Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla is a cheap and lazy starring vehicle for Martin and Lewis copycats Duke Mitchell (yes, the same Duke Mitchell who later went on to make Massacre Mafia Style) and Sammy Petrillo (yes, the same Sammy Petrillo who later went on to star in Doris Wishman’s Keyholes are for Peeping). And as you might guess from the title, Bela Lugosi shows up (though he barely seems cognisant of the fact) to earn himself a little more morphine money and does indeed encounter a gorilla from — but not in — Brooklyn. I’d been hearing for years how awful Brooklyn Gorilla was from people possessed of substantial strength when it comes to tackling the very worst cinema has to offer.
Despite my predilection for old timey things like Cole Porter, waistcoats, and Louise Brooks, my adoration for the people and things of yesteryear is not without its critical eye. Among the things that never clicked for me is a lot of old time comedy — which is no big surprise since most modern comedy doesn’t click with me either. For example, I can’t stand The Bowery Boys. And while I count Dean Martin as my favorite Rat Packer (even more so than Norman Fell, but maybe equal with Henry Silva), I absolutely cannot stand Martin and Lewis films because, cliche though it may be, I cannot stand Jerry Lewis. Loud, obnoxious, bleating comedy is something that just does not work for me, and if there is some sort of genius — or at least talent — buried beneath Jerry Lewis’ grating man-boy routine, I’m afraid I’ve not the strength to recognize it. Or so I thought until very recently. It turns out that the talents of Jerry Lewis become glaringly obvious when you are confronted with the odious sight of a much less talented comedian ripping off Lewis’ shtick. That less talented comedian was Borscht Belt B-lister Sammy Petrillo.
So it seemed that Brooklyn Gorilla, constructed as it was solely to sell me Sammy Petrillo, might indeed prove substantially more painful than Magic Lizard, which managed, yes, to be incredibly terrible, but also managed to be so weird that it was hard to totally hate it. How would Brooklyn Gorilla fare? There was only one way to find out. I went in, I admit, a bit cocky, and my swagger had to do with my philosophy regarding claims that this or that movie is one of the worst movies of all time. Because of that philosophy, which I shall explain momentarily, I was confident that — disregarding, for a moment, how awful either Magic Lizard or Brooklyn Gorilla may or may not be — it was unlikely that I would name either of them the worst movie I’ve ever seen, or even in the top ten worst I’ve ever seen. This is because I firmly believe that, even though every “worst movies of all time” list consists almost entirely of sci-fi and horror films, very few of those films actually deserve to be on such lists. It’s a lazy way out. If Robot Monster or Plan 9 From Outer Space is the worst film you’ve ever seen, you are not trying very hard. I maintain with great confidence that even the worst the worlds of sci-fi and fantasy has to offer pales in comparison to the worst that can be offered by comedy and drama. Sci-fi and fantasy can at least be entertaining in other ways even when they fail as representatives of their respective genres. But an unfunny comedy — man, there is nothing worse in all of film viewing than having to sit through an unfunny comedy. There is no other value, no other type of entertainment that can be extracted from such a film. Any true list of the worst films of all time wouldn’t touch on Plan 9 or Killers from Space or even Magic Lizard. It would be a list of a bunch of terrible comedies no one remembers.
What gives both Magic Lizard and Brooklyn Gorilla a fighting chance, at least, to make a list of worst films of all time is that they are first and foremost comedies despite containing elements of sci-fi and monster movies. As comedies, both of them are pretty much utterly and totally unfunny. If we’re making this a competition, Brooklyn Gorilla is even less funny (or more unfunny) than Magic Lizard (though to put it in perspective, What Happens in Vegas is more unfunny than both, and it doesn’t have a trilling lizard or a gorilla in it). Also, Magic Lizard starts with a lizard roller skating and zip lining around Thailand, where as Brooklyn Gorilla begins with the inhuman braying of Sammy Petrillo. So in pretty much all cases, advantage Magic Lizard. So being unfunny comedies makes both movies viable contenders for a “worst of” list. The question, then, is would Brooklyn Gorilla layer on enough other weird stuff to make it entertaining, even if inadvertently so? How many bad gorilla suits, in other words, does it take to compensate for Sammy Petrillo’s relentless braying?
