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Ape for April: The Gorilla (1939)

A common trope in classic movies is the use of a gorilla as a monster. This month we explore movies that feature gorilla suits.

SAMANTHA GLASSER: Walter Stevens (Lionel Atwill) receives a written threat from a notorious murderer called The Gorilla. His niece (Anita Louise) and her fiancee (Edward Norris) arrive at the mansion for a visit and learn about the threat. They wonder if the butler (Bela Lugosi) could be plotting something dastardly. Stevens brings in three bumbling detectives (The Ritz Brothers) to keep him safe and find the potential killer.

This movie relies heavily on horror movie tropes including the sinister butler, the virginal bride-to-be, hands creeping around doorways and lights going out and then on again to reveal that someone has disappeared. The story is based on a popular Ralph Spence play which was adapted many times, including as Sh! The Octopus which we reviewed back in October of 2020.

RODNEY BOWCOCK: I hadn’t realized that the two films were based on the same play, but I did notice the similarities between the two. It’s surprising that the play was used as source material for two films that were released so closely to each other. It’s almost certain that Sh! The Octopus was still making the rounds in neighborhood houses and rural theaters when The Gorilla was playing the large downtown theaters. I wonder if anyone else noticed the similarities between the two films. Of course, old dark house films such as this were perennial favorites among film fans during the studio era.

SG: Jerry Lewis said at a lecture at The 92nd Street Y in New York City that the two comics who influenced him the most were Charlie Chaplin and Harry Ritz. The audience reacted with puzzled expressions. "Who is Harry Ritz?"

The Ritz Brothers were wildly popular and highly paid in their day. Comics like Sid Caesar, Mel Brooks, and Milton Berle cited them as influences. Although Harry is often cited as the most talented member of the group, and the studios often offered him roles without his brothers, which he always turned down, they had long and lucrative careers in entertainment. Al Ritz's career dates back to Coney Island where he and Jimmy Durante worked together prior to their nightclub and vaudeville days. Durante was a pallbearer at Al's funeral. A lot of their jokes were rooted in ethnic stereotypes. They often used Yiddish in their act.

RB: You either get the Ritz Brothers or you don’t. As you mentioned, Mel Brooks was a fan, calling Harry Ritz the funniest man alive. Pauline Kael was a fan, comparing Harry Ritz to Marcel Marceau. They seem to have fallen out of favor among film buffs today, but that doesn’t change the fact that they were wildly popular in their day. The Gorilla was released near the end of their contract with 20th Century Fox, a conclusion that it appears was mutually agreed upon. The Ritz’s had started at Fox providing comic relief in big budget musicals, like those starring Alice Faye. But by this time, they had been degraded from Darryl Zanuck’s management, and had been slogging along in B’s for Sol M. Wurtzel’s unit, along with the Mr. Moto and Charlie Chan films (Harry Ritz once proclaimed that “things had gone from bad to Wurtzel”). They walked out of the studio for a time, and were suspended and slapped with a $150,000 damage suit, but eventually relented and did the best they could with the meager material that was being assigned to them.

SG: Their movements are broad and exaggerated from their stage training. The timing is impeccable, but usually comic victims appear to be vulnerable and endearing, whereas the Ritz brothers look like mobsters playacting. I didn't always buy their buffoonery in this film, but their anger felt authentic, and I recognized Caesar's utilization of this element of their act. I'll admit I had a hard time telling the brothers apart, although Harry is usually positioned in the middle. Showmen's Trade Review called it, "Less pretentious than any of their previous offerings." Motion Picture Reviews said, "The Ritz Brothers, torn between playing detective or being just themselves, are neither very convincing nor very funny; Patsy Kelly as the hysterical maid garners more laughs."

Patsy Kelly is absolutely wonderful as always, simultaneously funny and relatable. The kitchen scene moves at a manic pace and is irresistibly fun.

RB: It’s hard to imagine anyone referring to The Ritz Brothers as “pretentious”. That makes me laugh. “The Ritzes are very unfunny in this one and the picture is crude…I think that the public is fed up with the Ritzes” opined AE Hancock of the Columbia Theatre in Columbia City, IN. But that wasn’t true at all. After they wrapped up their contract with Fox, they signed with Universal where they finished out the war years in B level musicals, and then spend the next couple of decades performing a wildly popular night club act.

SG: IMDB says that Peter Lorre was originally intended for the Lugosi role. He would have been more creepy in his scenes with Louise, where he would have seemed more of a sexual threat, rather than a violently sinister type like Lugosi. Strangely, in the scene where the butler smiles to reassure Louise, his grin is distinctly jolly, and the absence of visible teeth makes him look elderly and downright harmless.

RB: Lorre was as fed up with Fox and the Wurtzel unit as much as the Ritz Brothers were. He was fresh off of the Mr. Moto series and had no intentions of sticking around the lot any longer than he had to. Unfortunately, poor Bela was not able to turn down any part, and did the best he could, but there’s very little about him that appears menacing in this film.

SG: Film Bulletin said the film is, "not for sophisticated audiences." Art Miles is the man in the gorilla suit, and it is unclear at the start whether we are to believe this is a real animal or a costumed man.

RB: Art Miles played lots of animals over his long career, including an uncredited roles as a man in a bear suit in Hit the Ice. Unlike a lot of men who played gorillas, he also played lots of uncredited parts as truck drivers, guards and bystanders.

SG: I wanted to like this movie more than I did. The components should add up to something more than the end result. The story relied too heavily on tropes and the supporting actors didn't get enough screen time to really shine. 2 stars.

RB: I agree with you. The cast is great, Patsy Kelly is always a lot of fun, but it just doesn’t gel. Two stars from me, although if anyone is interested in seeing it, the copy streaming on Amazon Prime is exceptionally nice, which always helps with a film like this.

JACK: Have you men been drinking? HARRIGAN: No, but it's a good idea.
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Just a note: "Sh! The Octopus" was actually a play as well, although its Broadway run was very short-lived. The film of Sh! is actually a combination of the two properties, Spence being the chief Dr. Frankenstein on it.

And as the person who noted that any movie is better with a gorilla, I'd be remiss if I didn't shamelessly plug "Bride of Finklestein," with Academy Award-winner Chris Walas as a gorilla, as well as my upcoming feature "Rock and Doris (try to) Write a Movie," which also features a gorilla (same suit, different actor, as Chris was nursing an injured knee).

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