For many years, I kept hearing about how the 1952 comedy “Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla” was among the worst films ever made. Due entirely to its critical drubbing, I avoided the film. Until one fine day, a small company specializing in video releases of public domain titles sent me a copy of the film.
It was then I discovered something astonishing. “Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla” was not one of the worst films of all time. In fact, the film is great. I screened it for friends and everyone was convulsed with laughter. I then screened it at a pair of retro film series that I hosted a few years ago and the reaction was the same: wall to wall laughter capped by applause during the closing credits.
So why is this film stuck with the label of being a turkey? Perhaps it took more than a half-century to pass before people could realize that this little movie is actually a sharp and sassy parody of several movie genres: the mad scientist thriller, the tropical island romance, and the Martin and Lewis comedies.
How did Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis get in on this? Well, don’t be fooled by the title. The real stars of the film are not Bela Lugosi and the Brooklyn Gorilla. Instead, the focus is on Duke Mitchell and Sammy Petrillo, a nightclub comedy act whose shtick involved a replication of the Martin and Lewis act. Mitchell had the Martin part as the straight man/singer; he was a fine comic in his own right, but he bore no physical resemblance to Dino and his singing was, to be charitable, somewhat lacking. Petrillo, however, did a dead-on carbon copy of Lewis. He had a striking resemblance and captured his vocal mannerisms perfectly. Lewis even caught on to this and had Petrillo play his “son” in a TV comedy sketch. (Mitchell had his own Martin and Lewis encounter in early 1952, snagging a bit part in their “Sailor Beware”).
Jack Broder, who ran the exploitation production/distribution house Realart Pictures, liked Mitchell and Petrillo enough to brush off a moldy script called “White Woman of the Lost Jungle” and have it rewritten into a starring vehicle for the duo. Since Mitchell and Petrillo’s fame was fairly limited, Broder brought in Bela Lugosi for box office recognition. Realart Pictures had successfully re-released Lugosi’s 1931 landmark “Dracula,” and while the celluloid vampire had not made an American film since 1948 (“Abbott and Costello Meets Frankenstein”) he still possessed strong name recognition and fan appeal.
What may have been lost on audiences of the era but which is obvious when today is the fact “Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla” clearly does not take itself seriously. The fun starts from the very beginning: Mitchell and Petrillo play entertainers on a USO tour who fall out of an airplane (?!?) and land on the Pacific island of Cola Cola. They are taken to the hut of the island’s chief, whose beautiful American-college educated daughter Nona reads the label from Petrillo’s jacket and asks if one of them is named Mervyn. (This is a poke at the Martin and Lewis running gag involving the name “Melvin.”) Petrillo, in a killer copy of Lewis’ spastic movie voice, explains: “Aww, lady, you got us mixed up with two other guys.”
The island is also home to a European gothic-style mansion belonging to the scientist Dr. Zabor, naturally played by Lugosi. Mitchell and Petrillo immediately notice the resemblance between Dr. Zabor and a certain movie vampire, and Petrillo begins to strike Dracula-worthy poses. At one point, Petrillo yells “Watch out for bats!” when Lugosi is standing before him.
Mitchell and Nona immediately hit it off, while Petrillo finds himself the object of affection of Nona’s overweight sister Salome. Petrillo is appalled by the fat broad who aggressively pursues him; he keeps referring to her as “Salami” and is chased endlessly through the blatantly phony tropical jungle. At one point Petrillo warns the jungle wildlife to run away because Salome is on the loose, and the screen is filled with obvious stock footage of various jungle creatures running at breakneck speed.
Petrillo also has another love interest: Dr. Zabor’s chimpanzee Ramona. The affectionate primate shows her love for Petrillo by locking him in a cage and throwing away the key! This actually occurs twice during the film. How many comedies make b********y a running gag, especially when the beast is the one with the crush?
So where is the Brooklyn Gorilla? Well, Dr. Zabor is furious that Nona prefers Mitchell to him, so he kidnaps Mitchell and injects him with serum that turns him into a gorilla. Petrillo discovers Mitchell in his simian state (the gorilla starts singing to prove his real identity!), and the pair escape from Dr. Zabor’s mansion to Nona’s hut. But Dr. Zabor pursues them with his rifle, determined to put the pair of his misery. But before anyone gets killed, Petrillo wakes up: it was all a dream he had in his New Jersey nightclub dressing room before he and Mitchell were set to do their act.
