Watching 1939: The Gorilla (1939)

In 2011, I announced I was trying to see every film released in 1939. This new series chronicles films released in 1939 as I watch them. As we start out this blog feature, this section may become more concrete as I search for a common thread that runs throughout each film of the year. Right now, that’s difficult. 

1939 film:  The Gorilla (1939)

Release date:  May 26, 1939

Cast:  Jimmy Ritz, Harry Ritz, Al Ritz (the Ritz Brothers), Anita Louise, Patsy Kelly, Lionel Atwill, Bela Lugosi, Joseph Calleia, Edward Norris, Paul Harvey, Art Miles

Studio:  20th Century Fox

Director:  Allan Dwan

The Gorilla is a murderer on the lose, and Walter Stevens (Atwill) is warned that he has just 24 hours to live. His niece Norma (Louise) and her finance Jack (Norris) come to visit on the eve of this threat. Stevens hires the Ritz Brothers of the Acme Detective Agency to protect him.

1939 Notes:

  • “The Gorilla” (1939) resulted in the end of The Ritz Brothers’ relationship with 20th Century Fox. The film was delayed when The Ritz Brothers’ father died. Because of this, Fox placed a $150,000 suit against the Ritz brothers for a breach of contract as the film was slated to start production. “The Gorilla” is one of three films the Ritz Brothers were in in 1939.
  • Lionel Atwill was in nine films released in 1939.
  • Patsy Kelly’s only film of 1939.
  • Anita Louise was in six films released in 1939.
  • Joseph Calleia was in five films in 1939.
  • Paul Harvey was in nine films released in 1939.

Other trivia: 

  • Art Miles plays “Poe the Gorilla.”
  • There are several versions of this film:
    • The Gorilla (1927) starring Charles Murray, Fred Kelsey and Walter Pidgeon
    • The Gorilla (1930) starring Joe Frisco, Harry Gribbon and Walter Pidgeon
    • The Bat Whispers (1930) starring Chance Ward, Richard Tucker, Wilson Benge
    • Sh! The Octopus (1937) starring Hugh Herbert, Allen Jenkins and Marcia Ralston
  • Based on the 1925 play “The Gorilla.”
  • The original romantic lead was to be played by Kane Richmond and was replaced by Edward Norris.
  • Peter Lorre was originally supposed to play the role of the butler and was replaced by Bela Lugosi.

My review: Searching for the “1939 feature”:
At least “The Gorilla” (1939) is only an hour and six minutes long – that’s my main takeaway from this film.

For anyone who likes 1930s horror films like “The Bat,” “Dracula” or “The Son of Frankenstein,” this probably isn’t for you. “The Gorilla” is a mystery/horror film but is more along the lines of a Three Stooges comedy.

The “comedy” (if you want to call it that) is provided by Al Ritz, Harry Ritz and Jimmy Ritz, real-life siblings who were billed as “The Ritz Brothers.” Similar to other sibling comedy groups of the time, The Ritz Brothers’ style was zany, frantic and sometimes involved singing and dancing.

There’s no singing or dancing in “The Gorilla.” Here, the brothers are a detective agency hired by Lionel Atwill to protect his life from a murderous gorilla when he receives a threatening note.

To me, the Ritz Brothers are obnoxious. “The Gorilla” was great for the first 12 minutes until they showed up and then it was non-stop irritating goofiness for the remainder of the film. I’m sure there are Ritz Brothers fans out there (please tell me if you are and let me know what I’m missing), but even former Turner Classic Movies film historian Robert Osborne said he didn’t understand the appeal, and perhaps they were an “acquired taste.”

Unfortunately, the Ritz Brothers were not the only frantic and annoying characters. While I generally like Patsy Kelly, she was very annoying in “The Gorilla.” She didn’t really seem to have lines in the film – her cues were mostly screaming. And if she spoke, the lines were screamed. It was all out of fear but very obnoxious.

The comedic players were flanked with obligatory glamour. I watched this film for lovely actress Anita Louise, who plays the niece of Lionel Atwill. Atwill calls Louise when he realizes she’s in danger, and she brings her fiance, played by Edward Norris. Atwill and Louise don’t have very much screentime, but Louise also plays the “woman in danger” when the gorilla attacks and tries to kidnap her. She looks lovely, but if you’re a fan, don’t expect to see much of her.

Bela Lugosi plays the suspicious butler and probably has the juiciest role.

While I find the Ritz Brothers annoying, “The Gorilla” presented a turning point in their career. The trio started in Hollywood in 1936 with 20th Century Fox and flanked some of the studio’s top stars like Alice Faye and Sonja Henie. But by 1939, a dispute with 20th Century Fox made them end their relationship with the studio. The brothers’ father died, which delayed the film and caused them to be punished. After leaving the studio, the brothers only made four more films as a trio.

If you are curious about this film, but not sure you can handle the Ritz Brothers, remember it’s only an hour and six minutes. If you are a fan, then dive on in!

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1 thought on “Watching 1939: The Gorilla (1939)

  1. Great review! The only time I’ve ever found the Ritz Brothers tolerable was in On the Avenue,. Otherwise, completely obnoxious.


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