Tuesday, March 13, 2012
FILM REVIEW OF ''THE GORILLA'' (1939)
Newspaper headlines proclaim the notorious ‘Gorilla’ has murdered several people. The setting for this spooky comic murder mystery is the house of Warren Stevens. Stevens’ estate is no ordinary edifice. The mansion is a maze of secret passages. Virtually, every room boasts a concealed panel. Kitty (Patsy Kelly) the maid is reading the Shakespeare play "Romeo and Juliet" in bed when she sees the arm of a gorilla pin a note to her robe. Kitty raves hysterically and runs around the mansion. Peters (Bela Lugosi of "Dracula") the butler calms Kitty and then examines that document. Stevens (Lionel Atwill) peruses the note, too. The note is a death threat for him. A thunder storm with recurring lightning enhances the atmosphere laden with paranoia about when the ‘Gorilla’ will next strike. The same night that this happens, Stevens sends an urgent radiogram to his niece Norma Denby. It seems that Stevens and Norma are joint heirs under the terms of her late father’s will. Until Norma marries, Uncle Walter is the executor of her estate. Walter wants Norma and Jack to know what the contents of the estate are. The next day Norma and her boyfriend arrive to find Walter feeling a little apprehensive about the death threat. Of course, Walter has no idea why anybody would want to kill him. Earlier, we see him on the phone begging for clemency about a payment of a debt amounting to $250-thousand. Later, a genuine gorilla enters the mansion. Somebody has knocked out the gorilla’s trainer and unlocked the beast’s cage. Later, we learn that Poe the gorilla hates women.
Stevens hires three detectives from the ACME Detective Agency. The nitwit Ritz Brothers play the numbskull private eyes that Stevens hires to protect him from the homicidal ape on the loose. They make their entrance about ten minutes into the action. They arrive in the pouring rain in a convertible with an umbrella serving as their roof. They have cut holes for their eyes so they can see where they are driving. “I’ll bet there’s a dead body in every room,” Garrity (Jimmy Ritz) observes before they climb out of her automobile. At best, the Ritz Brothers are low-brow comics that rely on verbal wit and hammy acting to yield laughs. They freak out at the very mention of the Gorilla’s name and Harrigan puts on a dumbshow when he encounters the ape. Everybody is in the study when the lights go out and Stevens vanishes. The Ritz Brothers try to reenact Stevens’ disappearance by using a stand-in for him. “Look,” Mulligan says, “I’ve got an idea. If we can figure out how Garrity disappeared, we can figure out how Stevens disappeared.” Mulligan (Al Ritz) sits where Stevens sat behind the desk. Harrigan (Harry Ritz) switches off the lights and Mulligan disappears. The next stand-in for Stevens that Harrigan uses is Kitty. This time the lights go out and Harrigan rather than the stand-in for Stevens disappears. Suddenly, Kitty finds herself face-to-face with Peters.
At the halfway point in the film, a couple of other people arrive. Not only does a mysterious but natty stranger (Joseph Calleia) appear without invitation, but our bumbling heroes discover a sailor in a closet. The stranger prowls the premise after Harrigan has vanished as a part of his reenactment ploy. The stranger finds Harrigan. Initially, Harrigan suspects the stranger is the ‘Gorilla.’ The stranger explains he stepped into the house to use the telephone because his car broke down. When Harrigan brandishes his revolver, the stranger assures him he is making a big mistake. The stranger surprises Harrigan, knocks him unconscious, and claps handcuffs on him. About forty minutes into the plot, A.P. Conway (Paul Harvey) storms into the mansion. He is adamant about collecting a quarter of a million dollars. “I have proof that Stevens have been stealing from his client’s accounts for over a year.” He refuses to leave until he has his money. More than ever the Ritz Brothers are determined to solve the mystery. Eventually, they venture into the cellar and encounter the real gorilla. During their search, Harrigan gets himself snagged to a dressing dummy and freaks out. The fake gorilla attacks Norma. Jack suspects Peters is the culprit because the butler is never around when anything occurs. Later, Harrigan confronts the real gorilla in a clever scene when he thinks that his partners are accompanying him. The sailor recovers and warns them about Poe. Poe hates women. The sailor says a man hired him and Poe. Somebody clobbered the sailor and released Poe.
Finally, the stranger reveals that he is a detective on the trail of the Gorilla. The stranger finds a wire, and they trace it to a hidden room where he uncover a microphone and Stevens tied up and gagged. They emerge with Stevens in handcuffs. Norma explains if anything happens to her that Uncle Walter will inherit her part of the estate. The detective explains that Stevens brought Norma to his house to kill her for her money. The detective explains that Stevens hired the Ritz Brothers because he didn’t think that his life was in jeopardy. When Harrigan is shaking the cop’s hand before he leaves, he discovers that the detective is the Gorilla. Unveiled as the Gorilla, the detective confesses to his crimes. “As for Mr. Stevens, he is just as crooked as I told you he was. The trouble with him is he talks too much and too loud. I got tipped off on what was going to happen here tonight. How he was going to pretend to be me. I was going to get the $250-thousand and at the same time let him get the blame for all the Gorilla murders.” The real surprise is the guy who gets the drop on the Gorilla. Indeed, it is Peters. Stevens explains to Norma that his special investigator, Conway, dreamed up this scheme to flush out the Gorilla. It seems that the Gorilla had been preying on Stevens’ clients.
“The Man in the Iron Mask” director Allan Dwan’s version of “The Gorilla” (*** OUT OF ****) is the second remake of the Ralph Spence stage play. Spence was a comic scriptwriter, too. He wrote the screenplay for the Wheeler and Woolsey comedy “Hook, Line, and Sinker.” Scenarists Rian James and Sid Silvers have penned some snappy, rapid-fire dialogue for the Ritz Brothers that aptly illuminates their idiocy. The gobbygook dialogue is amusing in its lunacy. Dwan doesn’t squander a second in this fast-paced laffer. He gets more mileage than you might imagine out of the weird sounds that a Zenith radio receiver emits with warnings about Stevens’ impending demise. Bela Lugosi is cast as a sinister butler. Typically, the cliché in murder mysteries such as this one is that the butler committed the crime. Dwan uses Lugosi as an effective red herring. Nobody likes or trusts the butler. Dwan gets as much mileage out of Lionel Atwill as Stevens. Patsy Kelly spends most of her time screaming in fright. The fake gorilla that is supposed to be a real gorilla is hilarious because it is so obviously ersatz.