Gorilla at Large (1954)

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Circus movies were a big genre until fairly recently. The reasons are obvious. For big budgeted films, there’s the sheer spectacle; a generous array of oft dangerous performing animals, clowns, music, huge casts, the dismantling and rebuilding in each town they travel to, etc. For smaller budgeted films, there are the ready made exploitation elements, including dangerous acts that (at least in films) often go awry, and beautiful women in skimpy clothing. For any film, there are acts that can be filmed and inserted into the proceedings to pad out the running time.

This trend goes all the way back to the silent movie days, most notably in Lon Chaney’s He Who Gets Slapped (1924). The setting was soon familiar enough by 1939, moreover, to be spoofed by both W.C. Fields in You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man and the Marx Brothers’ At the Circus. Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis did the same in 1954’s 3 Ring Circus. Paul Reubens followed up Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure with the sadly less successful Big Top Pee-Wee (1988).

Nor did cartoons forgo the setting. 1932 saw Betty Boop as a lion tamer in Boop-Oop-a-Doop, and 1934 a heartbroken Popeye tracking down a straying Olive Oyl in the theatrical short The Man on the Flying Trapeze. Bugs Bunny tricked Yosemite Sam into jumping off a platform into a small pool of water about a hundred times in the hilarious High Diving Hare (1948). Woody Woodpecker starred in The Dizzy Acrobat in 1943. Most famously, Disney used the circus as the background for 1942’s full-length animated classic Dumbo.

1952 saw the genre’s high mark, with Cecil B. DeMille’s star-studded (Betty Hutton, Charlton Heston, James Stewart, etc.) and overstuffed melodrama The Greatest Show on Earth, a film that remains one of the worst films to ever win a Best Picture of the Year Academy Award. This is, as you’d expect from DeMille’s participation, the biggest of the circus extravaganzas, including even a full-scaled train wreck. They tried to turn it into a TV show in 1963, starring Jack Palance (!), but it bombed and was quickly cancelled.

A similar effort was 1959’s Irwin Allen-scripted The Big Circus, another spectacular starring Victor Mature, the inevitable Red Buttons, Vincent Price and Peter Lorre. Director Henry Hathaway and John Wayne, meanwhile, provided the big top feature Circus World in 1963.

As noted, smaller scale genre companies also liked the assets offered by a circus setting, which were augmented by the fact that circuses and carnivals until very recently maintained a reputation as being staffed by misfits at best and criminals at worse. And certainly any woman who worked in such a milieu could be safely suspected of having loose morals. So the opportunities for ‘sex’ and certainly violence were readily to hand.

Presumably because of this, a surprising number of murder thrillers were set at circuses. The most famous, of course, is Todd Browning’s Freaks (1932). Charlie Chan, meanwhile, sought a killer in 1936’s Charlie Chan at the Circus.

Circus thrillers were more prevalent, however—and certainly less ambitious—in the ’50s and ’60s. Perhaps the weirdest is Ring of Fear (1954), in which famed real life animal tamer Clyde Beatty calls in real life mystery writer Mickey Spillaine (both men play themselves) to solve a string of deaths at his circus.

Sleazier but more enjoyable was 1960’s Circus of Horrors, about a murderous plastic surgeon traveling across Europe as the owner of a big top troop. 1966, meanwhile, saw Circus of Fear. This was one of West Germany’s endless series of (supposed) Edgar Wallace adaptations, and starred Christopher Lee and, inevitably, Klaus Kinski.

The funniest murders-at-the-circus movie, however, is clearly Joan Crawford’s 1967 Berserk!, which opens with one of the most retarded death scenes I’ve ever witnessed. The plot basically revolves around every young stud slavering over the 60 year-old Crawford while a series of gory deaths follows the show. This camp classic is sadly is not yet available on DVD. However, if they can release Trog on disc, anything is possible. Even so, it’s strange that nearly all the more obscure movies I mentioned are available on DVD, and this one isn’t.

