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.