Another entry in my month-long celebration of all things Halloween
Charles Gemora was known as Hollywood’s “King of Gorillas.” This may sound like a silly or trivial title to us now, but it was a title given to him with the utmost respect. It meant he was the best at what he did. And what he did, among many other things, was play gorillas. Gemora was a Filipino American who somehow made his way to Hollywood in the 1920s and found work as a make-up artist and mask maker. But he found his true calling donning ape suits in a number of popular films.
Back in the 1920s and 1930s, gorillas had only recently been discovered by the Western world and not much was known about them. Because of the way they looked, people viewed them as exotic and oftentimes vicious monsters and a whole slew of films used gorillas accordingly (the 1933 classic King Kong is the most famous example of this trend).
Most of these roles were filled by people, oftentimes with no performing experience, who would put on the suit and act like what they imagined an ape would act like. You watch these films today and all you see is a guy in a monkey suit. But Gemora was different. He wanted you to believe you were watching a real primate. In films like Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Unholy Three, Swiss Miss and The Chimp (the last two starring Laurel And Hardy), Gemora strived for a verisimilitude that was otherwise lacking.
At the time, the only place you could see gorillas in person was the San Diego Zoo so he’d often make the trek down from L.A. and spend hours studying the great apes. He would try to incorporate everything from the animals’ subtle facial expressions to the different ways they would move when they were happy or angry or randy into his performances. He built his own costumes and wanted that same realism reflected in what he wore. He was the first to put black make-up around his eyes so the mask would blend in with his face allowing the director to shoot close-ups. He built arm extensions for his suits because he knew gorillas had longer arms than humans. This attention to detail may be commonplace nowadays but back then, Gemora was the first to think of these things.
And you can see the difference in the work. Even as a young kid when I watched the Laurel and Hardy or Tarzan films he appeared in on TV, I could tell that the primates in those movies were more realistic than some of the other ones I was seeing. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I learned that all of those apes I enjoyed as a child were played by Gemora.
But the simians weren’t Gemora’s only iconic roles. For the original 1953 version of The War of the Worlds, Gemora designed and built the famous Martian suit (with the cool three-colored eyes) and played the Martian himself. That’s him at the end of the film as the alien who comes out of its spaceship and dies from Earth’s “toxic” atmosphere.
Gemora passed away in 1961. He had suffered a heart attack in the 1950s and never fully recovered but he worked until the very end. He was a make-up artist on the Marlon Brando film One-Eyed Jacks when he died. I regret that he passed away years before I was even born and I never got to meet him and tell him how much his movies meant to me as a kid.
Gemora was never credited in any of his films since back then technicians and crew people were rarely recognized in this way (his name does appear in the credits for Swiss Miss but it’s misspelled). For the most part, he has been largely forgotten by both Hollywood and the Asian American community. But his influence can still be felt by others who are continuing his legacy. Directors like Joe Dante (Gremlins) and John Landis (An American Werewolf in London) have spoken of their love for his work. Some years ago I met pioneering make-up artist Rick Baker (the upcoming Wolfman) at a party. I had heard he had been influenced by Gemora and when I asked about him, his face lit up and he talked at great length and with much passion about Gemora’s work. He said that when he was trying to make the apes in Greystoke and Gorillas in the Mist as realistic as possible, he’d often ask himself, “How would Charlie have done it?”
So here’s to another Original Offender. Long live the Gorilla King!
(You can read Bob Burn’s great tribute to Gemora here)