Tuesday 21 October 2014

Bride of the Gorilla [1951]

BRIDE OF THE GORILLA is horror / mystery film that was written and directed by Curt Siodmak and originally released in October 1951.  It stars Raymond Burr, Lon Chaney Jr, Barbara Payton and Tom Conway.  Set in the South American jungle it recounts how the foreman at a plantation lusts after the owner's wife and, after killing him, is cursed by a native.

This film has a pretty low reputation and is usually cited as an example of how far Barbara Payton's career had sunk so quickly after its peak only two years before.  With such a terrible, Ed Wood-esque title you might at first blush be inclined to agree.  But while it's undeniable that the film is very much a B-picture, if that, and does feature a man in a gorilla suit I reckon there is a little more to it than first meets the eye.

Barney Chavez catches a glimpse of his true self in a mirror
First of all the title.  During production the film had a working title of 'The Face in the Water' which is both less lurid and more accurate than the title it ended up with.  I can only assume that producer Jack Broder had the final say, being the man who also gave the world BELA LUGOSI MEETS A BROOKLYN GORILLA [1952] and THE NAVY VS THE NIGHT MONSTERS [1966].

Secondly, Curt Siodmak was no hack.  Although he only directed a handful of pictures he was much more prolific as a screenwriter.  It's fair to say there was some crud on his CV, especially toward the end of his career, but this was the man behind the original Universal production of THE WOLF MAN [1941] and Jacques Tourneur's superb I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE [1943].  So I thjink we can give Siodmak the benefit of the doubt in the sense that the film he started out making is not the film that eventually pitched up in cinemas.

The film starts with the decayed, abandoned plntation house slowly being reclaimed by the jungle.
Thirdly, while Lon Chaney Jr and Tom Conway were past their peak as stars, Raymond Burr was a reasonably talented young actor still making his way in movies and Barbara Payton was fresh from co-starring with Gregory Peck in ONLY THE VALIANT, released six months earlier.  So this was no collection of duffers and no-hopers.  Indeed, the iconic African-American actor Woody Strode also appears albeit in a bit part.

The great Woody Strode as Nedo.
So, you might ask, how is it that the film is regarded as a turkey, that is if it is remembered at all?  I often think it's something of a cop out to blame studio interference but in this case there may be some substance to that claim.  There was evidently a disconnect between the film that Siodmak had in mind and that which Broder wanted to shove out into theatres.  There are strong hints of the exotic, even dreamlike atmosphere of I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE; the films even share the same isolated plantation setting, hemmed in on all sides by impenetrable jungle and native superstition.

Like that film, BRIDE... isn't really a full on horror movie at all; it's just as possible to describe both of them as gothic romances in the "Jane Eyre" vein.  Certainly as much screen time is given to the tangled relationships between Burr, Payton, Conway and plantation owner Paul Cavanagh as it is to the doings of the titular gorilla.  Indeed, said beast never actually kills anyone.

Three stills of Mrs Van Gelder's relationships: with Dr Viet...

...with Barney Chavez...

...and last, and probably least, with Mr Van Gelder.
Equally, Siodmak seems more interested in the psychology of Burr's transformation than he is in its physical appearance.  In fact there are strong suggestions that it may all be in Burr's mind, such as when he glimpses a gorilla's face when staring into the river (hence the film's working title).  Without wanting to get too wanky about it, I guess Siodmak is really trying to tell us about the metaphorical beast within, in the same way as Zola does in "La bete humaine" (which, incidentally, was adapted as HUMAN DESIRE [1954] by Fritz Lang, in whose METROPOLIS [1927] Curt Siodmak made his first and only screen appearance as an extra).

Chavez again sees a reflection of the beast inside.
I'm certainly not claiming that BRIDE OF THE GORILLA is a lost gem but I am certainly attempting a certain degree of rehabilitation on its behalf because I think it's better than its current reputation would suggest.  With a more understanding producer - like Val Lewton - the elements were certainly there for it to have become a minor classic.

Raymond Burr as Barney Chavez
Raymond Burr was, on the basis of a couple of his early roles that I have seen, a talented, physical actor who unfortunately came to prominence at the same time as TV and got rather bogged down in that medium when he might have had a good movie career.  Still, he will at least always be remembered for his work, unlike the ill-fated Barbara Payton.  In possibly Hollywood's most extreme case of riches to rags, Payton went - within about 10 years - from A-list pictures to alcoholism, prostitution and death.  I am currently reading an excellent biography of her by John O'Dowd and may treat myself to a Payton mini-festival thereafter; stay tuned for more.

The tragic Barbara Payton as Dina Van Gelder
Tom Conway is another who met an untimely end.  The fact that he is perhaps best known for being George Sanders' brother kind of sums up his career: always the bridesmaid, never the bride.  Indeed, the other thing he is most remembered for is playing gentleman detective The Falcon in a long series of B-pictures from RKO in the 1940s.  But even that was a role in herited from his brother, after George quit in search of bigger and better parts.  As Hollywood moved into the 1950s those programmers began to die out and with them went regular work for a good number of actors (and technicians, lest we forget).  Conway continued to make sporadic appearances in pretty cruddy movies but struggled with alcoholism and, in much the same way as Veronica Lake, was by the mid-60s reduced to living in a hostel.  He died in 1967 of cirrhosis.

Tom Conway as Dr Viet
Like Conway, Lon Chaney Jr was destined to live and work in the shadow of a more illustrious relative.  That's not to say he was unsuccessful - after all he played one of cinema's most iconic monsters in the aforementioned THE WOLF MAN - but his career straddled periods when horror films were, to put it mildly, not treated with a great deal of respect.  Much as John Carradine did, Chaney ended up appearing in a good many films that perhaps had circumstances been different he would have avoided.

Lon Chaney Jr as Police Commissioner Taro

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