Monkees vs. Macheen: “Monkees In A Ghost Town”

header_text

“Of Mice and Monkees”

Title

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.

Mike-vs-Mike

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.

Lenny-wants

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:

Exposition

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.

Big-Man-and-Spider

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.

Famous-line

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.

Show-biz

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.

Micky-Mania-Ghost

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.

Evil-Ghost-town

Look-Out-For-Ghost-

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.

Advertisements

Monkees vs. Macheen: “Monkee vs. Machine” (What?)

header_text

“They Just Won’t Stop with the Social Commentary”

“Monkee vs. Machine”, directed by Monkees creator Robert Rafelson, aired September 26, 1966 on NBC and was written by David Panich who wrote “Monstrous Monkees Mash” and “Monkees at the Circus.” This is one of my favorites because of its unusual storyline. It’s cited on the Chaos and Control: The Critique of Computation in American Commercial Media (1950-1980) website in the “Humanistic Critique” section along with 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Trek, Dr. Strangelove, and other movies and television shows from 1957-1977. The author of this essay, Steve Anderson, postulates that Hollywood stories at that time compared machines to humans frequently, addressing questions of how people compare to computers. The general conclusion of these shows and movies always seemed to be that people come out ahead in any comparison because humans have feelings and are capable of independent thought.

Schneider-web

This story starts out when Mr. Babbitt demands his rent again. After checking the want ads, the others send Peter off to get a job at a toy company; a job he is perfect for because it requires no training or experience. Peter interviews with a computer, the DJ61, a machine which, by all rights, should not have a personality, but does (indeed a humorless, inflexible one). DJ61 can’t understand the emotional, nervous Peter at all and thinks Peter is a woman named as “Nit Wit.” Peter is upset and asks why he can’t talk to a live person but the unsympathetic (dare I say machine-like) secretary boots him out. His application is rejected. The Monkees vs. Machine score in my head is Monkees: 0, Machine: 1.

Before I go on with the story, I have to note that when I saw this recently on IFC, their version goes straight into the credits, and then starts with the first scene. My DVD version has the first two scenes with the Monkees in their house and then Peter going to the interview, right up to the point where the secretary shuts him in with the DJ61, and then the credits. I surmise they flipped things around for the syndicated version that IFC is using.

Now it’s Mike’s turn to take a crack at the job and the DJ61—armed with information from Peter. He enters the interview and takes over. I love it when he does that. The supposedly unemotional computer sure does get flustered when Mike (in true Captain Kirk fashion) turns the DJ61’s questions back on it, and starts punching its buttons. The true machine enters in the person of Daggart, the company executive. Stan Freberg played Daggart, and he was a damn funny man. I have a vague memory of listening to his “John and Marsha” routine, which Youtube helps me to revive. Freberg’s comic skills really drive this episode. Daggart tells us the computer declared Mike a genius. Mike Nesmith pulls off this adorably proud, yet embarrassed, expression. Mike’s genius destruction of the Machine makes the score Monkees: 1, Machine: 1.

Favorite-Line-web

Daggart is impressed by Mike’s ability to outwit one of his machines, so he takes him to the company owner, JB Guggins, played by Severn Darden, and declares that he’s hiring Mike on the spot. Guggins lets Daggart and his computers do all the thinking for him, and he agrees to whatever Daggart says. Note the picture of Guggins’ father and company founder behind the desk, which is clearly also Severn Darden with hilarious hair.

Daggart then takes Mike around to meet the rest of his staff, who turn out to be computers with human names. These are Daggart’s children, and when Mike starts poking at them, Daggart gives him a “Don’t do that.” The only human member of his staff is Harper, an old man who designs toys by hand. Pop Harper has made a flexible toy that can be bent into any shape, which he shows to Mike. Daggart scoffs at him, telling him he’s part of “yesterday” and tells Mike he’s only keeping Harper around because Guggins’ father promised him a job for life. Harper looks dejected at Daggart’s attitude towards him, and Mike is sympathetic. Daggart leaves with disembodied “boos” accompanying him off screen. The new score is Monkees: 1, Machine: 2.

