An All-Star Cast Makes Monkey Mayhem in Gorilla at Large (1954)

Detective Garrison (Lee J. Cobb) investigates a crime scene at the Garden of Evil carnival. His job becomes more interesting when he learns there are a number of suspects among the carnival’s employees – human and animal – each with sufficient reasons for murder.

From the opening credits, you can sense this is a unique film. With large red letters popping off the screen accompanied by a wild gorilla’s roar, we are taken into a world where spectacle reigns supreme.

Made by Panoramic Productions and distributed by 20th Century Fox, Gorilla at Large was released during the 3-D craze and as such, it is a feast for the eyes. Luscious Technicolor takes centre stage bringing the carnival to life in vivid shades of blue, red, and yellow. Shimmering lights reflect on sequined costumes, a fur covered paw reaches out to a shrieking girl, fireworks burst brightly in the night sky above a whizzing roller coaster.

While Gorilla sparkles with life, personality, and individuality, what makes the whole thing work is the cast. And let me tell you, it is quite the line up.

Lee J. Cobb plays a cool detective – calm and composed – with a studying eye he examines each of the suspects. In the same year he would transform himself into a very different character, corrupt union boss Johnny Friendly in On the Waterfront. As the mysterious carnival owner, Cyrus Miller, Raymond Burr keeps us guessing as he would a few months later in Hitchcock’s Rear Window.

Just a year prior to Gorilla, Cameron Mitchell convinced Marilyn Monroe she looked beautiful with glasses in How to Marry a Millionaire. As the young and handsome carnival barker, Joey Matthews, he is eyed by the women, namely his sweetheart Audrey (Charlotte Austin) and sultry trapeze artist Laverne (Anne Bancroft).

Bedecked with glamour in Renie’s costumes (Cleopatra, 1963), Anne Bancroft is the unmistaken star of the show. (Sorry, mister gorilla.)

Anne made her film debut only two years before Gorilla, yet her ease and grace before the camera is evident. Her work here is subtle, but effective, and demonstrates the talent that would lead to her Tony and Oscar wins for her performance as Annie Sullivan in The Miracle Worker and the continuation of her legendary career.

Peter Whitney’s character, Kovacs, is one you wouldn’t want to be left alone with, while Lee Marvin’s role as silly, absentminded police officer Shaughnessy provides the laughs. And we can’t forget the titular gorilla given a distinct personality by an uncredited George Barrows in a gorilla suit.

Lending an air of authenticity by filming at Nu Pike Amusement Park in Long Beach, California, Gorilla puts the audience right where they need to be – in the middle of the action – whether swinging wildly from a trapeze or being chased through a maze of dizzying mirrors.

I particularly enjoy how the script by Leonard Praskins (Call of the Wild, 1935) and Barney Slater (The Tin Star, 1957) informs personality quirks and characteristics, such as the sarcasm of Detective Garrison.

Joey Matthews: We’re trying to save enough money so that we can get married, is that any crime?

Garrison: Marriage isn’t but murder is, although sometimes I think it should be the other way around.

And the light hearted Shaughnessy…

Shaughnessy: What do you feed him [the gorilla]?

Kovacs: Bananas, apples, grapes.

Shaughnessy: Oh you do? Bring me some too. He don’t drink coffee, does he?

Kovacs: Of course not.

Shaughnessy: Well I do! So get me some.

Other 3-D films that were released in 1954 included Dial M for Murder and Creature from the Black Lagoon. While both films have gone on to attain status as classics, Gorilla retains its B standing; however, the film does have its devoted fans due in part to its airing in the 1980’s on television.

Compared to The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), Gorilla at Large looks at the dramatic lives of the carnival workers on a much smaller scale. It still provides plenty of dazzling sights, but because of the size of the production and the 83 minute running time we aren’t left with any extras.

Gorilla at Large is a prime example of a talented cast elevating what would be subpar material (in less able hands) into highly enjoyable fare. Each character has their time to shine and the actors make use of every second. Collectively, they have an easy rapport that works. With a mystery begging to be solved, complete with twists and turns, the result is a wildly fun ride that packs a lot into a small package.

This post is my contribution to The Anne Bancroft 90th Birthday Celebration Blogathon hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood.

Thanks for letting me take part, Crystal! See more posts honoring the lovely Anne Bancroft by clicking HERE.

