Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Lemon Grove Kids Meet The Monsters (1965/69)

The Lemon Grove Kids Meet the Monsters

USA 1965/69 colour

Directors Ray Dennis Steckler, Peter Balakoff Writers Ray Dennis Steckler, Jim Harmon, Ron Haydock, E.M. Kevke

Cast “Cash Flagg”/Ray Dennis Steckler (Gopher), Mike Kannon (Slug), Carolyn Brandt (Cee Bee Beaumont), Don Snyder (Don), Ron Haydock (Rat Pfink), Herb Robins (Chooper #1)

Steckler was one of those film guys out on a limb in the Sixties: a film-literate writer-director AND professional cameraman for hire, a real hands-on auteur who preferred working under guerrilla conditions with his trusted family of cast and crew, and with a laissez-faire method of working which allowed him to work without a completed script, sometimes changing the course of a film half-way through shooting. As such, he had complete autonomy which allowed his almost stream-of-consciousness stories to flow unhindered. Always grounded in genre and B-films, however, he had a framework on which to pin these flights of fancy, and at least wrapped in a recognizable package to sell to distributors.

Steckler was also a child of the Forties, and grew up on the charming comedies of the Bowery Boys, and spent much of his adolescene aping Leo Gorcey’s on-screen mugging. On the set of Steckler’s 1965 feature Rat Pfink A Boo Boo, he and actor Mike Cannon, who did a very passable Huntz Hall, concocted the idea of doing a Bowery Boys tribute in colour, and with a mere $2000, filmed the first of three half-hour shorts shown separately in theatres, and later packaged as a feature called The Lemon Grove Kids Meet The Monsters. “The Lemon Grove Kids” (c.1965) evokes the innocent spirit and goofy slapstick of the Bowery Boys to a T - or B - from the sped-up silliness, title cards, cartoon rumbles, and the overgrown Lemon Grove Kids themselves led by Steckler, odd-looking at the best of times but here veering off into Neverland with his ham-streaked, grimacing performance (using his usual screen credit “Cash Flagg”) as Gopher.

Filmed several years later, Short Number Two features Mrs Steckler, Carolyn Brandt, in whiteface and fangs in The Lemon Grove Kids Meet The Green Grasshopper And The Vampire Lady From Outer Space, and kicks the trio into a new hybrid of Christmas pantomime, home movie, live spook show, and Monkees-meets-Sid and Marty Krofft kiddie TV weirdness. Number Three, The Lemon Grove Kids Go Hollywood (also 1969), is by far the weakest, and instead of Hollywood, goes as far as Steckler’s back yard. Famous actress CeeBee Beaumont is kidnapped by a pair of baddies, and it’s up to Gopher to prove he’s leading man material and save the day. Steckler pitched this as a TV pilot and would have made hundreds of further Lemon Grove shorts if given the opportunity.

It’s hard to work out who exactly his intended audience was: the kiddie matinee crowd, the freak scene (of which we’re all clearly members), or Steckler’s extended family and friends, which comprise most of the cast and crew. Steckler’s then-wife and constant muse Carolyn Brandt appears as the alien Vampire Lady AND reprises her role as actress CeeBee Beaumont from Rat Pfink A Boo Boo; there’s Ron Haydock, Herb Robbins from The Thrill Killers, and even Steckler’s kids! And if there was any doubt over the boundaries of Steckler’s self-contained filmic universe, Gopher stumbles through the ending of Rat Pfink, and discovers CeeBee Beaumont’s on the payroll of Steckler-Morgan Productions. It’s the fine balancing act of knowing and na├»ve, of homage and parody, of purist and personal, that takes Steckler to a unique level of B-film auteurs. (Andrew Leavold)

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