Monkey Business: The Rise and Fall of the American Gorilla-Suit Actor, Part 1

Monkey Business: The Rise and Fall of the American Gorilla-Suit Actor, Part 1

Greetings, readers. For today’s foray into pop culture ephemera and historical relevancy, I’d like to take a look at the humble Gorilla.  One of the Great Apes and our closest living relative outside the Chimpanzee lineage, Gorillas have developed kind of a misleading reputation of being big, vicious, and having a taste for blondes.  In truth, while Gorillas are the largest of the Great Apes (fully grown males can stand six feet tall, and weigh 400 lbs) they are shy creatures, predominantly vegetarian, who prefer to try and scare enemies away with elaborate displays of bravado rather than fight.

Gorillas were first “discovered” by European scientists in 1847; explorer Paul de Chaillu was the first westerner to see a live gorilla, during his African travels from 1856 to 1859.  The first actual study of gorillas did not occur until the 1920s, and it was not until Dian Fossey began her research in 1967 that an understanding of gorilla behavior and social patterns emerged, and that it was realized that gorillas aren’t blood-thirsty hirsute maniacs lusting for the nubile flesh of Caucasian women.

However, beginning in the 1920s-30s (likely following in the wake of Carl Akeley’s studies in the 1920s), we begin to see the gorilla featured more and more as a “monster.”  And really, not just a monster.  Gorillas quickly became a pop culture icon, used in advertising as a metaphor for strength and power, something that persists to this day (though I’m seeing fewer and fewer giant inflatable gorillas atop used-car dealerships).  “King Kong” is a term known even to those who’ve never seen any of the films.  Gorillas have been big business for the last 80 or 90 years.

But I digress.  Gorillas as “monsters.”  King Kong and his white-furred son (both 1933) were realized with stop-motion animation, moving a small foam-rubber-around-a-metal-skeleton puppet fractions of an inch at a time, as was Mighty Joe Young in 1949.  I’ll be addressing stop-motion monsters in another article, but today I’d like to talk about the other method of presenting gorillas and other large apes in film: a man in a gorilla suit.  Specifically, I’ll be showcasing a few of the major actors to have built careers on the hairy backs of gorilla suit acting.  Some of these men had truly prolific careers of waddling around in heavy, homemade costumes with metal mechanisms under their masks to make the suit’s jaw open ferociously.  For this article, I am indebted throughout to the scholarship of Mark Cofell of Gorilla Men.

Charles Gemora

First and foremost, somewhat of a progenitor (or perhaps patron saint) of gorilla-men in film, I’d like to talk about Charles Gemora.  Born August 15th, 1903, Gemora arrived in Hollywood after stowing away on a freighter leaving his native Phillipines.  Originally making a living sketching outside the Universal lot, his talents were discovered and he was hired on to the Theatrical Makeup team at Universal.  He designed and built the sets for Lon Chaney’s THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME and THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, the latter of which is allegedly haunted by Chaney’s ghost — high praise of Gemora’s talents.  In 1927 he designed and built an ape suit for the film THE GORILLA.  A course was set into history.

Gemora became fascinated with the notion of turning a human being into a gorilla via movie magic.  He spent countless hours studying gorillas in zoos, watching the way they moved, trying to get inside their heads.  Armed with this knowledge, Gemora built his first suit and in 1928 appeared as an ape in THE LEOPARD LADY.  His diminutive stature (Gemora stood only 5’4″) and a set of extra-long “walking arms” on the suit facilitated the illusion that this was not a man in a suit, but a creature of the primeval jungle.  Indeed, in 1930’s INGAGI, an exploitation-geared faux documentary in the vein of later films such as CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST, Gemora was passed off as an actual ape, an illusion Gemora declined to break until called into the Hays Office on it. In the film, Gemora’s ape is a beast worshipped as a god by a primitive native tribe, who deliver young women to the ape for it’s sexual satisfaction.

In 1932, Gemora was paired with Bela Lugosi for Universal’s MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE.  This had the potential of being Gemora’s crowning achievement, but unfortunately all his close-ups were cut, replaced with jarring and unconvincing stock footage of a mangy chimpanzee.  It remains unknown as to why this would be done, in particular given Gemora’s history of convincing portrayals.  In the film, Gemora is seen largely from behind, with the front of the suit being seen almost solely in still publicity shots taken as part of the film’s advertising campaign.

Over the years, Gemora continuously modified and reworked his suit, shifting it’s appearance from the crudely ferocious (playing on public perception of gorilla-as-womanizing-maneater) to a more realistic presentation, including such features as a sack of water in the suit’s midsection to provide a realistic sway to the belly.  In addition to his work as a “scary” gorilla, Gemora also played one for laughs, appearing opposite Laurel and Hardy in THE CHIMP in 1931, and SWISS MISS in 1938, as well as working with the Marx Brothers and Abbott and Costello, with Gemora demonstrating ideal comic timing opposite these legends of humor.