Anyway, said braying is happening because Sammy Petrillo (playing Sammy Petrillo) and Duke Mitchell (playing Duke Mitchell) have crash landed on a typical 1950s Polynesian island full of well-meaning witch doctors and local chieftains. They are adopted into a local tribe by Princess Nona (Charlita), despite the fact that the instant Sammy wakes up he starts whining and shouting and screaming in a loud nasally man-boy voice. I’m pretty sure that if that happens, international treaties agree that it’s OK to boil that person and eat them. But Nona is Caucasian and thus more cultured than her Polynesian brethren, as was the trend for the day, and so the stranded entertainers become honored guests when they should, by all rights, have been skinned alive and turned into shrunken heads. No court would ever convict the witch doctor who did that.
Jerry, err, Sammy is anxious to get back to civilization, especially once he becomes the object of affection for Princess Nona’s portly sister (who’s name sounds like Salami — and that’s as good as the jokes get, people), but Duke is content to hang out with his pants hiked up to his armpits and his Aloha shirt inexplicably knotted up halter top style the way Daisy Duke used to wear her shirts. I guess it’s just something Dukes do. At least he isn’t following her lead on shorts. Anyway, to pass the time, Duke will bust out in a garbled song that sounds sort of like a bad Elvis impersonator trying to imitate Elvis imitating Dean Martin. Eventually Sammy squeals and honks so much that they make a token effort to get off the island, which involves visiting the local mad scientist Dr. Zabor (Bela Lugosi, naturally), where Nona moonlights as a lab assistant. This means not only is Bela Lugosi finally in this movie, but so is its other big star: Ramona the chimp, better known as Cheetah the chimp from the Tarzan movies. Cheetah was apparently kicking it in a performing chimp retirement community until someone noticed she was still under contract or something.
Not surprisingly, Bela is up to mysterious things, most of which involve puttering around a lab talking about evolution experiments. Mostly though, he’s just in it to bag Princess Nona despite the age difference and the fact that she thinks of him as a kindly grandfather. When Bela senses that beefy Duke Mitchell is spoiling his chances with the young princess, the dastardly octogenarian mad scientists schemes to swap Duke into the body of a gorilla. Hijinks ensue, if you define hijinks and groaning, yawning, and begging for Sammy Petrillo to shut the fuck up. Even with the brief running time of a standard Poverty Row production, Brooklyn Gorilla seems to go on forever and with no purpose at all. Sammy flops around in an oversized Kentucky Colonel outfit and makes references to vampires. Sammy makes fat jokes about Nona’s sister. Sammy hugs a chimp. Duke sings and continues to insist that the high pants and impromptu floral halter top is a good look for men. And then it gets worse.
There’s a lot to address here, so I’m going to start small and end with the point at which the movie really sticks the knife in and twists it. Up until that point, this had been merely a miserable experience, salved considerably by my preparation for the pain. But at that point, which we shall get to soon enough, this movie is suddenly catapulted from the realm of harmlessly terrible into the great black beyond of my hatred. But let’s harness ourselves a bit, pull back, and start with the innocent hilarity of a time when America thought nothing was more terrifying than a gorilla. That truly was a belle epoque, when the rest of the Little Rascals would make Buckwheat’s hair stand on end by tricking him into thinking he was being menaced by a gorilla (and which would inevitably lead to an actual gorilla getting loose, and also somehow some bank robbers would get foiled) and every midway spookhouse’s big finish was (and often still is) a ratty animatronic gorilla jerking back and forth. My favorite thing about these fright gorillas was probably how little they looked like gorillas. I know back in the day, it was rarer considerably to see an actual gorilla than it is today, but even so you’d think that someone charged with making a gorilla outfit for a horror experience revolving entirely around said gorilla would at least take the time to look up a picture of a gorilla at the local library.
The gorilla in Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla is better than some but still looks nothing like a gorilla. They usually get the hulking body more or less correct in shape, but that’s where scientifica accuracy ends — and I demand nothing if not scientific accuracy from a movie in which a halter-topped Dean Martin wannabe has his brain transferred into a gorilla’s body by Dracula. Like most old ape outfits, this one boasts long luxurious hair, a face that looks nothing like a gorilla’s, and of course a flame-shaped new wave spike that looks like something between Sting and maybe one of David Bowie’s lesser grooming experiments. Duke Mitchell before he was turned into a gorilla looked more like an actual gorilla and probably had a little bit more body hair. I’m guessing that movies like this helped to finally kill off being terrified by gorillas, but when it was still a thing, what a glorious thing it was.
