September 26, 2007
The Gorilla (1939)
During the 20s, murder mystery stage plays were extremely popular at Broadway theaters with plays like "The Bat" and "The Cat and the Canary" being huge hits everywhere. Naturally, film versions of this stage plays began to be produced, and thanks to their spooky sets and intriguing plots, this movies became an enormous influence for the horror films of following decades. Ralph Spence's "The Gorilla" was another of this kind of murder mystery stories that made the jump to cinema, with its first adaptation being made in 1927. What made "The Gorilla" different to the others was the humor it had, as it was more a spoof of the genre than a serious tale of horror. While nowhere near as successful as the other film versions of plays, "The Gorilla" was popular enough to be remade twice, the first time in 1930 and the second in 1939, with the legendary Bela Lugosi.
In this version, Lionel Atwill plays Walter Stevens, a very rich man who receives a letter from a killer who names himself "The Gorilla", threatening to kill him the following night. Worried about his life, Stevens hires three detectives (Jimmy, Harry and Al Ritz) to be with him in the mansion and protect his life. He has also called his nephew Norma (Anita Louise), to whom he explains the situation and what she should do in the case of his death. Her boyfriend Jack (Edward Norris) is with her, and along Kitty the maid (Patsy Kelly) and Stevens' butler Peters (Bela Lugosi), they will remain in the house hoping to find the Gorilla before he manages to kill Mr. Stevens. However, it doesn't seem an easy task to accomplish, as the three bumbling detectives seem to be clueless as where to start looking, and far more afraid of the Gorilla than Mr. Stevens himself.
Adapted to the screen by Rian James and Sid Silvers, this version of "The Gorilla" retains that comedic approach on the mystery stories that the play originally had, however, since the movie is a vehicle for the Ritz brothers (their last film for Twentieth Century Fox), there's a lot more emphasis on the slapstick that this comedy team was famous for. As a spoof on the genre, "The Gorilla" plays with every cliché that this kind of movies had, from the ensemble of different characters forced to spend the night in a dark mansion, to the classic whodunit plot twists that keep the secret of the murderer's identity. Mixing horror, mystery and comedy isn't easy, but Spence's play had a fairly good plot that managed to do the trick. Sadly, this adaptation isn't as successful, as the mix here feels forced and messy, as if the writers weren't sure what to make of it.
Directed by the extremely prolific Allan Dwan, "The Gorilla" features an excellent use of lighting and set design to create a dark atmosphere. Despite the extremely low production values (it was a troubled production due to labor disputes between the brothers and Fox), Dwan comes up with a solid film that at times manages to help to forget the lousy quality of the script. It's nowhere near the level of his other movies, but personally I think that he makes the often incoherent story watchable and funny. While the emphasis is on slapstick, there's still some of the play's wit in the characters played by Patsy Kelly and Bela Lugosi, whom are the perfect counterpart to the brothers' physical comedy. Fortunately, "The Gorilla" lacks the usual sing and dance that made the Ritz brothers famous, as it would had been out of place in Dwan's film.
Unfortunately the performances in "The Gorilla" are pretty much average, as while there are displays of brilliance among some members of the cast, others are simply unremarkable at best. The Ritz brothers have a bit of both sides, as they aren't really bad performers, but while some of their jokes are good (Harry Ritz was indeed talented), most of the times they all feel out of place in the movie. Edward Norris and Anita Louise are pretty average in their performances, with Norris being a very wooden actor in this film. Classic horror star Lionel Atwill plays his character with great skill, but it's not really one of his best roles. The highlights of the film are Patsy Kelly and Bela Lugosi, with the legendary horror star showing that he also had an underrated talent for black comedy as Peters the butler.
As written above, this movie is not exactly an excellent film, as while the original stage play was a witty mix of genres, this version ends up as a poorly built mishmash of styles: it wants to be a proper mystery (and has enough to be one) and a spoof at the same time. Sadly, the addition of the Ritz brothers to the mix doesn't really help anything, as while they weren't really a bad comedy team, their style simply isn't well adjusted to the movie. And it's not really the brothers' fault, as with some more work the script would had been perfect (apparently, the quality of this script was one of the reasons the brothers left Fox). On a completely different subject, the low budget really hurt the film, as while director Dwan and his team did very well with what they had, it really looks pretty poor in some accounts (the Gorilla suit for example).
While definitely "The Gorilla" is far from being a classic on the level of earlier Lugosi films, it's by no means a completely bad film, and it's certainly unworthy of the bad reputation it carries today. Sure, it's hard to get used to the Ritz brothers' style of comedy, specially when it's badly written as it is here, but even when it's not comedy classic, "The Gorilla" does deliver good entertainment. It's worth a watch, if only to get a glimpse of a different side of Bela Lugosi.
Buy "The Gorilla" (1939)