[HOLLYWOOD] Charles Gemora - Hollywood's "King of the Gorillas."
- Hollywood's Gorilla King
By Phil Chung, Oct 03, 2003
I try to devote an occasional column to one of the many "forgotten"
Asian Pacific American Hollywood pioneers. Earlier this year, I
wrote about Chinese American movie star Anna May Wong and Charlie
Chaplin's Japanese American valet Toraichi Kono. This week, I'd like
to write about another pioneer. This man may not be as well known as
Wong or even Kono, but his legacy is just as impressive.
His name was Charles Gemora. And he was Hollywood's "King of the
Gemora was a short (5-foot-5") Filipino American who somehow made
his way to Hollywood in the 1920s and found work as a make-up artist
and mask maker. His best-known work was the 1953 classic The War of
the Worlds, based on the H.G. Wells story in which martians attack
Earth. For that film, he designed and built the famous martian suit
(with the alien's cool three-colored eyes) and even put on the suit
and played the martian himself. That's Gemora at the end of the
movie when the martian comes out of his spaceship only to be killed
by Earth's "deadly" atmosphere.
But Gemora's specialty was gorillas. He built gorilla suits and
played gorillas in numerous movies from the 1920s to the 1940s. The
apes you see in films like Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Unholy
Three, The Chimp (with Laurel and Hardy), a number of Tarzan flicks
and many others well, that's Charles Gemora at his best.
As a kid, I spent a lot of my time in front of the television
watching old science fiction and horror movies. At the time, I had
no idea who Gemora was, but I do have distinct memories of watching
those films where he played the (usually evil) gorilla.
I especially loved him in The Chimp and Swiss Miss because I thought
Laurel and Hardy were the funniest duo I had ever seen (I still feel
the same way) and seeing them confronting a dangerous gorilla
well, that was just the best.
It was as an adult that I learned that all those gorillas had been
played by Gemora. He was rarely credited in his movies. (His name
does appear in the credits for Swiss Miss but it's misspelled) Back
in those days, most of the crew's names didn't appear in the movies.
What makes Gemora a pioneer isn't just that he was an APA working in
the industry during the early years of Hollywood, though that alone
would be enough. He's a pioneer because, like all great pioneers, he
revolutionized his field.
Before Gemora, the standard practice was to just haphazardly put
together a gorilla suit and hire some actor to put it on and pretend
to be a gorilla. But that wasn't Gemora's style. He approached his
work the way any other true artist would, by putting in his blood,
sweat and tears. He wanted his creations to be as realistic as
possible. He wanted you to think you were watching a real-life
primate, not some actor in a costume.
Gemora would spend countless hours studying the behavior and
movement of gorillas. He would drive down to the San Diego Zoo on
his days off to observe the big apes. He would try to incorporate
what he saw from the subtlest facial expressions to the way the
gorilla might move when it was angry or happy or randy. Compare
Gemora's gorillas with the other gorillas of the day and you'll see
Gemora also worked to make his costumes as authentic as possible. He
was the first to put black makeup around the eyes so they would
blend in better with the gorilla mask. This allowed the director to
shoot closeups of the gorilla's face and it wouldn't look like a guy
wearing a mask. He built arm extensions for his suits because he
knew gorillas had longer arms than humans have. The attempt to
create this sort of verisimilitude might be the norm now but Gemora
was the first to do it.
Gemora passed away in 1961. He suffered a heart attack in the 1950s
and wasn't in the best health but he continued working until the
very end. He died while working as a makeup man for Marlon Brando's
Decades later, his legacy and inspiration live on. Contemporary
masters of the art like make-up man Rick Baker (who created the apes
in Greystoke) and director Joe Dante (Gremlins) have acknowledged
the impact Gemora had on their work.
And as long as his films continue to excite and thrill new
generations, Gemora will always be Hollywood's reigning Gorilla
King. Long live the King!
Burns also shed some light on a curious piece of footage I had come
across of Charles Gemora that has a strange relationship to the big
I have not yet delved into the tale of Charley but suffice to say
Gemora was one of the great gorilla suit performers who worked in
the movie industry from the 20's until his death in the 50's. He was
a talented sculptor and effects technician and by all accounts a
sweet man with an impish sense of humour.