Fantasy films weren’t unaware of the darker possibilities of the circus, either. Hammer took a break from Dracula with the neat Vampire Circus. 1964 saw the fantasy epic The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao, starring Tony Randall in several roles, but also Ray Harryhausen’s special effects. Then there was 1983’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, a film that just misses being brilliant. Alejandro Jodorowsky, meanwhile, supplied the typically surreal Santa sangre in 1989.

That just scratches the surface of the circus movie, but should serve those wishing to seek out the genre’s more bizarre corners.



Here’s a clue: if the central attraction of your film is murderous gorilla, one moreover played by a guy in an ape suit, you aren’t going to fool anyone with a gaudily-lettered opening card proclaiming the feature a “PANORAMIC PRODUCTION,” even if you accompany the card with a blaring trumpet fanfare. (!!)


Meanwhile, the astute viewer, assuming he is also a buff of ’50s schlock, will immediately note the way the word “PANORAMIC” is designed so as to seemingly project out towards the viewer. And sure, Gorilla at Large was originally exhibited in 3-D. Hmm, guy in a gorilla costume in 3-D? OK, now I’m cutting that fanfare some slack.


My excitement grew when the acting credits began, led off by the film’s leads, actress Anne Bancroft (!) and, even more happily, perennial crap star Cameron Mitchell. Then follows the title, which also ‘projects’ outward, and is accompanied by enraged gorilla grunts. (!!!!) At this point I began to wonder if I was destined, at some future, to time travel journey back to 1956 and produce this film myself. (If not, I’d be satisfied to travel back in time to watch it in a theater.)

The rest of the cast, as indicated above, similarly raises eyebrows. Of the seven names that appear together in the subsequent card, we see Lee J. Cobb (!), Raymond Burr and Lee Marvin (!!!). Sadly, we don’t get to see the name of the film’s actual star, professional ape suit actor George Burrows. I hope it amused Burrows over his long life and career that so many eventually famous actors supported him in this picture.

The film proper opens in the circus,* specifically on a large and extremely cheesy promotional standee for the star attraction, Goliath the gorilla. “See Mlle. Laverne Flirt with Death!” it screams. I know props like this must have been destroyed or just tossed out once these quickie productions wrapped. It’s too bad, because you could make a nice buck on eBay with that sort of stuff today.

[*Actually, it’s more of a carnival, offering rides and various other attractions in place of a single performance show.]

Circus owner Cy Miller comes sauntering through the crowd, casting an eagle eye at things. Miller is played by Raymond Burr, and it should be noted that Burr was at this point of his career largely a (no pun intended) heavy. This was the natural result of his then stocky frame, booming voice, dark complexion and natural saturnine glower.

Hence typecasting would have alerted audiences that Miller was likely to prove a sinister character, or at best a disreputable one. Still, Miller clearly isn’t all bad. When his inevitable midget employee Slim (played by an uncredited by ever busy Billy Curtis) comes running up and asks for a “heater,” Miller indulgently hands over a cigar.

Miller next passes by the area containing Goliath’s show, which is being barkered by Joey Matthews, a literal all-American Joe. (It took me a good long while to figure out that Matthews was being played by Cameron Mitchell. I was thrown not only by his bland hero character, but by his dyed blond hair and muscular but trim figure, which would soon afterward become the beefier frame familiar to b-movie buffs.)

It’s a mark of how corny this movie is that Joey calls out his bombastic spiel while wearing a pith helmet and using a bamboo cane as a pointer. Even for a kid’s matinee feature in 1954 this would have been pretty old hat, although I doubt the tykes minded overmuch.

Meanwhile, Joey’s equally all-American girlfriend—cute, rather than especially pretty or beautiful—Audrey is working at the ticket booth. Miller strolls into the show area, pausing first to tell Joey to come see him when he’s done.

As the crowd filters in soon afterward, Joey stops by Audrey and hands over his pay packet. They’re getting married soon, and are saving to buy a home. I’m sure most modern viewers will be making that whip-cracking sound when Audrey says she’ll give him some eating money later. That’s somewhat out of context, of course. This film was made not that long after the end of World War II and the Great Depression, and fiscal discipline in a mate was a rather more admired trait back then. Certainly Ricky Ricardo would have approved of Audrey’s no nonsense attitude.

