Review by Doug Gibson
"The Gorilla," 1939, from 20th Century Fox, is another one of those "old dark house" horror comedies of the '30s. The plot involves a serial killer, nicknamed "The Gorilla," threatening to kill a wealthy man, Walter Stevens (Lionel Atwill). He hires three bufoonish, slow-witted detectives (played by The Ritz Brothers) to protect those in the mansion-like home. Besides Atwill's character, other main cast include his niece and her fiance, a maid, Kitty, (Patsy Kelly) and the butler, Peters, played by Bela Lugosi. A nervous night is spent trying to both elude and capture the killer.
This is not close to one of the must-see films of Bela's career. For years I've avoided finishing it for two reasons. The Ritz Brothers, in my opinion, barely elicit a chuckle. And Patsy Kelly, while possessing good comedy timing, screams and screeches so much in this film that it grates on the nerves. Kelly is no Una O'Connor, who genre films will recognize. Atwill gives a good -- although subdued -- performance.
Recently TCM aired The Gorilla and I decided to give it a try and watch the film in one take. I was pleasantly surprised. Bela Lugosi, despite being several notches below in the cast, livens this film up. He's by far the chief reason to watch The Gorilla. He's able to allow his comedy talents to shine. He plays the sinister servant who always seems to show up just after the others in the cast have been frightened. Lugosi relished roles like this, in which he could play his menacing character with his tongue in his cheek and almost a smile. His elegant, reassuring cadence preserves the dignity of his character yet never quite completely triumphs the fears of his castmates.
Although there are stretches where we don't see Lugosi's butler (we have to endure comedy hijinks of those Ritz fellows) I particularly enjoyed two scenes with Bela. One is where a Ritz brother tries to muscle Bela's Peters and gets flipped for his impudence. It's clumsily shot and I'm sure that's a stuntman, but I loved it. Another great Bela scene occurs at the climax, but I won't give that away.
Anita Louise and Edward Norris play the love interests, Norma and Jack. See them in the top photo with Bela. They are both pretty bland. An actor named Joseph Calleia is not too bad as a forbidding character listed as "The Stranger." The film, directed by Alan Dwan, is based on a then-popular play. Lugosi was a year away from a comeback role as Ygor in Son of Frankenstein. Struggling at the time, he was fortunate to get the role after Peter Lorre was unavailable. The 66-minute B film cost $175,000. With that budget I assume it made a profit. The Ritz Brothers (Jimmy, Harry and Al) remind me of milder versions of the Three Stooges without big laughs. They get off jokes a lot but many deserve groans. I wonder if they ad-libbed some. The Gorilla can be watched online for free in several websites and streaming services.
The second top photo shows a listing of The Gorilla in Los Angeles. It's from The Tuesday, Aug. 8, 1939 LA Times. Below is an article from the Thursday, May 18, 1939 Hollywood Citizen- News. It includes a review of The Gorilla. They liked it. I preserved the entire article so readers many need to squint or try a magnifying glass. Both of these clips were provided by my friend, David Grudt, who lives in Long Beach, Calif.