The Gorilla is a “1939 comedy-horror film starring the Ritz Brothers, Lionel Atwill, Bela Lugosi, and Patsy Kelly.” When I first watched this movie, I had no idea what to expect. I didn’t know who the Ritz Brothers were. I didn’t even know whether the movie was comedy or straight horror.
Despite that, I thoroughly enjoyed this little movie (it’s only 66 minutes long). But then I love this kind of bumbling comedy-horror like The Ghost Breakers (Bob Hope, 1940), Hold That Ghost (Abbott and Costello, 1941), King of the Zombies (Mantan Moreland, 1941), and Bud Abbott and Lou Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948). And I’m now a big fan of the Ritz Brothers and in the process of tracking down their films, most of which are musical comedies.
The Gorilla stars the Ritz Brothers (Harry, Al, and Jimmy) as bumbling private investigators Harrigan, Mulligan, and Garrity who are hired when a wealthy but possibly shady man (Lionel Atwill as Walter Stevens) appears to receive a warning from a notorious maniacal murderer nicknamed the Gorilla. The murderer kills his victims within 24 hours of the warning. But is Mr. Stevens really the intended victim? Or is it his heiress niece Norma (actress Anita Louise)? Is the Gorilla a human killer or an escaped trained animal? Who exactly are all these people who keep popping up – the mysterious seaman, the angry guy, and the suspicious stranger who is sneaking around the house? And what’s with the strange radio voices?
The Gorilla is a B movie filled with a solid supporting cast. Besides Lionel Atwell and Anita Louise, there is comedian Patsy Kelly who screams the house down as excitable maid Kitty, film legend Bela Lugosi who oozes around the house as the enigmatic butler Stevens, Edward Norris as Norma’s stalwart and clever boyfriend Jack, and Joseph Calleia as the stranger with a too smug smile. And of course, the Ritz Brothers as the scared but determined investigators.
The Ritz Brothers are relatively unknown to many modern movie fans but back in the day they were hugely popular stage headliners and later a top Las Vegas attraction. Al was born in 1901, Jimmy in 1904, and Harry in 1907. Their stage shows featured precision dancing, singing, and comedy routines. They made a number of musical comedy movies (including a musical comedy version of The Three Musketeers with Don Ameche which was released in 1939 just a few months before The Gorilla). Many later famous comedians (such as Danny Kaye, Jerry Lewis, Sid Caesar, Mel Brooks, Milton Berle, Phyllis Diller, and Red Buttons) credit the Ritz Brothers as being huge influences on their styles and careers. The Ritz Brothers have often been compared to the more famous Marx Brothers but the Ritzes did not play specific contrasting characters the way the Marx Brothers did (no one can confuse Groucho with Harpo). Instead, the Ritz Brothers often acted identically which made it hard for audiences to tell them apart. They are looking and acting pretty identically in The Gorilla. Even their character names help make it confusing to tell them apart. Although I actually found that to be part of the fun of the movie.
(For a great Youtube clip showing how effortless the Ritz Brothers made their dancing seem, please click this link and watch the video. Sorry, but embedding was disabled.)
So our movie has a sturdy cast, a great looking spooky mansion, and a Gorilla and a real gorilla. Unfortunately, our movie has a problem plagued script which makes it somewhat confusing to follow. The Gorilla was released in May 1939 (right after the Ritz Brothers’ most successful film The Three Musketeers) but there were problems with The Gorilla’s production almost from the start. The studio originally wanted actor Peter Lorre to play the part of the butler but settled for Bela Lugosi. They wanted a different actor to play the part of Norma’s fiancé but settled for Edward Norris. And the Ritz Brothers were unhappy with the script. Even though the original play by Ralph Spence had already been made into two other film versions (and would go on to be made into at least one more), the Ritzes were not happy with the quality of their script. Then their father died and the film’s production was delayed. The Ritzes balked at returning to the film and staged a highly publicized walkout, demanding their contracts be renegotiated and the script heavily rewritten. When the Ritz Brothers did not show up for shooting on January 30, Fox Studio brought a $150,000 suit against them for breach of contract. By March, the brothers returned to The Gorilla’s set and the film was completed. But the damage to their movie careers had been done. Fox terminated their starring series and cast them in a lower quality film and by the end of the year the brothers left the studio for good.
Despite all the problems associated with it’s production, I actually enjoyed The Gorilla. As I said, I wasn’t even sure what kind of movie it was at first, whether it was some kind of crazed stalker-killer movie or rabid wild animal movie. But surprise! The Gorilla is actually a horror-comedy with both a crazed stalker-killer and a wild animal but is mostly a comedy about bumbling morons (as described by other characters) stumbling about in a hilarious panic trying figure out what exactly is going on.
I loved the Ritz Brothers in this movie. I loved their rubber faces (there’s one scene especially where Harry Ritz reacts to discovering the real gorilla is right behind him). I loved the slapstick and the pratfalls. I immediately searched for more Ritz Brothers films. I recently got two films but haven’t yet watched them but I have watched every clip available on Youtube. Right now, the Ritzes are right up there with Abbott and Costello, the Marx Brothers, and the Three Stooges in my list of favorite comedy teams.
But I also enjoyed other parts of The Gorilla. I loved Patsy Kelly screaming bloody murder throughout the movie and her sarcastic comments. I loved Bela Lugosi mugging it up and raising doubts as to his guilt or innocence in the whole plot. I even loved niece Norma’s cute and clever fiancé. And, wow! But I absolutely love that great staircase.
The Gorilla is not without its shortcomings. The plot (even with its rewrites) is confusing, I think there are too many red herrings stuffed into such a short film. And the video is very dark in places. The Internet Archive has several versions of The Gorilla. All are dark. Granted, the film takes place at night and the rooms are often unlit and the outside scenes are of necessity dark but details of the gorilla itself are especially hard to see. Also some versions also have a short repeated scene about 37 minutes into the movie (one version does not have this repeat). On the other hand, the audio has no problems and is very clear.
So, overall, The Gorilla is a short, funny film with a few not-too scarey moments. There is nothing really to frighten younger movie fans except maybe the scenes of the real gorilla clambering around the rooftops while dangling one of our characters. Other than that, some lights get turned off, Harrigan (Harry Ritz) gets bopped on the head a few times, Bela Lugosi looks menacing (but he looses his effect if you don’t know who he is), there is lots of screaming and some fainting and the occasional hairy gorilla arm coming out of windows and hidden doors. I thought it was all great fun.
And, of course, the best thing is that The Gorilla is FREE in the Public Domain.
Do you want to know who or what The Gorilla is?
Are you biting your nails wondering if Norma will survive?
Are you sitting on the edge of your seat just waiting for Bela Lugosi to pop up again?
Are you dying to know if Harrigan ever gets out of those handcuffs?
Just click these links and go to the Internet Archive to watch The Gorilla:
These first 4 links all have the short repeated scene at about 37 minutes. But I did not find it hugely distracting.
Please click this link and go to the most popular version with more than 100,000 views.
Please click this link and go to the next most popular version.
This version does NOT have the short repeated scene, please click the link and enjoy.