In 1943, Gemora played the titular monster in THE MONSTER AND THE GIRL, giving a delicate performance as an ape with a transplanted human brain, seeking vengeance against a white slavery ring who kidnapped the brain donor’s sister.  Rick Baker has acknowledged Gemora’s performance in THE MONSTER AND THE GIRL as one of the finest ape performances of all time, and a personal inspiration in his own ape performances.

Ape work is extremely taxing, however, and in 1943 Gemora suffered his first heart attack.  He continued playing gorillas, though with decreasing frequency, until his death in 1961.  While gorillas were his bread and butter, by 1958, when Bob Burns met him, Gemora was most frequently associated with his portrayal of the Martian in 1953’s WAR OF THE WORLDS.  Burns found Gemora a pleasant and excitable man, from whom Burns learned the art of making a gorilla suit and playing the part, thus ensuring the continued legacy of the King of the Gorilla Men.

Emil Van Horn

Following Gemora’s early lead, several others quickly donned gorilla suits and got into pictures.  Among the most mysterious is Emil Van Horn.  Very little information exists on Van Horn, with even his date of birth being unknown.  Working solely as a Gorilla Man, Van Horn got his start as such opposite W.C. Fields in NEVER GIVE A SUCKER AN EVEN BREAK in 1941.

Following his work in NEVER GIVE A SUCKER AN EVEN BREAK, Van Horn appeared in the 1941 Republic Serial JUNGLE GIRL, loosely inspired by the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs, creator of Tarzan.  The serial was popular enough to inspire a sequel, PERILS OF NYOKA, in which Van Horn reprised his suitwork, this time as “Satan the Gorilla.”

In 1943, Van Horn portrayed what might be his most memorable gorilla — assistant to the crazed and hirsute Dr. James Brewster (Bela Lugosi) in his quest to obtain human spinal fluid to reverse his mutation into an ape-man.  This is the only film for which Van Horn received credit for his work.

Following his film work, Van Horn worked for several years on the burlesque circuit, again as an ape.  In the classic “Beauty and the Beast” act, a shapely woman would dance on stage in a leopard print outfit or sexed-up explorer’s get-up, complete with pith helmet, while Van Horn “menaced” her.  Van Horn’s suit was eventually stolen, and Van Horn ended up alone and penniless in New Orleans, where he passed away New Year’s Day, 1967.

Ray “Crash” Corrigan

Born Raymond Benard, Corrigan was best known for his roles in a number of B-westerns in the 1930s and 1940s, as well as an attempted Flash Gordon knock-off named Crash Corrigan.  Corrigan also played a number of gorillas, utilizing a particularly ferocious-looking suit, beginning with a minor role in 1932’s TARZAN OF THE APES, starring Johnny Weissmuller as the titular ape-raised Englishman.  His first major ape role came in 1934’s MURDER IN THE PRIVATE CAR.

Corrigan took a break from apes to focus on his roles as a western gunslinger, but in 1940 he returned to the suit for THE APE, starring Boris Karloff.  An inventive little film, the plot revolved around the frail Karloff killing an escaped gorilla and wearing it’s hide while he committed a series of spinal-fluid-harvesting murders in an attempt to cure Polio.  All ape-work was performed by Corrigan.  Following THE APE, Corrigan began reworking his mask, refining the appearance without losing any sense of savagery.

Through the 1940s, Corrigan continued to mix westerns with ape-work, with such roles as 1944’s NABONGA, in which he plays the titular guardian gorilla for Julie London’s abandoned-but-glamorous jungle girl character.  Buster Crabbe, most famous for his appearances as Flash Gordon, stars, making this the second time (following an episode of the Flash Gordon serial) Corrigan menaced Crabbe in an ape suit.  In 1945, Corrigan made two appearances as a white-furred gorilla.  First, he played the titular role in THE WHITE GORILLA, a bizarre racial allegory about a white-furred gorilla, snubbed by its black-furred brethren, who grows up to overthrow the King of Gorillas in a battle described in the film’s narration as having “the fate of Africa” hanging in the balance.  Later that year, Corrigan again donned the white gorilla suit for WHITE PONGO in which he plays a wily and elusive white gorilla who stalks a safari that’s hunting him as “The Missing Link.”

In 1948, Corrigan retired from gorilla work, selling his suit and some advice on playing an ape to up-and-coming Steve Calvert.  Due to the tendency to leave ape roles uncredited, there is some confusion as to whether it’s Corrigan or Calvert in a role, but any film made after 1948 is Calvert.  Following this, Corrigan spent most of his time managing his film ranch, Corriganville.  Corrigan passed away in 1976.