Speaking of gorillas, does anyone remember the big brouhaha back in… it probably would have been the very early 1980s, when the broadcast of a 3D movie on television was a huge deal? It was like some crazy national event. I remember two movies being shown: one was The Creature from the Black Lagoon, the other was 1954’s Gorilla at Large, perhaps the pinnacle of post-King Kong “ape on a rampage” movies. You had to go down to a local official 3D glasses acquisition spot to get your specs — ours was the local Convenient Food Mart, which my friend Rowman and I (speaking of apes, we had a good laugh over Rowman’s name when we watched Robot Monster) rode to on our bikes with near uncontainable excitement as soon as we saw the first commercial. Pretty sure I had a sleep-over for the event as well. Needless to say, the 3D was crap, and Gorilla At Large wasn’t exactly the most terrifying movie of all time, but we had a blast sitting in the basement and gorging ourselves on frozen pizza while hooting at the screen. Probably my all-time favorite great ape experience, even edging out the masturbating orangutan at the Louisville Zoo.
I’d rather watch some goofy fake gorilla cavort around for hours on end than spend more than a second or two in the presence of a Sammy Petrillo act. The guy was just grating in a way that can hardly be communicated or comprehended until you’ve forced yourself to witness it first hand — which you should never do. He is the odious comic relief nuclear option, and the only thing that kept me from gnawing out my own eyes (yes, it’s possible… if it means escaping Sammy Petrillo) is remembering old interviews I’d watched with him where he seemed a generally decent guy — or at least an entertaining interview. I suppose if I was a young kid looking to make it in show business, and some slick huckster told me I looked like Jerry Lewis so ought to imitate him — only more so — then I might have been dumb enough to do what I was told. That doesn’t make it any more tolerable a viewing experience.
Sammy’s partner Duke Mitchell, in the role of the straight man, is considerably less offensive — until, that is, he knots up his floral print shirt. Both Petrillo and Mitchell had what I would consider interesting careers after they hung up the Martin and Lewis shtick. Petrillo went on to get sort of skeevy looking with stringy long hair, and he appeared in Doris Wishman’s sex film Keyholes are for Peeping. Interviews I’ve seen with him regarding that particular phase of his career are pretty hilarious and good-humored, and justa bout anyone who ever worked with Doris Wishman seems to have come out of it with some funny stories. Petrillo’s entire life is textbook low-end show-biz, including growing up in a vaudeville family that worked the Catskills Mountain circuit back when that was a thing. He grew up in The Bronx and attended the High School of Performing Arts — better known these days as “the Fame school.” It was apparently while attending classes there that young Petrillo popped next door to the vocational annex to get a free haircut and ended up with a student barber who commented on how much Petrillo looked like Jerry Lewis — especially with the new haircut. So Sammy decided to run with that, which led to a meeting with Milton Berle and eventually a meeting with Lewis himself.
Jerry signed his young doppleganger to a contract and used Petrillo in a couple acts, but only sparingly. It seems like he signed Petrillo less to exploit his talent and more to just make sure there wasn’t a fake Jerry Lewis pratfalling around Catskills resorts. Petrillo’s father eventually got him released from the contract, and Sammy began working more consistently in the usual variety show nightclubs: New York, Vegas, Palm Springs, those sorts of places. He eventually teamed up with aspiring lounge singer Duke Mitchell, and the two started an act in which they would imitate a number of famous performers — sort of a musical comedy cover band. Needless to say, Martin and Lewis were among the acts Petrillo and Mitchell imitated — though for a laugh it was often Mitchell doing Lewis and Petrillo doing Martin, which sounds like it might have almost been funny.
The act was popular enough that producer Jack Broder cast the duo in the cheap, lazy Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla. Not surprisingly Brooklyn Gorilla didn’t spark a Martin and Lewis-esque film career for the duo, so they went back to nightclub work. By now, though, they were successful enough in a bush league sort of way that Jerry Lewis decided to put an end to things. He intimidated nightclubs that might book Petrillo and Mitchell, threatening them with boycott. Lewis even got the duo kicked off a comedy show hosted by Abbot and Costello — though in class form, Lou Costello still paid them. He even filed a lawsuit against Petrillo, though the suit was later dropped. Still, with gigs harder and harder to come by, Petrillo and Mitchell called it a day.
