The Monkees in Monstrous Peril #1: "Monkee See, Monkee Die" (1966)

The Monkees: Monkee See, Monkee Die (1966)
Dir.: James Frawley

The release earlier this year of the first new Monkees album in twenty years, Good Times!, has had me delving back into my own Monkees collection of various items, whatnot, and folderol. Having been a fan of the group since I was but a child, I was handed down the group's early records from my cousins, after I presume they had gotten a bit older and grew into more presumably mature music (that I also ended up inheriting at a certain point). But while their music did enter my life at a pretty early age, the real reason I was a Monkees fan was because of their TV show.

The Monkees ran for two seasons on NBC in primetime from 1966-1968, and it is likely I may have seen it that young. But where I really encountered the show was on Saturday morning television, where repeats of the show's 58 episodes ran on CBS from 1969-1972, and then on ABC for the 1972-1973 season. The show went into full syndication after that starting in 1975, and whenever we got the chance, my brothers and I were watching the Monkees run around like crazy every weekday afternoon.

Naturally, in their trail of hijinks throughout the sitcom landscape, and given the highly fanciful nature of most of their television material, the Monkees landed into a few scenarios of a more monstrous nature. So it comes as no surprise that in the very second episode of the series (and fifth filmed counting the pilot), the boys were already stuck inside of a haunted house. At the start of Monkee See, Monkee Die, the band is practicing in their apartment, the design of which really dug into my soul as a child and became a source of emulation from that moment onward.

There is an angry knocking at their door by their landlord, and he warns them about paying the rent and threatens them by saying his lawyer will be bringing them an eviction notice. Seconds later, comes another knock, and it is indeed a lawyer comes to bring them something. Thinking it is the landlord's man, they each get into disguise: Mike (Nesmith) becomes a hard-of-hearing old codger; Mickey (Dolenz) is a "23-hour doorman. I used to be the 24-hour doorman but I couldn't take the long hours"; Davy (Jones) has resorted to imitating Whistler's Mother by knitting and rocking in drag in the corner; and Peter (Tork) is a joke-cracking TV repairman. When they find out who the lawyer really is and that an eccentric millionaire on Cunningham Island has left them a legacy, they quickly switch their outfits and present themselves properly. His response? "When you see the Monkees, tell them I called."

Following the opening theme sequence, which is truly a time capsule item for television history, we see a spooky looking old mansion, with bats squeaking past the boys – clad in their classic eight-button red shirts with turtle neck sweaters underneath – and lightning flashing as the Monkees enter the front door. We are clearly in The Cat and the Canary or The Old Dark House territory in this one, though with the Monkees, the show can zigzag in any direction it wants at any given time. They are frightened by Ralph the butler, who tells them they are in time for the reading of the will. Mike questions why they are even at the reading when they had never even met the late John Cunningham, "even when he was early," but Ralph corrects them. He tells them that they once returned a wallet containing $600 they had found to him. When Mickey mentions that Cunningham must have appreciated their honest, Ralph says, "Oh no, because it wasn't his wallet."

They meet Madame Roselle (a quite terrific Lea Marmer), a psychic who attempts to tell the future by shaking what looks like a crystal ball (but is really a snowglobe), and says "We'll have snow tomorrow." They next meet Mr. Kingsley, Mr. Cunningham's "walking companion," author of titles such as Beverly Hills on 5 Shillings a Day and Utica: City on the Move. And finally, there is Cunningham's grand-niece, Ellie Reynolds (Stacey Gregg), a cute British girl that allows Davy's eyes to sparkle for the first time in the series (which will happen quite a lot during its run). Her eyes sparkle back, I must add. Unable to divert Davy's attention, Mike yells in his ear, "Statistics prove that two out of three teenage marriages end in divorce!" It doesn't help. Mickey says "Three out of three!" Mike yells, "Four out of three!" Finally, Mike declares, "He's in love for the first time... today."

Mr. Cunningham has recorded his will on an old-style phonograph record, and while Kingsley and Roselle bicker over whether the mansion has been left to them, the Monkees are told they have been left the library organ with the stipulation that they play at least one song on it. (I am sure that will be pantomimed at some point very soon.) Everything else in the mansion is left to Ellie, but she has to spend at least one night in the mansion before she decides to keep it. (Well, of course she has to... this only happens in spooky old mansions.) The Monkees decide to play their one song on the organ and get out of there, not wishing to spend the night in such a creepy place.

