Monday, September 26, 2016

The Lemon Grove Kids Meet the Monsters (1965)

The Lemon Grove Kids Meet the Monsters is one of those films I've long wanted to see and, over the weekend, I finally managed to watch it.  The film is actually three shorts featuring 'The Lemon Grove Kids' packaged together to make a feature length film.  The brainchild of legendary schlock director Ray Dennis Steckler, these homages to the old 'Bowery Boys' ,(or 'Dead End Kids', 'East Side Kids' or whatever else they were being called by whichever poverty row studio happened to employing them at the time), are really glorified home movies.  Steckler co-produced all three films, directed one and wrote another.  He also appears in all three, billed as 'Cash Flagg', playing Huntz Hall surrogate Gopher.  And, if you don't know who Huntz Hall was, well, along with Leo Gorcey, he formed the central duo of the 'Bowery Boys', around whom the various other members (who changed over time) orbited.  Hall's character ('Sach' in the 'Bowery Boys' series) was basically gormless looking and acting, the comic foil to Gorcey's 'Slip', a Brooklyn-accented hustler constantly trying to exploit Sach, (who, more often than not,temporarily acquired some kind of special power in each movie).

The three Lemon Grove Kids shorts embrace the spirit of the 'Bowery Boys', with Mike Kannon impersonating Leo Gorcey's 'Slip' as 'Slug' (complete with Gorcey's trademark malapropisms), constantly berating and exploiting Gopher.  It has to be said that these shorts, which Steckler happily admitted were primarily aimed at children, (indeed, his two young daughters feature heavily in the last two films), are really beyond any kind of cinematic analysis or criticism.  They are what they are.  If you've ever seen and enjoyed any of the 'Bowery Boys' series, then The Lemon Grove Kids Meet the Monsters will give you a nostalgic glow.  I have to say that I found them somewhat zanier and far more surreal than the 'Bowery Boys' films, (in some respects, they reminded me of the later Monkees TV series).   Of the three shorts, the first, The Lemon Grove Kids, probably comes closest to the original 'Bowery Boys' films, featuring the eponymous gang challenging their rivals - The East Lemon Grove Kids - to a foot race, after Gopher ventures into East Lemon Grove territory and has the sodas he is buying for the boys stolen.  Complicating things are a local would-be hoodlum who has promised to fix the race for a crooked bookie - to do this he hires 'The Saboteur', a cartoon-like character with a French accent, who proves utterly incompetent.  Thanks to this latter character's antics, the whole affair starts to turn into a live action version of a Warner Brothers' cartoon.  The episode takes a further surreal turn in its epilogue, where a badly off course Gopher encounters an ape, a mummy and even Rat Pfink, (from Steckler's cult classic Rat Pfink a Bobo).

The second short, The Lemon Grove Kids Meet the Green Grasshopper and the Vampire Lady From Outer Space, is more obviously aimed at a juvenile audience and is even more cartoonish.  Hired to clear an old man's yard, Slug, Gopher and the rest of the gang encounter a flying saucer piloted by a grasshopper alien and nearly fall victim to the Vampire Lady, who has enslaved the house owner by drinking his blood and is busy kidnapping earth people to send back to her and the Green Grasshopper's planet.  Also involved are a group of witches and a couple of zombies.  The aliens are banished, but Gopher still ends up with a set of vampire fangs.  The final segment, The Lemon Grove Kids Go Hollywood, features only Gopher from the main gang, who teams up with guitar playing Don (Don Taylor) and three of the younger Lemon Grovers (including Steckler's daughters) to foil kidnappers trying to ransom a movie star (played by Steckler's then wife, Carolyn Brandt, (who had previously played the Vampire Lady and had had a brief cameo in the first short).

As mentioned earlier, these are really home movies, shot on or around the street Steckler was living on at the time ('Lemon Grove', naturally) and featuring his friends and family.  That said, despite their non-existent budgets, the three films are surprisingly well made, the only thing letting them down being the poor sound quality which bedevils many low budget productions.  Shot under beautiful blue California skies, they are good natured pieces of entertainment, made by people clearly consuned by the pure joy of film making.  To fully appreciate The Lemon Grove Kids Meet the Monsters, I;m guessing that you would had to have seen it playing at a drive-in in the late sixties or early seventies, when viewings came complete with someone wrapped in bandages emerging into the audience as the mummy in The Lemon Grove Kids lurches toward the camera.   Ultimately, the film serves as a fun reminder of an age of cinema sadly gone by, when it was still possible to make movies on a shoe-string, completely outside of the studio system and independent of big distributors, and still get them onto cinema screens in front of paying audiences.



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