Monday, 26 September 2016
THE GORILLA (1939)
Whilst Universal was gearing up to unleash its second wave of horror icons on the public, 1939 saw the genre overhauled with a new added ingredient to add extra zing to the potion, that of comedy. Toward the end of the year ex-Vaudevillian turned Broadway star Bob Hope would provide the laughs in the winning remake of The Cat and the Canary and into the 1940s Universal would collide its Horror Hall of Fame figures with ex-Burlesque double-act Abbott and Costello in a successful series, but in May 1939 another stage team would feverishly mine chuckles with chills in Twentieth Century Fox’s The Gorilla. This familiar mansion murder-mystery plot was based on a play by Ralph Spence that had already been filmed in 1925 and 1930 and was remade again as a vehicle for the Ritz Brothers, a real-life sibling act whose energy compensated for what they lacked in subtlety.
The Ritz Brothers hailed from New Jersey, first begun by vaudeville dancer Al before younger brothers Harry and Jimmy joined the act. They gradually introduced more comedy into their shows till this became their main selling point. Despite being real brothers, their true surname was Joachim and allegedly Al chose the Ritz surname after seeing the logo on a laundry truck. They were inevitably compared to the superior Marx Brothers but without the consistent distinctive characters of Groucho, Harp and Chico, it was hard to tell the trio apart except that Harry was generally the ring-leader of the troupe. Another comparable team of the period was the Three Stooges; indeed they shared the bullying chaos, mugging and cowardly ‘woo-woo’ squeaks of the other three-ring circus.
The Gorilla was the Ritz Brothers’ eighth movie feature following a stage tour and the final one of their contract with Fox. This was caused by a dispute between the studio and the Brothers over the delay to the filming schedule. They were meant to begin shooting at the end of January of 1939, however their father died so they did not come in to work. The studio sued the team for $150,000 citing a breach of contract for missing their start date. The Brothers finally showed up to begin shooting in March and never worked for Fox again.
The screenplay, such as you can wade through whilst being hit with shtick bamboo, is based around the perceived crooked dealings of Lionel Atwill’s Walter Stevens, a wealthy businessman who stands to be co-inheritor of the family estate along with his ward Norma (Anita Louise). Crippled with debt and about to be targeted by a ‘professional murderer’ known as the Gorilla, he appears to be tempted into bumping her off to be sole beneficiary. On the obligatory rain-lashed stormy night, he has hired three private detectives (the Ritz Brothers) to uncover the murderer in time to save him while a real (as in human-in-a-suit) gorilla has escaped onto the premises. Although the horror movie form was developing, somehow producers still couldn’t let go of the early 1930s man in a monkey suit trope.
Other occupants of the house, or more fittingly onlookers as we shall see, include Bela Lugosi as the butler, Patsy Kelly as Kitty the Maid and Edward Norris as the other half of the requisite makeweight romantic couple with Louise.
The defective detectives Garrity, Harrigan and Mulligan turn up and immediately swing into inaction, their combined three watts of lily-livered brain power make the Stooges sound like the Algonquin Set, manifesting as witless interrogation, expertly inept role-playing and internecine “Why I oughtta-” fraternal squabbling. To be fair, their quick-fire repartee forged on the tough theatre circuit is fast and furious enough that if you don’t like one gag, there’ll be another you can ignore coming right up. Juss joshin’ witya – they do have at least a couple of moments that earn a grin; the planned synchronisation scene where one mutters “Remind me to put some hands on this watch” – and a great sustained series of eye-popping facial mugs by Harry worthy of Jim Carrey when seeing the hairy gorilla for the first time. His reaction along with the occasional hairy disembodied arm is really the only concession to fear in the film.
Such is the Ritz trio’s high-voltage prowling and barked one-liners that the rest of the cast are allowed to relax in the background without taking collateral damage. Bela Lugosi serenely surfs the waves with Hungarian cool in an utterly wasted role bereft of any edge or purpose. Lionel Atwill provides exposition at the beginning and end and is basically along for the ride sandwiched between his more dignified releases of The Hound of the Baskervilles and Son of Frankenstein before his career-ruining court case. Only Patsy Kelly seeks to match the crackers style of the Ritzes with her own dialogue delivered as gratingly loud ‘ba-dum tish’ banter with them as though the foursome are in a fast-paced Broadway show of their own within the movie. During a long career, the actress dubbed ‘Queen of the Wisecracks’ would later make a stellar comeback winning a Tony in 1971 for the musical No, No Nanette.
The Gorilla is finally caged within a hurried climax where Joseph Calleia’s darkly mysterious Stranger, career typecasting for him before playing Pete Menzies in Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil, is unmasked as the murderer version of the Gorilla. By this point the audience is past caring now that their sporadic amusement and understanding has been monkeyed with enough. Both better and worse comedy-horror hybrids were to come over the next few years. Their success would be determined by the quality of gags, energetic playing and where possible one or two genuine frissons.