From the Vault: Bela, Boris, and Apes! -

From the Vault: Bela, Boris, and Apes!

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From the Vault: Bela, Boris, and Apes!

Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi go Ape!

By Tim Janson     September 09, 2012

Apparently in the 1930s and 1940s, gorillas and apes were all the rage.  From King Kong and his son, to a mad scientist wanting to put Curly Howard’s brain inside a gorilla, there were dozens of movies featuring apes or gorillas in key roles.  Even horror icons Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff got into the act in what can only be described as not exactly the pinnacles of their careers.

Today in From the Vault we will be looking at three films where Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff went Ape!

The Gorilla
20th Century Fox 1939
Cast: Bela Lugosi, The Ritz Brothers, Lionel Atwill
Running Time: 66 Minutes
Grade: C+


This film was based upon a popular stage play from the 1920s which was a spoof of “old dark house” style plays and films with liberal amounts of comedy mixed in with mystery and scares.  The film was primarily a vehicle for The Ritz Brothers, a comedy team who enjoyed some moderate success in the 30s and 40s. 

The plot is a classic “who done it” set within a creepy old mansion.  The wealthy Walter Stevens (Atwill) receives a letter from a person known as “The Gorilla” that threatens to murder him. Stevens hires three detectives (The Ritz Brothers) to come to his home to protect him.  The Detectives are more terrified of the Gorilla than Stevens, however, and basically run around the house, afraid of every shadow and bump in the night as they try to uncover the identity of the killer.  
Lugosi actually gives a surprisingly good performance as Stevens’ butler named Peters.  Lugosi shows a skill not often attributed to him (not intentionally anyway), and that is the ability to do comedy.  His humor is black and extremely funny and effective and you wish he had had more roles like this.  Atwill, of course, was a veteran character actor of many horror films and always brings a level of credibility to his roles.

But your enjoyment of the film will largely hinge on whether you enjoy the Ritz Brothers’ style of slapstick.  They were not as creative as The Marx Brothers nor as over-the-top silly as The Three Stooges.  There’s definitely some funny moments in the film but much of the humor is forced and the problem with the Ritz’s is that they were not as distinctive as the Marx Brothers or the Stooges.  There’s some atmospheric cinematography and wonderful use of lighting and shadows that sets the mood.  For Lugosi, even though this was a low budget film it was done for a major studio, 20th Century Fox and he would not be in many more films at major studios.

Watch the entire film here:  


The Ape
Monogram Pictures 1940
Cast: Boris Karloff
Running Time: 62 Minutes
Grade: C-

This is one film where you just have to ask yourself, “What the hell was Karloff thinking?”  He was one year removed from playing the monster for the final time in Son of Frankenstein, and a year before starring in one of his most underrated roles in “The Devil Commands”.  Yet here he is in this low-budget stinker from Poverty Row studio Monogram Pictures playing what would be one of his staples, that of a mad scientist.

He stars as the seemingly kindly, old Dr. Adrian, a small town doctor and the subject of much talk amongst the local folks. They think the doctor is up to no good with all of his crazy experiments and they would like to be rid of him. As it turns out, Adrian was kicked out of a research institute 25 years ago for performing unethical experiments involving the use of spinal fluids.


The Doctor is trying to paralysis cure for a wheelchair-bound patient named Francis but is having no luck obtaining the experimental spinal fluid. He gets his chance when a cruel animal handler is attacked by an escaped circus ape and taken to Adrian's home for treatment. Rather than help the man, Adrian kills him and takes his spinal fluid. He injects the fluid into the woman and she begins to have feeling in her legs. Needing more spinal fluid, Adrian kills the ape and makes a costume out of the hide. With the sheriff and the residents still thinking the ape is on the loose, Adrian uses the ape costume to commit more murders and obtain more spinal fluid.

You don't want to over analyze the Ape too much as the plot holes are big enough to drive a truck through. Since no one sees Adrian dressed as the ape when he goes out to kill someone, why does he even need the outfit to begin with?  The cast is bad even for a “B” movie and the copy I saw was very choppy and dialogue often cuts off in mid-sentence. Still, how can you pass up seeing Karloff in an ape suit? Karloff's next several pictures after "The Ape" were for studios such as Universal, Columbia, and RKO and one wonders why he needed to do such low-rent films.

Watch the entire film here:


Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla
Realart Pictures 1952
Cast: Bela Lugosi, Duke Mitchell, Sammy Petrillo
Running Time: 74 Minutes
Grade: D+

There are those who would argue that Lugosi’s role in Ed Wood’s “Bride of the Monster” was the lowest point in his career.  Apparently those people have never seen Bela Lugosi meets a Brooklyn Gorilla.  The film was originally supposed to be titled “White Woman of the Lost Jungle” but Producer Herman Cohen decided to take advantage of Lugoi’s name, faded as it was at that point, and exploit it in the title.