The film’s low budget is pretty apparent from the show set. There’s a bandstand area for maybe a hundred people, and, below and behind some not particularly secure-looking bars, a small jungle diorama. Miller is met by Owens, a slick-looking individual with a sharpster’s Budd Abbott mustache. He’s the circus’ publicity guy, and notes that they made all the local papers. He gloats over the coverage he got regarding the fearsome Goliath, and then makes his exit.

The show starts, and the familiar gorilla suit of professional gorilla actor George Barrows makes its appearance. Here he plays Goliath, who enters the scene to the cheerfully terrified gasps of the audience. He swings on a rope, one carefully designed to allow him near the bars but not get him actually over them. Needless to say, Goliath is shown swinging directly into the camera lens, which must have been a gloriously cheesy shot in 3-D. In fact, the effect is so good, they do it again. You certainly can’t say the filmmakers’ pretensions got away with them here.



Next Goliath climbs and shakes the shockingly flimsy bars, which again don’t look like they’d be terribly effective in real life. The audience screams and swoons and whatnot, and then, thwarted, a truculent Goliath returns to the stage area. Then a fanfare is heard, and we meet the circus’ star (human) attraction, trapeze artist Laverne (Anne Bancroft!), who is also Miller’s wife. Her act consists of executing several passes directly over the gorilla, with the kicker being a last pass where she lowers herself to just outside the enraged Goliath’s grasp.

Meanwhile, Joey has caught up with Miller. At first he’s worried that he’s being fired, but in fact, Miller is offering him a promotion. He’s to become part of a new act Laverne is whipping up. Miller tells him there’s a costume in his locker, and he should try it on and then come to the Millers’ bungalow later that evening. Joey is thrilled, especially by the increased salary he’ll be making.

Next we meet Kovacs, a big, menacing slob of a man and the one man who can control Goliath. (Kovacs is played by a guy who seems to looks just like William Petersen’s bigger but dumber brother, which makes his every appearance a bit weird.) He’s surly as hell, but with reason. Ah, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

Miller then strolls through the gaming booths, and we meet another of what is quite now obviously a parade of red herring murder suspects. While Joey and Audrey are both exaggeratedly middle class upright citizens, most of the people working at the circus are shady lowlifes. Again, this conforms to audience expectations of carny folks, and explains why so many thrillers were set in circuses.

The latest reprobate is Morse, who manages to be both lazy and mouthy. He’s supposed to be running a game booth, but is sitting on his duff and reading a magazine. Miller reads him the riot act. Morse gets back to work, but remains as sassy as ever, making with the intimations about Laverne.

Anyway, with the pump well primed with a handy selection of soon to be victims and suspects, we kind of spin our wheels establishing various plot threads until the first violent death. (Oops, sorry.)

Laverne spends a lot of looking at a mirror, so obviously she’s vain. (Although, to be fair, Bancroft was a pretty slinky number at the time.) The fact that it was her idea for Joey to become part of her act is also a signal, although Miller seems a bit slow on the uptake. Surprisingly so, as we’ll learn in a bit.

There’s a scratch at the door, and Miller calls for whoever it is to come in. He’s startled when he looks up and sees a ‘gorilla’ in front of him, but it’s only Joey in his new costume. “The costume does look quite real on you!” Laverne exclaims. Actually, it’s awful, not much better than you’d find in a Halloween costume shop. I can only assume they didn’t want one so good that it drew attention to the fact that Goliath is also, in real life, a guy in a suit. This is an instance of a costume possessing an Informed Attributeâ„¢, since in terms of the movie’s characters the suit is supposed to be sufficiently good to fool the eye between the wearer and Goliath.

This is either the 'real' gorilla or the 'fake' one.  I can't remember.

Miller takes his leave (chump) and leaves Laverne to fill Joey in on the new act. The idea, he learns, is to amp up her act with Goliath before it gets stale. Wait, so is this a traveling circus? I’m a bit confused here. Owens was lauding getting stories and pictures of Goliath in “all the papers,” which implies that they just hit town. However, why would the act get stale if they are traveling and performing for different people all the time?

