Gorilla My Dreams: A Look At Some Grand Old Gorilla Movies

As long as there have been movies, there have been gorillas. Wait, let’s rephrase that: As long as there have been movies, there have been gorilla movies. Monkeys and movies go back a long way. Since the silent era, primates have been appearing before the camera. The first Tarzan movie came out in 1918; and apes have major roles in such pre-sound classics as the 1924 Thief of Baghdad and the 1925 The Unholy Three. As recently as 2005 Peter Jackson made a multi-million dollar, CGI-loaded King Kong remake. So we know we’re not alone in our gorilla mania. (It’s not a topic we’ve actually brought up at a dinner party, but it’s reassuring to think that other fans are out there.)

In the movies, though, there are monkeys, and then there are—Big Monkeys. Bedtime for Bonzo is all right in its own way, but the true gorilla aficionado prizes the Monster Monkey Movie. There’s something about a gorilla gone bananas that irresistibly draws audiences to the movie screen. Bring out the Ape Going Ape, and you will fill seats. Jackson’s remake, for example, cost over $200 million, but it grossed over $550 million. Surely some of those shekels were paid out by fans wanting to see the big ape and not just hoping for a fourth installment of The Lord of the Rings saga—say, King Kong Meets Gozdilla in Mordor for A Quidditch Match.

As to why directors and producers like to make gorilla movies—perhaps some ancient Darwinian empathy could account for it; and then again, perhaps the importance of the balance sheet. We’re not about to go into a complex analysis of reasons why, but we do wonder, though, if ape appeal could be related to the one scene that appears in just about every mad monkey film: when the gorilla grabs the girl and takes off for the rooftops. Gorillas and girls just seem to go together; it’s practically an archetype. Talk about the primal urge.

With that classic urge in mind, here’s a look at four of our favorite classic gorilla movies:

1) King Kong (1933)

The King Still Rules: 1933s King Kong

No appreciation of movie gorillas could start without looking at the greatest of them all, the original 1933 RKO Studio’s King Kong. If you’ve never seen the original KK, for shame; the film has become an important historical and cultural artifact. It’s also a terrific movie. The story (for the benefit of any visitors from Pluto who may not know) follows the efforts of director Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) to make a movie on Skull Island with his newest discovery, actress Ann Darrow (Fay Wray), a fragile blonde beauty blessed with a good set of lungs. Denham hopes to discover something big and exciting on the island, and he gets more than he bargained for: King Kong, a gigantic gorilla who becomes enamored of Ann and destroys anything that gets in his way. Managing to capture the beast, Denham and his crew bring Kong back to Manhattan, to exhibit him to the multitudes. Kong, however, breaks looses and tramples through the city, flattening people, cars, and subway lines, in what looks like a setback for progressive city planning. The famous finalé, atop the Empire State Building, has Kong defying modern technology in the form of airplanes as he tries to protect Ann. But, alas!, the mighty King falls, leaving Denham to give us the (much-quoted) last line: “T’was Beauty Killed The Beast!”

By now, just about everything that can be said about KK has been said. Kong has been interpreted as a tragic hero, a symbol of racism, an emblem of the Great Depression, an allegory of the clash of civilizations, and a metaphor for the rampaging male libido. So many of its scenes—the first shot of Skull Island; Kong towering over the village gate; Fay Wray being undressed by a huge gorilla hand; the battle between Kong and a T-Rex; Wray writhing and screaming; and, of course, Kong on what was then the tallest building in the world, shaking his fist in impotent fury—have become part of the collective American unconscious. Can anyone look at the Empire State Building and not see, in some recess of the mind, a big monkey climbing up its side? Willis O’Brien’s stop-motion effects were ground-breaking, and still persuade viewers today; no CGI creation approaches the original Kong in his ‘realness’ for us.

Monkey-See: Robert Armstrong & Fay Wray in King Kong

We’ll note, though, how well-structured is KK’s plot. It follows a classic three-act storyline, the first act being the voyage out to the island; the second the island adventures; and the third the New York City sequence. According to KK’s entry on the Internet Movie Database, the co-director, Merian C. Cooper, composed KK backwards; like Lewis Carroll writing the last line first for The Hunting of the Snark, Cooper began with an image of the movie’s ending, a giant ape on a tall building attacking planes, and worked back from there. Although KK had an immediate sequel—Son of Kong, which begins almost right after where the first film left off, with Denham comically hiding out in a hotel room trying to avoid lawsuits from angered city dwellers—KK itself is as self-contained as a myth. It’s not the first monster movie to use the tripartite (known order-disruption to order-restored order) narrative pattern, but it’s the one that enlarges the archetype. The movie Kong may go down in flames, but, like Humphrey Bogart’s Paris (another mythic reference), he’ll always exist for us.

