Have Yourself a Very Hairy Christmas
by Steven Utley
Call me a Scrooge, but along about the third day of Christmas the mere thought of all the days of Christmas still to be got through is enough to reduce me to a pure curmudgeonish state. Fortunately, I can usually find distraction from the seasonal barrage of forced-cheerfulness in reading such authors as Balzac — throughout La Comédie Humaine entire families typically are brought to ruin through some member's folly and/or malice: hardly uplifting holiday fare — and in watching old movies not titled It's a Wonderful Life.
Recently, during a single week's time I watched (without really meaning to) five old movies featuring gorillas, or, rather, actors wearing gorilla costumes, or, perhaps, the same overemployed actor wearing the same moth-eaten gorilla costume. So call me a masochist, just don't sing any carols in my vicinity.
For the record, La Comédie Subhumaine (if you will) comprised:
The Gorilla (1939), starring The Ritz Brothers, Bela Lugosi, Patsy Kelly, and Lionel Atwill. The Ritz Brothers' appeal, such as it evidently was, plumb eludes me. Unlike The Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy, The Three Stooges, Abbott and Costello, or Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis — readily told apart, each and all — Harry, Jimmy, and Al Ritz are to my eye and ear indistinguishable from and thus interchangeable with one another. Is it that we non-fans simply fail to see the humor in having three whole comedians on the payroll when one would more than suffice for the requisite mugging and colliding with stuff and getting judo-tossed by Lugosi? As for Lugosi himself, only Tarzan and Robert Armstrong (of King Kong, Son of Kong, Mighty Joe Young fame) had more experience with the Hollywood variety of ape: in the early 1930s Lugosi chummed around with a homicidal orangutan in Murders in the Rue Morgue; in the 1940s and 1950s — well, see below.
The Ape (1940), wherein Boris Karloff disguises himself as an escaped circus gorilla for purposes of obtaining human spinal fluid with which to cure paralysis. I'm sure this plot sounded better during the pre-production story conference.
The Ape Man (1943), wherein a chimpoid Bela Lugosi and a fully simian companion collect human spinal fluid with which to reverse Lugosi's regression apeward, an effect of earlier experiments involving simian spinal fluid. The plot must have sounded good to the same parties to whom The Ape's premise had sounded good, since both films came out of Monogram, the preeminent Poverty Row studio of its day. Come to think of it, though, Universal Studios also liked this premise and used it in a series of pictures — Captive Wild Woman (1943), Jungle Woman (1944), and Jungle Captive (1945) — about a she-ape evolving into or devolving back from a human woman, depending on the availability of spinal-fluid extract. Don't ask me how this line of scientific inquiry got started.
Africa Screams (1949), wherein Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, accompanied by real-life lion tamer Clyde Beatty, real-life animal trapper Frank Buck, and two future Stooges, Shemp Howard and Joe Besser, go looking for, and find, apes of various sizes.
Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla (1952), featuring not just Martin-and-Lewis impersonators Duke Mitchell and Sammy Petrillo but also Ramona the Chimp, who was actually a juvenile male chimpanzee — not just any j. m. c., either, but then-current movie-Tarzan Lex Barker's then-current Cheeta the Chimp. The ersatz she-chimp becomes infatuated with Petrillo, the ersatz Jerry Lewis, while Lugosi administers an injection (more spinal-fluid extract, no doubt) to Mitchell, the ersatz Dean Martin, transforming him into a gorilla, or, more accurately, an actor pretending to be Duke Mitchell pretending to be Dean Martin pretending to be a gorilla. Then Dorothy wakes up back in Kansas, having learned that there's no place like home ....
Also note for the record that this tally could easily have included Bride of the Gorilla (1951), but masochism can carry me only so far so fast for so long, even during the accursed holidays.
Copyright © 2005 by Steven Utley