In any case, the idea is that, while the audience’s attention is on Laverne’s spot lit trapeze act, Kovacs will call Goliath back down into his quarters under the jungle set. Joey in the suit will take his place. The act will end with Laverne ‘accidentally’ falling into his arms and then blacking out the whole show area, thus thrilling the audience who will believe she’s actually fallen into the grasp of the real, murderous Goliath. (Three guess where this eventually ends up.)

I have to say, Laverne has to outline the idea in excruciating detail before Joey ‘gets’ it. This is kind of funny, since we’ll soon learn that he and Audrey are only working at the circus over the summer to get enough money for him to go to law school. Anyhoo, this is all a pretext, anyway. Laverne in now confirmed to be man-hungry, as she implies that she’d like a, shall we say, close working relationship with Joey.

Joey’s a little slow on the uptake there, too. In fact, he’s frankly a bit of a moron. As they prepare to test whether he can lift her up over his head (this being the point the lights would go out), he’s surprised to feel how solid her muscles are. “You get that way if you’ve worked a trapeze act as long as I have,” she explains. “I guess so,” he replies. Yeah, who knew? What a dumbass.

Once he’s raised her in his arms, she gets all snuggly, and the alarm bells finally start dimly ringing. He tries to figure how to hold her up over his head, and she explains that he should think in terms of the judo training he got with the Marines.* “It’s practically the same principle,” she whispers as—that’s right—sultry sax music plays in the background. “Only I help you by leaning against you like this. It takes most of the weight off your arms.” Really? While he’s holding you over his head?

[*Nobody mentions it, but Mitchell was fifteen years older than Charlotte Austin, the woman playing Audrey. Born in 1918, he was actually in the Air Force prior to the outbreak of World War II. Joey, however, is presumably meant to be more Audrey’s age, and hence is supposedly a veteran of the then recent Korean War.]

We cut away to Miller, who is in the process of firing Morse. Morse implies that he knows where various bodies are buried, but Miller is having none of it. The scene ends with them, Laverne, Joey and Kovacs all in the area. Morse sneers and leaves, Kovacs grimaces and leaves, and Joey leaves no doubt with some relief at being able to flee from Laverne. For her part, Laverne warns Miller that Morse is a troublemaker. “Sometimes a man can be pushed just too far,” her husband snarls.

After closing that night, Joey is leaving the grounds. He stops by Audrey’s ticket booth first, however, to pick her up. He tells her about his new job, crowing about the extra fifty bucks a week he’ll be making. (Which, back in 1954, wasn’t a fortune, but represented a pretty decent buck.) She’s leerier, however, aware both of Laverne’s reputation and also concerned about Joey getting sucked into the circus life on a permanent basis.

He walks her back to the performance area to explain about the new act, and somehow doesn’t notice Morse’s mangled body impaled on the projecting spars adorning the bars surrounding Goliath’s stage area. (This, presumably, so his body would loom out at the audience in 3-D.) Audrey does, however, and they flee. Her screams, however, bring Kovacs up from the underground work area where Goliath’s cage is kept. Yeah, that must smell good.

Naturally the cops show up, with the investigation lead by Detective Garrison (Lee J. Cobb), who is accompanied by dim bulb comic relief beat cop Shaughnessy (Lee Marvin!!). Revered stage veteran Cobb does what he can with Garrison, which isn’t all that much, while Marvin is outright miscast as Shaughnessy. He would play a comical lunkhead to better effect opposite John Wayne in Donovan’s Reef (1963), but has more trouble hiding his natural intelligence here. Thankfully, at least, he doesn’t attempt the seemingly obligatory Irish brogue.

Despite the fact that Morse was found mangled in a gorilla containment area, Garrison seems interested in the fact that Joey is currently equipped with his own ape suit. This is a rather unconvincing element of the film, but the fact that Joey is supposedly under suspicion is what drives him to solve this and the other (oops, sorry) murders. Needless to say, one of the future victims is Somebody Who Knew Too Much, and is done in just before they planned to alert the police.

