Saturday, October 4, 2014

Film Review: The Gorilla

"The Gorilla"  *** (out of ****)

The Ritz Brothers get mixed up in a lot of monkey business in "The Gorilla" (1939).

"The Gorilla" has been howled at for years by some movie fans as being worthless, campy and unfunny. I completely disagree.

I think one explanation for this terrible reputation the movie has accumulated over the years is largely in part to the Ritz Brothers starring in it.

A lot of people don't like the comedy team. To be fair, even I must admit, initially I didn't like them either. The rap against them was they were a cheap knock-off of another much more famous comedy team of brothers; the Marx Brothers.

Many people also believed the Ritz Brothers didn't have distinctive characters. Each brothers was zany and wanted to tell jokes. It was as if each character wanted to be Groucho and because of that, the characters cancel each other out and none of them became memorable.

That was exactly what I thought the first time I saw them in their debut, a two-reeler comedy short called "Hotel Anchovy" (1934). It would be years until I would give them a second chance. When I did give them a second chance it was by watching "The Gorilla". They won me over. Why? It's true the brothers didn't have distinctive personalities but it is also true only one of them is the star; Harry Ritz (the other brothers were Al and Jimmy). The majority of the comedy and dance routines the team did rested on the shoulders of Harry Ritz. Al and Jimmy are wallpaper. By that I mean, they are part of the surrounding, something in the background. Audiences have greatly exaggerated their antics. All three weren't the funny man. Al and Jimmy clearly are the straight men of the team supporting Harry. Once I started viewing the team this way I enjoyed watching them.

At first the Ritz Brothers were used as a novelty act in musical comedies starring Alice Faye or Sonja Henie doing comedic song and dances a la Danny Kaye and impressions. Later they were given more prominent roles in movies such as "The Three Musketeers" (1939) with Don Ameche, widely considered the finest picture they were in, and "Straight Place and Show" (1938).

"The Gorilla" is a good example of a sub-genre in horror movies that has always been popular, comedy-horror. Over the years many of the great comedians and comedy teams of the era would test the waters in this genre. Abbott & Costello may be the best example starring in "Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein" (1948) and "Hold That Ghost" (1941). But, there was also Bob Hope in "The Cat & The Canary" (1939) with Paulette Godard and "The Ghost Breakers" (1940), the comedy team Wheeler & Woolsey starred in "Mummy's Boys" (1936) and Olsen & Johnson in "The Ghost Catchers" (1944).

Lionel Atwill is Walter Stevens, a man who may be the next victim of a serial killer known as "the gorilla". So far the police have not been able to determine if it is really a gorilla committing the murders or a man. Five people have died by the time Walter receives a note informing him he is next. The only people who know about the note are Walter's servants; Peters (Bela Lugosi) and Kitty (Patsy Kelly). Although Walter never informs the police, he does call a detective agency and investigators Harrigan (Harry Ritz), Garrity (Jimmy Ritz) and Mulligan (Al Ritz) are sent, though it is debatable if they will provide much protection, since they seem more scared of the prospect of "the gorilla" showing up than Walter does!

All of these characters along with Walter's niece; Norma (Anita Louise) and her fiance Jack (Edward Norris), will be in Walter's house awaiting to see if anything will happen to him at the stroke of midnight.

What I like best about "The Gorilla" is it establishes itself as a horror /mystery film first and a comedy second. I believe this important because it is the only way this particular genre will work. If the horror portion of the story is not scary and the movie focuses only on the comedic aspects all you have is a straight comedy. Horror/comedy needs to have the perfect balance. It needs to walk on a tightrope. Your horror scenes need to be scary and your jokes need to be funny. For me, "The Gorilla" does a good job succeeding in this area.

One reason the movie does a good job between the comedic and horror scenes has to do with the casting. Audiences, even younger movie fans, are probably familiar with the Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi. He is undoubtedly best known for his performance in the title role of the movie "Dracula" (1931) but also appeared in other horror films in the 1930s & 40s such as "White Zombie" (1932), "Son of Frankenstein" (1939) and "The Body Snatcher" (1945).

