Though it goes without saying that King Kong continues to hold the crown as the reigning monarch of the great apes in film, spare a thought to consider the long parade of committed actors who sweat, pestered picnickers and sweat some more in the demanding field of gorilla impersonation.
Before we begin, it is worth noting that it wasn’t until the 1860’s that Westerners were first able to lay their eyes on the real beast, being something of a curiosity even at the beginning of the 20th Century. Consider this an apology for some very dodgy early costumes.
The Gorilla is a 1927 American silent horror film directed by Alfred Santell based on the play of the same name by Ralph Spence. The film stars Charles Murray, Fred Kelsey, and Walter Pidgeon (in virtually his first screen role). The plot of the film revolves around a series of murders committed by a man in an ape suit.
The film was remade with sound in 1930 and 1939. The creator of the suit was Carlos Cruz Gemora (June 15, 1903 – August 19, 1961), commonly known as Charles Gemora, a former Hollywood make-up artist renowned as “the King of the Gorilla Men” for his prolific appearances in many Hollywood films while wearing a gorilla suit.
Gemora was born in the Philippines, and arrived in San Francisco as a stowaway. He quickly found work at the Brentwood fruit farm in Colusa, CA. and eventually moved to Los Angeles. He earned money doing portrait sketches outside of Universal Studios where his talents were discovered and put to work in the studio’s sculpture department for The Hunchback of Notre Dame. When creating a gorilla suit Gemora found his 5’4″/163 cm stature made him a natural to wear the suit himself beginning with The Leopard Lady in 1928.
Gemora’s study of real gorillas at the San Diego Zoo and his expertise on makeup gave him an extensive career as a gorilla opposite such luminaries as Our Gang (Bear Shooters), Lon Chaney (The Unholy Three), Bela Lugosi (Murders in the Rue Morgue), Laurel and Hardy, (The Chimp & Swiss Miss), The Marx Brothers (At the Circus), Bob Hope and Bing Crosby (Road to Zanzibar), The Great Gildersleeve (Gildersleeve’s Ghost), Abbott and Costello (Africa Screams) and Robert Mitchum (White Witch Doctor).
With men in gorilla suits no longer providing the same scares in the 1950s as they did in the 1930s and ’40s, Gemora moved his creature expertise into science fiction films such as the Martian in War of the Worlds and I Married a Monster from Outer Space. Gemora died of a heart attack in August 1961 while he was working on the make-up of the film Jack the Giant Killer.
The rise of the Tarzan movie led to shonky gorillas enjoying their heyday in the 1930’s. Two actors in particular were responsible for inflicting jungle mayhem upon cinema audiences around this time – Ray ‘Crash’ Corrigan and Steve Calvert.
Steve Calvert (born Steven Stevens in June 1916, died 5 March 1991, in Los Angeles) was a prolific gorilla suit performer in many Hollywood films and television shows from the late 1940s through the 1950s. He took the stage name Calvert from Calvert Whisky. Calvert appeared in Bride of the Gorilla, The Bowery Boys Meet the Monsters, the serial Panther Girl of the Kongo, Ed Wood Jr’s The Bride and the Beast, in Road to Bali with Bob Hope and Bing Crosby and appeared in the second part of the title role of Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla.
Subsequently, Calvert appeared again with Lugosi at the 1953 Hollywood premiere of House of Wax, at which Lugosi arrived in his Dracula costume, leading the furry-suited Calvert on a leash. Among his television work is at least one appearance with Buster Keaton which Calvert called “the best thing I ever did. He was a pure pantomime artist.”) and an episode of Adventures of Superman, “Jungle Devil.” In the tradition of other gorilla men playing space monsters, Calvert played a robot that was meant to be an entire army of robots in Target Earth as well as the robot in The Bowery Boys Meet the Monsters in scenes which did not involve the ape. Circus clown Billy Small frequently came aboard when Calvert needed a second “ape,” such as in Bride and the Beast.