Peter Lawford, Gentleman Jewel Thief in The Hour of 13 (1952)

In 1890 on the gaslit, foggy streets of London, policemen are being targeted by a murderous madman known as “The Terror.” High class jewel thief Nicholas Revel (Peter Lawford) coincidentally steals a famous emerald the same night and location of the last attack. Nicholas, now a prime suspect of the murders, must clear his name and find the real murderer, using himself as bait.

Here’s our anti-hero — the charming, sophisticated gentleman thief, Nicholas Revel. When we first meet Nicholas, he is practicing stealing a necklace from around a bust’s neck. With a flick of the wrist he displays his skill, boldness, and precision, thus setting the tone and enjoyment of our movie – watching Nicholas weave in and out of situations in his inimitable way.

Whether entering a society event through a mirrored door, or teaming up with the police commissioner’s daughter (Dawn Addams) to plant suspicions in any direction but his, Nicholas confirms his adage – “The safest place is in a crowd.”

Though this is a little known film, The Hour of 13 has noteworthy folk on its production team. Let’s take a look at some of them…

The Hour of 13 was made at MGM’s British studios and was adapted from X v. Rex, a novel by Philip MacDonald. MacDonald’s most famous screenwriting credit is for his adaptation of Rebecca (1940). The screenplay by playwright Leon Gordon and Howard Emmett Rogers (Libeled Lady, 1936) is delightfully witty and smooth. This film is a remake of The Mystery of Mr. X (1934) with Robert Montgomery in the lead.

The production designer on The Hour of 13 was Alfred Junge – arguably the most influential art director of his time. Junge had been a collaborator with Powell and Pressburger on eight of their films, starting in 1939 and ending in 1947 with Black Narcissus, for which he won an Oscar. Junge worked on everything from Alfred Hitchcock’s early films (The Man Who Knew Too Much, Young and Innocent) to Technicolor spectacles — Knights of the Round Table and Mogambo (1953). The sets are indeed lush and pleasant to the eye in The Hour of 13. Junge brings Victorian England to life with detailed sets, luxurious decor and his recreation of the city of London is brimming with atmosphere and mystery.

Admittedly, I had never heard of the director Harold French before seeing The Hour of 13. I learned that French was a British stage actor and director who caught the film bug. During his twenty year movie career, he was known for comedies but proved his versatility with war films, thrillers, musicals, and dramas. Although he is not as celebrated among British film directors, French has some interesting credits to his name including Disney’s Rob Roy: The Highland Rogue (1953). I am so impressed with The Hour of 13 that I want to see more of his work. Any recommendations? Please leave them in the comments!

On to the cast…

I was curious how Lawford would fare within a period mystery. I love him in Easter Parade and Good News, but those delightful, fluffy musicals are a horse of a different color to a dramatic crime story. I shouldn’t have doubted. Lawford fit so well into the period mystery scene that I wish he had done more of them. Victorian England was the perfect setting for his refined speaking voice, elegant manners, and aristocratic bearing.

I loved seeing Lawford play an ambiguous character. The signature Lawford charm was evident, but he gave Nicholas an extra bit of edge that made him a compelling character and one of his most interesting roles and performances during this stage in his career.

The rest of the cast is assembled with excellent British actors. Dawn Addams is innocent, lovely and provides a nice contrast to the enigmatic Lawford. Roland Culver (Thunderball) earnestly plays Scotland Yard inspector Connor, the man determined to frame Lawford. Leslie Dwyer and Colin Gordon provide light comic relief as Lawford’s accomplices. Michael Hordern, Heather Thatcher (Beau Geste, 1939) and Richard Shaw round out the cast.

In a way, this movie reminds me of To Catch a Thief (1955) with our suave jewel thief on the run from the police, while trying to track down the real thief, or in this case, the real murderer. And in the same vein, our sympathies lie with our anti-hero.

The Hour of 13 is not pretentious – it knows its bounds and stays within them, while the able cast provides a solid piece of entertainment for those willing to descend into its world of dark alleys and urbane thievery.

This post is my contribution to The 2nd Annual Peter Lawford Blogathon given by Kristen of Hoofers & Honeys in honor of Peter’s birthday, September 7th, 1923! Thanks for letting me participate, Kristen!

CLICK HERE to read the other entries about the talented Mr. Lawford.