2)  Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932)

An extraordinarily grim horror classic, produced by Universal, made in the early days of sound, and based loosely on an Edgar Allen Poe tale. Murders in the Rue Morgue stars Bela Lugosi, in a curly fright ’do that makes him look like a demonic Harpo Marx, as Dr. Mirakle, the owner and exhibitor of a gorilla named Erik, whom he advertises as “the beast with a human soul.” By making such an, for the time, audacious claim (the story takes place in 19th-century Paris), the doctor encounters hostility from spectators who view evolutionary theory as a form of heresy (camera cuts between close-ups of a raving chimpanzee and enraged human crowds—you decide). Attracted by a Sweet Young Thing (Sidney Fox) he espies at one showing, Mirakle decides to kidnap the girl for a creepy cross-breeding experiment he’s conducting. This, of course, leads to the requisite Gorilla-Grabs-Girl scene, with ensuing mayhem, until both doctor and gorilla are eliminated and the maiden restored to human arms. The entire film happens in little over an hour—a sterling example of tight story structure.

MITRM is definitely a pre-Code movie and, as such, contains episodes that, later on, an ever-alert Breen office would not have sanctioned. The film’s highlight—that may not be the right word, but certainly the most memorable scene, is Mirakle’s torture of a young prostitute (a then-unknown Arlene Francis), who, stripped and tied to an X-shaped cross, is injected with ape’s blood as part of the doctor’s nasty experimenting. When the poor girl dies, Mirakle lets falls a trap door and dumps her body into the Seine. Other graphic scenes include the prostitute’s body being dragged from the river and another woman’s body found stuffed up a chimney. Good taste is not what this film was aiming for. There’s also some suggestive byplay in scenes of Erik snatching and fondling the young girl’s bonnet and Mirakle sending her an expensive rose-trimmed cloche to take its place. Certainly you can read amusing Freudian undertones in these millinery exchanges.

Stark expressionist lighting highlights Murders in the Rue Morgue

The director Robert Florey was given the project by Universal as a consolation prize for not getting to direct Frankenstein, which the studio gave instead to James Whale. Florey, who once worked for Joseph von Sternberg, was influenced by German Expressionism (Karl Freund is his MITRM cameraman), and the film features remarkable, almost abstract sets and lighting that create a look of surreal-like distortion. (The arresting visuals might lead viewers to muse on might-have-been versions of cinema history—what might a Florey Frankenstein have looked like?) Lugosi appeared in this film shortly after his success in the 1931 Universal hit Dracula, and it solidified (and limited) his reputation as a horror-film star. His Mirakle character claims to understand Erik’s “speech,” and at one point he “converses” with the ape—a bizarre foreshadowing of Bela’s performance in Monogram’s 1943 The Ape Man, in which he injects himself with ape serum and chats with another primate. The male love interest is a young Leon Ames, here billed as Leon Waycoff, obviously a long way before his MGM paterfamilias days. Erik himself alternates between a real chimpanzee in close-ups and a man in a monkey suit in long shots—one of these guys, we think, needed a better agent.

3) Gorilla At Large (1954)

Archetypal image: Gorilla With Girl

With the 1950s 3-D craze, there was sure to be—Gorilla in 3-D! Produced by Panoramic Productions but distributed by 20th-Century Fox, Gorilla at Large takes place at a circus (part of the movie was filmed at a real amusement park) whose main attraction is Goliath the Bad-Tempered Gorilla (are there ever any good-tempered gorillas?). When a man is found murdered, the police suspect the killer may be the gorilla—or, perhaps, a man wearing a monkey suit and pretending to be Goliath. The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film points out that since both Goliath and the Fake Goliath are played by a man in a monkey suit, you couldn’t tell man from monkey anyway. The human stars include Raymond Burr as the circus owner, luscious Anne Bancroft as his unfaithful trapeze-star wife, Cameron Mitchell as the gorilla-suited employee Bancroft puts the moves on, and Lee J. Cobb as a cigar-chomping cop. The film abounds in plot twists that include guilty secrets from the past, a disgruntled gorilla trainer, and a monkey switch during a crucial moment in Bancroft’s trapeze act; and the skein of human relationships becomes too tangled to follow—Ray wants Anne who wants Cameron who wants someone else we can’t remember—before it’s finally resolved in a you-won’t-guess-the-killer ending. All this just so we can watch leotard-clad Anne get hauled up a roller coaster by a gorilla.

