Felix In Hollywood

A Blog for the Smart Set

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Well He'll Be A Monkey's Uncle.

Last week while I was researching the post I did on the phony-doc "Ingagi", I discovered, once again, there is a website for everything.

I had mentioned, rather in passing, that the ferocious gorilla was really a guy in an ape suit.  Well it turns out that there is more than one website and a lot more than just a few fans dedicated to gorilla-suit-performances and the performers who performed them!  And I think I can safely say after reading up on it, that the undisputed King of The Gorilla Men is Mr. Charles Gemora.

Born the youngest of 18 children on the island of Negros, Philippines in 1903, young Carlos Cruz Gemora ran away while still in his teens to Manila.  An adept artist, he delighted many of the American Military personnel with his portrait drawing.  He even charmed a group of Yankee sailors into stowing away on their vessel and being smuggled into the good ol' USA at the Port of Long Beach.  Washing milk bottles at a dairy, the new American swapped his name Carlos for Charlie.

Charlie took to hanging out in front of the Universal Studios hoping to get some extra work in pictures, and since portrait drawing had gotten him noticed once before, he thought the magic would work again here.  It did.  He was brought on to the Art Department at Universal and put to work sculpting.

The extraordinary facade in 1923's "The Hunchback Of Notre Dame" is Charlie's work.

He was entrusted as the Set Designer on Lon Chaney's "Phantom Of The Opera"

Through his association and apprenticeship with Chaney he became adept at make-up.  Particularly of the character, trick and special effects variety.  He also designed several sets for his friend Doug Fairbanks, Sr.

It was finally in the late 20's that he began the segment of his career that he is most remembered for today:  designing, building and inhabiting gorilla suits.  His first suits and performances were, while rudimentary to what they would ultimately become, far better than any that had existed up to that point.  His drive to perfection was unabated.  He (and later his daughter, Diana) would hand crochet a combination of human and yak hair into the suits.  This mingling of straight and very curly hair gave him the natural matted appearance he was after.  So far as acting, Gemora spent untold hours and days in observation of the movements and behaviors of gorillas at the San Diego Zoo which was the only place in the whole southwestern region to see a gorilla at that time.

Above are two shots from "Seven Footprints To Satan", starring Thelma Todd.  1929

In addition to the scary stuff (The Unholy Three (1930), Murders In The Rue Morgue, Island Of Lost Souls) , with his masterful comic timing, Gemora played opposite such legends of laffs as, Laurel and Hardy (The Chimp and Swiss Miss), The Li'l Rascals (Bear Shooters), Thelma Todd and Zasu Pitts (Bum Voyage), The Marx Brothers (At The Circus), Hope and Crosby (Road To Zanzibar, Road To Utopia) and Abbott and Costello (Africa Screams).

Charlie's personal favorite was Paramount's 1941 "The Monster And The Girl".

His Gorilla character has been transplanted with a human brain.  Phillip Terry's
(the 3rd Mr. Joan Crawford) brain as a matter of fact!  This enabled Gemora to add more layers to his characterization.

Above I referred to his gorilla man work as a 'segment' of his career.  You see, Charlie Gemora did much more than just monkey around.  Starting in the mid 30s, he was also part of the Paramount Pictures make up department and remained there until his death in 1961 when he was working with Brando on "One-Eyed Jacks".

His daughter Diana tells a remarkable story about the making and shooting of the Martian costume in "War Of The Worlds" (1953).  Charlie had finished the costume the day before it was supposed to shoot.  That afternoon, the Art Director came in and decided it was all wrong, and it was much too large for his set.  It was now about 16 hours away from the suit having to 'work'.  Charlie raced home, grabbed a bite to eat and his trusty assistant Diana (then in her early teens) and together they pulled an all nighter basically doing a complete rebuild of the thing.  At eight the next morning, the latex was not cured, the paint was not dry, but the apparatus was gingerly transported to the set.  Charlie shrunk his already diminutive 5'4" frame into the costume, and Diana (still wearing the curlers in her hair that she had when her dad picked her up the afternoon before) wedged herself under the 2 foot crawl space below the set to work the controls that would breath air in and out of the Martians veins.  And the rest was 15 seconds of on screen cinematic history!

Making the kind of money that he did, he bought a large piece of hilltop land with a house overlooking Hollywood and Vine in the 30s.  As he needed to finance is extra curricular activities, he would sell of parcel after parcel of his land.

About those extra curricular activities.  He was a gambler (any thing you could make book on: poker, the ponies, the fights, wrestling) an entrepreneur and a film maker.  After WWII in addition to opening a chain of Orange Julius' back in the Philippines, he opened a slew of theaters and drive-ins there too.  In order to provide pertinent content to those theaters, he brought Filipino actors  to Hollywood and wrote and shot 16mm color feature movies.

It is also said that he invented a number of things which he never bothered to patent or take credit for.  He didn't care about the recognition; he just wanted to do his thing.  Among the list of inventions are:


Lipstick in a tube

Shower Water Deflector

First Kleenex Box

Non-staining Movie Blood

Non-staining Ink

Color additive for cement  to make it look like stone


Camphor tubes used to make actors cry

Helped in the homogenizing of make-up

New ways of using latex, innovating prosthetics for surgeons after the Second World War for lost limbs.

Without the patents it is, of course, impossible to substantiate, but even if he only invented one of them, it's quite an accomplishment -- and I hope it was falsies!

With all that I learned while doing the research on him, (and I forgot to mention that he was a happy, impish, delightful man; loved by all who met him) I can't be faulted for thinking that Charlie Gemora may just be the most multi-talented guy ever to have hit Hollywood.


normadesmond said...

such a magilla!

kabuki zero said...

Let's not even pretend that you were not born to wear one of those costumes. kabuki cannot wait until the next 'dress up' party. You could even be 'gorilla my dreams'. Sorry, it needed to be said, and we all know kabuki will put it out there.

Stephen said...

There is somethibg arousing about a man in a gorilla suit...
lets not forget the gorilla in Caberet!

JANN said...

A really interesting post on this man. YOU did a superb job on posting this, grrrrrrrrrrrrrrreat images.
Very talented artist Charlie was.

Ask the Cool Cookie said...

Love it, love it, love it!

ayeM8y said...

I agree, what a fantastic story and a superb job relating it to us. I love stories like these. So more stories like these please! I can only imagine the spark of interest and research involved to dig up stuff like this so get crackin’.

I wonder if he made the gorilla costume Marlene wore in Blue Angel?