Steve Calvert

Coming into the scene towards the tail end of the primary Gorilla-suit era, Calvert (born Steven Stevens, June 16th, 1916, and taking his stage name from Calvert Whisky) nevertheless made a name for himself in the business.  His first gorilla role was opposite Johnny Weissmuller in 1948’s JUNGLE JIM, a film based off the newspaper-comic adventures of a white hunter and adventurer, Jim Bradley.  The strip was created by Alex Raymond, who created the Flash Gordon comic strip simultaneously.

Following this, Calvert won himself a couple of prime horror roles, including the murderous alter-ego of Raymond Burr in 1951’s BRIDE OF THE GORILLA.  In this tale penned and directed by Curt Siodmak (who had previously written Universal Studios’ THE WOLF MAN), Burr is a plantation manager in South America who kills his employer out of lust for his employer’s top-heavy blonde trophy wife.  His crime is witnessed by a native witch, who curses Burr, causing him to transform into a rampaging gorilla each night.  Lon Chaney, Jr. also appears as a local constable.  It’s actually a very sharply-written film, with the audience left to wonder if Burr’s character is genuinely turning into a gorilla or simply imagining it…at least until the very end, when Chaney shoots the ape, and it transforms back into Burr once on the ground.

Calvert also appeared in the 1952 horror/comedy film BELA LUGOSI MEETS A BROOKLYN GORILLA.  In the film, real-life comedy duo Duke Mitchell and Sammy Petrillo (performing a Martin and Lewis routine), find themselves stranded on the tropical island of Kola Kola.  They’re taken to see Dr. Zabor (Lugosi), a scientist studying evolution and working on a serum to reverse the process.  Since Mitchell falls in love with Nona, a local girl whom Zabor lusts after, he injects Mitchell with the compound, causing him to turn into a gorilla.  Petrillo recognizes the gorilla as his partner after the gorilla picks up a ukelele and starts strumming and “singing.”

BELA LUGOSI MEETS A BROOKLYN GORILLA was meant to be the first of a series of films starring Duke Mitchell and Sammy Petrillo as a sort of knock-off Martin and Lewis, but the pair was sued by Jerry Lewis, claiming Petrillo’s grating voice and haircut were an infringement on Lewis’ image.  Mitchell and Petrillo broke up soon thereafter, with Petrillo making a few more B-films before fading into obscurity, while Mitchell appeared in hitherto-unreleased grindhouse gangster film GONE WITH THE POPE and crime drama MASSACRE MAFIA STYLE before passing away in 1981.  Petrillo, sadly, was never forgiven by Lewis, who had security escort Petrillo from a building where Lewis was giving a speech in November 2008.  Petrillo passed away in 2009.

As for Calvert, he retired from gorilla work in 1960 following a heart attack and general dissatisfaction with the steadiness (or lack thereof) of work.  He passed away in 1991.

Please stay tuned for Part 2 of this article, focusing on the transition of the gorilla suit from the big screen to the television screen and the decline of gorilla suit work, to be posted soon.


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Bill Adcock likes long walks off short piers and eating endangered species. In addition to his work for the Blood Sprayer, his writing can also be found at his personal site, Radiation-Scarred Reviews, which he's maintained since 2008. Bill has also contributed, as of this writing, to GRINDHOUSE PURGATORY issues 2 and 3, and CINEMA SEWER issue 27.

5 Responses to “Monkey Business: The Rise and Fall of the American Gorilla-Suit Actor, Part 1”

  1. Doesn’t Gemora’s suit in The Chimp look a bit like Fluffy from Creepshow? Anyone have Tom Savini’s phone number to find out if this was an homage?

  2. I merely wanted to point out that Steve Calvert’s first sortie as a gorilla was in Mark of the Gorilla (50). He appeared in neither Jungle Jim (48) nor The Lost Tribe (49). There were no gorillas in the first film, and it was indeed Ray Corrigan (among others) who appeared in The Lost Tribe.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. [...] and conclusion to my look into the great American actors who built careers playing gorillas.  In Part 1, I explored the early years of the phenomenon, into the mid-1950s.  In Part 2, I’ll be [...]

  2. [...] SOULS and 1943′s FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN.  The gorilla is played by the enigmatic Emil Van Horn.  THE APE MAN can be viewed for free [...]

  3. [...] Charles Gemora was the first to specialize in gorilla portrayals. He worked in Hollywood as a set designer and makeup artist before he built a gorilla costume for the 1927 silent film The Gorilla, which was not about an ape, but about a man who wore a gorilla costume. Fascinated by the idea of playing an actual gorilla, Gemora studied the apes in the local zoo to perfect his gorilla act, which he debuted in the 1928 film The Leopard Lady. The 1930 film Ingagi was passed off as being a documentary, but was totally fabricated. Viewers bought it, which confirmed the talents of Gemora, who played the gorilla. Gemora played an ape in 30 films up until 1958, including Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Road to Zanzibar, and White Witch Doctor. Most of his roles were uncredited, which was common at the time in order to preserve the illusion of a real gorilla in the role. [...]

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