It’s January 31, and that means it’s time to celebrate one our civilization’s greatest inventions–the gorilla suit!
On this holiday, we dust off that gorilla suit hanging in our closet and don it with pride. The idea is that you should do at least one thing in your regular schedule dressed up as a gorilla. Go to the store, go bowling, have a drink at your local bar, whatever.
National Gorilla Suit Day was invented by Mad Magazine cartoonist Don Martin. But of course the roots of this cultural phenomenon go way back to the beginnings of cinema, when early directors found that a man in a gorilla suit took direction much better than an actual gorilla.
Early gorilla suit innovator — an uncredited stuntman
chilling out in the fake jungle of Tarzan of the Apes (1918)
Perhaps the first appearance of a gorilla suit in a movie was the first Tarzan movie, Tarzan of the Apes, a silent feature from 1918. While this version has mostly been forgotten, it’s worth a watch by Tarzan fans because unlike many of the other films, it sticks pretty close to the original story.
Another early gorilla movie is The Savage Girl (1932), an adventure film with a heavy dose of comedy (it’s got a New York cab driving through the jungle) in which a female version of Tarzan swings through the jungle on some vines to meet two white hunters–one good, one bad. The gorilla suit doesn’t appear until the final scene, when the gorilla comes to save the girl’s virtue from the bad hunter. It’s interesting to compare this low-budget B-movie with the first appearance of Johnny Weissmuller as Tarzan that same year. That film has a gorilla suit too, worn by legendary gorilla actor Ray “Crash” Corrigan.
Gorilla pictures had somewhat of a renaissance in the 1940s and 50s. Unfortunately, this also coincided with a common subtext throughout these films in which a white women is carried off into the jungles of Africa by a big, savage gorilla who wants her for her own. The Great White Hunter must then save her. A lot of film historians see a racist subtext to this, but of course there’s a lot more overt racism in the depiction of the “natives”.
Robot Monster proves that alien gorillas want white women too!
One of the worst gorilla movies has to be Nabonga (1944), produced by the Poverty Row company Producers Releasing Corporation. It is, strangely enough, one of the few from this era that turns the trope around. The white woman has lived most of her life with the gorilla and when the Great White Hunter shows up, she doesn’t want to be saved! It’s still a crap movie, however. It gets a 4.1 rating on the Internet Movie Database, and I think that’s generous.
Then of course there’s Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla, made in 1952, the year before Lugosi made Glen or Glenda. Some people say that he really jumped the shark when he teamed up with Ed Wood, but this movie proves that Wood is only partially to blame for Lugosi’s descent into the dregs of Hollywood. I’m a big Lugosi fan, but this film is almost unwatchable. It’s not really Bela’s fault. The problem lies with the starring role of Sammy Petrillo, arguably the most annoying comedian ever to hit the silver screen.
So where are the good gorilla suit movies? Well, um… perhaps the readership can help? Because hey, if I’m not going to the gym in my gorilla suit today, I need to watch some gorilla movies tonight.
Perhaps I should check out the Hollywood Gorilla Men blog for some suggestions.
Sean McLachlan is the author of the historical fantasy novel A Fine Likeness, set in Civil War Missouri, and several other titles. Find out more about him on his blog and Amazon author’s page. His latest book, The Case of the Purloined Pyramid, is a neo-pulp detective novel set in Cairo in 1919.