their all, and putting on a wonderful show.

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 Twelve Chairs, 1970”

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“I hate people I don’t like!”

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The Twelve Chairs, 1970 (Ron Moody), Universal Marion Corporation

While ostensibly labeled a “Mel Brooks comedy”, The Twelve Chairs, the under-appreciated 1970 follow up to The Producers, and essentially a lively chase across the then brand-new Soviet Union, the narrative follows devastatingly dramatic and tragic narrative beats. Ippolit Matveyevich Vorobyaninov (Ron Moody, in a brilliant performance) was, at one time, of noble Russian blood; an aristocrat, who held vast properties, large mansions, whole swaths of acreage; acquiring treasures from around the world, but this was before the Bolshevik Revolution when all private property (for some strange reason) became public property. That is to say the “property of the People”; the people being the communist government.

When the communists came to power, they seized everything, including a garish dining room set consisting of a table and twelve chairs.  Before Vorobyaninov’s mother-in-law dies, she tells him of fabulous jewels that she sewed into the cushion of one of the chairs.  She also spills the secret to Priest Fyodor (Dom DeLuise, oddly out of place in this movie), who promptly shaves his ridiculous beard and abandons the church to find the jewels.  For reasons that are never explained, thief and con-man Ostap (Frank Langella, in his film debut), gets wise to the booty and hooks up with Vorobyaninov to find the chairs before Fyodor does.  This mission sends them to bizarre places, like the hilarious “Museum of Furniture” (where the chairs were recently on display) only to find they’ve been split and sold off.  Ostap poses as a clerk, forges the sales records and sends Fyodor off on a wild-goose-chase, where he terrorizes a beleaguered couple he is convinced possess the remaining chairs.

While Vorobyaninov and Ostap bond, in my view, they are at cross-purposes.  In a telling scene near the end of The Twelve Chairs, they argue and come to blows when Ostap suggests they beg for the money to purchase the remainder of the chairs.  Ostap schemes that Vorobyaninov should pretend to suffer epilepsy and then they will take money from sympathetic pedestrians.  Vorobyaninov is adamant in his refusal.  He is nobility, he insists.  Ostap labels him a parasite, and (almost proudly) proclaims that he has begged his whole life.  Vorobyaninov relents.  Now he knows what it means to beg, and while his pride may be wounded, he knows this is the only way to survive.  While Ostap is interested only for the riches, I believe Vorobyaninov wants to simply retain his dignity.  It is an incisive revelation, and occurs in a Mel Brooks movie at a time when we don’t know if we should laugh or cry.

Even more shocking is Fyodor.  A man of the cloth transformed very quickly into a monster at the first thought of riches.  As the concept of communism crept into Russia, notions of materialism (and more importantly, god concepts) deteriorated under the ideology of labor and financial equality, thus eliminating the need for God (or, as my wife, speculated, “the promise of riches and eternal happiness in Heaven”).  Father Fyodor exists as an anomaly; something that should not exist in the Godless Soviet Union.  Once he has made the leap to the greed and inequities of Man, the surprising cynicism of Brooks’ screenplay (based upon Ilf and Petrov’s classic piece of folklore and legend) becomes more pronounced, and also, curiously satisfying.  Where Fyodor has lost his humanity because of his greed,  Vorobyaninov has found his humanity when he realizes his survival depends on his greed.

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Ron Moody as Vorobyaninov delivers what is, in my mind, one of the greatest (if not the greatest) performances in the history of cinema for the modern age. Vorobyaninov is a miserable little man desperately holding on to outdated notions of honor and imperalism. His face lights up at the prospect of taking back the jewels. He suffers embarrassments at the hands of Ostap who shames him for his lack of vision and street-smarts. He expresses violent rage at the thought of demeaning himself, and then he eventually acquiesces to the lunacy of the situation. This is an incredible rendition of a man who turns his back to the “progress” of the new socioeconomic order. While Brooks’ outstanding screenplay adaptation was nominated for the WGA Award, and Langella won a National Board of Review Award for Best Supporting Actor, Moody was robbed of any nominations or awards, which is staggering to me.

Even more staggering is that this is a Mel Brooks movie. There are the requisite sight gags (with emphasis on stand-alone visual cues), and silly sped-up chasing and action sequences, and memorable one-liners (as well as a Mel Brooks cameo), but the emphasis of this story rests in the tragedy of the old man, not the manic machinations of the corrupted priest. This is a cynical film, but stays true to the Brooks philosophy of the corruption of power, and the overwhelming dominance of greed.

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: “History Of The World Part One, 1981”

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“But we Romans are rich. We’ve got a lot of gods. We’ve got a god for everything. The only thing we don’t have a god for is premature ejaculation… but I hear that’s coming quickly.”

