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March 29, 2013

Midnight Movie of the Week #169 - Gorilla At Large

If you wrote the script for a live action Scooby Doo that was also a homage to King Kong and then you filled the cast with Oscar types and a genuine television icon, that movie would be the 1954 epic Gorilla At Large.  I know, it sounds too good to be true, but I assure you - it is true. And it is wonderful.
A carnival known as "The Garden of Evil" which is run by an owner played by Raymond Burr is the setting for this tongue in cheek mystery, in which the prime suspect is a primate named Goliath. But the shady proprietor and his animal attraction are just two of the many characters caught up in this murder investigation, and much of the fun of the film comes from watching a surprisingly great cast have fun with a predictably silly plot.
Cameron Mitchell, a Broadway star who would become known to horror fans by working with Mario Bava repeatedly and starring in The Toolbox Murders, takes the lead as the dopey carnival worker who is promoted to the job that I would drop my real world job for - gorilla costume wearer.  It seems that the boss and his star trapeze swinger/wife - played by none less than Oscar winner Anne Bancroft(!) - have a grand scheme that will put Mitchell's Joey on the main stage and trick the audience into thinking he's the real Goliath. Which means we've got not one but TWO gorillas at large, one a dangerous killing machine and one a dangerous killing human.  I'll let you ponder which one's more frightening.
Once the murdering and gorilla-based-hijinks start we get more fantastic additions to the cast with police officers played by Lee J. Cobb - who was nominated for an Oscar the same year for On The Waterfront and also appeared in amazing movies such as 12 Angry Men and The Exorcist(!) -  and Lee Marvin - another Oscar winner who is pretty much the most underrated and possibly manliest action hero in cinema history.  Cobb chews up scenery as the lead detective, while Marvin's role is a comic one that now looks like a spoof of his future persona as an all-star tough guy.  Cobb, Burr, and Marvin add a lot of gruff charisma to the Sherlock Holmesy mystery plot, while Mitchell and Bancroft seem at home in their innocent roles.  And, going back to the topic of gorilla costume wearers, there's also the unheralded legend George Barrows - who made a lot of money wearing gorilla suits and even played the Ro-Man in the one and only Robot Monster - as Goliath. As if the film needed more star power!
 The cast is much of what sets this kooky film apart from other b-movies of its era - and it's easy to see why when you consider the names who were (apparently willingly) involved - but there's a charming energy inside the film that makes this more than just an a-list murder mystery. Gorilla at Large was not only a notable early effort for many of its cast members, but it was also one of the earliest entries in the original 3-D movement in cinema. This makes Gorilla At Large kind of a grandfather to today's 3-D genre films, sharing the same vibrant visual flair and playful trickery while maintaining the now cheesy moral compass that defined popcorn genre cinema of the 1950s.
The plot takes familiar turns as Gorilla At Large escalates through its final act, but the film still feels fresh and fun for fans of '50s cheese. The cast members would go on to bigger and better things in more serious and acclaimed fare, but it's still worth celebrating that once, even if it was just a for a moment in time, this much talent came together in one place and made a movie about a crazy carnival setting and a killer in a gorilla suit and a killer gorilla.  Better yet, it's not just the idea of Gorilla At large that makes me smile - if a great cast and a good premise was all it took to make a genre film work we'd all love Dreamcatcher(!) - because the film itself is the perfect tongue in cheek mystery for young and old viewers. It's a cliche that is too often abused, but I think it's safe to say that they truly don't make 'em like Gorilla At Large any more.

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