Sammy went into television and movie production, and like a lot of former vaudeville and variety show comedians he did occasional work in “nudie cuties,” the silly cheesecake tease films that were the low-budget cinematic version of old burlesque shows. The role of the comedian in these films was almost always to make silly faces while he pretended to look through a window/keyhole/magic portal (they were pretty weird sometimes) at a striptease that was probably filmed at an entirely different time and place. It was through his involvement with those movies that he was introduced to one of the legends of the exploitation film industry, Doris Wishman. Wishman was basically just this mid-century housewife type who got interested in making movies. She was an integral part of the 50s/60s Florida exploitation movie machine that boasted such grindhouse luminaries as David F. Friedman (pretty much everything ever), Hershel Gordon Lewis (Blood Feast, Two Thousand Maniacs), William Grefe (Sting of Death, Death Curse of Tartu), and Barry Mahon (Pagan Island, The Beast that Killed Women).
Despite being by all accounts somewhat demure on the subject of sex, Wishman directed some “classic” nudie cuties, including Blaze Starr Goes Nudist, Diary of a Nudist, Hideout in the Sun, and the legendary Nude on the Moon. As the nudie cutie gave way to the sweatier, greasier, meaner “roughie,” Wishman made the transition as well, and it was during this phase of her career that she and Sammy Petrillo were introduced. She pitched Sammy a two picture deal, with him agreeing to appear in Keyholes are for Peeping in exchange for a second film with better funding and less seedy subject matter. The second film never materialized. Wishman went on to follow up Keyholes with one of her most famous films, Deadly Weapons starring Chesty Morgan, and Sammy was left with a pretty hilarious entry in his filmography with Keyholes. He soon returned to production and live performances, teaming up from time to time with everyone from Tiny Tim to Grampa Munster Al Lewis. In fact, Petrillo even wrote a treatment for a TV show called My Daddy Was a Monster — which became The Munsters. In the latter half of the 1970s, Petrillo’s work in film production brought him into contact with a film maker looking to distribute an independent feature film. The film was Massacre Mafia Style, and the film maker was Duke Mitchell.
After the duo broke up, Mitchell continued to work the nightclub circuit, doing a bit of film work on the side and even providing the singing voice for Fred Flintstone in a few episode of The Flintstones cartoon. The two had a chance to do their own series but turned it down, a decision both of them later regretted. It turned out the series was being offered to them by Dean Martin. Apparently, Dean wasn’t as offended by Duke Mitchell’s imitation of him as Jerry Lewis was of Sammy’s, and Dean-o thought the act was actually pretty funny. As the variety act thing began to wane in the 1970s, Duke Mitchell decided to try his hand at film making. His first film, Gone with the Pope, was never finished, though in 2011 the existing footage was finally found and edited into a complete version. The result of Mitchell’s second attempt at film making was Massacre Mafia Style, known alternately as The Executioner and Like Father, Like Son. It is an absolutely warped, lunatic mob movie featuring possibly one of the best scenes in film as Mitchell and his Kenny Rodgers looking co-star storm a building and gun down dozens of people.
It was while trying to sell Massacre Mafia Style that Mitchell once again met up with his old buddy Sammy Petrillo. The two had parted on friendly terms, and by all accounts, Petrillo worked hard trying to find a release for his old partner’s film. It didn’t work out unfortunately, and Massacre Mafia Style languished in obscurity and direct to video releases until the late 1990s when it was rediscovered and championed by a new generation of cult film fans. Mitchell, unfortunately, didn’t live to see his mad vision of Mafia life embraced by fans. In 1981, he passed away at the age of 55 after a battle with lung cancer. Petrillo, who in his later years owned a comedy club, also succumb to cancer in 2009 at the age of 74.
If someone made a movie about the careers of Sammy Petrillo and Duke Mitchell, I would watch it. I love their story, and it’s hard not to come out of researching them without a fondness for Petrillo in particular. He seems every inch the decent, warm guy, well aware of and perfectly content with his lot in life.”Whether you perform for a hundred thousand people or for two people,” he once said in an interview, “to make them happy and to be able to lift them into another world momentarily — that’s a form of success.” Which is awesome, and which makes me hate Brooklyn Gorilla even more. Because it’s just so, so unwatchably terrible. Petrillo doesn’t deserve to be hated for his performance in it, but it’s impossible not to hate Petrillo for his performance in it.
