Urban Gorilla

Well, I’ve got to admit, there are times when my mission to watch all the films depicted in Denis Gifford’s A Pictorial History of Horror Movies (a mission I have entitled See REPTILICUS and Die) has seemed a little… onerous. Not to say stupid.

But then comes a movie like THE MONSTER AND THE GIRL, and it’s all suddenly worthwhile. Gifford informs us that this Stuart Heisler flick was Paramount’s only B-movie monster film, to which one can only say, “Quel dommage!” Perhaps because they weren’t in the habit of making this kind of film, the studio seems to have showered largesse upon it, stuffing the cast with colourful character actors and assigning a decent, and apparently enthusiastic, director.

According to Gifford, the film is a remake of GO AND GET IT, a 1920 silent, a fact even the IMDb seems unaware of. The original, co-directed by Marshall Neilan and Henry Roberts Symonds, certainly shares the same plot synopsis:
“An intrepid newspaper reporter attempts to solve a series of murders committed by a gorilla carrying the transplanted brain of a human.” Although the 1941 version sidelines the journalist and basically turns the gorilla into protag.

We begin with Ellen Drew (ISLE OF THE DEAD), slouching out of the fog to bemoan her fate in a piece-to-camera speech that starts the film off in an arresting and unusual manner, before it dives into a courtroom drama in which her brother, Phillip Terry stands accused on a murder he didn’t commit. When Terry takes the stand, the first thought is that this must be some kind of hypnosis drama, since his delivery is so robotic and strange, but NO! He’s just a strange actor. I don’t want to say “bad” — it’s pretty interesting the way he invents a sort of MK-Ultra kind of zombified, yet pained, speech-making, like a constipated somnambulist. This is better than acting!

David Bordwell has noted that B-movies deployed faster cutting than prestige films, which maybe ties into modern patterns of fast editing, since modern studio pictures are essentially inflated Bs… anyhow, the cutting throughout this film is very pacy, with the courtroom disintegrating into a flickbook of glowering visages. Our stilted hero is railroaded to the electric chair, Ellen’s testimony that her husband seduced and abandoned her to a gang of sex traffickers, compelling her into a life of prostitution (this is all surprising stuff for a 40s genre film), and that the gang is somehow responsible for framing her unhappy brobot.

So far almost half an hour has gone by, and the movie is a perfectly acceptable proto-noir with a Cornell Woolrich style nightmare scenario of an innocent man wrongly accused. But now, without warning, George Zucco sidles into the story, asking to have Phil’s brain after he’s fried. Naturally, Phil agrees, no questions asked.

In Zucco’s surprisingly spacious lab (I guess Paramount didn’t have standard mad scientist’s lair stuff, so they’ve achieved something more original and exotic by starting from scratch) he and his assistant Abner Biberman (memorable as the “albino” hood in HIS GIRL FRIDAY) transplant the deceased patsy’s brain into a man in a gorilla suit (Charles Gemora, a man whose surname already suggests a giant besuited Japanese monster). The operation scene is accompanied by a wheezing accordion score, mimicking the movement of the oxygen respirator…

After a compelling flashback montage, the ape breaks free and goes on what you might call a vengeance spree, tracking down and bear-hugging (gorilla-hugging) his enemies to death, baffling the coroner by breaking every bone without leaving a single bruise. Is this even possible?

“I’m sick of murders,” complains a homicide detective. “Why can’t people just behave?”

Somebody has thoughtfully provided Gemora with a fantastic rogue’s gallery to get his arms around, starting with Onslow Stevens (HOUSE OF DRACULA) as the vicious DA, followed by Gerald Mohr and Robert Paige, neither of whom I was familiar with but both of whom were really good, deploying light leading man charm to oily, disturbing effect (it turns out I’d just seen Paige in SON OF DRACULA and entirely forgotten him), and then Marc Lawrence, Joseph Calleia and Paul Lukas. What a gang!

Through his bone-crushing escapades, Gemora is followed about by Skipper, his faithful dog, who is apparently able to smell his master’s brain through the casing of gorilla-skull now encircling it, and dutifully carries a hunting cap in hopes of being taken to chase squirrels. I was longing for the gorilla to actually put the hat on, but no dice. Still, the sight of the cheeky wee dog following an unsuspecting Lawrence through the street, like the world’s cutest harbinger of doom, was decidedly eerie, and Heisler’s high-angle shots showing the killer ape tracking his victim are really effective.

Check out this clip — it goes from comical to spooky, as you get used to the ape-suit, and then suddenly very comical again, as Gemora appears to sexually mount Marc Lawrence, perhaps repeating something he learned in the American penal system during his human days…

Believe it or not, this movie is dramatic, atmospheric, well-written and touching! Of course it’s not quite strong enough to overcome the monkey-suit element, nor is it so strong that you want it to: it’s the balance of silliness and effectiveness which makes it so watchable, along with the strange cross-genre stew of mismatched clichĂ©s, amounting to something curiously original: for instance, Zucco’s mad scientist survives the movie — how I wish Paramount had followed his future misadventures!

