The Gorilla (1939) -*
Modern psychiatric thinking has it that in most cases, the difference between sanity and mental illness is mainly a matter of degree. We all have our little neuroses, phobias, and obsessions, but so long as they don’t interfere with the smooth running of our lives, then the mental health profession is (in theory, at least) content to define us as normal. I bring this up because I think maybe one of my own minor obsessions has just taken another step closer to the threshold. As my longtime readers will most likely have figured out, I find it nearly impossible to watch, let alone review, remakes of or sequels to movies which I have not yet seen. I have to start with the beginning of the series, or with the earliest available version. So consider this, and then decide for yourself how bent it is. As part of a DVD box-set of public-domain horror movies, I acquired a copy of the 1939 Ritz Brothers horror-comedy The Gorilla, a movie which I previously had no detectable desire to see. Most folks in my position would probably just watch the movie out of the corner of their eye while reading a magazine or making dinner and leave it at that, but not me. No, I knew this was going to be the sort of film I’d feel compelled to review, and that meant I’d have to sit on the thing until I’d made every good-faith effort to track down the two previous celluloid incarnations of the story, shot in 1927 and 1930 respectively. It wasn’t until I had satisfied myself of the fact that the earlier versions were either lost or in such fragmentary condition that they might as well be lost that I could allow myself to pop The Gorilla into the DVD player and have at it. All this for a goddamned Ritz Brothers movie, which I had never really cared to watch in the first place!
What’s that? You say you’ve never heard of the Ritz Brothers? In that case, you should count yourself among the fortunate ones. The Ritz Brothers were another one of those 30’s-40’s slapstick comedy teams which I detest so much. It might be fair to say that as Laurel and Hardy were to Abbott and Costello, the Ritz Brothers were to the Three Stooges. I’ll pause for a moment to let that sink in… Ready? Alright. You know all those old Stooges shorts that have Larry, Moe, and Curly (or Shemp, or Joe, or Curly Joe) clowning around in a phony haunted house? Well, imagine one of those dragged out to 67 minutes— that, in essence, is The Gorilla, except that the Ritz Brothers manage to be even less funny. Yes, my friend, the world is a far more terrible place than you had hitherto imagined.
Nor are the Ritz Brothers the sole source of painfully unfunny comedy in this film. Of equal importance is Kitty (Patsy Kelly, later of Rosemary’s Baby and The Naked Kiss), live-in maid for one Walter Stevens (Lionel Atwill, from The Mad Doctor of Market Street and The Ghost of Frankenstein). She’s reading herself to sleep one night when somebody tosses a rock with a note tied around it through her window, and she just about spontaneously combusts with fright, spending the next several minutes charging around the Stevens mansion shrieking for the police— which might have done her some good, I suppose, if the house hadn’t been some miles out from the center of the nearest town. As it is, all she does is annoy the shit out of her boss, Peters the butler (Bela Lugosi), and the audience. Kitty becomes even more demonstratively terrified when Stevens reads the note, which warns him that he is to be the next victim of the Gorilla.
Who? Okay. The Gorilla is a “professional killer” who has already murdered five people, apparently for their money. His modus operandi is to send threatening notes to his prospective victims and also to several other people whom he has no intention of killing (so as to confuse matters for the police), and then stop by the real target’s place within 24 hours to follow through on the threat. The reason he’s called “the Gorilla” is that he likes to commit his crimes while wearing a gorilla suit— doesn’t everybody? If this guy is after Walter Stevens, then this is serious business indeed, as the police don’t have even a single lead in the case. On the other hand, maybe it’s all just a smokescreen. Walter apparently owes somebody a quarter of a million dollars, and that somebody wants his money tomorrow. Stevens also has a niece, by the name of Norma Denby (Anita Louise), with whom he is co-executor of his late brother’s estate. Under the terms of the will, Walter and Norma will each get half as soon as the girl comes of age, but in the event that one or the other of them should die before then, the survivor gets the whole package. And wouldn’t you know it, Norma’s share comes to almost exactly what Walter owes to his mysterious creditor, and she and her fiance, Jack Marsden (Edward Norris), are on their way over even now for an extended visit. Could it be that Stevens himself has hired the Gorilla to kill his niece?
That would certainly go some way toward explaining why he calls not the police, but Acme Investigations to deal with the threatened attempt on his life. Acme consists of three private detectives— Mulligan (Al Ritz), Harrigan (Harry Ritz), and Garrity (Jimmy Ritz)— and all of them are absolute imbeciles and cowards as well. They arrive at the Stevens mansion on the night designated in the Gorilla’s note, and proceed to get into all manner of hypothetically hilarious slapstick mischief. There is a succession of disappearances beginning with that of Stevens himself, two different strangers (Wally Vernon and The Monster and the Girl’s Joseph Calleia) show up under suspicious circumstances, a man named Conway (Paul Harvey, of The Walking Dead) arrives on the scene claiming that Stevens has been embezzling his clients’ money for years, and the inevitable tacky-suit gorilla drops in to cause no end of trouble for everybody. And as generally happens in comedies of this sort, the mystery is ultimately solved by almost complete accident, entirely without reference to the conspicuously absent skills of the three “detectives.”
It’s a damn good thing The Gorilla is just barely more than an hour long. Even ten minutes of the Ritz Brothers is a long, grueling slog, and at full feature length, this movie would be simply unendurable. Indeed, I suspect that even you sick bastards who find the Three Stooges amusing will have a hard time with this one, in that the Ritz Brothers are further hampered by their close mutual resemblance and the much lower level of distinction between their onscreen personas as compared to the Stooges. The three of them really do become almost interchangeable at times, making it all but impossible to establish the sort of group dynamic that seems to account for much of the outwardly unaccountable popularity of Larry, Moe, and that other guy. Patsy Kelly would be even harder to face, were it not for the fact that screenwriters Rian James and Sid Silvers somehow found it in their hearts to give her a couple of halfway-witty lines. The other faint lights in the darkness are Lionel Atwill and (surprisingly) Bela Lugosi, both of whom put in tasteful, proportionately understated performances that the rest of The Gorilla comes nowhere close to deserving.