As the trio of obvious villains – Roselle, Ralph, and Kingsley, leer at them from behind a statue – Peter sits down at the organ, lifts the lid over the keys and starts to play... a song that doesn't even have anyone playing the organ on it. It is one of the Monkees' biggest and most recognizable hits (and their first of three #1 singles), Last Train to Clarksville, written by Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart. In fact, on the actual The Monkees album, the only Monkee to appear on the song is lead vocalist Mickey Dolenz, the rest of the music being played by Boyce and Hart's band, the Candy Store Prophets. But in what basically constitutes an early film of music video for the song, the Monkees are not only seen singing along to the track, but also playing the song in what seems to be pretty able form (at least for selling it on camera). Planes, trains, dune buggies, unicycles, jetpacks, motorcycles, carousel animals, and even the Monkeemobile are employed to sell the importance of transportation to the story of the song, even though it is just about a train.

When we return to the story proper, Mike says, "Well, I hate to inherit and run" but Ralph warns them that they may be stuck on the island due to the "foggy season". Mike questions when this might occur, and Ralph says, "It's hard to estimate, sir. I'd say, approximately, from 1820 to 1975." The boys are next seen staying the night and have switch to pajamas, and Peter gets the best outfit of them all: giant orange pajamas with a big blue bunny on the breast and an orange nightcap to match. The second they turn out the light, they hear rumbling and creaking and fog pours in through their open window. They turn it on, and decide to shoot fingers to decide who is going to keep watch. Standing in a circle, they throw their hands at each other, saying "1, 2, 3, shoot!" On the third try (I am not sure how they were determining who was chosen), a fifth hand appears... one that is fully covered in fur and has long claws!

The boys scream and run for cover as they realize there may be a monster loose in the mansion, and wild growling follows them out of the room! They hear howling noises while they walk down the hall, and then Madame Roselle steps out to say she had a vision about the butler. She says he might have gone on a long trip or be dead, but when they ask which one, she then says flippantly, "Six of one or half a dozen of the other." Gunshots are heard, and everyone runs downstairs. In the walls of the ballroom, various knifes and scythes are seen sticking into the walls. They assume that because of the signs of violence and because he hasn't shown up that Ralph must be dead. They try to call the police but the phone's cord has been cut and tied in a bow. "Well," says Mickey, "at least we know the murderer is neat." Mickey examines the blades in the wall, and calls Davy over. When he arrives, the two of them are seen dressed as Holmes and Watson, having a shared detective reverie. It is broken up when they have to stop Kingsley from torturing Ellie by asking her about which of his books she has read (for the record: Dining Out in Greenland, Picnic Spots Along the Ganges, and Philadelphia: Where to Find It; it's a pretty good running gag).

Mike uses bread crumbs on the sill of their window to attract a carrier pigeon so they can send a message for help. The bread crumbs work, but when Mike picks up the pigeon, he discovers there is already a message attached to its leg. He opens it to read it aloud to the others: "Please do not strap a message to my leg. I am not a carrier pigeon." Next, Mike lays down giant bones in the hallway to attract a St. Bernard so they can use the dog to rescue them. When Peter asks him where he got the bones, Mike says he found them in the closet. The boys are skeptical that the plan can work, but then a St. Bernard dog, complete with brandy barrel, does show up through the doorway! He completely steps over the bones, however, and comes up to Mike, who notices that there is already a message attached to the dog's collar. Mike reads, "There is a message for you on the pigeon" and gives the camera a very perturbed look.

A while later that night, the boys have managed to fall asleep, but then there is a loud gunshot noise. Mike waves it off as a car backfiring, but when the others ask him where, he says, "In the next room." They all freak out, and then hear another shot. They all start to run in circles, as Madame Roselle enters the room to announce she has had a vision that Kingsley will be shot in the next ten minutes. They tell her they just heard gunshots, and she looks at her watch and says it must be slow. In desperation, Mickey uses his crazy inventing skills to reconfigure the telephone equipment to contact the outside world. He gets a man with a foreign accent, and possibly on a submarine, who can only answer "Yes, I do!" to every question, even the last one, "What's your location?" Roselle holds a seance, where they all join hands and try to reach the spirit of John Cunningham. Weirdly, she ends up on a party line, and after first reaching an answering service, she contacts the Ghost of Christmas Past instead, who insists on calling her Ebenezer. The lights suddenly go out, so Mickey lights a match and holds it to the faces of everyone at the table. Mike, Davy, Ellie and Peter are still there... but no Madame Roselle remains. All five turn to the camera, and the Monkees say in unison, "She's gone!"

