The Gorilla (1939)


USA. 1939.


Director – Allan Dwan, Screenplay – Rian James & Sid Silvers, Based on the Play by Ralph Spence, Photography (b&w) – Edward Cronjager, Music Direction – David Buttolph, Art Direction – Lewis Creber & Richard Day. Production Company – 20th Century Fox


Harry Ritz (Harrigan), Al Ritz (Mulligan), Jimmy Ritz (Garrity), Lionel Atwill (Walter Stevens), Bela Lugosi (Peters), Patsy Kelly (Kitty), Anita Louise (Norma Denby), Edward Norris (Jack Marsden), Joseph Calleia (Carlotti), Wally Vernon (Seaman), Paul Harvey (A.B. Conway), Art Miles (Poe the Gorilla)


Walter Stevens receives a note from a criminal known as The Gorilla, where The Gorilla announces that he is going to kill Walter. Victims have only 24 hours after receiving the note before The Gorilla strikes. Stevens takes the step of hiring three idiotic private detectives, Harrigan, Mulligan and Garrity, to protect him. As the hour nears, Stevens’ niece Norma and her fiancée arrive at Stevens’ house, along with various other strangers.

The Gorilla (1925) was originally a stage play written by Ralph Spence. It fell into that era’s notion of Old Dark House plays, featuring a balance of light comedy and scares in a gloomy mansion setting, which are always revealed to be the mundane machinations of a masked villain. As with other similar plays such as The Bat (1920) and The Cat and the Canary (1922), both of which were filmed several times during the 1920s and 30s, the super-criminal villain likes to adopt the guise of an animal. The Gorilla had previously been filmed, once in the silent era, as The Gorilla (1927), and then a sound remake, The Gorilla (1931), before this much more explicitly comedic remake.

This version of The Gorilla was made in clear imitation of the success of the Bob Hope Old Dark House comedy version of The Cat and the Canary (1939). Now the story has been retooled for a comedy trio called The Ritz Brothers who take over a role that is played by only one character in all the other versions. The Ritz Brothers were like a poor man’s Three Stooges or Marx Brothers. They appeared in half-a-dozen films but never went anywhere due to studio conflicts and have been almost entirely forgotten today. [Interestingly, today the only name that attracts attention on the credits is that of Bela Lugosi, although for once – about the only time in one of his films – Lugosi plays a straight role as merely the butler (who didn’t even do it)].

The Ritz Brothers’s lowbrow clowning around is at least snappily paced and comes with enough stupidity to be engaging in a dumb way. Alas, the second half drags the first half’s amiability out in a series of repetitive knocks involving a gorilla. The end revelation of the killer’s identity is improbably contrived.

Full film available here

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