Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla (1952) (part 1 of 4)

SUMMARY: Sammy Petrillo and Duke Mitchell, two severely untalented Martin & Lewis imitators, find themselves stranded on a jungle island in the South Pacific. They’re rescued by members of the local tribe, including a very voluptuous—and very white—woman by the name of Nona. Duke falls for Nona, but there also a mad scientist (Bela Lugosi, essentially playing himself) conducting experiments on the island, and he has his own designs on Nona. When Duke comes between a white island girl and the 70 year old mad scientist who loves her, he finds himself on the business end of a syringe full of “growth formula” that transforms him into a gorilla. Wacky low-jinks ensue.

From 1917 until his death in 1956, Bela Lugosi acted in over 100 films, both silent and talkies, with some made in his native Hungary before he fled due to political unrest. But the actor will always be remembered for playing the title role in Tod Browning’s 1931 Dracula, the film that virtually created the supernatural horror film genre. The association between Lugosi and the vampire he made famous was so strong, he was even buried in his Dracula cape. (Though this was not, as you might have believed, a desire he actually expressed while he was alive.)

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But typecasting and his inability to master the English language severely limited Bela’s career, and in his later years, a despondent Lugosi became addicted to morphine. It was during this time that he became persona non grata in Hollywood, forced to make a series of forgettable B-movies, each one cheaper than the last. After several quickies for Monogram Pictures (The Ape Man, Bowery at Midnight), Lugosi finally hit rock bottom as a mainstay in the films of Ed Wood.

Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla (1952) (part 1 of 4)

Hey, look! It’s Bela Lugosi playing Jesus! What more could you possibly want?

But a couple of years before that, producer Jack Broder was having a lot of success with his re-issue of Bela’s Dracula (as well as several other Universal horror films) through his Real-Art distribution company. So when Broder learned that Bela had just gotten out of drug rehab and was desperately searching for work, he decided to cast him in a new comedy he was producing. And to show his appreciation, he even put Bela’s name in the title.

The resulting film was Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla, a dopey comedy squarely in the “mad scientist + gorilla” movie genre popularized by the likes of Abbott & Costello, the Bowery Boys, and the Ritz Brothers. But contrary to what the title would have you believe, Bela does very little in this movie other than stalk around a laboratory and make menacing faces.

No, the real stars of this film are a famous comedy duo consisting of a laid-back crooner, and a slapstick comedian with a nasally voice who specialized in mugging for the camera. I’m of course talking about the legendary comedy team of… Mitchell and Petrillo?

Duke Mitchell and Sammy Petrillo had a semi-famous nightclub act where they imitated the hottest comedy duo of the day, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. Mitchell’s impression of Martin wasn’t that great (though they did have the same initials), but Petrillo’s impersonation of Jerry Lewis was so disturbingly dead-on that he even played opposite Jerry as his son on an episode of The Colgate Comedy Hour.

Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla (1952) (part 1 of 4)

A scene from the sequel, A Gorilla Meets Two Brooklyn Idiots.

This is the first film that Mitchell and Petrillo made together, but more importantly, it was also the last. Even though I’d like to say this is because the film is staggeringly unfunny, it has more to do with Jerry Lewis’ reaction upon learning of its existence. He found Petrillo’s performance to be so similar to his own that he threatened to sue the pair, and even to have all copies of Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla destroyed.

Nothing ever came of this, sadly, and the movie survives to this day, with two recent pristine DVD releases. But it’s doubtful that without the name of a horror legend in the title, anyone would even remember this movie.

The script is stuffed full of lame gags, making its brief 74-minute running time feel about three times as long. In particular, Sammy Petrillo is excruciating to watch. I’d say he’s like Jerry Lewis on coke, but we actually know what Jerry Lewis was like on coke, and he wasn’t anywhere near as annoying as Sammy Petrillo. Petrillo’s jokes are so inane, and delivered so rapid-fire, that his performance is like one long, continuous stand-up routine that’s bombing horribly right before our eyes.

Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla (trust me, I’m as tired of typing the title as you are of reading it) was directed by William Beaudine, who used to have a high profile career directing stars like Mary Pickford and Jean Harlow, but more or less crashed and burned upon the advent of talkies. He quickly earned the nickname of William “One Shot” Beaudine, either due to his reluctance to film more than one take of anything, or for his constant reliance on unending, static long shots to record most of the action. Either way, the nickname suits him perfectly. This is the fourth time he directed Bela Lugosi (after The Ape Man, Ghosts on the Loose and Voodoo Man), and sadly, probably the worst of the bunch.

After credits which play over random jungle footage (and which also reveal that additional dialogue is by a guy named “Ukie”), we of course hear the voice of a omniscient narrator. Hey, when your movie’s barely over an hour long, you have to use certain devices to accomplish things quickly. The Narrator booms, “This is the jungle!” Alright, thanks for the tip-off.

