Monday, October 6, 2014

Film Review: Bela Lugosi Meets A Brooklyn Gorilla

"Bela Lugosi Meets A Brooklyn Gorilla"
** (out of ****)

"Bela Lugosi Meets A Brooklyn Gorilla" (1952) has achieved something along the lines of cult classic status. Some say it is the king of "B" pictures, in a class with the work of Ed Wood. I say the movie is an insult to Bela Lugosi and it isn't too kind to gorillas either.

The movie stars Duke Mitchell and Sammy Petrillo (in their only screen appearance together). They were an imitation Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis team with Mitchell in the Martin role and Petrillo as Lewis. While Duke Mitchell is a talent less, lifeless performer and a lousy singer, most would admit Petrillo does a spot on Jerry Lewis impression. The impersonation is so good, some say, even though the movie is acknowledged as a less than stellar picture, it is worth watching if only to see Petrillo's performance.

The story goes Mitchell and Petrillo were a nightclub act, both aware of their similarity to Martin and Lewis. Younger audiences must remember in the 1950s Martin and Lewis were the comedy team. The act was a huge success. Their popularity matched The Beatles or Elvis. It might seem hard to believe for some, that a comedy team could enjoy such fame, but, it was true. So, it shouldn't be a surprise that there were some that would try to capitalize on their success and imitate them.

Mitchell and Petrillo's manager wanted to further exploit his team and cash in on the Martin and Lewis craze, so he pitched around the idea of his team starring in a comedy. None of the major studios would bite. It wasn't until Realart Pictures came along that a deal was made.

The concept was to create a comedy-horror film, which had a hint of the "Road to" pictures Bob Hope and Bing Crosby starred in a decade earlier. Duke Mitchell and Sammy Petrillo would play a variation of themselves. To reinforce the "horror" angle it was suggested to cast Bela Lugosi, who was best known to movie audiences as Dracula. Lugosi had fallen on hard times and was no longer a box-office draw. He accepted the role. In order to get people to see their picture a goofy title was created, "Bela Lugosi Meets A Brooklyn Gorilla". You hear a title like that and you think to yourself, what could a movie with a title like that be about?

Mitchell and Petrillo are nightclub performers who get lost from an entertainment troupe, after falling out of a parachute, and are stranded on an island called "Kola Kola". They meet natives who take a liking to them, especially the tribal chief's daughter, Nola (Charlita, who looks a lot like Dorothy Lamour) to Mitchell.

Still, Mitchell and Petrillo want to get off the island and back to civilization. Nola informs the boys there is a doctor on the island named Dr. Zabor (Lugosi) who may be able to help them. The doctor is in love with Nola and becomes jealous of Mitchell when he begins to realize the two love each other. In order to prevent Mitchell and Nola from seeing each other Dr. Zabor wants to turn Mitchell into a gorilla.

"Bela Lugosi Meets A Brooklyn Gorilla" suffers from the problems you'd expect a "B" movie to suffer from. The acting is weak, the dialogue is poor, the jokes don't work, the production design is cheap, the directing is uninspired and the plot is lacking development. The only reason to watch the movie is for curiosity's sake. You expect one of those movies that is so bad its good. It's not. It's just bad. Not offensively bad. Just boring and dull bad. Uninspired bad. Corny bad. It lives up (or down) to its reputation. How good could a movie with this title be? You walk into it not expecting much.

The movie creates no suspense. There is never an element of danger. We never fear the natives will harm Mitchell and Petrillo. We never fear Dr. Zabor. He doesn't project a mad scientist. He doesn't seem evil.

Any movie can be made well. Even a movie such as this. And, who knows, it could have even starred Sammy Petrillo. The problem is the movie doesn't take advantage of its setting. Why not create atmosphere? Why not do something creative with the jungle setting? Why not film the movie in shadows? Use an effective musical score. Create more believable characters. Make the science halfheartedly realistic. Make us fear the doctor. Make us believe the love story. You could have even gotten a semi-serious horror story from this material. But, it would take imagination. Something this movie doesn't have.

A movie such as "Bela Lugosi Meets A Brooklyn Gorilla" should make audiences appreciate just how difficult it is to create a good comedy-horror picture. This is no "Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein" (1948) or even the Ritz Brothers in "The Gorilla" (1939). This movie is in a class with "Zombies on Broadway" (1945) with the team Brown & Carney, which also had Bela Lugosi in the cast.

It is said when Jerry Lewis heard of this movie he was going to sue the producers. He did not want Sammy Petrillo stealing his act. From Lewis' perspective you can understand why he would do that. Why have another him roaming around, stealing his thunder? But from a public relations stand point, it sure puts Lewis in a bad light. It makes it seem like he saw Petrillo as a threat. It seems like Lewis "killed" this young man's career. That's too bad. Petrillo could have been a great impersonator, if he could imitate other people. His Jerry Lewis is quite striking.

"Bela Lugosi Meets A Brooklyn Gorilla" is a movie without any ideas. They couldn't even come up with a way to end the picture and give us a cop out ending instead. There was nowhere to go with this material. The background story involving the lives of the people in the movie and the aftermath of this picture on their careers is much, much more interesting than anything you will see in the 74 minutes of this movie.