Anyhoo, the red herring swim in thick schools. For instance, we learn of Kovacs’ general gripe. He was himself once a star animal tamer, and moreover Laverne’s former husband. She left him for her aerialist co-star, Miller* (which according to the mores of the period, makes her a slut), which shattered his confidence. For his part, Miller retired after another aerialist died when Miller failed to catch him. When the circus they worked for went under, Miller bought out the owners and took over.

[*That’s right, they cast Raymond Burr as a former trapeze artist.]

Joey’s gorilla costume goes missing, but then reappears in his locker after another killing. People keep standing too close to Goliath’s cage, allowing the gorilla to thrust his paw threateningly out towards the audience. Garrison continues to suspect that Morse died at human hands, albeit without much clear reason, at least for a while.

Eventually it turns out that Morse had an ulcer and didn’t drink, meaning the empty gin bottle found by his body was a plant. I realize this is the pre-CSI era, but really, wouldn’t a lack of alcohol in his system have been ascertained by the autopsy? On the other hand, this is a police department that has severe problems locating a large gorilla shambling around the grounds and turning on rides in his wake.

Things go about as you’d expect. There are a few more deaths. Further bushels of dirty laundry are uncovered. Joey seeks the killer. Garrison basically sits back, makes the occasional mordant wisecrack, and waits for Joey to crack the case for him. Shaughnessy has various bits of painfully unfunny business. The comically bad gorilla suit continues to come into play, and even in 1954 must have inspired laughs with its threadbare appearance.

The highlight is probably a killing in the House of Mirrors, an amusingly goofball rip-off of famous climax of The Lady from Shanghai, but with Goliath in place of Orson Welles. And needless to say, Goliath also gets free at the end of the picture, captures a woman, and carries her to the top of the roller coaster tracks for a little (very little) King Kong action. Instead of biplanes they attempt to distract him with fireworks, which seems like a monumentally pointless idea on the filmmakers’ part, until you again consider that this was exhibited in 3-D, and the ‘gorilla’ standing starkly against the *ahem* sky as fireworks burst around him must have been a delirious vision in the theater.

I don’t want to blow the identity of the killer, whose identity is a bit of a stretch but not entirely outrageous or arbitrary. The film’s Whodunnit aspect isn’t executed in a much better fashion than its other elements. The evidence that finally reveals the killer’s identity is especially lame, particularly in that it’s hard to believe the police wouldn’t have found it. Still, the clues are pretty fairly laid out there for those keeping track. Otherwise, the film is pretty much only going to entertain fans of ’50s ‘everything but the kitchen sink’ schlock, gorilla movie buffs, and the presumably smaller number of circus movie aficionados.

To be fair, it’s not much of a ‘circus’ movie. The ape & trapeze act is the only thing that separates the show from a standard, albeit small-scale amusement park. Still, the colorful nature of the proceedings and the focus on the often morally-deprived staff reflect the bulk of circus movies of the time. And they do incorporate the attractions with predictable regularity, from the hall of mirrors to the roller coaster to a pretty neat looking submergible chamber / water attraction. In fact, much of the final third of the movie is an extended stroll through the park. After all, readily-available color is the entire point of setting a film in a circus or carnival.

In the end, Gorilla at Large has ample charms. And, like many films of similar vintage, it is greatly aided by a thrifty 82 minute running time. It’s nice that MGM had made this obscurity available in a nice, colorful letterboxed presentation, teamed on DVD with the far more boring Mystery on Monster Island. You could certainly do worse for ten bucks.

The world is a sadder place for the fact you don't see stuff like this in movies anymore.  And yes, I'm dead serious.

As noted, the film’s cast is eye-popping, and offer many great bits of trivia. In any one person did consummate work on Gorilla at Large, it was the casting directing.

I won’t bother going over Lee Marvin’s filmography. If you’re unaware of his work, you should rent a bunch of his movies before ever returning to any movie-related website. Start with Point Black, although I’m rather partial to The Emperor of the North. Bad movie fans, meanwhile, will definitely want to hunt down a copy of his laughably turgid civil rights drama The Klansman (which co-stars Cameron Mitchell), although Marvin leaves the bad acting duties to Richard Burton.