Super Archetypal image: Gorilla With Two Girls

As a 3-D exhibit, GAL gives us many scenes of hairy gorilla arms and snouts thrust out toward the camera, along with trapeze artists swinging back and forth to vertigo-inducing effect. The spectacular roller-coaster climax also gives us plenty of shots of Goliath dangling Anne’s lithe body in space for our delectation; and indeed, Bancroft looks gorgeous in the film, her figure as trim and supple as a dancer’s. One scene takes place in a hall of mirrors, as the gorilla, his trainer, a pretty girl, and a cop or two run in and out and in between a reflecting maze. We always expect at this moment that every red-blooded film buff watching will rise up and shout, en masse, “The Lady From Shanghai!”; there seems no other point to this scene than to function as an allusion to the earlier Orson Welles film (although, if memory serves, Welles didn’t include a gorilla in his). GAL wasn’t the only 3-D gorilla film; that same year, Warner Bros. released Phantom of the Rue Morgue, a kind of GAL/Poe combination starring Karl Malden, but which made the mistake of not including Bancroft. 3-D or no 3-D, nobody wants to see Karl Malden hauled off by a gorilla.

4) Konga (1961)

A schlock fave—an hysterically funny Brit flick about the after-effects of a scientist’s bizarre horticultural experiments and the kinds of monkey business you can get up to in a greenhouse. Konga‘s star is the late, great Michael Gough, he of the squint-eyed sneer and plummy voice, who always rolls his ‘R’s and his eyes when he speaks. Gough, who died last month at the age of 94, is best known today for playing Alfred the butler in the Batman films, but he had a long pedigree as a British horror star. Konga, we think, marks his apotheosis in this genre.

The story is your basic mad scientist seeking fame-fortune-beauty-world power (take your pick), with an ape thrown in for variety. Gough plays Decker, a botanist who returns to England from Africa with some new plant specimens and a baby monkey named Konga. What Decker is actually doing is breeding carnivorous plants in his greenhouse to extract an experimental growth hormone, which he then injects into the chimp. Once the monkey grows to standard gorilla size, Decker sends his pet out to knock off scientific skeptics who don’t take his work seriously. There are, no doubt, other, more legitimate methods for handling academic rivalry, but Decker’s does have the virtue of originality.

Konga admires Gordons Assets

As in every monster ape film, sexual titillation is a prime component, here embodied (and how!) in Decker’s assistant, a lovely, blonde, buxom grad student (Claire Gordon) with a penchant for tight sweaters. She’s no plant expert, but, then, the doc wasn’t looking at her green thumb when he hired her. Decker’s live-in housekeeper/girlfriend (Margo Johns), however, is not pleased with the blonde situation. The jealous lady plots her revenge by giving Konga a superdose of the hormone and then giving him his marching orders (ladies, take note: if the boyfriend is monkeying around, send a monkey out to do the job). The results, however, are not what she expects, as Konga goes through the roof–literally, bursting out of the house like The Incredible Hulk out of his clothes. Things now start to get a bit out of hand. Konga grabs the girlfriend, who demands he put her down (which he unfortunately does). Then Konga spies the doc in the greenhouse making his moves on the blonde. Konga grabs the doc, a man-eating plant grabs the blonde (for a change), and Konga stampedes into London town, leaving terror and destruction in his wake. The British Army is called in to deal with the situation, an officer commenting, with typical British reserve, “I’ve never seen anything like it before.” He obviously hasn’t been watching a lot of monster monkey movies.

We suppose larger metaphysical and cultural concerns could be extracted from this narrative—such issues as the dangers of scientific knowledge; the hazards of hormones running amuck; the problems of mixing business with pleasure; and the question of when and when not to feed the plants. On an intertextual note, we would like to point out linguistic and visual parallels to Konga’s mighty predecessor (King Kong, Konga; Empire State Building, Big Ben), which are sure to give graduate students, blonde, buxom, or otherwise, plenty of ideas for cultural study analyses. But who cares when you’re having fun? We do note, however, that the 1933 King Kong has been remade twice (1976, 2005), whereas Konga remains in a class by itself.

Iconic Buddies: Konga & Big Ben

BONUS CLIP: Here’s the bustin’-out scene from Konga, with Margo Johns wielding the hypodermic to roof-raising effect:

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