Thursday, December 10, 2009
BELA LUGOSI MEETS A BROOKLYN GORILLA (1952)
RATING: *** out of ****
PLOT: (What plot?!) Two entertainers (Duke Mitchell and Jerry Lewis… er, I mean Sammy Petrillo) en route to perform at an overseas army base accidentally go out the wrong door of the plane (with parachutes already on, they explain), and we join them as they are discovered by a quite Caucasian-looking tribe on the island below. The chief’s daughter Nona (Charlita) is American-schooled and absolutely gorgeous. She goes gaga for Duke. Her sister Saloma (Muriel Landers) is obese and impulsive… and absolutely determined, as the trailer states, to “put the whammy on Sammy!” Meanwhile, Bela Lugosi plays Dr. Zabor, another in a long line of mad scientist roles. He also wants the gorgeous Nona… and he wants to put a human’s brain in an ape’s head (don’t all mad scientists?). Can Sammy save Duke from Bela’s monkey business, or will the Brooklyn chumps become island chimps? And will this “horror film stiffen you with laughter” as the poster promises?
REVIEW: Of all the films covered in this “Scared Silly” project, even among horror-comedy aficionados this is one of dubious merits. So much so that I must offer this disclaimer: proceed at your own risk!
In fact, I need to fortify the above: this movie is considered by the majority of movie critics to not only be among the worst movies ever made, but in a select group of the four or five worst ever.
So why have I rated it so highly?
The answer: Sammy Petrillo. For the uninitiated, in this film Sammy Petrillo isn’t just inspired by Jerry Lewis; he practically IS Jerry Lewis! His performance is so audacious that I can’t tear my eyes away – it’s that compelling.
And fascinating, as in any given scene you can see Petrillo’s mind at work, pondering “What would Jerry do or say in this situation?” You literally see Sammy come up with the punch lines (such as they are) on the spot.
If I were to forget the above and just grade it on its merits as a movie, then I'd subtract half a star. But Sammy really puts this over for me.
Another reason I’m so fond of the film is that I really have to be in the mood to watch a Jerry Lewis movie; but Sammy’s outrageous pilfering amuses me anytime.
So is he funny? Is the film funny? Not in and of itself. The humor isn’t in the jokes or situations. For me, the humor is in the fact that this kid is shamelessly and fearlessly throwing himself into someone else’s shoes (although strangely, I think Sammy's random, snarky insults – like calling Saloma Salami – might actually appeal to today's young audiences).
I think the key word here is shameless. Petrillo began his act at 16 and made this film at 17. It is likely that in his youthful exuberance he never thought his Lewis shtick was a colossal rip-off worthy of lawsuits from Jerry. For me, it is this assumed naiveté that makes Sammy’s performance that much more engaging.
Of course, it resonates even more because Sammy is paired here with Duke Mitchell. An okay crooner with Italian features, Mitchell was told to cut his hair like Dean Martin. By himself he wouldn’t be mistaken for Martin, but standing next to Petrillo’s ersatz Jerry, the effect is complete.
Duke is likable enough, although the script doesn't require much from his character so there’s not much happening in his performance – when not reprimanding Sammy or feeding him straight lines he’s just sort of “there” waiting for his next cue to sing and/or look befuddled.
He’s also the victim of this low, low budget film’s worst aesthetic choice: he wears a shirt tied off at the waist for most of the movie. I grew up in the 1970s when only girls wore their shirts that way. I can’t vouch for the 1950s, but I’m guessing Duke never lived down this unfortunate wardrobe selection, even then. Which would more than explain his macho-with-a-vengeance “Massacre Mafia Style” movie 26 years later.
Duke did manage to have a successful post-Brooklyn Gorilla nightclub career as a singer, honing his craft to the point that he was reportedly (according to members of his family as well as cartoon voice-over legend Janet Waldo) one of the singers (along with Leo DeLyon and Henry Corden) called in a time or two to provide singing voices for Fred and/or Barney on "The Flintstones."