The film materialized because producer Jack Broder had seen the Petrillo and MItchell act at some dinky comedy club after their promoter, Maurice Duke, pitched the duo to Broder. Broder was looking to make a low budget quickie anyway. So he went to see the act, as did his long-time junior and friend Herman Cohen. Cohen thought the act stunk. Broder loved it. According to Petrillo, the movie actually got made because producer Jack Broder wanted to cash in on the threat of a lawsuit from Jerry Lewis and Paramount Pictures. If Broder had a film scheduled for production, and that film got quashed because Jerry Lewis won his case against Sammy Petrillo, then Paramount would have to compensate Broder for the loss of the film. Unfortunately, the suit was dropped, and Broder had to pull the trigger on making the film.
Somehow, they roped Bela Lugosi into the thing. They hired William Beaudine — who had been working in film almost since its inception — to direct. Beaudine was an old hand and cheap, crappy films and had direct experience in the type of movie he’d be making. He worked with The Bowery Boys at legendary Poverty Row production house Monogram, and he turned Bela Lugosi into an ape in The Ape Man. “Jack, this is the director for this movie,” Herman Cohen once said. “He knows comedy, he knows crap.” By all accounts, the film — made in just seven days for around $100,000 ($95,000 too much if you ask me) — was a lot of fun to make. The crew was mostly solid old-timers who knew the film business inside and out. Petrillo and Mitchell were willing students in the game and easy to get along with. Bela had trouble with lines and was deep into his morphine addiction, but as long as you didn’t mention Boris Karloff, he was a proper gentleman. Herman Cohen thought the film was terrible, and though he liked Sammy and Duke personally, he still thought their act was dreadful. So dreadful, in fact, that he had his name removed and donated the producer credit to Maurice Duke.
The script was dashed off by actor-writer Tim Ryan, and if anyone is as complicit as Sammy Petrillo in making Brooklyn Gorilla unwatchable, it’s Ryan. In fact, I’d even say that Ryan is the primary reason I hate the movie with such a burning passion. Because he trots out the “it was all a dream” ending. And he does it horribly. I mean, even more horribly than it is usually done, and usually the best “it was all a dream” endings can hope for is to be awful. Brooklyn Gorilla wraps up with a slapstick jungle chase between Sammy and Duke-as-Gorilla and a murderous Bela Lugosi armed with an elephant gun. The end of this movie is simple. You either have Bela realize true love conquers all and relinquish his jealous claim on the Princess, leading to a happy ending and a song by Duke Mitchell, or you throw in a scene where Duke gets turned human and the treacherous Bela Lugosi gets turned into an ape — most likely then pursued in comical fashion by the amorous gorilla that appears earlier in the film. And then Duke Mitchell sings.
Easy, right? No, of course not. Instead, Bela guns down Sammy Petrillo — which, given how utterly annoying Sammy was through the entire thing, makes Bela the de facto hero. Everyone gathers mournfully around the dying Sammy… who then wakes up backstage at a Petrillo and Mitchell performance. It was all a dream! You just wasted your time on a terrible movie that it turns out even the movie denies happened. And that was the trigger. That was the point that overrode everything else — and everything else had already been boring and irksome — and truly made this film wretched in every way for me.
So, just how wretched? Does it deserve to top a “worst of all time” list? Yeah, it probably does. Like I said, I went in prepared, and with the film being something of a running in-joke it made it pretty easy to get through. Also, I only sort of half-assedly paid attention to it. And I would have said that yeah, it deserves to be on any well-researched worst-of list, but not at the top. And then came the “it was all a dream” ending, and that rockets Brooklyn Gorilla if not to the top, then certainly up into the rarefied airs of dreadful movies. It’s certainly worse than Magic Lizard, but I still like it more than What Happens in Vegas and Mission: Impossible 2. Under no circumstances would I suggest watching this film to anyone. It’s basically totally devoid of entertainment value, and Sammy Petrillo — good guy though he may have been — is a nightmare. If they hadn’t roped Bela Lugosi into the production, this movie would be almost entirely forgotten, and rightfully so. Your time would be better spent doing, well, pretty much anything else.
Like writing a screenplay for Magic Lizard Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla. Dear god…
Release Year: 1952 | Country: United States | Starring: Bela Lugosi, Duke Mitchell, Sammy Petrillo, Charlita, Muriel Landers, Al Kikume, Mickey Simpson, Milton Newberger, Martin Garralaga, Steve Calvert, Ray Corrigan, Billy Wilkerson | Screenplay: Tim Ryan | Director: William Beaudine | Cinematography: Charles Van Enger | Music: Richard Hazard