Gemora was hounded by stories that he had claimed to have played
Kong and when Bob Burns broached the topic when he met him at
Paramount Studios, Charley was bitter about the untrue assertions.
It is likely that sloppy entertainment reporting led to the tall
tale. Press around KING KONG was misleading - the studio encouraged
false explanations of the giant apes performance.
How could audiences be properly intimidated by a puppet you could
snatch up in one hand? Gemora had a reputation as a gorilla man and
it was not much of a stretch to connect him with KONG. During my
ongoing research I came across a clip at GETTY IMAGES ( a web image
bank) that depicted what I took for test footage of Gemora lumbering
through a miniature cityscape in his ape suit, drawing towards the
camera and making menace. I was floored.
The suit was used in the late 20's and early 30's though was out of
use after KING KONG's release. The film appeared to predate KONG - I
and a few of my fellow film fanatics wondered if it was test footage
for Kong or , just as fascinating, another giant ape project never
Some months after I came across the footage, I was introduced to Bob
Burns by artist George Chastain who informed me it was trailer
material from 1930's THE GORILLA, a film about a murderous (and
relatively short) ape.
The city footage was illustrating the grip of terror the beast had
on the urban populace. Oddly enough I came across a notation about
the film on the IMDB as I was waiting for Bob's reply; the film is
considered lost and the shots I viewed are all that remain of it.
Charles Gemora has been illustrated by his daughter Diana as a very
humble man who was loathe to take the credit he was due, let alone
claim to be something he was not.
Author: SHAUN MICALLEF
Publication: The Age
Section: Saturday Extra
I don't envy the lot of the gorilla impressionist. It must be damn
hard pretending to be another species. I can't see any of your so-
called Hollywood A-list doing it. For one film maybe, but a whole
career? Even Roddy McDowall started off playing humans.
No, it takes a very rare person to become an actor, and an almost
extinct one to happily don such an unusual mask, attached as it is
to the rest of the costume. Yet such a person was Charles Gemora.
Born in Nebraska in 1892, the son of two parents, Charles was always
interested in monkeys. But it was difficult for the Gemoras getting
by as one of the many poor Irish families in the area, particularly
given they were extraordinarily well off, and Polish. But they
managed. Dressed in rags. smoking upside-down pipes, and
saying "Begorrah" fooled most people, but Charles soon grew weary of
the easy deception and craved greater challenge. When he turned up
for breakfast one morning disguised as a middle-class Spaniard,
Charles' father banished him from the house.
The boy protested. As Enrico Don Sebastian he could purchase a
ticket to the zoo to look at the monkeys without raising the
suspicions of Officer O'Reilly. Plus it was more artistically
fulfilling. But it was no use arguing when his father was in one of
his faux-Irish tempers. Gaelic, even when not screamed at you in a
thick Polish accent, is difficult to understand. Charles left home
By the time he arrived in California by goods train a week later
Charles had resolved to become an actor. But not just any actor. He
was going to be Spencer Tracy. When Spencer Tracy heard about this
he went right around to Charles' one-room apartment in downtown
Burbank and threatened to beat the 15-year-old senseless with a
As the boy cowered, Spencer looked about the miserable room and at
the hundreds of pictures of gibbons and baboons adorning the walls,
and felt sorry for Charles. The kid reminded him of himself when he
was just starting out and trying to make a name for himself, the
same name in fact. He took Charles by the hand, down the street to
the local pawnshop, and bought him an ape suit for "two bits". It
fitted like a glove (that is, just over his hand).
"I expect big things from you, son," said Spencer in a voice that,
had it been Katherine Hepburn's, would have been more recognisable.
He would not be disappointed.
Variety hailed Charles and his ape suit as the greatest team since
Chester Conklin and Larry Semon. The Chimp (1932), Farmer Alfalfa's
Ape-Girl (1932), Bela Lugosi Meets The Brooklyn Gorilla (1952).
Audiences loved them. Most of the time, however, reviewers would
heap acclaim on the ape suit and ignore Charles completely, and
jealousy set in.
Charles began drinking. Just water at first, then booze. As the ape
suit got more and more popular, the once inseparable pair were seen
in public together less and less. The ape suit was often
photographed at the 500 Club on the arm of a beautiful woman, while
Charles could be found blowing his pay on long shots at Santa Anita.
A split-up was inevitable.
