…in BRIDE OF THE GORILLA.
Barney is “an animal”, according to those who know and love him, so who better to play him than the Mighty Burr, previously winner of a Shadowplay Award for services to eating?
My problem with this film is… where is it set? Africa, presumably, since a gorilla features so prominently in the title and the film itself (Hugo Barney is transformed into a man in an ape suit by malicious witch-doctoring). What then, to make of Lon Chaney’s appearance as a “native policeman”? Chaney (seen below right attempting to cram a table up his arse) boldly plays this native without recourse to Al Jolson war-paint.
Writer-director Curt Siodmak (Idiot Brother* of the distinguished Robert) places his authorial stamp on the material from the off, with a tacky montage of jungle stock footage. “This is the jungle,” slurs Chaney in V.O., immediately establishing himself as A Man You Can Trust. Yes, but which jungle, Lon?
Geographical issues continue to arise: how to explain the vaguely Mexican “natives”, and the presence of California-accented Woody Strode as another native policeman — and Gisela Verbisek as “Al-Long” the witch doctress: a cheap Maria Ouspenskaya knock-off (although she looks more like the elderly Buster Keaton in drag), this blatantly Hungarian woman brings a welcome touch of the Old Country to the Dark Continent, while her hot daughter “Lorena” (Carol Varga), Barney’s lover, wears a Maria Montez type sarong ensemble?
The film’s true leading lady, Barbara Payton, provides a fantastic go-go vibe, kind of unexpected in what is essentially an exotic rehash of Siodmak’s screenplay for THE WOLFMAN. Payton, a decent actress (everybody in this films is slumming, Tom Conway most of all) had a lively and ultimately tragic life and career. It was she whom Tom Neal and Franchot Tone fought over, with Tone ending up hospitalised and almost dead. Payton married Tone, then ditched him and went back to Neal, leaving him soon enough to avoid getting murdered (Neal shot his third wife in the head) but drifting into homelessness, alcoholism, prostitution — having already drifted into BRIDE OF THE GORILLA, which is bad enough.
Amazingly, Curt Siodmak is a better director than he is a writer, even though he made his living mostly as an author. His name is attached to one true classic, the oneiric calypso tragedy that is I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE, although Val Lewton extensively reworked his script (Siodmak’s original plot had Tom Conway zombifying his wife so he could continue to have sex with her animate corpse, which Lewton nixed on the grounds that, “She would have no vaginal warmth!” A valid objection, though not the first that would cross my mind). Otherwise, he wrote speeches for Bela Lugosi so bad they had to be cut from FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLFMAN, and sci-fi paperbacks full of ludicrous prose: “The moon leaped like a giant in the porthole,” is a surreal favourite of mine. In BRIDE we get monologues like “Out there… in the jungle… out there, everything’s different. My hands, my eyes… I can see further than I’ve ever seen before… I can climb as if I had wings… A thousand smells… flowers, plants, the animals. The jungle is my house!”
But as director he approaches competence. Sometimes he bypasses it and achieves actual STYLE, prowling through the jungle (WHICH jungle? PLEASE!) in subjective shots with big hairy paws in the foreground, even going handheld, like his countryman John Brahm in THE UNDYING MONSTER. And it’s to his credit that he tries to keep the gorilla suit offscreen as much as possible. His dialogues are always played as “flat twos”, it’s true, with an occasional third character standing in the middle, which gets pretty funny during long scenes, where new characters keep coming in and standing where the old ones were a second ago.
OK, I admit it: the film is clearly identified as being set in the Amazon. There’s no geographical problem, except the gypsy woman and Woody Strode and the fact that IT’S ABOUT A BIG MAGIC GORILLA.
I was also wondering why, asides from the obvious reason of not wanting to terrify the audience TOO much, Barney has his clothes on after he changes back from being the gorilla, who doesn’t have any clothes on. Then I decided that what the film hadn’t told us was that the Amazonian gypsy curse actually causes Barney to go out into the jungle and PUT ON A GORILLA SUIT. Which would explain why the gorilla in this film is obviously a guy in a suit. But then, shouldn’t the film be called THE BRIDE OF RAYMOND BURR IN A GORILLA SUIT?
It should. Because not only is that more accurate, it’s also a far more enticing title.
*I’m fascinated by the phenomenon of the Idiot Brother, maybe because my siblings are both productive members of society, making me one. William Lee Wilder, brother of Billy (their mother REALLY liked that name) is another great I.B. — for every LOST WEEKEND, SOME LIKE IT HOT or THE APARTMENT made by the multi-Oscar winning Billy, W. Lee was ready to respond with a PHANTOM FROM SPACE, a MAN WITHOUT A BODYor a MANFISH, like a one-man campaign to disprove genetics.