For Sammy, It all started with a cheap haircut. When the barber told Sammy he looked like Jerry Lewis, Petrillo started acting like Jerry to see if he could get the same laughs. Before you know it, Milton Berle arranged for Sammy to meet with Lewis, and Lewis hired Sammy to play “baby Jerry” in a sketch for the Colgate Comedy Hour. He also signed Petrillo to a contract that kept him from taking on other roles! Since Petrillo was a minor, his father was able to get him released from Jerry’s contract. Petrillo went on to do a nightclub comedy act as both a solo performer and teamed with George DeWitt (emcee of radio’s “Name That Tune”), mostly doing impersonations of all sorts of celebrities and cartoon characters, including Jerry. He teamed with Duke Mitchell in 1951.
Sammy made no bones about his infamy, which was kind of refreshing – he knew it was a million-in-one lark and the timing of a lifetime and said, “what the heck – what will happen if I exploit it?” In his later years, Sammy had a lot of fun with his image as a felonious thespian – just check out this “message to Jerry” where Sammy feigns indignity over Jerry’s “theft” of his act!
The supporting cast is made up of folks who would forever be “typecast” in similar roles, often uncredited and playing characters with no names. Witness:
Charlita, the beautiful actress who played the chief’s daughter Nona, spent her career doing guest shots in TV shows and movies (most of which were Westerns) primarily playing Latina characters, native girls, singers, waitresses, Native Americans and even an Asian. Along the way she engaged in some horseplay with the Bowery Boys in “Let’s Go Navy” and also had a part in the unintentionally funny horror-western (and train… er… stage coach wreck) “Billy the Kid vs. Dracula.”
Nona’s sister Saloma, is played by Muriel Landers. Landers was actually quite a talented comedienne and singer, and not unattractive, but because of her full figure, she was forever typed as the “homely girl chasing the hapless male” (aka the “abhorrent admirer”). However, she did get to make a short at the Stooges’ home studio Columbia, had a credited/named role in “Dr. Doolittle” and her second-to-last credit was playing Mommy Hoodoo on an episode of Sid & Marty Krofft’s “Lidsville.”
Al Kihume played Chief Rakos... and a plethora of similar Native roles in westerns and serials. He was also often cast as policemen and due to his heritage, Hawaiians. Most notably, he played several different roles in various Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto mysteries, and appeared in the comic-based serials “The Adventures of Captain Marvel” and “Mandrake the Magician,” which provided him the marquee role of Mandrake’s assistant Lothar.
Mickey Simpson made a career out of playing bouncers, guards and thugs. One could say his role as the chief’s right-hand man Chula combined all of the above. While often stuck in low-budget productions, Simpson had an alternate, classier outlet: he was a favorite of legendary director John Ford, who gave him meaty roles in “My Darling Clementine,” and “Giant,” plus seven other films.
(There are a couple of other co-stars here that found themselves typecast, but I’m saving them for the “SPOTTED IN THE CAST” section, so keep reading)…
Of course, Bela is here as well, and to the producers, he’s the most exploitable element in the movie, the insurance that brings people in no matter how confused they are over the Jerry-alike on the movie poster. Alas, this is Bela five years after “Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein” but looking twenty years older. Still, Lugosi proves that he still has some life left, rattling off an absurd speech about apes, evolution and embryonic metamorphosis with pure conviction, making us believe every word - a foreshadow of his later, famous Atomic Supermen speech from 1955's “Bride of the Monster.”
As expected Bela supplies the main menace here – the gorillas are just too absurd to actually be scary (except maybe to little kids). But the scariest factor here has to be the use of that old standby of the creepy old man infatuated with a girl 50 years his junior!
While this film clearly marks a turning point from which Lugosi’s career would never recover (the Ed Wood films were just ahead) he does his best with the woefully-written role, and his standing as the leading horror-comedy fiend remains intact. One could argue it would have to since Bela made more horror-comedies than any other boogeyman (ten in all). But it is Bela’s ability to remain a rock-steady sinister presence amidst the comic mayhem surrounding him that truly makes him king of the creeps.
I should also note Tim Ryan. The actor-writer co-wrote this screenplay, and had a hand in several other horror-comedies including “Crazy Knights” with Shemp Howard, Billy Gilbert and “Slapsie” Maxie Rosenblum;” and “Spook Busters” with the Bowery Boys.