It followed a blazing row on the set of Disney's Greyfriars Bobby
(1961). Walt had offered Charles and his suit the starring role. The
Scottish terrier originally signed had contracted leprosy from
Typhoid Mary (it was her day off) and had to pull out. It was
hopeless miscasting. A gorilla curled up loyally on the grave of his
master is, for some reason, not as moving as when played by a cute
dog. But the trouble really began when the director asked Charles
to "jump up on your hind legs and bark after they give you the keys
to the city".
"I don't think my character would do that," complained Charles. But
the director insisted. Charles refused. He was sacked. The ape suit
stayed on and finished the film by itself. There was talk of an
Charles went on to appear in a series of low-budget gorilla films
for Educational but without the suit he was less than convincing and
soon washed up and living in the streets. Greyfriars Bobby was
released and bombed. The sight of the crumpled skin lying motionless
on the ground for the film's full 120 minutes did nothing for
audiences of the day. (Although Shane Danielson recently hailed it
as "a masterpiece".)
Charles and the ape skin needed each other, but they were too proud
to admit it. They re-teamed many years later for a charity show at
the London Palladium. Their career had come full circle. Now the ape
suit was wearing Charles' skin. There wasn't a dry eye in the house.
Someone was burning plastics in the car park outside and had left
the window open.
Charles Gemora died penniless in 1972 and left the gorilla skin to
the Smithsonian Institute, which to this day uses it to wash the
As a kid growing up in Oklahoma and California, I always loved
jungle movies because I always loved the gorillas. And, little by
little, once I began meeting actors and makeup artists and other
people who worked in the movie industry, I made it my business to
find out who Hollywood's "gorilla men" were.
I knew from Glenn Strange that "Crash" Corrigan played gorillas in a
lot of pictures, and I knew about Emil Van Horn (Perils of Nyoka,
The Ape Man, etc.) from Roy Barcroft. I found out all the names
through perseverance, mostly by asking the makeup guys. And whenever
I would ask about one of my favorite gorillas -- "Who played the
gorilla in Murders in the Rue Morgue?", "Who played the gorilla in
The Monster and the Girl?", "Who played the gorilla in Phantom of
the Rue Morgue? -- the answer would always come back the same:
The way I was introduced to Charlie Gemora was through an old makeup
guy I knew, Abe Haberman. In talking to him one day, I mentioned
Charlie Gemora doing apes, and Abe said, "He's over at Paramount
now." I'd had no idea. I knew Gemora did the Martian for The War of
the Worlds  at Paramount, but I thought Paramount just called
him in for that. I didn't know he worked there. But he did: At that
time, 1957, Wally Westmore was head of makeup at Paramount, and
Charlie Gemora was head of the lab.
Once Abe realized how interested I was, he said he'd make a call for
me -- and he did. And Charlie Gemora said, "Sure, come on over!",
and we arranged to meet at Paramount a couple of days later. I had a
pass that got me through the famous Paramount gate and I proceeded
to the makeup lab.
I knew him as soon as I saw him, mainly from his size -- he was only
about five-five, a very short man. He was Filipino, and at that time
he was probably 54 or 55 years old. It was really exciting for me;
and, funnily enough, he was really excited that I was excited,
because he probably didn't have a whole lot of fans asking to him
about his work.
He said a few people had talked to him about making the War of the
Worlds Martian suit and playing the Martian in the movie, but nobody
had ever talked to him about doing the gorillas -- nobody had ever
even mentioned that. I was probably the first "fan" to ever mention
the gorilla side of his career. So we got along famously.
Gemora worked so well with Lon Chaney and the cast of THE UNHOLY
THREE (1930), he became known as "the Fourth Three".
Of course, he also talked about some of the experiences he'd had
making those movies, and some of the stars he'd worked with. He did
the sound version of The Unholy Three, playing Lon Chaney's pet
gorilla, and said that Chaney was a very generous, kind man, but
that was about it.
But Laurel and Hardy he loved to death, he absolutely adored those
guys and told me that they were two of the nicest, most friendly
guys he'd ever met. I knew Stan Laurel real well, and that was
exactly the same thing Stan used to tell me about Charlie Gemora,
that he was the sweetest, greatest guy that he ever worked with.
Charlie worked with them twice, in The Chimp  and then in
Swiss Miss , where he played the gorilla on the suspension
bridge. He loved working with Laurel and Hardy and he talked about
those guys more than he did anybody else.