Speaking of, Cameron Mitchell is a great schlock movie icon. His movie career began with real promise, as when he starred opposite Marilyn Monroe in 1953’s How to Marry a Millionaire, and played the lead in the musical 1956’s Carousel. However, he soon started appearing in often hideous dreck, and has graced the pages at Jabootu many a time. His credits are too extensive to list, and can obviously be found at the IMDB for those interested. In the end, Mitchell remained busy as an actor, and eventually accumulated well over two hundred film and TV appearances.

Anne Bancroft played one of the seminal film roles ever, as the original MILF who seduced Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate. She won a Best Actress Oscar for 1963’s The Miracle Worker (playing Annie Sullivan opposite Patty Duke’s Helen Keller), and was nominated again for the award four further times. Ms. Bancroft also won two Tonys and an Emmy. Following a brief early marriage in the ’50s, she would marry Mel Brooks in 1964, and they remained wed until her death in 2005.

Lee J. Cobb was one of America’s great stage actors of the 20th Century. His most famous role was as Willy Loman in the original 1949 Broadway production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. (Oddly, Willy’s son Happy was played in the same production by the young Cameron Mitchell.) Although a veteran screen actor by that point, the play made Cobb a name. Moreover, the production was directed by Elia Kazan, who went on to cast Cobb in his classic movie On the Waterfront.

Cobb continued to work on the stage, and remained busy was well with film and TV appearances. He co-starred in several major ’50s social dramas, including 1956’s The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit and, in 1957, both The Three Faces of Eve and Henry Fonda’s screen adaptation of 12 Angry Men. After that he continued to appear in many films, although generally not such ‘important’ ones. To me, though, he’ll always be James Coburn’s long-suffering boss in the great spy flick Our Man Flint.

Raymond Burr, perhaps, went on to have the biggest career at all. As noted, he started by playing heavies, such as the creepy killer stalked by James Stewart—and vice versa—in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954, the same years as this). His cult star was assured, meanwhile, when he appeared in as reporter Steve Martin in the Americanized version of the original Godzilla movie, Godzilla King of the Monsters (1956).

However, his real immortality, of course, came from his TV work. He was cast as wily attorney Perry Mason in the TV show of that name, which ran from 1957 to 1966. After that, he took only a year off before becoming Ironside, another hit that itself ran for eight years. Unsurprisingly, many of the supporting cast of Gorilla at Large went on to do guest appearances on Burr’s shows.

In the latter part of his career, meanwhile, he went on to reprise his three most famous roles, appearing again as Steve Martin—first name unmentioned, for obvious reasons—in the American cut of Godzilla 1985; and appearing in the TV movie The Return of Ironside in 1993. However, as was the case during his prime, it was Perry Mason remained his best gig, as he went on to star in a long series of TV movies reprising the character.

Amusingly, Raymond Burr also starred in 1951’s The Bride of the Gorilla, playing a man who (maybe) actually turns into a killer gorilla. The film was scripted by Curt Siodmak, and represents the way he intended his script for Lon Chaney Jr.’s The Wolf Man to work. Siodmak wanted to leave it unclear in the end whether Chaney’s Lawrence Talbot actually became a werewolf. Universal Studios, however, obviously (and wisely, it must be said), opted for a more direct approach. Apparently this continued to rankle Siodmak, however, given the evidence here.

And if that weren’t weird enough, actress Charlotte Austin (Audrey) also starred in a film in which her character turned into a gorilla!! This was 1958’s The Bride and the Beast. This movie, moreover, was scripted by none other than Ed Wood Jr., and his well-known angora fetish gets a pretty good workout here. Ms. Austin’s film career was petering out by this point, however, and she retired soon after appearing in junk sci-fi movies like The Bride and the Beast, The Man Who Turned to Stone (1957), and Frankenstein 1970 (1958). One of her last gigs was a 1960 appearance on, that’s right, Perry Mason, while one of her earliest roles was a small part in Cameron Mitchell’s How to Marry a Millionaire (1953).

Warren Stevens, who briefly appears as “Joe,” a detective, went on to play the cerebral “Doc” in the 1956’s sci-fi classic Forbidden Planet. He appeared once on Perry Mason, and appeared four times on Ironside.