Dismayed by a lack of steady work and suffering a heart attack, Calvert retired from film work in 1960. That year, Target Earth producer Herman Cohen approached Calvert about playing the title role in Konga but as Calvert had sold his costumes to Western Costume, Cohen was forced to rent an alternate ape suit from stuntman/actor George Barrows, though Barrows himself did not appear in the suit in the film. The hallowed role was ultimately played by Paul Stockman, also seen in Dr. Blood’s Coffin (1961) and The Skull (1965).
Ray “Crash” Corrigan (February 14, 1902 – August 10, 1976), born Raymond Benard, was an American actor most famous for appearing in B-Western movies. He also performed stunts and frequently appeared in a gorilla costume at both the beginning and end of his film career; Corrigan owned his own ape costume. His career in Hollywood began as a physical fitness instructor and physical culture trainer to the stars. In the early 1930s he did stunts and bit parts in several films. Many of his early roles were in ape costumes – for example, as a Gorilla in Tarzan and His Mate (1934) and an “Orangopoid” in the original Flash Gordon serial. In 1936 he got his break with starring roles in two Republic serials, The Vigilantes Are Coming and in Undersea Kingdom from which Benard adopted his character’s name “Crash Corrigan” (that evoked memories of “Flash Gordon”) as his own.
Despite his best efforts, his on-screen work largely returned to appearing in ape costumes – for example, the title roles in Captive Wild Woman (1943), Nabonga (1944), White Pongo (1945) and as a prehistoric sloth in Unknown Island (1948). The original gorilla “mask” seen in films like The Ape (1940) was replaced with a subtler design with a more mobile jaw. In 1948 he sold his gorilla suits and provided training to Steve Calvert. Calvert stepped in Corrigan’s paw prints beginning with a Jungle Jim film.
Despite reports to the contrary, Calvert and Corrigan never appeared together in ape costume. Since both Corrigan and Calvert eschewed screen credit as gorillas, credits are often confused. Any appearance of the “Corrigan suit” after 1948 is Calvert. Corrigan’s last film was playing the title role of It! The Terror from Beyond Space.
And so to George Barrows, if not the most famous then surely, historically, the most-unloved, the majority of his performances being uncredited. George D. Barrows (February 7, 1914 – October 17, 1994) was an American actor known for playing Ro-Man in the film Robot Monster. He was the son of actor Henry A. Barrows. Excluding his gorilla roles, Barrows usually played bit parts in films and was rarely credited for his work. Barrows built the gorilla suit he used in Robot Monster, Gorilla at Large, and other films. It is currently in the collection of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.
Easing himself to the world of apes, he appeared only as a henchman in the 1951 film, Mark of the Gorilla but by 1953 had donned his famous suit as part of an Abbott and Costello television show before the infamous semi-gorilla suit of Ro-Man.
Further roles included Gorilla At Large (1954), a spot on The Red Skelton Hour, Black Zoo (1963), The Addams Family, The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini (1966) and other TV show such as The Beverley Hillbillies, The Lucy Show and The Incredible Hulk in the 1978 episode, ‘The Beast Within’.
As mentioned, his suit was used in the film, Konga in 1961 but it was a stuntman who was cast within. Sadly, little care was given to the suit and various holes and adjustments were made to allow the actor to fit in – the suit was never fully returned to its ‘spectacular’ original state.
Cinematic apes were nearing their natural lifespan. Special effects were moving on and it would be almost disrespectful to both parties to mention the Planet of the Apes cycle of films in the same breath. The ‘art of ape’ did live on in one man, however – Rick Baker. A student of make-up artists from eras past, it was entirely in Baker’s philosophy to eschew special effects and commit to reality-based illusions. From one of his first paying gigs in John Landis’ Schlock (1971) to going the whole hog with a two-headed ape in 1978’s The Thing With Two Heads, right through the 1980’s Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan of the Apes, Gorillas in the Mist) and as late as 1998’s Mighty Joe Young remake, men in suits have continued to give life to gorillas.
Daz Lawrence, MOVIES & MANIA
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