I don't know how physically strong Charlie was back when he was in
his prime. When you're playing gorillas, it helps a lot if you are,
but you don't have to be. You have to be in pretty good health,
though, and obviously Charlie was because he did it a number of
times in the '20s, '30s and '40s. It's hard work, I can certainly
vouch for that.
He didn't mention any injuries, even though I don't believe he was
stunt-doubled very often in his gorilla roles. In Murders in the Rue
Morgue, Charlie did tell me that strongman Joe Bonomo doubled him in
the scenes where he's climbing up to the Paris rooftops. But the
thing about Murders in the Rue Morgue that stuck in Charlie's craw a
little was the fact that closeups of an actual chimp were inserted
into the movie instead of the closeups they'd shot of Charlie in his
He didn't know they had done this until he saw the movie; when he
did, he said he was in shock because all of a sudden the movie would
jump from a shot of him in his gorilla suit to a shot of a quite
different-looking chimp. He wasn't too pleased with that, and could
never figure out why they did it.
His gorilla face was perfectly mobile, it could do the expressions
that were needed. And did. His favorite of all his films was also my
favorite: The Monster and the Girl. He said he thought he "nailed"
playing a gorilla there better than anywhere else, and so he just
loved the film.
He also liked the premise (a man's brain is transplanted into a
gorilla) and the fact that, in his own words, "I probably got more
gorilla time in that film than any other movie I ever did." Charlie
found that film a very pleasant experience and thought it was great
because he got to do a realistic gorilla for a change. And that was
his best suit ever.
Rick Baker, the makeup and special effects artist (Schlock,
Greystoke, Gorillas in the Mist, Mighty Joe Young), always had a
fascination for gorillas, and he even said when he was a
kid, "Someday I hope to create the ultimate gorilla suit" -- that
was his dream. Rick was someone else to whom I've talked about
Charlie Gemora, and Rick too thinks that the suit in The Monster and
the Girl was Charlie's best ever.
In addition to telling me everything I wanted to know about building
a gorilla suit, he gave me lots of advice on how to move. For
gorilla guys, the right "body English" is essential, and Charlie had
it down pat because he'd done his homework: He used to go to the San
Diego Zoo (the only place in California that had gorillas in those
days) to observe them, he studied up on gorillas as much as he could
and even got some scientific pictures. That was back in the '20s
and '30s, when gorillas were still very "mysterious." (Back then,
people used to think they were monsters and hunt them just because
of their size and the fact that they were pretty ugly, grisly-
looking things. You can tell that by the early movies, where the
gorilla was always the monster -- always.) The fact that Charlie had
done his homework showed in his suits and also in his performances.
According to Charlie, what "makes" the performance is 90 percent
body English and eye movement. He told me to do a lot of head
movements and things like that; open and close your eyes; and, if
you want to make the gorilla look really mean, when you open the
mouth, throw your head back so that people are now looking up inside
the mouth. It gives the illusion that the mouth is open a lot wider
than it actually is. Just tilt your head back, open your mouth as
wide as you can get it, and it looks like you're really growling. I
had seen him do these things 100 times in his movies, and yet these
were things that Id never thought about. Ever. And it was all true.
People think that the gorilla brow moves up and down and everything.
But it doesn't move at all, it's strictly an illusion.
"I know I've forgotten something" muses George Zucco in THE MONSTER
AND THE GIRL. "Did I leave the iron on... or did I forget to lock
the gorilla cage?"
I sat with Charlie in the Paramount makeup lab that day for at least
four or five hours. We even went to lunch at the studio commissary --
his treat. Like Stan Laurel said, he was absolutely the sweetest
guy on Earth.
He was a humble man -- extremely humble -- and very, very nice. In
fact, I think he was maybe even a little bit embarrassed, because I
don't think he was used to having fans wanting to talk to him. That
was the feeling I got. It's so neat, when you finally meet someone
whose work you admire so much, and they turn out to BE that kind of
Often you meet people you think are going to be great, and they turn
out to be so full of themselves. But he was just the opposite. In
our meeting, he even promised to send me some photos of himself in
his various movies, and sure enough he mailed them to me about a
I still have them today. I saw Charlie just that one time, but I
talked to him at Paramount on maybe five or six occasions over a
period of the next few months. I would think of another question
about gorilla suits -- what about the padding? What about the size
of the hands? That kind of thing, and he was always extremely nice.