Lugosi’s co-stars were Duke Mitchell and Sammy Petrillo who enjoyed brief fame by impersonating Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis who were Hollywood’s hottest team at the time.  But it backfired.  Once Martin and Lewis got wind of the act they threatened legal action and had them blackballed for years.  To this day, Lewis cannot even tolerate Petrillo’s name mentioned in his presence even though Petrillo died in 2009.  Although here is a bit of trivia…Lewis actually used Petrillo ( who was a dead lookalike for the star) during a comedy sketch on the Colgate Comedy hour on TV in 1950.  Petrillo played Lewis’ infant child in a crib.



The absurd plot has Mitchell and Petrillo on their way to a performance in Guam when they become stranded on an island known as Kola-Kola.  Lugosi, looking wizened and unhealthy, is bat-shit crazy Dr. Zabor, who is performing experiments into the mysteries of evolution.  Zabor is madly in love with his assistant, Nona but when Mitchell arrives on the island, she falls head-over-heels for the singer.  Zabor decides to get his revenge by using his serum to turn Mitchell into a gorilla.  Sammy has to save his friend from the diabolic plot but then suddenly wakes up in a night club…the whole thing was a dream!

On the plus side Petrillo had Jerry Lewis down pat an you can see why Lewis was more than a little pissed at this guy making money impersonating him.  Mitchell however was no Dean Martin, either in singing ability or charisma.  On a whole Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla is a cheap, puerile film that might be worth a few laughs were it not for Lugosi looking so sad.



Showing items 1 - 8 of 8
jedibanner 9/9/2012 6:37:58 AM

Ahhh, the old classics were always something to see even though the stories were just so ''out-there''.

doublec 9/9/2012 10:21:05 AM

 Another title that more than fits here is The Ape Man, which was a reworking of The Ape but starring Lugosi. Instead of wearing an ape suit, he has somehow turned himself into a sort of were-gorilla and needs  the spinal fluid to return to normal. Worth seeing to see Lugosi actually trying to act like a monkey while stll talking with his urbane Hungarian accent!
Monogram also did a movie called Return of the Ape Man It wasn't a sequel but was about mad scientists Lugosi and John Carradine reviving a frozen caveman. This film was notable for George Zucco receiving credit for the title role even though he left in disgust after one days' shooting and has no screen time! The superstrong, bulletproof caveman was then played by boxer-turned-actor Frank Moran.

Muenster 9/9/2012 4:54:40 PM

The term is "blacklisted", not "blackballed".

blankczech 9/10/2012 10:08:15 AM

I dislike it when a person reads an article looking for errors in the text (e.g. the wrong use of a word, spelling or grammatical errors etc.), so they can play the I'm more intelligent than you game in the comments and responses section.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary's - second definition of the word "blackball" is - to exclude socially; ostracise : as in - The whole town blackballed them.

The dictionary goes on to list synonyms for blackball as - boycott, ban debar, snub or cut, and related words as barring, ban, banish, cast out, ostracize.

The word blackball is properly used in the context of this article and is probably a better choice than blacklist which although often used as a synonym for the word blackball usually is better used to describe a list of persons under suspicion, disfavor or censure.

I enjoyed the article.  My favorite old ape movie was Phantom of the Rue Morgue (1954) - in 3-D with Karl Malden and Steve Forrest.

tjanson 9/10/2012 12:52:53 PM

doublec...Ya I was trying to decide which films to include but Ape Man could have easily made it or even Murders in the Rue Morgue but I was going for the ones that were especially silly.

Blank...thanks for having my back.  I too am amazed that I can spend time writing and researching an article all for someone to point out a typo.

Muenster 9/10/2012 6:08:57 PM

Well, it was boring. Also you didn't use that mid 20th Century colloquialism correctly. Well, look at this way; you managed to get at least 6 comments for your efforts.

tjanson 9/11/2012 2:28:20 PM

No...I didn't use it incorrectly as was pointed out.  But you're entitled to your opinion no matter how wrong you are.

tjanson 9/11/2012 2:31:04 PM

and Muenster...for the record...the following is a comment from Sammy petrillo himself, "There was one of Jerry's cronies — one of the guys that worked for him — at the rehearsal. And he looked at us, and he walked out of the room. I turned to Duke and I said, 'That guy just went to call Jerry. We're off the show'. And then Lou Costello walked over to us and he says, 'Fellas, I hate to tell you this: NBC will not allow us to put you on the show, but we're gonna pay you anyway'. He said Jerry Lewis did it. That really happened, and then it happened in nightclubs. We were blackballed here and there".




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