27 Responses to “Urban Gorilla”

  1. David Boxwell Says:

    Phillip Terry: that’s Mr. Joan Crawford. Apparently, parking valets and head waiters called him Mr. Crawford. And the star considered him a parking valet for the short time they were married.

    These 3 minutes reveal M & G to be a PRC or Monogram product made in some more perfected parallel universe.

  2. Shouldn’t that be “‘albino’-loving” hood?

  3. A very short man in a gorilla suit or Raymond Burr — that’s the choice Anne Bancroft had to make

  4. What a choice! Mind you, compared to some of the choices Joan Crawford DID make…

    PT’s very next role was as a radio operator in I Wanted Wings, uncredited. And it seems fitting, because he kind of delivers all his lines here as if communicating long distance through faulty equipment.

    I’d forgotten who was meant to be albino in His Girl Friday, since nobody looked as if they actually were. I remember his misunderstanding of the term better than I remember who it was applied to…

  5. They really meant “High Yellow,” but probably thought white audiences wouldn’t get that.

  6. Christopher Says:

    ya big Ga’rilla!

  7. For some reason I’m amused by the way Tom Conway rises into frame as his name is called.

  8. Christopher Says:

    Tom Conway,what are you doing to that girl!?

  9. David Boxwell Says:

    “Bride of the Gorilla” is a film maudit. Poor Barbara Payton was, in real life, compelled into a life of prostitution. Raymond Burr was, in real life, compelled into a life of fabricated marriages.

  10. Great clip !

    Its a little like the guy getting tracked by the gorilla is getting stalked by his subconscious, by the way he’s rubbing the back of his neck and and his face. There’s something a little Magritte- ian about the gorilla in the interior.
    It also makes me think of the proto – surrealist, Henry David Fuseli painting, The Nightmare, with the horse’s head, floating above the sleeping woman.

  11. And speaking of Brides —

  12. True story: My father was a stern man and a sober business owner with a secret: A Tor Johnson mask in his dresser drawer. The damn thing scared me to death when I found it as a very small child. It was years before I went in that drawer again.

  13. Randy Cook Says:

    He tampered in God’s domain.

  14. Christopher Says:

    That poor dog in The Monster and the Girl cracks me up..the confusion is so typical….Take off that monkey suit!..quit play actin’ will ya..

  15. “I know you’re in there ’cause I can smell your braaaaaiiins!”

    I wrote about Bride of the Gorilla here — https://dcairns.wordpress.com/2008/12/09/raymond-burr-is-barney-chavez/
    and here —

    It’s a film with a lot to give.

    I think finding Tor’s face in a drawer would freak me out, too. Any other body part would be OK, obviously.

  16. As I write this, Bodies Revealed (look it up if you’re unaware) hit our town again. I can think of nothing more cruel than a sadistic parent taking a small child to that.

  17. Unless the small child was keen. I might have been! I certainly dug skeletons, mummies etc. This is a BIT different, admittedly. The guy who makes the stuff is much creepier than the results, I think.

  18. Oh yeah, but one can imagine how a sadistic parent could make hay of a child’s fears and insecurities at an exhibit like that.

  19. I’d donate my body to that guy, as long as I’d be plastinated in the act of beating a plastinated David Cameron over the head with a sock full of horse manure (also plastinated).

  20. jason hyde Says:

    B-horror movies from studios that don’t normally engage in such things are often interesting. This one sounds like it might make a good double bill with Fox’s Dr. Renault’s Secret, which also features George Zucco as a mad doctor tampering with apes and is also very well-shot and quite interesting, with a genuinely brilliant J. Carroll Naish performance and supporting menace from Mike Mazurki, doing what he did best but in a French village setting.

    And if you want to see Gerald Mohr at his oiliest, check out Angry Red Planet.

  21. Christopher Says:

    you dark alley space dog you!

  22. Wow, he’s an interplanetary oilslick!

  23. I have twin sisters who once lived side-by-side in a house that was divided into two units. Back in the Eighties my sister Glenda’s husband went next-door to twin Gail’s place and knocked on the door. Wearing a Tor Johnson mask and holding a big kitchen knife in hand. Gail answered the door half-awake, half-asleep, screamed in terror and ran as fast as she could to the back of her apartment. Of course we all laughed our asses off, but Gail was not amused, she’d been genuinely frightened. Guess you could say Tor has that effect on people.

  24. Guy,
    Your sister Gail free? I could see the headline, “Tor Johnson Mask Fear Brings Two Together” ;)

  25. Is that enough to cement a relationship? I guess, knowing each others’ weakness, you could live in a perfect balance of terror. Hey, it worked in the cold war!

  26. mmedin,
    Sadly no, Gail has a husband. I say sadly because no one in my family seems to like him (myself included, but I can tolerate him). Happily, neither of them use the internet at all, so they’ll never read this. Gail’s had health issues in recent years (cancer, heart surgery), so she’s no stranger to fear.

  27. I think as long as sufficient Tor Johnson masks are around, it would work. Unfortunately, there’s a paucity of these masks now. Sorry to hear, Guy, I’ve had family health issues for the past four years (haven’t touched me).

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