Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla (1952)

Sometimes, a movie connects stars on the rise and stars on the fall and other times, it captures stars that continue to burn no matter their trajectory.

So consider this six-day wonder, this public domain piece of nothing, as both the most important movie some people ever made, a forgotten piece of nothing made for money on hard times or as another fast film to get through and on to the next one.

Or, as Mitch Hedberg would say, “People either love me or hate me, or they think I’m just okay.”

“This is the jungle. The vast wilderness of giant lush foliage of tropical birds and fierce animal life, the killer tiger, the cunning hyena, the deadly python that can crush a giant elk, the proud lion, a fierce lioness, stalking a prey to feed her young. and the buzzards, the scavengers of the jungle soaring lower, ever lower eager to devour the dead or the dying. Kill or be killed, this is the law of the jungle — and here — what have we here? Who are these men? What can they possibly be doing in this cruel tropical wilderness?”

Tim Ryan, who wrote the screenplay along with dialogue by Leo “Ukie” Sherin and Edmond G. Seward, must have been shooting for the moon here and trying to get in a little bit of poetry before the eventual fall. Sherman was a radio comic who wrote for Crosby and Hope, who was now dead center in the ten-year break between the famous duo’s Road to movies (Road to Bali in 1952 and The Road to Hong Kong in 1962; Road to the Fountain of Youth was planned in 1977 with the two playing older versions and new actors coming in when they found Ponce de Leon’s goal, but Crosby’s death that year canceled this movie) and would have been the right guy to write buddy dialogue. Seward made this his last script after a stint that didn’t go well in Australia (Throughbred, for example, has an ending taken from the film Broadway Bill) and time writing for the Bowery Boys. As for Ryan, he also wrote plenty of Bowery Boys films — and other ones at Monogram and Colombia — while adding up 157 acting credits. If his last name sounds familiar, well, his ex-wife and one-time comedy partner Irene kept it and ended up being an overnight success (actually, she’d been working in vaudeville, movies, radio and TV since she was 11 years old) as Granny on The Beverly Hillbillies.

So, basically, their stars were not on the rise.

Nor was Bela Lugosi’s. Despite the Universal films becoming famous again as they were reissued in theaters and began playing TV, Lugosi wasn’t seeing much personal success, traveling the U.S. — and even England — playing summer stock, spook shows and live appearances. He was nearing the end of his fourth marriage — to 29 years his junior Lillian Arch, who would leave him for the man Bela was sure she was making time with, her boss and film noir actor Brian Donlevy — and addicted to doctor-prescribed morphine and methadone, as well as alcohol.

One of those traveling shows took to the UK, playing Dracula on stage for six months (ironic, as the British ban on horror movies in the 30s is what started his career decline at Universal), a time in which he made a comedy called Mother Riley Meets the Vampire. Despite sadly remarking in an interview that he was condemned to always be the boogie man, he yearned for more comedy.

Producer Jack Broder was listening. His Realart Pictures Inc. had re-released the Universal horror — gaining a ten-year lease on these movies — and theaters across the country enjoyed making great money on these reissues, which often brought in more crowds than newly released movies.

Broder had a relationship now with theater owners and saw an opportunity. Why not make new movies? He hired Herman Cohen as a new vice-president and formed Jack Broder Productions and made movies like, well, Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla (the title comes from Broder’s ten-year-old son and the fact that Cohen thought that it was dumb to not put Bela’s name right up in front; its a much better title than White Woman of the Lost Jungle).

But who to star with Bela?

Comedian Sammy Petrillo had made a career out of imitating America’s hottest comic, Jerry Lewis. They looked alike and hey, even sounded the same. Petrillo even worked for Lewis once on The Colgate Comedy Hour and got signed to the same talent agency as Lewis, even as a minor, but was released from his contract when he believed that Lewis was intentionally holding him back.

He would later tell Before the Big Break, “Jerry said a couple of derogatory things to me. He said something to the effect of, “Don’t sign any checks and tell people you’re Jerry Lewis!” He wasn’t being funny. He was being serious.”

A few years later, Petrillo went on to form a musical comedy team with singer Duke Mitchell. With Mitchell as Dean and Sammy as Jerry, the duo played big stages, like the Paramount Theatre and the Copacabana in New York, as well as the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas. You have to imagine the Rat Pack was not pleased to have the two doing this act on their turf.

In fact, Lewis threatened to boycott anyone who booked them. One such instance was on another The Colgate Comedy Hour appearance, hosted by Abbott and Costello (who should have been just as peeved as Lewis, if you think about it, as this movie apes — sorry for the pun — their more successful Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein).

Petrillo told Psychotronic Video, “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.”

The hate was so intense that the man who would make The Day the Clown Cried and his son would remember Sammy until he died, even telling The New York Times on the day of his death, “When Sammy and the other guy played in that gorilla movie, I remember my dad and Dean saying, “We got to sue these guys — this is no good.” Whenever there was any mention of Sammy Petrillo, it was a tense moment.”

As for that gorilla movie…

Maurice Duke, who managed the team, had been pitching a movie starring them to several studios. Jack Broder thought they were hilarious. Cohen thought they stunk. But Realart was ready to go into the business of making Mitchell and Petrillo films.

Re-enter The King of Comedy.

