From Becky Bartlett, Associated Lecture in Film Studies at the University of St Andrews:
Acting the Ape: Hollywood Gorilla Men
Gorillas, and more specifically men in gorilla costumes, have appeared onscreen for over a century, and the animals themselves were a source of fascination and scientific intrigue long before that. Once considered a possible ‘missing link’ between humans and non-human primates, gorillas are both like us and not like us, and are often thought of in terms of their liminality. This is often reflected in the appearance of gorillas onscreen, with gorilla characters regularly showing a particular affinity with, and similarity to humans, in a variety of ways. Perhaps most obviously, gorillas have a troubled history of being used to perpetuate racist and colonialist ideology, which can be seen in any number of early ‘exotic’ exploitation films – most notoriously, Ingagi (William Campbell, 1930) – and 1930s and 40s jungle movies like White Pongo (Sam Newfield, 1945) or The White Gorilla (Harry L Fraser, 1945). Yet gorillas are not just found in the jungle onscreen; they appear in courtroom dramas, haunted house movies and crime thrillers, circus movies, mad scientist films, futuristic science-fiction, comedies, the ‘worst films of all time’, and nudie-cuties. Once you start to notice them, you’ll find gorillas everywhere.
This list aims to draw attention to gorilla characters beyond the jungle and, in particular, to the men who portrayed the apes themselves. Many of the gorillas in American fiction films during the ‘golden age’ of ape suit cinema (the 1940s-1960s) are played by a small group of actors now affectionately known as ‘Hollywood gorilla men’. These men carved out careers playing apes onscreen but remained largely anonymous; although their ape character is clearly visible and often central to the narrative, the actors themselves remain almost or completely concealed beneath a costume, and the roles were frequently uncredited. The casual dismissal of them as ‘obviously’ or ‘just’ men in gorilla suits fails to adequately acknowledge the art and craft of ape suit cinema, such as the way the suits were customised to help the performer convey a particular kind of gorilla ‘character’ and to allow for different kinds of (increasingly complex) movement and expression, or the sheer physical effort required to effectively embody the ape onscreen, in restrictive costumes that could easily weigh five stone or more.
Each film in this list showcases the performance of a particular Hollywood gorilla man. To clarify – this term refers specifically and exclusively to men in gorilla costumes; Andy Serkis does not qualify. I have also focused on the actors who repeatedly played gorillas onscreen, rather than one-off performances (thus knocking 2001: A Space Odysseyout of contention). As a collection, the list aims to draw attention to the diverse ways that gorilla characters are constructed, from different costumes and masks to particular modes of performance. Rather than dismiss these gorilla roles as just another man in a suit, I suggest it is often precisely because we are able to recognise the performance as a construction – a human embodying an ape – that we can begin to acknowledge the complex and various ways that gorillas are constructed for the screen and represented on it.
The Monster and the Girl (Stuart Heisler, 1941)
Originally from the Philippines, Charles Gemora is generally considered to be the ‘ultimate’ gorilla man; almost all of his fifty-nine known onscreen appearances are gorilla roles. His later performances in particular emphasise realism and authenticity – he honed his performance by studying gorillas in the zoo, customised his suits by filling them with water bags to give the illusion of movement beneath the skin, and preferred to remain uncredited, to further encourage viewers to accept the creature as real. Arguably, his finest performance is in The Monster and the Girl, in which a man is sentenced to death after being framed for murder but has a second chance to get revenge after his brain is transplanted into a gorilla. The plot is suitably preposterous, but Gemora brings a real sense of pathos to the character. “Look at the expression in the eyes,” one of the scientists remarks, “there’s almost a human understanding.”
The film is surprisingly hard to access, but you can watch a very informative, fan-made documentary about Charles Gemora here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wppvPESZYvU&t=3488s
Gorilla at Large (Harmon Jones, 1954)
George Barrows’ best-known onscreen appearance is probably Robot Monster (Phil Tucker, 1953), in which he plays a genocidal-but-misunderstood robot-alien called Ro-Man, who looks suspiciously like a man in a gorilla suit wearing a diving helmet with antennae. Legend has it that the director of this classic badfilm couldn’t afford to rent a robot costume, so called in a favour from his friend instead. However, seeing as Ro-Man is explicitly not a gorilla, despite his appearance, Barrows’ role in Gorilla at Large seems a more appropriate choice here. One of 20th Century Fox’s early 3D releases, Gorilla at Large is a polished crime/mystery B-movie set in a circus, in which Goliath is one of the star attractions. Barrows’ gorilla costume is slightly cuddlier and more cartoonish than realistic, but he cuts an impressive figure onscreen nonetheless.
