Last Updated February 2008
My Daddy Was A Gorilla
Diana Fox Jones' Original Material
New Additions from Diana Fox Jones
GORILLA MEN Contributions
|Big wide eyes peering, seeing nothing but the ceiling, hearing the shrill
howling of the wind. It's me, slowly pulling the covers back from my head,
just far enough to peek around me. Safe! No floating gorilla head, no
detached body following behind, seeking it's better half. I couldn't of been
more than four years old and scared out of my wits for most of my short
Charlie had by now (1944) established himself as one of Hollywood’s foremost gorilla impersonators. With monies from being a make -up pioneer, movie set designer, portrait painter to the Stars, winning painting contests, etc., he had built a beautiful home on top of the Hollywood Hills. Sitting on a long crest all to ourselves, overlooking Hollywood and Vine, with sweeping views from Long Beach to Malibu on one side, the Hollywood Lake and Hollywoodland sign were on the other. Every prefix had "Hollywood" in it, I was born a true Hollywood Movie Child, no brat I. Charlie would sell off lots as he needed financing for his inventions and gambling ventures.
This beautiful home had a major quirk, a gorilla head and it’s accompanying body, resided "somewhere" in the lower bowels of the house, hidden from view and secreted so I wouldn’t know where. My fear was very great. Somehow Charlie and Isabel thought by hiding Mr. Gorilla, I wouldn’t be so afraid. WRONG!! The mystery only fed it.
There was one more quirk that encouraged a small child’s fear. The house had small draft points that made it howl, even if there was only a small breeze, that eerie low whistle, that nostalgic, bittersweet feeling you get when a plane flies over. This all adds up to the power of "make believe" coming to life in the mind of an impressionable child.
It is also a tribute to the fact that Hollywood loved to reflect itself in the lives of those who worked within it. Hollywood in the forties could be likened to a tribal country. The Studios were the tribes and the departments were the clans. They were very tight knit and there were continual running practical jokes between each other. I was inculcated into this culture, it felt like, from birth.
There was only me and my brother Pat, totally alone up on that hill, we played games that lasted days. As we got older, the favourite was Flash Gordon going to Mars or Venus or just joy riding in space, using the home lab. We grew up still reclusive and inward bound. Pat went on to work for IBM and lent to JPL/NASA. He helped program the Voyager Space Probes and bring back Apollo 13. Quite a switch from The Industry, all he was interested in, were how things worked.
To test Charlie’s latest special effect I was relentlessly enlisted, against my will, as the fear factor’. I was the scream o’ meter for Charlie’s latest horror. Here’s a good example.
On returning from a date when I was sixteen, Charlie rigged the lights so I couldn’t turn them on. The idea was for me to grope in the dark and run into his newly made shrunken heads (Skulls of Jonathan Drake). He went to a lot of trouble to hang and line them up right at face level. Forget if I had been wild on my date, it’s how loud would I scream. There was always something wild and scary lurking around the corner, in my case it was real. It took a few years of therapy to understand the fear that still gripped me as I grew older.
Of course the practical bonus was that all my classmates thought there was something so strange’ about me. This allowed me to be left alone, even though I was the class mouse just waiting to picked on. At my 50th grammar school class reunion the biggest memory for my first boyfriend was being given a ride by us on his way to school. It was pouring rain and we put him in the back seat with the full gorilla suit sitting there just like a person. We didn’t say a word about it and neither did he till 50 years later. Now that’s a memorial tribute!
The fun bonuses were spending every available moment at the Studio with Charlie, using the home and studio labs as playgrounds, playing practical jokes with leftovers from workings of some special effect. When Pat and I were teenagers, we were always scheming to sneak out the gorilla suit for some plan or other. I especially remember the blood latex pancakes from the mould drippings of "The Blob". We had great fun placing them on the chairs of my Mom’s tea guests after they got up from being Oh! So dainty.
The boxes that held the Gorilla head and the separate one that held the body were objects unto their own. Just to look at them all closed up, locked, and bound by straps, had the portent of ominous contents. The wooden box that housed the head had a flip-down flap in the front that folded half open like a Dutch oven door. It perfectly displayed the head like a macabre trophy turned object d’art. The body box was made of shiny hard trunk material, it needed 2 wide cloth belts with huge buckles. You just knew’ there had to be a headless body in there!