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History Of The World Part One, 1981 (Mel Brooks), 20th Century Fox

The first impression you get when you’re looking at the opening titles of History Of The World Part One with the voice of Orson Welles narrating, and “Also Spoke Zarathustra” playing on the soundtrack is that Mel Brooks has made a serious art film.  It is art, but it’s most definitely not serious.  We start with “The Stone Age”; ape-like creatures rising into frame at magic hour, and then they start dancing around like idiots, under which a caption reads, “Our Forefathers”.  It’s silly, but it does account for some of our more bizarre behaviors through millennia.  Brooks plays with a  lot of cheap gags during this segment.  The first artist.  The first critic.  The first spear.  The first funeral.

From there, we jump into a quick bit with “The Old Testament” and Mel Brooks plays Moses, who comes down from the mountain with three tablets, fifteen commandments, but he drops one of the tablets. We move into our first set-piece: “The Roman Empire”. Comicus, a stand-up philosopher, waits in line at the Unemployment Office. Secretary Bea Arthur wisely sums him up as a “bullshit artist”. His agent, Swiftus (Ron Carey), arrives with good news of a job at Caesar’s Palace (“The main room!”). Comicus defends vestal virgin, Miriam (cute Mary-Margaret Humes), against a cruel chariot master who is beating former champion horse, Miracle. They hook up with Josephus (Gregory Hines), an Ethiopian runaway slave with an uncircumcised penis and a talent for soft-shoe. They’re all about to be executed when Miriam appeals to Empress Nympho (Madeline Khan) to spare their lives.

Josephus is given a job as wine-bearer.  Comicus performs his stand-up act (“The Christians are so poor, they can only afford one god!”), which indirectly insults the hedonistic, disgusting Emperor Nero (Dom De Luise).  He orders Comicus to fight to the death with Josephus – a brother can’t ever get a  break!  They fight their way out, flee the palace and get jobs in Judea.  Comicus works as a waiter at the Last Supper of Jesus Christ (John Hurt) and seems to have provided some inspiration for Da Vinci.  It makes you wonder about all the low-level jobs in history.  Why are we always reading about kings and senators, emperors and knaves?  I’d love to read about a plumber or a book-keeper from those times, Life Of Brian-style.

We move on to another quick bit about “The Spanish Inquisition” as interpreted with a Busby Berkeley-styled musical dance number, complete with tortured Jews and swimming nuns.  I remember my 5th Grade teacher, Mrs. Catherman, would sing this song all day long in school.  Next up, “The French Revolution” with Brooks casting himself as King Louis (“It’s good to be the king.”) and his double, Jacques, the lowly piss-boy (a job description that doesn’t require clarification).  Mademoiselle Rimbaud (sexy Pamela Stephenson) appeals to the king to release her lunatic father.  The king agrees, but only if the Mademoiselle were to visit him in his chambers.

Harvey Korman is the evil Count de Monet who convinces the vacuous king to flee because of the impending siege, and to pass off the piss-boy as King Louis.  For his first act, the piss-boy arranges to have the old man released from prison.  Meanwhile, Madame DeFarge (Cloris Leachman) leads the revolt of the poor against the rich, and the fake king is captured and sentenced to death by guillotine.  Jacques and Mademoiselle Rimbaud are rescued by Josephus and Miracle from the previous episode.  When Brooks asks Hines how he got here, he gives him the one of the best lines ever: “Movies is magic!”

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Proceeding, as Brooks did with Blazing Saddles, from the assumption that film is artifice, History Of The World Part One makes no argument claiming any of this is real, but there are elements of historical truth to this enterprise.  The idea of the two set-pieces (“The Roman Empire”, “The French Revolution”) is that those few in power are idiots, and the rest of us do the work to keep this crumbling earth turning, but with invention and resources, we might just cause a little anarchy.  Just a little healthy anarchy.  The winners in history are still in power, but Brooks reminds us that all power is temporary, and he throws in a catchy song to fill up the running time.  Filmed in beautiful widescreen and utilizing an oddly quaint Technicolor process, it’s astonishing to consider the majority of background imagery was accomplished with beautiful Albert Whitlock matte paintings.  This is true artistry.

Unfortunately, History Of The World Part One doesn’t work as well as Blazing Saddles or Young Frankenstein, perhaps because Brooks doesn’t have the guiding influence of the collaborators he worked with on those films, but it still is a damn funny movie on it’s own terms.  I was thinking of all the pain that went into these jokes.  Not the pain of writing the jokes, but the history of pain detailed in these narratives.  That would be a great “alterna-title” for the movie.  Mel Brooks presents History Of Pain (Part One), but seriously …  Where, in Blazing Saddles, Brooks (and his writers, among them Richard Pryor and Andrew Bergman) pokes fun at racism with a sharp stick, here he uses kid-gloves to take shots at antisemitism, concepts of absolute power, and the fervor of religious fanaticism.