Lionel Atwill may not be a familiar name to casual movie fans, especially if you don't appreciate classic Hollywood movies of the 30s and 40s. He never played a character as iconic as Dracula, though like Lugosi, was closely associated with the horror genre after appearing in "The Vampire Bat" (1933), "Mystery of the Wax Museum" (1933), which was remade with Vincent Price as "House of Wax" (1953), both are worth watching, as well as "Son of Frankenstein" and the God awful "The Ghost of Frankenstein" (1942).

These two actors help establish the horror credentials for the movie. Audiences see their names in the movie and suspect a horror movie then you contrast that with the Ritz Brothers and Patsy Kelly and now audiences don't know what to expect. How can these different actors be in the same movie? For some that is a receipt for disaster but that's what gives the movie its appeal. This goes back to my idea for horror/comedy to work you must have the right balance. Atwill and Lugosi know what to do in a horror movie. Their characters don't tell jokes. They aren't taking pratfalls, dishing out one-liners, doing impressions. If that was your concern, you needn't worry.

For the comedy, again, if you don't like the Ritz Brothers that is going to be a problem. Their characters however are in the standard, classic persona a majority of comedians used. They are brave in their words, cowardly in their actions. They are clumsy and fail at the most basic of actions such as properly opening a door. The brothers don't get to do a song and dance and don't do impressions. So, it is not typical of their other pictures, but, that may be because this is based on a stage play which the Ritz Brothers had nothing to do with.

Patsy Kelly used to work for comedy producer Hal Roach, who teamed her up with Thelma Todd in the hopes he would have a female Laurel & Hardy comedy team. It didn't quite work out as planned, though, if you ever get the chance to see their comedy shorts I'd recommend it. My local library used to have a VHS of their work. Kelly usually played street smart, wise cracking ladies that made fun of the upper class and their stuffy demeanor. She was also in Roman Polanski's masterpiece "Rosemary's Baby" (1968) which some younger movie fans may recognize her from. Here she plays Walter's maid and is not afraid to talk back to her boss or tell the investigators how dumb they are.

Some viewers may feel the movie's humor is dated, but, since this picture was made in 1939 I don't feel that is a valid criticism. Yes, the humor's movie is dated. It is dated 1939 to be exact. Some examples of the jokes are, Harrigan telling his associates "follow me" then always pushes the other two in front of him when he is afraid to walk into a dark room or a basement. In one scene, when in a basement, Harrigan asks "anybody here", to which one of the brother's reply, "Yeah. Us." Did you find that funny? I hope so because those are the jokes. I grew up on these type of movies because I watched them with my grandparents, so I laugh because I am used to this style of humor. It is difficult to determine how someone else may react.

"The Gorilla" was directed by Allan Dwan, whose career goes back to the silent era. I never thought much of Dwan as a director and really only noticed who he was thanks to fellow filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich, who wrote about him as being an important figure in the history of early cinema. Because of Bogdanovich's appreciate for his work, I assumed Dwan should be a director on my radar. The reason I am not impressed by Dwan is because he has no visual style. Watch a Dwan picture like "Look Who's Laughing" (1941) or watch the Shirley Temple vehicle "Heidi" (1937) then watch "Around the World" (1943). Tell me if you are able to tell the same man directed these pictures. Dwan has no distinguish traits as a filmmaker. No voice. If I had to guess why Bogdanovich would chose him as a subject to write about, it would be because he was around during the early days of cinema. His first movie credit as director goes back to 1911. Bogdanovich has always been someone who appreciated the history of cinema. Dwan probably had some good stories to tell. But, as a filmmaker, I'm sorry, Dwan is not one of the greats.

Still "The Gorilla" is a funny movie which showcases the Ritz Brothers in fine form. It is not the embarrassment so many have warned us it is. It is a good example of the horror/comedy genre and could serve as a good introduction into the works of the Ritz Brothers, who should not be dismissed by movie lovers.

If you are looking for a good laugh this Halloween season I would recommend seeing "The Gorilla".