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[HOLLYWOOD] Charles Gemora - Hollywood's "King of the Gorillas."

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  • madchinaman
    Hollywood s Gorilla King By Phil Chung, Oct 03, 2003 http://news.asianweek.com/news/view_article.html? article_id=8b618c65cb73f5a32a3a1f93affabe33 I try to
    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 26, 2006
      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
      the difference.

      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
      One-Eyed Jacks.

      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.


      Going ape
      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
      for good.

      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
      billiard cue.

      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:
      Charlie Gemora.

      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 [1953] 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 [1932] and then in
      Swiss Miss [1938], 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
      gorilla suit.

      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
      week later.

      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
      (1990s) (1950s)

      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
      Archive Footage
      The Sky Is Falling: The Making of 'The War of the Worlds' (2005)
      (V) .... Martian
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