Wait!  Where are you going?  Coming Soon!  History Of The World Part Two!  Mel Brooks turns 90 next week, so starting today and extending through to next Wednesday, I will be reviewing some key Mel Brooks movies that played on cable television during this time.  I hope you enjoy it!  There’s a little gag here I had never noticed watching the movie many, many times in the past.  King Louis is playing a game of human chess.  He proclaims his “King’s Privilege” and has all of his pieces jump the opponent’s queen, after which he declares a “gang bang”.  His staff is made up mostly of midgets; (or the more politically correct designation: little people, which sounds worse) because of his short stature, he wants to be tallest in the group.  King Louis jumps into the fray shouting, “Whip out those little dicks!”  I wonder if this movie could be made today.

“I was sittin’ flickin’ chickens
And I’m looking through the pickins’
When suddenly these goys break down my walls
I didn’t even know them
And they grab me by the scrotum
And they started playing ping-pong with my balls
Oy the agony … Oh the shame
To make your privates public for a game!”

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: “Jekyll And Hyde – Together Again, 1982”

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“Will a proctologist please report to the Emergency Room?  There’s an asshole waiting!”

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Jekyll And Hyde – Together Again, 1982 (Mark Blankfield), Paramount Pictures

Just before the end credits roll, the camera sweeps over a London cemetery to find the grave of Robert Louis Stevenson. In his coffin, Stevenson’s bones literally turn as he curses the makers of Jekyll And Hyde – Together Again. I know how he feels. It must be how Mary Shelley felt to know that her deep, probing analysis into the Prometheus Complex and the serious deconstruction of reanimating dead tissue was turned into a goofy monster movie directed by James Whale (I’m sorry, but I never much cared for the original Frankenstein). At least, the filmmakers know that they’ve defiled a classic, unlike say Stephen Frears and his dreadful Mary Reilly.

Mark Blankfield is Daniel Jekyll, a somewhat brilliant surgeon who has decided to abandon his practice and conduct research dedicated to non-invasive procedures, namely administering drugs in place of surgery. While working in the lab late one night (“he did the mash!”), he accidentally mixes powders and snorts it up while he sleeps. After a violent fit of coughing, he transforms into a mustachioed sex maniac, decked out in a leisure suit and gold chains, with an electrified jew-fro. A cocaine-scooping nail emerges from his pinky, and his penis grows to impressive lengths. This is really silly. What follows is filler. Mr. Hyde takes to the town.

A respectable schlub, Jekyll is being pressured by his soon-to-be father-in-law (Michael McGuire) into performing a “total transplant” on a Howard Hughes-type character, or else he won’t be able to marry McGuire’s daughter (Bess Armstrong, completely wasted and cast against type in the role of Blankfield’s fiancée). When he becomes Hyde, he hangs out in sushi bars and makes passionate love with a singer and part-time prostitute named Ivy (leader of the hilariously-named new wave/punk band Ivy & The Shitty Rainbows), whom Jekyll had earlier treated for a “foreign object” in her vagina. The foreign object was a small Asian man, but we don’t need to go into that.

Torn between his responsibilities as a “healer”, the chaste relationship with dizzy socialite Armstrong, and his sexually hyperactive libido unleashed upon Ivy, Jekyll begins to lose his mind. Blankfield performs admirably as a physical comedian. Unfortunately his delivery is rife with over-annunciation, and it becomes too much to bear, and because the movie is nothing more than a series of episodes and cheap gags (like lazy Mel Brooks or Carl Reiner), the narrative never manages to probe the deeper metaphysical connotations of Stevenson’s source material. I wasn’t expecting a serious treatise about a dissociative identity disorder, but this movie is almost unbearable to watch and excruciatingly silly. However, the movie does provide a window into the decade of decadence and the rise of cocaine: the drug that is obviously being parodied here.

It absolutely boggles my mind to consider that four extremely talented and prolific writers had their hands in this mess of a screenplay.  Monica Johnson collaborated with Albert Brooks on several excellent screenplays (notably Modern Romance and Lost In America).  Harvey Miller wrote for Taxi, The Odd Couple, Laverne & Shirley, and The Tracey Ullman Show.  Michael Leeson wrote The War Of The Roses.  Director Jerry Belson started writing for The Dick Van Dyke Show in 1961, as well as Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C and I Spy, and uncredited rewrite work for Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters Of The Third Kind.  Later in his life, he produced The Drew Carey Show.  The participation of these exceptionally gifted writers reminds me of a review I read about Brian De Palma’s 1990 fiasco, The Bonfire Of The Vanities:  “Only filmmakers this talented could make a film this bad,” or words to that effect.

Mark Blankfield would later appear in the KISS documentary parody, KISS: Exposed (1987), as a clumsy journalist who interviews Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley, with hilarious results.  He would also appear in Mel Brooks’ Robin Hood: Men In Tights (1993) as the blind idiot, Blinkin.  Ubiquitous eighties movie presence, Bess Armstrong, will be making further appearances in the annals of Vintage Cable Box, including Jaws 3D and The House Of God.  This movie was a real struggle to get through.

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.