Raymond Burr IS “Barney Chavez”…

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…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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

23 Responses to “Raymond Burr IS “Barney Chavez”…”

  1. Billy Wilder’s real name was Samuel. The idiot brother is in fact the REAL Billy Wilder. How confusing.

    My grandfather did have a brother with the same name as him though. In fact, there were two sons called Daniel and two called James… What a startling lack of imagination.

  2. George Foreman named all five of his sons George.

  3. “It walks on its hind legs”

    “Like a man?”

    “No. Like a beast that walks like a man”

    “Like a man?”

    “Yes. Like a man”

  4. One interesting case of the “Idiot Brother” is Robert Wyler, William’s brother. Edgar G. Ulmer said in an interview with Bogdanovich that Wyler frere was a bigger talent than William. Robert Wyler produced often for Wyler. He was married Cathy O’Donell, one of the stars of Nicholas Ray’s ”They Live by Night”.

    It’s even older than that. Howard Hawks often said that Kenneth Hawks could have been better than him. And Francis Ford, John’s elder brother, was the biggest influence on his kid brother’s films and according to those who knew Francis was the lesser of the two talents. Ford cast Francis in small roles as Michel Simon-esque drunks and village idiots. His biggest one is in ”Steamboat ’round the bend”.

    Curt Siodmak said later in life that his brother Robert could have been better. Sibling jealousy perhaps?

  5. And then there’s the sixth Marx Brother, Obscuro.

  6. A propos of nothing whatsoever…

    Dave Kehr, our man in New York, reviews the Murnau/Borzage boxset…

    http://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/09/movies/homevideo/09dvds.html?_r=1

  7. I wish I had an idiot brother :(

    Or at least a lazy drunkard brother like Jame Ellison’s character in I Walked With A Zombie!

    (I try not to consider the idea that in all actuality I am the idiot brother, just without the brother!)

  8. Idiot only son?

    Kurosawa’s older brother, who killed himself in a suicide pact, was a big influence — Kurosawa moved into the film industry as if to take his brother’s place.

    Robert Wyler apparently just didn’t get the breaks, so he took the producing work as the path of least resistance. Who knows what he might have achieved?

    And then there are the Coens and the Tavianis and the Boultings, who really are somewhat interchangeable with their siblings. Which Wachowski is the idiot? Both or neither?

  9. Are the Wachowskis still classed as brothers? I heard (possibly untrue) whisperings of gender reassignment. Were this true, it would mean only one of them was eligible for the title of Idiot Brother.

    They do seem to be undergoing an extended period of mental regression though. If it continues, I predict that by 2012, they will have amalgamated into some kind of primal, cretinous blob.

  10. Irish director Jim Sheridan spent years trying to get his brother into the industry with negligible results. Years ago, he managed to put together the casting coup of a lifetime for the brother – a young Sean Penn as the young Brendan Behan in an adaptation of Behan’s wonderful prison memoir, Borstal Boy. Penn walked before shooting started – the rumour being that he had signed on thinking he was getting the Academy-Award-winning brother, and then been landed with the, er, less favoured one. It will remain one of my Great Unmade Films, though.

  11. I didin’t see Speed Racer, although it looked somewhat intriguing — action movies have been self-consciously dark and moody and monochromatic at least since Die Hard, so it was refreshing to see something all candy-colored and poptastic. Although I did suspect watching it would give me diabetes and epilepsy.

    Yeah, the sex change rumour is pretty constant. “Hah! NOW who’s the idiot brother? I win! I’m the sister. The… idiot… sister…”

  12. Don’t forget the Maysles’…Albert continues without David, wonder how that must be like, continuing to work after working so long with your own flesh and blood.

  13. I didn’t know that about Sheridan. That guy’s such a powerhouse (I’m not that bothered about his films, but the man himself is incredibly impressive) it must be daunting to live up to that. Best enter a different line of work!

    In the case of the Farrelly Bros, the non-idiot brother is actually dumber than the idiot brother. (Just kidding, they’re not actually stupid. They’re films aren’t very good, but they’re not stupid.)

  14. Would Chris Penn qualify as Sean’s idiot brother? Although I have to admit I loved the guy, he was wonderful as Lawrence Tierney’s son in Reservoir Dogs, wrestling around on the floor with Michael Madsen. “Daddy, did you see that? He tried to fuck me!” Chris was an idiot to allow himself to die so young, conceivably he still had a few good performances left in him. And one last question, was Coppola named after John Ford’s brother?

  15. There was no sex reassignment for Larry Wachowski.

    DID

    NOT

    HAPPEN

  16. I see that nobody’s mentioned W. Lee Wilder’s “The Pretender” (1947). I’ve never seen it, but I do remember some good talk about it.

    Considering that it’s a noir starring Albert Dekker, with photography by John Alton and music by Paul Dessau (the composer for Brecht) … chances are that *something* good happens in it.

    Oh, yes, and it’s written by the Don Martin who was involved with Tourneur’s “Stranger on Horseback” and Gerd Oswald’s “The Brass Legend.”

  17. Anything shot by Alton = worth seeing. A weaker director just means there’s more leeway for Alton. His Anthony Mann noirs are the best, but if it’s John Sturges or Alfred Werker or Bernard Vorhaus, his style shines through, more recognisable than anything the director adds.

    There were rumours about Michael Cimino and gender reassignment too — seems to be another fiction. His face has gone a bit Mickey Rourke, but he’s still All Man. Is it the case that any reclusive filmmaker will attract this kind of gossip? How long till Malick goes from Terry to Terri in the gossip columns? How come Kubrick never got this treatment?

    Chris Penn was a really talented actor. Self-destructive habits don’t altogether qualify as idiotic, because the intellect can be fully engaged and recognise what’s going on, but be powerless to stop the emotional pull to death or ruin.

  18. The Pretender is one of the rarest of the rare. Almost no one’s seen it, no one talks or writes about it. Dekker’s in it, Alton shot it, but aside from that there are no recognizable names attached, except of course for W. Lee. Alton’s one of a handful of notables, DPs attached to noirs, along with Nicholas Musuraca, Lee Garmes, Theodor Sparkuhl, and maybe one or two others. I’ll catch up to it eventually, because of Alton above all else. You have a good point re. Chris Penn, perhaps one of these days we’ll know the full story, like I said, there was something about him I found likable, endearing, someone whose company I might have enjoyed in a casual situation.

  19. Alton is probably the most distinctive stylist among 40s cameramen, although Musuraca isn’t too far behind. “I think we all use too many lights,” said Musuraca, but Alton was the one who took the minimalist approach to the max, starting with total blackness and just adding the smallest pools of light to let us read the image.

    And isn’t Sparkuhl a wonderful name for a lighting director?

  20. Absolutely. There’s sparkle, and then there’s Spar-cool.

  21. Paul Murphy Says:

    Just saw the film. It was magnificent. Burr as a tawny strapping ladies’ man with animal instincts…beyond praise. Siodmak also writes beautiful speeches for Lon-Only Spider Baby is better as a showcase for late Lon. This film itself is the idiot brother of the Lewton ZOMBIE.

  22. Heh. Just watched Witchcraft, which is, with SB, the best late Lon performance I’ve seen, and one of the best Lons all round. Despite being cast as an English nobleman (!) he plays it like a gangster, but in one or two still moments is actually scary. And Lon is NEVER scary! All credit to Don Sharp, the director.

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