The Ape Man (William Beaudine, 1943)
It’s not easy to steal the spotlight from Bela Lugosi, but every now and then in The Ape Man, Emil Van Horn manages it. Van Horn plays the Ape, a friend, companion and partner-in-crime to Lugosi’s Dr James Brewster, who is trying to reverse the effects of a serum that has transformed him into an ape-man. The visible effects of the experiment are minimal – Lugosi walks with a stooped over, limping gait and laments his hirsute appearance – but they’re still enough to drive Brewster to murder, via his ape accomplice. Van Horn’s gorilla is smaller in stature than some of the others on this list, with a relatively inanimate but particularly distinctive face. His role in Beaudine’s film allows him to showcase his costume’s arm extensions – all the better to strangle hapless victims, of course.
The Ape (William Nigh, 1940)
Why watch just one film about a mad scientist, a gorilla, and a plot to murder people for their spinal fluid, when you can watch two? In The Ape, Boris Karloff plays Dr Bernard Adrian, a kindly scientist trying to find a cure for a young woman with polio, who capitalises on a circus tragedy as a means of concealing his increasingly criminal activities. A gorilla escapes from the circus and is shot by Adrian, who decides to disguise himself in the ape’s skin when committing his murders. Ray “Crash” Corrigan dons his familiar ape costume, with its broad shoulders, long hair and ‘scary’ gorilla mask, to play both the ape and, later, Adrian masquerading as the creature. The distinction is clearly established through differences in performance; when ‘Adrian’ is the ape, he walks upright and with purpose, in contrast to the more erratic, animalistic movement of the ‘real’ gorilla. Having a ‘real’ and a ‘fake’ ape is a recurring trope in gorilla movies (Gorilla at Large also plays on the same idea), a device that offers further opportunity to appreciate the physicality and skills of the gorilla men when they’re embodying their ape characters in particular.
King Kong (Dino de Laurenitis, 1976)
Although Kong in the original 1933 film was an animated puppet, the gorilla was promoted as a man in a suit, because the producers believed this was at least somewhat scarier than a miniature model covered in rabbit fur. In the 1976 version, all emphasis was placed on the creation of a giant, animatronic Kong – a forty-foot gorilla, controlled by up to twenty operators, which cost $1.7million to make. Unfortunately, this Kong was notoriously unreliable and, with the exception of the giant arms in scenes featuring the gorilla holding Jessica Lange, most of the times Kong is shown onscreen, we’re seeing Rick Baker in a costume. Constructing the ape character was a rather collaborative affair, however, due to the assistance Baker required in operating the different masks, which used hydraulics to create different expressions. Although this results in some particularly sophisticated and complex facial movements, much of the character’s success onscreen is due to Baker’s performance, seen in particular through his eyes, the only part of his body not concealed beneath layers of latex and fur.
Dark and Stormy Night (Larry Blamire, 2009)
Larry Blamire’s films are pitch-perfect, loving parodies/homages to Hollywood’s mid-century low-budget genre pictures. Dark and Stormy Night is an irreverent take on haunted house and murder mystery movies, featuring a group of bickering relatives who gather in an isolated old house for a reading of their deceased family member’s will, only to find themselves being picked off one by one over the course of the night. Among the group is elderly Mrs Hausenstout, who pops up sporadically with her pet gorilla in tow. The gorilla in question is Kogar, a recurring ape character of Bob Burns, a gorilla man who has been working for over fifty years and continues to be an invaluable source of information and expertise for the (admittedly small) community dedicated to keeping the art and craft of ape suit cinema alive. Kogar features in Blamire’s film because Burns told the director he’d always wanted a role in a dark-house movie, and the role serves as a reminder that a movie is always made better by the random appearance of a man in a gorilla suit.
The film is available in black and white and in colour; I recommend the black and white version, but you can watch the colour version here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1MTKJCeQu1w
Becky Bartlett is currently an Associate Lecturer in Film Studies at the University of St Andrews. Her monograph, Badfilm: Incompetence, Intention and Failure is due to be published in early 2021. Her recent publications include an article in Continuum‘s ‘so bad it’s good’ special issue, and chapters in The Routledge Companion to Cult Cinema (eds Jamie Sexton and Ernest Mathijs) and The Bible Onscreen in the New Millennium (ed Wickham Clayton). Her research interests include cult cinema, bad movies, religion in film, and ape suit cinema.