Though it’s unlikely the filmmakers intended it, the film comes off as a bit of a send-up of the low-budget horrors that Lugosi made for Monogram Studios. After all, mad scientists and simians figured heavily in Lugosi’s “poverty row” potboilers. It also manages to lampoon the whole horror-comedy genre in general – let’s face it, the basic situation that sets up the plot could have easily kicked off an Abbott & Costello monster-fest, let alone a Martin & Lewis pic. If you approach it as a cracked mirror reflection of the great horror-comedies that preceded it, you may find much to interest you in this film. But if you just can’t get past Sammy Petrillo, my three stars are going to dwindle down to one fast for you. Maybe even disappear completely!
POSTSCRIPT: I had the pleasure of meeting Sammy Petrillo a couple of years ago and he graciously filled me in on his show business exploits. My encounter with Sammy was detailed in a guest-post I did for Aaron Neathery’s wonderful “Third Banana” blog when Sammy passed away this summer. You can read it by clicking here.
BEST DIALOGUE EXCHANGES:
NONA: “Dr. Zabor’s a very brilliant man.”
SAMMY: “Brilliant man, huh? Anybody who would live in a creep joint like this must be a moronic idiot.”
DR. ZABOR (entering the room): “I’m Dr. Zabor. Welcome to my creep joint.”
SAMMY: Oh gosh, I’m sorry Mr. Idiot – I didn’t mean to call your creep joint a creep joint!”
BEST GAGS: Nothing can top the fact that the whole film is one big gag - namely being a shameless Martin & Lewis ripoff. Otherwise the sight gags here are mild at best. When Duke & Sammy are found by the natives they have long, shaggy beards like the Smith Brothers (of cough drop fame) signifying that they've been passed out for quite some time. When being chased by Saloma, Sammy implores the animals of the jungle to "run for your lives" - and herds of all sorts of jungle creatures do just that, courtesy of stock footage. Sammy pretends to be the top head on the totem pole making a garish face as he attempts to avoid Saloma. Beyond that, Sammy gets into some monkeyshines with Ramona the chimp and later the gorilla version of Duke.
SPOTTED IN THE CAST: Two actors to make you go ape.
First, Steve Calvert cavorting in a gorilla suit he purchased from another famous simian thespian, Ray “Crash” Corrigan. Calvert also played gorillas in a few other horror-comedies including the Stooges short' "Spooks," the Joe Besser short "Fraidy Cat" and the feature, "The Bowery Boys Meet the Monsters." He also appeared along in stock footage as an ape in Besser's "Hook a Crook" (which also utilized stock footage of Corrigan as an ape along with new footage of Dan "Hoss from Bonanza" Blocker for triple the simian fun)!
Then there’s Ramona the Chimp. There’s some conflicting information about the chimp who played Ramona, but popular legend has it that the chimp was one of the Cheeta the chimp portrayers of Tarzan fame, and that this same chimp was reunited with Muriel Landers in “Doctor Doolittle.”
BUY THE FILM (OR WATCH IT FOR FREE): This film is in the public domain, so you can find all sorts of dealers offering it at bargain prices. Both Digiview (SRP $0.99) and Alpha (SRP $3.95) have produced DVDs of the film from decent transfers, while Image’s special edition at $9.99 is notable for its clean print and the fact that it includes a filmed interview with Sammy Petrillo, which you can order here:
You can also watch it for FREE online at Blip TV by clicking here.
FURTHER READING: David H. Smith wrote a fabulous essay on “Brooklyn Gorilla” for the book MIDNIGHT MARQUEE ACTORS SERIES: BELA LUGOSI that not only reviews the film but touches on Lugosi’s entire horror-comedy career as well. You can order it here.
You’ll also want to read a great interview that radio DJ Dave the Spaz did with Sammy over here and film historian Tom Weaver’s interview with producer Herman Cohen here.
Watch the trailer here:
JOIN US AGAIN NEXT WEEK WHEN BELA LUGOSI MEETS HUGH HERBERT IN "THE BLACK CAT!"