Who are the Gorilla Men? Better yet, what the blue blazes is a Gorilla Man anyways?
First things first – my curiosity about these unique practitioners of a highly specialized craft was borne out of love for comic books. I am a lifetime on again, off again collector and even had the great pleasure of working behind the counter of a local shop. Like any medium, comics have evolved since the popular explosion in their most recognizable form in the 1930’s. Beside the obvious shifts in how they have been produced and presented, likewise, comic book themes and trends have often reflected social shifts. There are also archetypal images that seem to be recurrent throughout their history – the Hero and the Supervillian, Robots, BEM’s (Bug Eyed Monsters), Damsels in Distress and the one that has resonated with me the most, the Gorilla.
The who?. Yes, man’s cousin has been a regular staple of the four colour medium since its’ inception. A menacing, drooling jungle beast rising from the verdant tangle threatens to smite the cub reporter Jimmy Olsen – the early cover of Action Comics #6 foreshadowed DC Comics eventual obsession with the gorilla. KING KONG (1933) represented a colossal landmark in entertainment – the ripple effect of the giant ape would be felt across all mediums. Gorillas were still very much an oddity in the early 20th century. Darwinism and evolution were not universally accepted (a century later and most of the United States continues to refuse that man came from monkeys). The Great Ape was a creature held in awe – fearsome power to rend a man from limb to limb and a glint in it’s eye that hinted at unfathomable depths. Travelogues featuring confrontations with these jungle men in their natural habitat were very popular and Monkey Houses at the growing number of local zoos attracted thousands.
In cinema, the Gorilla offered a unique opportunity to present a fantastic element with an edge of realism that could not be mirrored. Replicating or interpreting gorillas on the silver screen could be achieved with relative ease – audiences unfamiliar with the beast would stare with wonder as the menace carried off screaming white maidens or performed clever, amusing comic bits. However did they get that monster to cooperate? In film well up until the 50’s and 60’s, credit was rarely given to all parties involved in the creation of a picture (the pendulum has since swung the other way, so that the credits are probably more extensive than the bloody script) and there was no indication that the gorilla was portrayed by an actor. Many Gorilla Men also actively sought to enhance the illusion by refusing credit or even going so far as to avoid press that they were involved with a production.
The popularity of film apes led to the natural evolution of the Gorilla Man. There was a demand for someone who could bring not only their very own costume, but the ability to utilize it effectively onscreen. When you see some hack stunt man or stand in trip across the frame with a half assed suit you know it. When Charles Gemora had a close up, you were convinced that his expressions altered, when in fact only his eyes peering out from within the fixed mask apparatus had communicated the emotion. But I’m getting somewhat ahead of myself.
My two year long quest to know the mysterious Gorilla Man was a result of a simple whim. Wouldn’t it be cool to have some gorilla film pics and posters to complement the other material at my website Comic Book Gorillarama. The blatantly obvious focus of the site was four colour simians but I had added gallery pages featuring peculiar ape themed items like plastic toy Smoking Monkeys and Gorilla Beer. Another page with a few KING KONG posters and whatever else I cold dredge up would be cool. God bless Google – a simple entry of gorilla in an image search introduced me to outlandishly costumed individuals that begged further investigation. The IMDB (Internet Movie Database) was another handy device that allowed me to identify there was a handful of men that seemed to populate the darkened houses and steaming jungles of gorilla film. Having the unfortunate affliction of compulsive collecting and a growing fascination with the Gorilla Men and their work, I pretty much abandoned Gorillarama to spend all my spare time dredging the web and Ebay for images and scraps of information. Hunting for facts about them is tantamount to panning for gold. You get the occasional flake but mostly your back hurts. I have had several strikes (which I’ll speak of in subsequent entries) and the thrill of discovery is always compounded by the length of the search.
I had anticipated presenting the material I have gathered in a traditional manner – basically reproduce the structure of Comic Book Gorillarama and slot the info in. The creation of a site in a hierarchical structure demands a lot of goods up front. I have whacks of raw material but synthesizing it into something personal and relatable would take up a great deal of my spare time, postponing it’s appearance on the web. And I have my first child due in October. When I put together my first site I was on medical leave and could sit in front of the computer figuring out Frontpage and wrestling with webspace limitations until the wee hours of the morning. Sleep in, wake up, repeat (much to the chagrin of the wife but hey, it kept the mind busy). This time round I have no such luxury. A conversation with my good chum and technical guru Justin opened my mind to other possibilities than a typically dry presentation of something I felt passionate about. Taking a blog like approach will allow for periodic entries and an expanding, organic library of material and my thoughts. He commented that my journey and excitement about the topic was perhaps the aspect of the research that intrigued him most. Exploration and the quest to peel back the veil has led me to connect with strangers miles away and given me moments of giddy exuberance and crushing self doubt. I am not a professional journalist, merely a curious traveler eager to gain knowledge and apt to make mistakes along the way.
Future entries will relate my experiences, start hammering out the facts I have accumulated and share my joy and dismay about the films the Gorilla Men appeared in. As with many aspects of life, the surface of most Gorilla Men is not half as fascinating as what lies beneath the yak hair and kapok. The galleries under construction should give you an impetus to return when you feel a need to shut out the ordinary and pull on the skin of the beast within.