If somebody else would answer, no matter what he was doing, he'd
come right to the phone
Charlie passed away in August of 1961. When I heard that he had
died, I was devastated. Even though I couldn't say he was a close
friend, I felt like I had lost a close friend because I had followed
his career for so many years, and then he'd been so kind to me. It
was like, "The king of gorillas is dead. The King is dead. There'll
never be another one like him." And that's true -- I don't think
there ever will be another quite like Charlie Gemora.
I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958) (uncredited) .... Alien
Phantom of the Rue Morgue (1954) (uncredited) .... Sultan, The
The War of the Worlds (1953) (uncredited) .... Martian
White Witch Doctor (1953) .... Gorilla
Africa Screams (1949) (as Charlie Gemora) .... The Ape
... aka Abbott and Costello in Africa
Who Killed Doc Robbin? (1948) (uncredited) .... Gorilla
... aka Curley and His Gang in the Haunted Mansion (USA: TV title)
... aka Laff-Time Part 2 (USA: subtitle)
... aka Sinister House (UK)
Road to Utopia (1946) (uncredited) .... Bear
Gildersleeve's Ghost (1944) (uncredited) .... Gorilla
Two Weeks to Live (1943) (uncredited) .... Plato The Gorilla
Road to Zanzibar (1941) (uncredited) .... Gorilla
The Monster and the Girl (1941) (uncredited) .... The Gorilla
... aka D.O.A.
... aka The Avenging Brain
At the Circus (1939) (uncredited) .... Gibraltar
... aka The Marx Brothers at the Circus (USA: promotional title)
Swiss Miss (1938) (as Charles Gamore) .... Gorilla
Bum Voyage (1934) .... The Gorilla
Sing, Bing, Sing (1933) .... Sir Charles, the Gorilla
Nature in the Wrong (1933) (uncredited) .... The Gorilla
... aka Tarzan in the Wrong (USA)
The Savage Girl (1932) (uncredited) .... The gorilla
Hawkins & Watkins Inc. (1932) (as Sir Charles) .... The Gorilla
The Chimp (1932) (uncredited) .... Ethel the chimp
Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932) (uncredited) .... Erik, the Gorilla
Seal Skins (1932) (uncredited) .... Jocko the Boxing Gorilla
Ghost Parade (1931) .... Gorilla
Ingagi (1931) .... The Gorilla
The Unholy Three (1930) (uncredited) .... Gorilla
Bear Shooters (1930) .... Gorilla
Do Gentlemen Snore? (1928) (uncredited) .... Charley the Gorilla
The Circus Kid (1928) .... Zozo
The Leopard Lady (1928) .... The gorilla
Make-Up Department - filmography
(1960s) (1950s) (1930s)
Jack the Giant Killer (1962) (makeup artist)
Hands of a Stranger (1962) (makeup artist)
... aka The Answer
The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake (1960) (makeup artist)
I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958) (makeup artist)
Omar Khayyam (1957) (makeup artist)
... aka The Life, Loves and Adventures of Omar Khayyam
... aka The Loves of Omar Khayyam (USA)
Around the World in Eighty Days (1956) (makeup artist) (uncredited)
The Ten Commandments (1956) (makeup artist) (uncredited)
Gunga Din (1939) (makeup artist) (uncredited)
Swiss Miss (1938) (makeup artist) (uncredited)
Miscellaneous Crew - filmography
Hollywood Goes Ape! (1994) (dedicatee)
Curse of the Faceless Man (1958) (creature creator) (as Charles
The War of the Worlds (1953) (costume maker: Martian costumes)
Filmography as: Actor, Make-Up Department, Miscellaneous Crew, Art
Department, Himself, Archive Footage
Art Department - filmography
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) (sculptures) (uncredited)
Filmography as: Actor, Make-Up Department, Miscellaneous Crew, Art
Department, Himself, Archive Footage
Himself - filmography
Down Memory Lane (1949) .... Charlie, the gorilla
Filmography as: Actor, Make-Up Department, Miscellaneous Crew, Art
Department, Himself, Archive Footage
The Sky Is Falling: The Making of 'The War of the Worlds' (2005)
(V) .... Martian