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Sunday, June 10, 2012


Back when Saturday morning was just about the only time a kid could watch hours of wall-to-wall cartoons--along with live-action stuff like "Shazam!", "Banana Splits", and even "The Roy Rogers Show"--one of my favorite series was the simian spy spoof "Lancelot Link: Secret Chimp."  Now, Film Chest has collected all 17 episodes plus some nice extras in the 3-disc set LANCELOT LINK: SECRET CHIMP (1970), which the faithful and the simply curious alike should find both interesting and more than a little bizarre.

A takeoff of popular shows of the era such as "Get Smart" and "The Man from U.N.C.L.E.", with a little 007 thrown in, "Lancelot Link: Secret Chimp" boasted an all-chimp cast performing on scaled-down sets with all the appropriate costumes and props, and practical effects which allowed them to drive cars, motorcycles, speedboats, etc. (In a couple of western-themed segments they even ride Shetland ponies.) 

Dayton Allen provides the voice for Lance, who's sort of a cross between Humphrey Bogart and George Burns, while Joan Gerber channels Olive Oyl as the voice of Lance's partner and love interest, Mata Hairi.  The two agents work for a secret spy organization known as A.P.E. (Agency to Prevent Evil) and are forever foiling the evil schemes of C.H.U.M.P. (Criminal Headquarters for Underworld Master Plan).  A.P.E.'s leader is Commander Darwin ("What's your theory, Darwin?" Lance often asks), a character based on Leo G. Carroll's "Mr. Waverly" from "The Man from U.N.C.L.E." 

"Get Smart" regular Bernie Kopell is the voice of C.H.U.M.P. mastermind Baron von Butcher, a monocled megalomaniac whose associates include his chauffeur Creto, evil genius Dr. Strangemind (hilariously based on Bela Lugosi), Dragon Woman (who lives on an atomic-powered junk), her henchman Wang Fu, the Duchess, and Ali Assa Seen, who for some reason tends to burst into song after each sentence.

The stories (each episode contains two 15-minute segments) are very simple and serve mainly as an excuse for the chimps to perform funny bits of business that are often quite impressive.  With the perfect deadpan expressions, their simulated delivery of the show's droll dialogue can be priceless ("A thousand pardons, Dragon Woman.  A swarm of locusts attacked my moustache") as are the cleverly-edited reaction shots and slapstick performances. 

Lines were often improvised on the set to match the chimps' lip movements, yielding some delightful digressions and non-sequiturs as well as Ali Assa Seen's odd musical asides.  A typical "Get Smart"-style running gag is this exchange between Lance and Darwin:

"Give me one good reason why you should fire me."
"Because you're incompetent, an idiot, and a bumbler!"
"I only asked for ONE reason."

Some of my favorite scenes take place in Lance's apartment, which seems inspired by the ultra-modern bachelor digs of both Derek Flint and Matt Helm.  The apartment contains three secret exits ("It sounds like there's someone at the table," Lance observes in one episode) and a host of gadgets that don't always work as expected ("I need to get that button fixed"). 

So well executed is the illusion, it doesn't take long before one begins to think of these chimps as talented comic performers and grow fond of their characters.  Although a cool super-spy, Lance is also a lovable shlub.  Mata is the cutest and most appealing of the chimp cast, her expressions and demeanor matching perfectly with her Olive Oyl voice. 

One of her funniest moments is when she performs undercover as a blonde-wigged torch singer in a waterfront dive, belting out hilariously awful songs while bad guy Wang Fu cries in his beer.  Actor Malachi Throne ("It Takes a Thief") supplies the show's mock-serious narration: "Mata, fearing Lance was in danger, saw her chance to slip past the sleeping Wang Fu, who was emotionally exhausted from her singing."  Meanwhile, the chimps portraying Baron von Butcher and his cohorts seem to be reveling in their roles like a bunch of hammy human actors.

Since just about every Saturday morning show in those days had to feature a band a la "The Archies", Lance and Mata are members of an undercover rock group called "The Evolution Revolution" who in each episode perform a song which is introduced by an Ed Sullivan takeoff named "Ed Simian."  ("And now for you young youngsters out there...")  This is followed by a brief collection of "Laugh-In" inspired bits called "Chimpies." 

The DVD set from Film Chest comes with three slimline cases in a 60s-mod box that features Lance on the cover.  The episodes are 4:3 full screen with no subtitles.  Disc three contains bonuses including interviews with producer Allan Sandler and musical director Bob Emenegger and the short documentary "I Created Lancelot Link" featuring the late Stan Burns and Mike Marmer.  Sandler is shown being reunited with Lance, who now lives at the Wildlife Waystation in Los Angeles (to whom proceeds from the DVD sales will go).  Rounding out the extras is a slideshow and all of the "Evolution Revolution" songs and "Chimpies." 

A major concern which always arises regarding shows like this is the treatment of the animals involved during filming.  Producer Sandler never addresses this directly in his interview, but his recollections are of such a fond and seemingly benign nature that one gets the impression the chimps in this case were treated very well and, to a certain extent, even enjoyed performing.  At any rate, I thoroughly enjoy watching LANCELOT LINK: SECRET CHIMP and recommend it to anyone with a taste for entertainment that's not only funny but just plain wacky. 

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