America had the Marx Brothers. England had the Ritz Brothers. Guess who wins?
The Gorilla (1939) attempts to be a comedy-thriller but it works better as a detective story with the viewer attempting to detect "where's the comedy?" The Ritz Brothers play three bumbling detectives in the standard Old Dark House scenario.
What qualifies as "humor" is tripping & falling down, having an ironing board pop out of the wall & bonking someone on the head then having it happen again, & running clumsily into doors.
The film is based on a trivial comic play with a guy dressed as a gorilla named Poe wandering through the tale as slapstick menace. The guy in the gorilla suit playing the "real" gorilla is actually tame & friendly, but "The Gorilla" of the title is the moniker of a murderer who killed at least five people before the story begins (how funny is that).
This criminal called The Gorilla has most recently threatened the household which the Ritz brothers are hired to protect & which has a resident "real" gorilla for no particular reason.
Funnier than the Ritz brothers is the support role provided by Kitty the maid (Patsy Kelly), who can't do much with the lines she is given but does have the screen charisma of a Gracey Allen hence very appealing during her few scenes. She has the best line in the film, too, which isn't much of a line, but nevertheless the best one, when someone tells her to stay clear of the pet gorilla because "Poe hates women" to which she instantly quips "So does Kipling."
If Patsy Kelly is Gracey Allen, then George Burns is Peters the butler, played by Bela Lugosi. He too is hamstrung with badly written comedy lines. When one of the Ritz's asks, "Who are you?" he replies, "I'm Peters the Butler sir" & the Ritz brother grills further: "And what's your name?" giving Bela the chance to repeat, "Peters." And that's the whole joke. It's not a very large role but Bela's presence spices up what would otherwise be endlessly boring nonsense.
The funniest role is the guy in the gorilla suit, who is Art Miles. Art was also Igor the Ape in the short A Bird in the Head (1946) which replaces the Ritz Brothers with the Three Stooges who come off comparatively as very funny comics. Because A Bird in the Head incorporates some Tex Avery animation it is hands-down the better film, whether or not the Ritz brothers are even less funny than the Stooges.
Poe the Gorilla in The Gorilla is a nicely designed costume with a pleasant broad face, with body language that convey's the creature's essential sweetness. Most movies with Big Gorillas assume they are invariably meat-eating horrific monsters rather than the enormous vegetarians they actually are, so it's nice to see this one is a good ol' ape.
The main cast for the mystery are not actually inept but there's nothing they can do to save the material. They are stock characters, Anita Louise as the threatened niece, Edward Norris as her boyfriend, Lionell Atwell as the suspicious uncle. These characters had been standard since the silent film era & probably much earlier from the stage, & while it might be possible to do something entertaining with such cardboard figures, The Gorilla fails to do so.
The film is worth checking out if you're a Lugosi completist or it could be viewed as a part of a film studies thesis analyzing apes in early cinema -- or heaven forbid if you actually like the Ritz brothers. Just don't expect much in either the giggles department nor the suspense angle.
copyright © by Paghat the Ratgirl