Pinky and the Ape

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After the lo-fi shambling smear that was THE APE MAN, it was a relief to find that my DVD of THE GORILLA was sharp in picture and sound, and also that it was a plush production with something on nodding terms to a decent script. It’s one of those old dark house comedy-thrillers that can become a bit wearisome — and I’m thinking of THE BAT or, horror of horrors, SH(IT)! THE OCTOPUS rather than the actual, brilliant OLD DARK HOUSE here. But despite being festooned with hoary horror clichés and plywood characters, this simian romp actually delivers a lot of visual pleasure, a bare minimum of laughs, and some pert, yeasty performances from genre faves Lugosi and Atwill.

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First, Lionel “Pinky” Atwill, who gets to hone his enantiodromic skills, especially in scenes where flickering firelight illuminates the dark side of his visage. Atwill is thrown at us as such an obvious villain that we naturally assume he must be innocent. But then we look at him and think, no, he CAN’T be innocent. Of anything!

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Bela Lugosi meets a woman with a pork pie on her head.

Lugosi impresses considerably in a modest butler role. He doesn’t overact, he’s merely suave and charming like some kind of Hungarian person. He’s relaxed, calm, very much the man on form. Credit must go to director Allan Dwan, whose work I’ve tended to neglect: Lugosi was not easy to control.

I suspect taking THE GORILLA as a starting point for Dwan appreciation would strike most right-thinking cinephiles as grotesque, but the movie has definite merits from a directorial standpoint. Dwan manages the ambidextrous feat of wrestling Lugosi’s wayward talent to the floor and channeling it along the required course, while pulling off slick visuals including a wonderful introductory crane shot that traverses the front of the rainswept mansion-house like a devil bat sniffing out the perfume of death.

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And then there are the Ritz Brothers. What? What, exactly? What is the purpose of these brothers? It was interesting to see, I suppose, a triple-act of interchangeable doofus types, exuding the kind of broad schtick that other comics (I would say Jerry Lewis, for instance) individualise and make funny. With the Ritzes, there’s no REAL personality and certainly no individuality (they’re all alike, and also like every other vaudeville type ever), although there’s recognisable skill in their playing and mastery of a whole lexicon of double-takes, gurns and grimaces. They’re comedic or comical rather than being plain funny, because their tenth-generation mimickry has lost all resemblance to human truth.

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When comedy goes rhetorical…

Apart from all this, and the faceless romantic leads, there’s Joseph Calleia (hoo-ray!) and a misogynist gorilla (hoo-whaa???) — “He hates women!” and the usual number of secret passageways, twist endings and baloney. A good time-waster, worth it for the craziness of the opening newspaper montage, and Dwan’s suave moves.

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What an odd thing to say.

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5 Responses to “Pinky and the Ape”

  1. Arthur S. Says:

    Allan Dwan was there at the beginning of cinema. He made movies as a contemporary of Edwin S. Porter and when D. W. Griffith started making movies and invented film grammar and making INTOLERANCE, he needed to set up a complex camera angle. So he called Dwan and he invented the crane shot. He went from that to making B-Films and Westerns.

    I’ve not seen any of the surviving silents but I loved “Silver Lode” and the great colour noir SLIGHTLY SCARLETT.

  2. Both Sid Caesa and Mel Brooks are crazy about the Ritz Brothers. Pauline Kael has spoken admiringly of them too. I find them of interest but gather one would have had to have seen them in vaudeville first to get the full impact of their act.

  3. Maybe that’s it. They say the same of Martin & Lewis, but I think you can see their chemistry at work in the TV shows. If they were any funnier onstage, people must’ve DIED.

    I’m not clear on the fluctuations of Dwan’s career, going from the Fairbanks epic Robin Hood to little B films, but several other golden age directors had similar up-and-down careers. I’ve a mind to re-read the Bogdanovitch interview.

    Dwan’s last film, The Most Dangerous Man Alive, sounds like a barrel of laughs. Anything with Debs Paget is automatically a masterpiece.

  4. Christopher Says:

    Gorillas in the Mist starring Lionel Atwill and the Ritz Bros

  5. I like the idea of Gorillas in the Ritz.

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