The next morning, all seems fine, except for the three missing persons, and Davy helps Ellie out with her luggage down the stairs. The other Monkees are seen pushing the library organ through the front door while a pair of eyes are watching them through a painting in the tradition of many other haunted house stories. Mike decides it might be best that while they wait for the ferry to play some music to cheer everybody up. Mike straps on a guitar and Peter hits the organ. As Tomorrow's Gonna Be Another Day starts, we see the Monkees in different costumes running about, seemingly chased by themselves (in the eight-button shirts) wearing a series of monster masks. We also see them wearing diving equipment in a swimming pool, Davy dressed as an Indian, and a lot of goofing around with bows and arrows and toy guns as they run around the estate. At different points, Davy is dressed as Tarzan and frightens off whoever is wearing the werewolf mask, and Mike gets a rubber arrow through his head and falls down to the ground, after which Davy (as the Indian) scratches a mark on his bow. At tail end of the song, the Monkees with the monster masks gather, but there are five of them. Mike, Peter, Davy, and Mickey each remove their masks, until there is only someone wearing a Dracula mask left. The other run in fear while he stands there in confusion.

Back to the story, Mike asks if everyone is OK now, but they all answer in the negative. Celebrating is heard inside the mansion, so the boys sneak up to the window to find Ralph, Kingsley, and Roselle sipping champagne, thinking they have successfully won the mansion. They see a monster hand through the window, and see it is attached to Ralph, who picks up a glass. Davy asks Mickey if he still has "those knockout pills you've been experimenting with?" and Mickey says, "Yeah, but the experiments aren't complete yet." "They will be soon," says Davy. Disguising himself in a suit of armor, Davy drops the pills into the liquor, of which the creeps soon partake. The villains hear the Monkees makes some noise outside and Ralph comes out with a gun. Peter holds up his fingers like a gun, and says, "Stop or I'll shoot!" When Ralph steps forward, Peter pretends to shoot... and Ralph drops to the ground, the pills having taking effect. Kingsley and Roselle come out to confront Peter and the same happens to each of them.

Peter twirls his hand in victory (Mike subtly makes sure the finger is not pointed in his direction), and when Ellie notices the villains are still alive, Davy lets her in on what has happened. He mentions that the noises were the three of them all along and that there is nothing to be afraid of anymore, not even ghosts. Suddenly, the booming voice of the Ghost of Christmas Past speaks from the top of the stairs: "Keep the Christmas spirit alive, Ebenezer!" The Monkees and Ellie scatter out of the mansion! Later, they tell a policeman the whole story and are given their leave, just as Kingsley comes to and starts to pester the police about which of his books they may have read. End credits.

I made a beef a couple of years ago about whether they should be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. While it would be really cool if they were, I also understand the arguments against it, even though there are criteria that have been used to get far less successful acts into the Hall that the Monkees completely meet. The chief thing holding them back is the notion – only partially wrongheaded – that they were a band solely created for a TV show, and that they didn't play their own instruments (which they did... eventually, and could from the start).

I have often wondered how the Monkees comedy plays with today's audience. I know how it plays with many of my friends – rather all over the board in tastes, but I know that many of them enjoyed the show in their youth and hold fond memories of it – and I know that The Monkees show forms the basis of much of the comedy that my brother and I preferred in our youth. I still find the four Monkees completely charming as a performing unit, and the show has lost little for me in over forty years of revisiting the show.

Which then made me realize that I don't really care how it plays with today's audience, because most of today's audience, even with the release of a new Monkees album, doesn't really know or even care about the Monkees anymore. Sure, the band will always pick up new fans along the way, but those are not the norm today. And unless the band hired me to promote them, why should I really be all that concerned about it anyway. Their legacy and reputation is their own concern (or not). I've got my own life to worry about now. My only stakes in continuing to follow a band from my youth is whether or not I still enjoy their music, and whether or not I can still watch a remarkably silly episode of an exactly 50-year-old television show and still get a similar feeling of enjoyment out of it that I did when I six or twelve or twenty-seven or forty.

And the answer is yes. Because I still love the Monkees. Sparkly eyes, sparkly eyes.

RTJ


And in case you haven't seen it...



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