Admittedly, some of the laughs created by this film are not intentional. The funniest line is when Nona explains to Mitchell that Dr. Zabor is “the only white man on this island” (forgetting, of course, the rest of the cast are white guys made up to look like Polynesian islanders). Nona is played by the beautiful starlet Charlita, who cannot keep a straight face and goes through the entire film with a large (but lovely) smile. And Mitchell’s two supposedly straight musical numbers are hilarious, due to the singer’s ridiculous costume (his pants seem to be buttoned at mid-chest level) and his inability to stay in key.
But “Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla” is a riot when Mitchell and Petrillo do their Martin and Lewis routine with more flair and style than Martin and Lewis ever did in their films. Whether slapping the stately Lugosi on the back with a greeting of “Hi, Pops!” or engaging in good-natured ribbing of each other (Mitchell refers to Petrillo as possessing a “one-syllable brain”), the duo are a lot of fun. And for anyone who ever cringed when Jerry Lewis was at full throttle, Petrillo’s remarkable impersonation achieves the impossible of keeping the extreme shtick elements the “Jerry” character without the overbearing and obnoxious shadings that Lewis inevitably spiced his act with. Lewis tries to be the whole show, to the point of throwing everything around him out of balance, but Petrillo naturally becomes the whole show without even trying.
“Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla” was shot in nine days on a $50,000 budget at Hollywood’s General Services Studios, which at the time was home to many major television productions. Some of the TV stars at the studio, including Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz and Ozzie and Harriet Nelson, visited the film’s set. By all accounts, everyone had a great time making the film.
Everyone but Jerry Lewis. Associate producer Herman Cohen recalled years later that Lewis stormed into Jack Broder’s office and engaged in a screaming match when he learned of Broder’s plans to make a film with Mitchell and Petrillo. It seemed Lewis became upset that the duo were ripping off the Martin and Lewis act (Dean Martin never voiced any genuine concern on the matter). Broder then frayed matters by offering Hal B. Wallis, the producer of the Martin and Lewis comedies, the option to buy the negative of the Mitchell and Petrillo comedy. Wallis, who had been friendly with Broder for many years, refused to speak to Broder again after the offer was made.
Lewis eventually brought a lawsuit, but the case was laughed out of court thanks to (ironically) straight man Duke Mitchell. Jim Neibaur, the film historian and Lewis biographer, recalled Mitchell’s classic putdown: “In court, Duke Mitchell stated, “I can’t help it that Sammy looks like Jerry. If I put a hat on him, he’d look like Jerry with a hat. But I should be the one suing Dean Martin, because Dean got a nose job to look like me!’ And that killed the suit.”
However, Neibaur adds that Lewis’ influence nonetheless worked to crimp Mitchell and Petrillo’s act. “Nightclubs would not hire Mitchell and Petrillo for fear that Dean and Jerry would not play there,” he said. “So it hurt the team rather badly.”
Yet fate would ensure that Lewis’ attempt to kill the film would backfire miserably. After the film’s brief theatrical release, it was syndicated to television and played under a variety of new titles, most notably “The Boys from Brooklyn.” Furthermore, it was discovered that no one bothered to file a copyright for the title. For years, bootleggers in the 16mm market and later in the home video market would offer this public domain title. Having so many copies of the film floating around was not only a Lewis nightmare, but it gave the film a chance to reach successive generations.
And time has been an ally of the film. After years of being sneered at, the film has found new audiences who are genuinely astonished by its craziness. Several underground movie magazines have hailed Mitchell and Petrillo (this was their only film as a comedy team), and Petrillo’s late career recognition as an underground comic (he was only 17 when the film was made) brought him belated celebrity. The growing cult interest in Bela Lugosi also gave the film new prominence, as this film was his last before becoming part of the Ed Wood stock company.
Singer Marshall Crenshaw brought the film to a hip music audience when he sampled a snatch of the film’s “it’s all a dream” dialogue for his 1996 album “Soundbite”: Petrillo awakes and asks “Where am I?” and Mitchell explains “Where are ya? You’re in our dressing room in the Jungle Hut in Passaic, New Jersey, and we’re on next! Let’s go, come on!”
Although the film is public domain, there is an excellent digital clean-up of the material via Wade Williams’ 2000 video and 2001 DVD release of the title on the Englewood Entertainment label. And the recently released reference guide “Doug Pratt’s DVD” included a long-overdue praise for the title, with DVDLaser.com critic Doug Pratt giving the film a happy thumbs up.
So who’s laughing now? You will be, if you pick up a copy of “Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla.” Don’t listen to the other critics who tell you how terrible the film is. Listen to this critic: “Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla” is one of the greatest comedies ever made!
IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that’s just peachy! This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at Film Threat and the man who knows where to get the good stuff…on video, that is.
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