Billy Curtis was one of the busier short people actors of his time. He mostly played small roles (sorry); it’s actually kind of dispiriting to see how many times, especially early in his career, he was credited merely as “Midget.” On the other hand, it allowed viewers to fix who he was, so maybe he didn’t mind as much as we’d think. (Not to mention that people in that earlier age weren’t as hyper-sensitive to such stuff.)

One of Mr. Curtis’ most unusual roles was as the reduced alien in The Thing from Another World. In the end of the film, the towering monster is vaporized by electrical arcs, and goes from the economy-sized James Arness to the fun sized Curtis before ending up as a small pile of slag. Curtis also played miniature space aliens in various other works, including The Angry Red Planet, the serial Superman and the Mole-Men, and on an episode of the original Star Trek. He’s probably most famous as the Munchkin City Father in The Wizard of Oz. Modern viewers, however, are more likely to remember him as Clint Eastwood’s deputy in High Plains Drifter.

Meanwhile, there’s the film’s real star, George Barrows. Although Mr. Barrows didn’t have as extensive a history as a gorilla suit actor as, say, Charles Gemora or Ray “Crash” Corrigan, he did derive a number of jobs—and most of his fame—from his gorilla suit work. His first major such job was nothing less than the dual role of Ro-Man and the Great One in the all time classic Robot Monster (1953), which alone would have assured him a place in film history.

Working otherwise generally in bit parts, Barrows again plaid the hirsute trade here in Gorilla at Large. Then he played straight, albeit generally tiny, roles until again playing a gorilla in the 1963 remake of Black Zoo. Black Zoo was produced by Herman Cohen, who two years earlier had made the giant ape movie Konga. Although he isn’t credited as such on the IMDB, Barrows played this role, too. Certainly between that and Robot Monster he’s earned a bit of fame.

[In any case, Cohen, who specialized in cheesy and often sleazy horror films, also produced the insane and inane circus murder flick Berserk!, as well as the moronic missing link film Trog.]

He also played Monstro the Gorilla in 1966’s The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini, and Anatole the ape in Hillbillies in the Haunted House (1967), in which he appeared opposite such old time horror actors as John Carradine, Basil Rathbone and Lon Chaney Jr.

However, like many other bit actors, he got the bulk of his work in episodic TV appearances. He supplemented his regular parts by doing gorilla suit work on episodes of programs like The Addams Family, The Beverly Hillbillies (twice), The Lucy Show, The Jackie Gleason Show, The Man from UNCLE, The Wild Wild West and The Night Gallery. That last, in 1973, appears to have been his last gorilla suit job, probably because of his age at that point. Although, it must be said, the vogue for gorillas in movies and TV shows had pretty much gone by the boards, then. The Space Age, sadly, had little room for men like George Barrows. You are remembered, though.

Those interested in the topic of ape suit actors—and it is a pretty neat corner of cinema history—might want to check out this blog, or especially the terrific, feature-length documentary Hollywood Goes Ape!, just recently made available on DVD (along with a dinosaur movie doc) under the title Dinosaurs vs. Apes. The production values are less than lavish, but the documentary itself is top-notch. I’ve seldom seen such an obscure topic covered with such detail and affection. It’s certainly worth a Netflix rental, in any case.

The film includes a brief but nice discussion of Barrow’s gorilla suit work. It was from this that I ascertained that Barrows played Konga. (Although, at noted, his connect with Herman Cohen made that likely.) Especially noteworthy are some stills of Barrows in his suit mugging with the casts of the various TV shows he appeared on. In sitcoms his gorillas were often comically domesticated. He’s seen wielding an iron opposite Lurch from The Addams Family, and in an apron opposite Granny in The Beverly Hillbillies.

  • sardu

    Wait- it’s a traveling circus (carnival) and they have a roller coaster?? I’m in awe of the dedication there…

    BTW I love Cobb in the Flint movies too but I have a feeling the average modern movie viewer is always going to say “Hey, the guy from The Exorcist!” when they see him.

    Great review! I have to see it!