My favourite childhood memories involve being my Dad’s "apprentice". This meant I was also his companion and he took me everywhere. We trekked from the wrestling arena to following the race track circuit. We would spend hours at the zoo watching the apes and monkeys. He would jump up and down making ape and monkey AAGHSŠ. He’d imitate what they did and cause a huge commotion.
Watching the Silents were his favourite way to spend an evening. There were two theatres that showed a lot of Charlie Chaplin. He’d watch the same film over and over to catch the movements. I feel this helped with the incredible eye emotion he could get like no other. Also the idea of using exaggeration for movements. It affected his gorilla grin.
I say gorilla grin with one of my own. The fact is, the gorilla head that Charlie made had no facial movement, yet he could give the impression of every feeling.
I’ve been sifting through newly acquired old scrapbooks and piles of pix. I’ve gleaned a continuous history of Charlie’s career, which also gave me a real paper trail of old resumes and contracts. What a treasure!
Charlie got off the boat in Long Beach, 1922, after being a protected stow-away from Manila. In this year there are references from Brentwood Fruit Co. and Minicks Dairy. He also won his first art contest, he beat out thousands in a competition sponsored by the San Francisco Chronicle.
By l927 he was making 250.00 a week for rental of himself and the suit in "Leopard Lady" for Cecil B DeMille. By l930 he was making 500.00 per week for actual gorilla characters that had names but never, never got any credit Charlie was making as much as the Big Stars. There are numerous clips of the "very famous" being quoted as saying they loved Charlie but hated to work with The Gorilla because he stole all the scenes he was in.
To begin with, Charlie had been immediately sucked into the sculpture department at Universal, even though he was "discovered" drawing movie folk as they passed through the gates. While there, he sculpted the hand of King Kong that lifted Fay Wray in the original version.
Mostly Charlie sculpted elaborate sets such as the façade for the Hunchback of Notre Dame(1928). That incredible set was an attraction on the Universal Tours until recent years.
C. B. DeMille made many epics in the twenties. Charlie’s enormous talent was used to sculpt gigantic sets and statues. He was the set designer and builder for the original "Phantom of the Opera", which included the building the set was housed in. He also became the set designer for Douglas Fairbanks Senior’s swashbucklers.
Charlie noticed a need for a better gorilla than just throwing an Extra into a mock-up, rug like suit. Thus, his first suit was born! The next thing you know, he’s posing with Sid Grauman and Daryl Zanuck for a promo of "Noah’s Ark" directed by Michael Curtis. He was definitely intrigued, drawn and obsessed by the lure of "The Gorilla".
Speaking of promos. In the 20’s and 30’s, the Studios and individual producers put on great promotions. A funny one was when Charlie had to promote a "Road" flick. Dorothy Lamour and he were stationed on Hollywood and Vine to sign autographs. Well that was Dorothy’s job and Charlie’s was to be in a cage. Dorothy wore a fur coat over her sarong seeing as how it was winter, in those days we actually had them. Charlie, on the other hand, was sweltering in his suit.
Everyday a little ole’ lady would come and look with pity at Charlie. He was trying to be fierce. She’d just shake her head and walk away. After 4 days of this, she could stand it no longer and complained to the Humane Society that the Studio was being mean and cruel by freezing this poor gorilla and it was indecent for him to be NAKED on top of that.! On their last day he was forced to keep a blanket around him. She almost killed him with kindness and decency.
Another funny story comes to mind, Charlie loved to tell this one. While filming on the docks in the thirties, the movie company would pretend that Charlie was a real gorilla, strictly for publicity reasons. He would stay in his cage at lunch and not break character until he was taken out of sight in the early afternoons.
