Created by Ralph Spence
“A Ritz is afraid of nothing … but … THIS … IS … SOMETHING!”
The Gorilla was a relatively obscure comedy by playwright Ralph Spence (original title: The Gorilla: A Musical Comedy), which had a short run on Broadway way back in 1925, but it had surprising long legs, although it fared much better in other venues, traveling as far as Chicago and London, and was filmed several times over the years.
It made its its cinematic debut in a silent film in 1927, and was remade in 1930 and 1939. It also served as a partial basis for a 1937 Warner Bros. flick called Sh! The Octopus, with the gorilla converted to an octopus.
The basic premise is that a killer gorilla (yeah, a killer gorilla) is on the loose, and a cast of characters (including a few detectives) is trapped in a deserted mansion with the homicidal ape. It’s all played for laughs, though, deliberately sending up the whole gothic thriller genre. Power outages, damsels in distress, thunder, lightning, secret passages, screams in the night, creepy butlers, disappearing corpses, strange lights, odd noises, mistaken identities, mysterious strangers, cryptic messages, a killer on the loose — they’re all here.
But it’s the 1939 version that truly qualifies it for this site, because the bumbling detectives in it are three particularly inept private detectives (played by the Ritz Brothers).
BEN GARRITY (played by Jimmy Ritz), HARRIGAN (Harry) and MULLIGAN (Al) are called in when a wealthy business man receives a threatening letter by a killer known only as The Gorilla. Or is it a killer gorilla? It’s hard to tell — the film’s a little vague on that point. And several others. But before the Ritz boys arrive, the man is joined by Norma, the man’s daughter, and her annoying financé.
It also starred Bela Lugosi, as a rather suspicious butler, and comedienne Patsty Kelly as a dipsy, high-strung house maid.
But make no mistake — the Ritz Brothers, despite frequent comparisons, are NOT the Marx Brothers. They’re not in the same league. In fact, if this film is any indication of their comedic skills, they may not have even been in the same business as Groucho, Chico and Harpo.
The Ritz Brothers shout, roll their eyes, mug desperately for the cameras, perform constant double takes, bang into each other and generally chew plenty of scenery.
Still — to their credit — even the Ritz Brothers knew the film was a gobbler. They staged a highly publicized walkout from Fox, complaining loudly about the low quality of the script. And I’d have to concur. The script, whatever I think of the brothers’ comedic talents, is truly dreadful, an incongruous, implausible mess with all the subtlety of being slapped with a wet fish in the face.
But I digress…
The studio called the brothers’ bluff, bidding them adieu and completing the picture anyway. Or at least releasing it. Whether it was actually “completed” is a matter of serious debate.
Still, it does feature a few decent moments. Bela Lugosi is an acting accident that’s always fun to watch, and comedienne Patsy Kelly’s performance as Kitty, the highly excitable maid, is a genuine hoot — and one of what she thought was one of her best.
The tagline for the film boasted that “A Ritz is afraid of nothing … but … THIS … IS … SOMETHING!”
They may have been right, but it’s the sort of something you’d wipe off the bottom of your shoe…
- Kitty: Why couldn’t all of this have happened tomorrow?
Norma Denby: What difference would that make?
Kitty: Tomorrow’s my day off!
- THE GORILLA | Buy this DVD
(1939, 20th Century Fox)
Based on characters created in “The Gorilla” by Ralph Spence
Screenplay by Rian James and Sid Silvers
Directed by Allan Dwan
Produced by Harry Joe Brown
Starring Jimmy Ritz as BEN GARRITY
Harry Ritz as HARRIGAN
and Al Ritz as MULLIGAN
Also starring Bela Lugosi, Patsy Kelly, Anita Louise, Lionel Atwill, Joseph Calleia, Edward Norris, Wally Vernon, Paul Harvey, Art Miles