Lewis, who knew Broder through the Friars Club of Beverly Hills, showed up at the Realart offices, starting a screaming match with the producer. So Paramount Pictures producer Hal B. Wallis, who then had Martin and Lewis under contract and also was acquainted with Broder through the Friars Club, stepped in.

He threatened to sue Broder for releasing a film that featured a duo that closely resembled Martin and Lewis. There was also a backdoor deal with he’d pay Broder to destroy the film for a fee, but since they couldn’t agree on a price, Broder put the movie out and the two never spoke again.

We begin in the jungles of Kola Kola, a place where two long-haired and bearded men dressed in frayed tuxedos are found after months — years? — of living off wild berries and raw fish. Rescued by the tribe of Chief Rakos (Al Kikume in his last role; a Hawaiian actor who often appeared in jungle movies) and his daughter Nona (Charlita, which sounds way more exotic than Clara DeFreitas from Massachusetts).

This being a Martin and Lewis remake, remix and ripoff, Duke and Sammy go by their real names and before you know it, Duke’s making eyes at Nona and singing “Deed I Do” while Sammy is running from the amorous aims of Nona’s sister Saloma (Muriel Landers, whose career is filled with big girl roles; she even played Curly Joe Besser’s sister Tiny in a 1953 Three Stooges short). It turns out that Nona is college educated, as she’s going to be queen, and that she knows a man who can get them off the island,  Dr. Zabor (Lugosi).

As soon as Sammy sees the mad scientist, he makes a judgment call, as he brays, “Ain’t this the fellow that goes around with the hand and the faces, biting people on the neck and wearing capes?”

Speaking of the Stooges, Dr. Zabor’s assistant Chula is played by former boxer Mickey Simpson, who was pro wrestler Rocky Dugan in their short Gents in a Jam, as well as a frequent actor in John Ford films. He would play Sarge, the diner owner in Giant, a year after this movie, which goes back to my earlier thoughts of how movies can have stars on the rise and fall.

Anyways, this movie…

Before you know it, the doctor is turning Duke into a gorilla because he wants the girl for himself and Sammy spending lots of quality time with Ramona, who was the latest Cheetah in the Tarzan movies or so the urban legend goes. Also, Pancho from the early Cisco Kid movies, Martin Garralaga, shows up as Pepe Bordo, the only man on the island with a radio.

Spoiler warning for a near-seventy-year-old movie: this all ends like The Wizard of Oz.

After Sammy dies protecting the gorilla who was once Duke from the rifle of Dr. Zabor, everyone wakes up in the dressing room of The Jungle Hut nightclub in Passaic, New Jersey.

Nona is really a gorilla trainer working with her dad in a fur suit, while Bordo is a waiter, Chula is working backstage, Saloma is a dancer and Dr. Zabor runs the club.

Hey, it cost $12,000.

Petrillo and Mitchell broke up — on a much friendlier basis — around the same time as Martin and Lewis. Sammy worked for Randall’s Network Film Corporation, recorded novelty records, working with Doris Wishman on Keyholes Are for Peeping (Sammy and Chesty Morgan had the same agent) and eventually settled down in — of all places — Pittsburgh, where he had a dual life of running The Nut House comedy club, did a couples act with his girlfriend Suzie Fiore and was an MC at local gentlemen’s clubs.

Duke Mitchell, well…

The King of Palm Springs invented brunches in that town, was the singing voice of Fred Flintstone and made two auteur projects, Massacre Mafia Style and Gone with the Pope that Grindhouse Releasing helped find an audience years after his death.

As for Bela, his career sadly continued its decline. While Boris Karloff would make films — of varying quality, but he could command his own TV show and worked everywhere — Lugosi made films for Ed Wood (I’m not looking down on this, but in the grand scheme of career success, the rest of the world would) and had to take jobs like standing in front of the Paramount Theatre before the midnight premiere of House of Wax, holding a man dressed as an ape on a leash while people who were once his peers like Broderick Crawford, Gracie Allen and Judy Garland walked the red carpet.

Two moments at the end of Bela’s life strike me as poignant.

After making Bride of the Monster for Wood, he went to rehab — something few did in 1955 — and the premiere of the movie paid for his medical bills. When Frank Sinatra heard of his issues, he sent a $100 check to help pay for it or around $1,000 in today’s money. He even visited Lugosi, who had never met him before. Keep in mind that Sinatra was beyond A-list at this point. And when Bela died, he paid for his funeral in full, despite not knowing him.

Second, he met his final wife Hope Lininger after rehab. She wrote him letters, signed “with a dash of Hope” and may have been 37 years younger than him, but she was with him for the last year of his life. After his death, she never remarried and left for Hawaii where she worked as a nurse for a leper’s colony.

Finally, the son of Bela, Bela Lugosi Jr. may have believed that Wood was taking advantage of his father’s fame, despite evidence that Wood was there for Bela in his darkest moments. That said, Lugosi’s son became an executive at Comedy III Productions, which helped heirs of celebrities to license and control likenesses.

He told the Mansfield News Journal, “It all started in law school in 1963 when someone brought to my attention that all this movie merchandise was coming onto the market with dad’s name and likeness on the products. I had never authorized Universal to use his name and likeness, so when they refused to stop using it, I filed a lawsuit claiming that the right to the commercial use and likeness survives the death of a celebrity. That ultimately went to the California legislature and the Celebrity Rights Act became law.”

By all means, watch Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla and imagine. You are at the nexus of a series of stars, of lives, of history.

You can watch this on Tubi.

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