This year's National Gorilla Suit Day may be nuthin' but a dim memory, but it doesn't mean we still can't experience the joys of watching some guy cavorting in a gorilla suit. I recently bought a dollar DVD of 1952's Bela Lugosi Meets A Brooklyn Gorilla, the low-budget comedy that "introduced" us to Duke Mitchell and Sammy Petrillo, a woebegone attempt to replicate Martin and Lewis which only lasted one picture before Lewis sued and put a legal kibosh on the act.
The flick also has the distinction of being the last movie Lugosi made before his legendary collaborations with Ed Wood, and after viewing this puppy, you really can't help feeling that Lugosi had nowhere to go but up with Wood. Even the worst horror flick, after all, isn't as excruciating as a bad comedy. You can chuckle at a low-rent horror movie, but a moribund comedy just makes you feel crummy.
Directed by notorious poverty row man William Beaudine and scripted by B-movie actor Tim (husband to Irene) Ryan, BLMABG is set on a Hollywood soundstage tropical island where all the shirtless native men look exceedingly hairy-chested and stock animal footage shot on more than one continent abounds. Our heroes, such as they are, have accidentally parachuted onto this tropical paradise while on their way to do a show for the boys in Guam, and when the camera comes upon 'em for the first time, we see both entertainers sprawled out on the jungle floor, unconscious with huge growths of beard on their faces. Were they gonna do their show wearing those Robinson Crusoe beards? we wonder, because surely those bushes didn't just grow overnight.
But the question becomes irrelevant since the boys quickly lose the beards after the island's natives appear to take our stranded entertainers to their soundstage village. Shapely native Nona (Charlita), who divides her time between speaking unconvincing tropical gibberish and perfect English, serves as the boys' interpreter. The sarong-wearing islander has gone to college in the America, though she still doesn't seem to know the difference between a coat label and a name tag… must not have attended an Ivy League school.
In her spare time, Nona works as a lab assistant to Lugosi's Dr. Zabor, a mad scientist held up in a castle that was built on the remote isle. Takes almost a half hour before we meet Zabor (whose name I keep accidentally mistyping as Zardoz) because the movie wants to establish Mitchell and Petrillo's respective talents first. "Dukey," whose primary style of vocal delivery can only be described as Jersey Mushmouthed, is the duo's singer, so he gets to perform a tune before the natives and later romances Nona in the jungle with a second romantic number so ill-filmed by Beaudine that her reaction shot close-ups don't quite match the lyrics being sung. Petrillo's the would-be Jerry Lewis clone, and, if you squint yer eyes, you can actually imagine him as a young Joseph Levitch. He delivers his lines in the same high-pitched whine (though in one joke, he rather surprisingly drops it for a Groucho-esque mutter) and steals most of Lewis' mannerisms: in the movie's single-most protracted unfunny bit, he's pursued by Nona's fat sister Saloma, who he repeatedly calls "a blimp."
Saloma's played by Muriel Landers, an actress who played quite a few comic "fat roles" in the fifties and sixties (she's the plus-sized Landrews Sister in this classic Jack Benny bit), and even though she looks pretty cute in her sarong, our faux Jerry spends most of the picture trying to duck her. The thought of being with Saloma is so appalling to this jerk that he's even willing to spend the night in Dr. Zabor's scary castle. Still, Landers handles her insulting role with her usual perky aplomb – if nothing else, she appears to be having a better time in front of the cameras than Lugosi.
Bela, poor Bela, is in such poor shape that we can see the tremors in his hand when he attempts to hold up a test tube. Beaudine gives his marquee name plenty of reaction shots and a prolonged moment where he sits by himself in the middle of his castle and plain broods, but it's neither comic nor menacing, just kinda sad. The movie attempts to wrest some Arsenic And Old Lace-type yuks about Dr. Zardoz's resemblance to a certain famous movie vampire, but even these don't go very far. Lugosi's mad doctor is doing evolutionary research, working to concoct a serum that will result in an "embryonic metamorphosis." He's been experimenting on a smart chimp named Ramona (played, IMDb tells me, by Cheetah from the Tarzan movies), temporarily prodding her up the evolutionary ladder. But when Dukey shows up to romance Nona, Zabor decides to reverse his experiments and transform the Brooklyn Crooner into a Brooklyn Gorilla.
The gorilla – our main reason for watching the movie, remember – doesn't show up 'til the flick's final quarter, but he's suitably cheesy. Zabor tries to pass the man-in-a-suit off as a more evolved Ramona, but that weak deception doesn’t hold for long, especially once Mitchell growls one of the songs we heard him sing back when he was marginally human. Fleeing the castle, our heroes run into a "real" gorilla who quickly takes a shine to Gorilla Dukey, but no such luck, if you're expecting a big romantic gorilla finish a lá John Landis' Trading Places. Instead, we get a final confrontation with Doc Zabor back at the village and a cliché cop-out twist ending. (It's all a . . . !) Fat Girl Muriel receives her own small moment of vindication, though. Working as a hula dancer in a Passaic club called the Jungle Hut, she gets to plant a big one on Petrillo, who immediately pronounces that she's "not so bad." Hey, Sammy, compare and contrast that young lady's movie and TV resumé with yours – and tell me who ultimately had the last laugh…