  • GalaxyJane

    I actually remember seeing this on TV growing up and in 3D no less. It was during the brief 3D revival in the early ’80s and at the time DC 20 was trying to establish itself outside the Washington area as one of those early cable “superstations” like WTBS or WGN. There was a huge ad campaign before they showed the movie and you could get the 3D glasses at your local 7-11. I had to watch it on the old TV in my parent’s bedroom because there was no way I could convince the whole family to give up an evening to a movie about a killer gorilla.

  • Ericb

    I love the trope of the bipedal gorilla carrying a woman around, especially considering that there’s no way physically a non-movie gorilla would be able to do it. I guess knuckle walking just isn’t frightening enough.

  • Zandor Vorkov

    This came on TV when I was a kid and there was a huge fuss over it. “GORILLA AT LARGE … AT LARGE … AT LARGE …” I already had a pair of 3D glasses that, I think, came with some Nintendo game or another. Unfortunately, they were red and blue and the movie was shown in red and GREEN. I don’t remember much about the movie, except that it hurt my eyes to watch, what with being red and green. Is it just me, or does the gorilla suit’s face not look much worse than the ’76 King Kong? I would go so far as to say it looks better than Toho’s unfortunate Kong suits …

  • Barrows indeed had a pretty good ape suit, and like a lot of ape suit actors, he constantly tinkered with it. I’m sure it’s the same body suit he used in Robot Monster.

    As for Toho’s Kong movies, the still cap of the other ape suit is far closer to the mark.

  • Roger Hylton

    I was curious to find out who played the white gorilla monster on Star Trek. I was pleased to discover that the equally prolific Janos Prohaska also played the childhood favorite “cookie bear” on the Andy Willliams show.

    Thank you internet gods for facts like that and Ken (^_^)

  • Sandra

    I don’t think the tv series based on Greatest Show On Earth “bombed and was quickly cancelled”. I remember it being on for at least a couple of years. OOps, betraying my age there. I was a small girl at the time, of course :-D

  • Andrew

    GalaxyJane I recall when DC20 had the 3d fetish as well. Though I recall going to the 7-11 to get glasses to watch Creature From the Black Lagoon.

    Since you dredged up all those WDCA memories, did you have a Captain 20 membership card? Mine was taped to the side of my black and white TV. (Of course, living between DC and Baltimore, I was torn between Captain 20 — doing his Star Trek shtick– and Captain Chesapeake on channel 45.)

  • BeckoningChasm

    “Mystery on Monster Island” boring? Yikes, more like excruciating. Someone stole the worst “Scooby Doo” script of all time and decided to change all the characters to avoid lawsuits (I’m speculating).

    I was entertained by “Gorilla at Large,” though. At least it was extremely colorful and had good production values.

  • Jack Spencer

    I started reading this, and then I realized that I OWN THIS MOVIE as it was part of a Midnite Movies boxed set I picked up a month ago, which included “Konga” another giant gorilla flick I had seen when I was a wee tyke and starring Michael Gough. Good Lord, was that man ever young?

    In any case, I think I’ll go see the movie first. :-)

  • turkish spock

    I, too, saw this on TV in one of those ‘pick up your free 3-D glasses at your local wherever’ deals. I loved it then, and I love it now. In fact, I don’t think there’s a horror movie with a circus setting that I don’t love.

  • James Lee

    “The film includes a brief but nice discussion of Barrow’s gorilla suit work. It was from this that I ascertained that Barrows played Konga.”

    Actually Barrows didn’t play Konga, but his costume was loaned to the film. Barrows was angry when he got it back because the British stuntman playing Konga had poked breathing holes in the suit, and had failed to groom the fur.

    Hope this helps!

  • GalaxyJane

    Andrew, I never had the Captain 20 membership card, but my younger sister might have. She was a faithful WOW fan. Being the older sib, I much preferred the Captain in his Count GoreDeVol persona, who may have even hosted this movie, but my adult memory tends to mix a lot of the childhood horror show bits up.

    Sadly, my den is decorated in movie posters AND my personally autographed Count GoreDeVol photo has pride of place!

    Living all the way down in Lynchburg, we only got the Captain on cable, so I don’t remember Captain Chesapeake at all.