He calls it “the vast wilderness of giant, lush foliage! Of tropical birds, and fierce animal life!” As he narrates, lots of grainy (I mean, even grainier than the actual movie) stock footage clips from nature documentaries are shown.

He name-drops tigers, hyenas, pythons, oh my, while stock footage is shown of each one of these animals. He then says, “And… the buzzards. The scavengers of the jungle. Soaring lower, ever lower! Eager to devour the dead or the dying!” Hmm. And one of them is named William Beaudine, I bet. “Kill or be killed! This is the law of the jungle! And here? What have we here?”

The camera zooms in on two men with big beards, wearing suits and sprawled out on top of each other. “Who are these men? What can they possibly be doing in this cruel tropical wilderness?” Hey, look, you’re the omniscient narrator. If you don’t know, then how should we?

Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla (1952) (part 1 of 4)

Loggins and Messina, both dead tonight at the age of 56.

Popping up from behind the surrounding trees and shrubbery are “jungle” guys. And by this I mean the whitest, most middle-aged jungle guys you will ever see. They pick up the bearded guys and take them to their “village”, an obvious set with about three grass huts and a cheap painted backdrop, where everyone is wearing blatantly tailored animal skins and Hawaiian shirts.

Some guy in a giant bird mask, presumably the local witch doctor, sees the men and makes a slashing throat gesture. Meaning, I think, that they should be sacrificed to the gods. But a white girl in an animal skin dress shows up and appeals to the village chief. “Father,” she says, “Don’t let him kill them!” The girl is played by Charlita, who can best be described as the Extremely Poor Man’s Dorothy Lamour.

Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla (1952) (part 1 of 4)

Okay, so whose idea was it to worship Toucan Sam?

As a result of her pleas, the men are spared and taken into a hut. After the chief and Bird Mask yell back and forth at each other using lots of “jungle” gibberish where every word sounds like “mucky-mucky”, they decide to clean the guys up. The White Girl pantomimes to the others to shave them and cut their hair. Although, I’m assuming she speaks their same language, so what’s with the mime act?

Anyway, we cross-fade to the two guys, still lying in the same place, but with their hair cut, their beards shaved off, and now wearing jungle clothes. Which, of course, consist of tattered khakis and Hawaiian shirts. And somehow, despite getting these haircuts and shaves, they’re both still fast asleep. Something tells me a certain couple of guys had quite a little nightcap last night.

But we see immediately they’re Sammy Petrillo and Duke Mitchell. Duke is a guy who gives new meaning to the phrase “incredibly bland-looking”, while Sammy looks more like Jerry Lewis than Jerry Lewis ever did, completely with a Dumb and Dumber-style bowl cut.

At the same time, White Girl is fishing around in one of their suit pockets and finding a copy of Variety. After the oh-so-funny sight gag of the Chief reading Variety, White Girl holds up the suit collar and points to the tag. “I think one of them is named Mervyn!” And I believe his friend is named Target!

Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla (1952) (part 1 of 4)

What it mean, “New Lugosi laugher flop with auds and crix”?

Suddenly, both Sammy and Duke spring awake. She asks which one of them is Mervyn. Sammy smirks and says, “Ah lady, you got us mixed up with two other guys!” Hah hah. Get it?

She introduces herself as Nona, and Duke and Sammy introduce themselves as Duke and Sammy. Well, hey, they’re going by their real names in this movie. That sure makes things easier for me.

Nona tells them they’re in Zamboanga, specifically, the island of “Kola-Kola”. Sammy quips, “Sounds like a commercial for bubble water!” Nona says her tribesmen found Sammy and Duke in the jungle and carried them here. Sammy jokes, “What do we owe ’em for carrying charges?” As you can tell, lame quips are kind of Sammy’s forte. Perhaps the only reason the French love Jerry Lewis is because they were exposed to Sammy Petrillo first.

Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla (1952) (part 1 of 4)

New from Unilever Bestfoods, it’s I Can’t Believe It’s Not Martin and Lewis!

Nona probes them on how they ended up on the island. Duke explains that they were on a USO tour of the Pacific, but they accidentally fell out of their airplane. I don’t think I need to point out how incredibly stupid a contrivance that is, but anyway, they both happened to be wearing parachutes at the time, and they landed on this island.

Duke says that ever since then, they’ve been living on wild berries and raw fish. Sammy adds, “Which is much better than the raw fish living on us!” Yeah, whatever, Sammy. Just, whatever.

Anyway, Nona’s father is introduced as “Chief Rakos”, king of the island. The chief declares they’ll have a luau in honor of their two new guests. Although, considering those horrible jokes, maybe he’s developing his own secret plan to roast Sammy on that spit instead of the pig.

Multi-Part Article: Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla (1952)

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