Back at the Monkee’s pad, Mike is not as happy as he should be about his new job. Is Mike sad because he really thinks Harper made a wonderful toy, or because Harper is the underdog? We like the Monkees because they are underdogs themselves, and always defenders of the same. The others try to cheer Mike up with the romp of “Saturday’s Child” (David Gates), where they play with some kids on the beach. They get along great with the kids because they are big kids themselves. This gives Mike the idea to help Harper by sending the other Monkees into the factory as “children” for the play tests. (It amuses me that Mike and Micky call each other “babe” in this scene.)

In a bit that would not look out of place in a Kids In The Hall sketch, Daggart coordinates play testing sessions to show Guggins how well the computer-designed toys will sell to kids. Monkees in Mommy-and-child drag in various combinations attend the sessions and wreak Monkee-style havoc. The kids quickly get bored and toys get destroyed. Daggart responds with temper tantrums and many rounds of “Don’t do that.” Clearly he should be kept far, far away from children. In the DVD commentary for this episode, Peter Tork mentioned that Stan Freburg wasn’t scripted to tear the shelves down, he improvised that. In the office with Guggins, Daggart tries to pretend the machines knew this would happen, calling it planned obsolescence. Mike explains the play tests are going badly because “building in some happiness” should be part of making toys and machines aren’t capable of that. Daggart has lost control and it’s now Monkees: 2, Machine: 2.

sceencaps-montage
Daggart finally gets wise and realizes Peter is not a little boy and Micky’s no lady. He rips the blonde wig off Micky’s head (the same wig that Davy was using when it was his turn to be a Mommy). Then again, Daggart’s not that wise, because he disrobes an actual Mom to prove she’s also a man, for some reason going for the skirt and not the hair. I speculate that this gag was borrowed in the Austin Powers International Man of Mystery movie with Mike Meyers beating up Basil Exposition’s mother and shouting “She’s a man, baby!” Daggart is furious and fires everyone. With that, my count is Monkees: 2, Machine: 3.

The Monkees and Harper go back to the Monkees pad and mope. They try to throw away Harper’s flexible toy but it keeps coming back in the window because it’s now shaped like a boomerang. The Monkees and Harper take this to Guggins and convince him a toy that always comes back will sell and make kids happy. Daggart is not convinced because to him nothing can be good if it wasn’t made by a machine. Guggins does his own thinking for once, not letting Daggart’s machines do it for him this time. It might have been a bigger victory if Daggart had seen the error of his ways, but that was never going to happen and wouldn’t have “rung true” if the writers had tried to pull that. Guggins promotes Harper and fires Daggart who storms off with a “bah, humbug.” For this the Monkees get another point, making it a tie, Monkees: 3 Machine: 3.

boomarang
Tag sequence where Mike brings home the DJ69 computer to help them figure what kind of job they could get to help make a little extra money. A “Last Train to Clarksville” (Tommy Boyce/Bobby Hart) romp gives them career suggestions such as a construction worker, fireman, and farmer (the farm footage is from the “Never Look a Gift Horse” episode.) Mike gives several incredulous looks to the camera, not buying what the DJ69 is selling. As we know, the Village People would not emasculate the pop culture for another nine years.

Great episode. One I can watch again and again. The points about the differences between something built by data and analytics vs. something made from the heart are all made in a very funny and entertaining way, though I could live without Mike’s moralizing at the end of the episode. The final score is a tie, as Daggart pointed out: you can’t stop the rise of the machine. Remember 20 years ago, when we all weren’t walking around with cell phones? Machines are great if we’re not ruled by them. Daggart would prefer to leave the creative task of designing toys to computers, since they can’t really make mistakes, and they can’t complain. But Daggart himself is full of negative characteristics of human behavior: violence, close-mindedness, and arrogance. Maybe this is why he sees the machines as superior.

Evil

Look-Out-For
Sweet-Young-Thing

 

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.