When no one was around or not looking one local sailor would torment him, sticking him with a pointed pole and generally trying to provoke him. It wore him out and frustrated him. On the final day of location Charlie and crew decided he needed a good lesson. They loosened the bars and hid to watch. When the mean sailor came to torment the poor gorilla with his sharp pole, Charlie stood up with a roar, beating his chest as he lunged at the bars throwing them to one side. The astonished sailor screamed at the top of his lungs, he turned and ran away so fast, he laid rubber. He was never seen again, not even to pick up his paycheck. Needless to say, he left the crew and Charlie bent over with laughter.
Charlie worked every Paramount film which had a gorilla in it or "special" make-up job, such as aging or scars or a monster.
Paramount and RKO were only separated by a wall, they could well of been one lot and there was a lot of cross-over work going on. He was a favourite of Hal Roach and did all The Little Rascals films. Abbot and Costello, Laurel and Hardy, the Marx Brothers were all his special friends.
He could be scary and fierce like in "Murders of the Hue Morgue" or a funny foil for Lou Costello in "Africa Screams", or for Oliver Hardy in "Swiss Miss". Charlie cut a wide swath across the talent field, and no one knew his name.
Although Charlie was "guilty" of being a Jack of all trades, in the background always loomed "The Gorilla Suit", his nemesis and his family’s. In those days there was no light padding, he had to use stuffed cotton which weighed almost as much as Charlie who stood a slight 5’4". The fact that his body could not breath, plus the weight, caused him to have a major heart attack in 1943. I’m sure part of my gorilla fear was my little brain putting together the fact that this monster had done in’ my daddy.
On his recovery he could not work the stunts and mostly did just the close ups. Burt Lancaster’s trapeze buddy Angel, from Burt’s circus days, did all the stunt work after that. Perhaps because of this, Charlie’s Gorilla always seemed the most realistic. In fact. he could now swing from buildings (Murders of the Rue Morgue) because of Angel’s athletic skill.
After World War II, Charlie got the brilliant idea to open the first drive-ins and Orange Julius’s in the Orient. Being from the Philippines and seeing all the occupying forces from the U.S.A., what better than serving the service men and helping his countrymen. He used Quonset huts. It was a terrific idea. Adorable Filipina car-hops and adoring and grateful service men. His other idea, to feed his own film making fantasy, was to make movies here for the Filipino market. To do this he had to have a chain of movie theatres in the islands .
This enabled him to put on celluloid all his screenplay ideas. His favourite was "The Gorilla and the Lady". Young noblewoman carried into the jungle when she was six years old by a great ape. Raised by the gorillas she becomes the Queen of the Jungle and the story goes on to cover the familiar lines. He made the Lady six years old when she gets carried off from her parent’s expedition. Guess how old I was?
I will never, never forget my fear at the prospect of being in this film. I knew the suit wasn’t a real gorilla. Never mind! I still held that fear just as strong as when I was 1,2,3,4,5, and yes, six.
I did it shaking all the time. I still remember the feel of the suit against me as he carried me off down a dirt path and into the Hollywood Jungle. Hanging from his arm like a limp rag doll, I’ve got to admit, it broke my physical fear but not my spiritual one.
I have 6 wonderful charcoal drawings done as a storyboard for "The Gorilla and the Lady".
These ventures were the main reason for the rest of the hill to get sold, and also, the big beautiful home. He saved one lot and built what most people would call a "Bohemian Home", today you’d call it a Hippie Pad. Us kids, and Charlie, loved it! In this kooky house an enormous amount of creative energy was expended. Charlie built a Lab that wrapped around two sides of an Olympic sized pool. The whole thing sat on a cliff so the Lab was open to a full two sided view of the city and beyond. The roof was the patio. It was too good to be true. We looked right down to Hollywood and Vine. The city looked like a model. Just like in the flicks.
By eight I was helping to refurbish and actually helped make a gorilla body. My job was to crochet on the yak hairs and keep them brushed and fluffy. But still, I held a fear of that limp, rubbery and blackened piece of latex. It took me being in my teens to start treating it with the respect it deserved.
One of Charlie’s last funny acts was an incident that happened involving a neighbor. Mr. Wolfe had built a real castle from the stone out of Bronson Canyon. That’s the quarry they used for every Western and cave shot starting with the silents. This quirky neighbor had two gibbon apes that serenaded all the hills. One bright morning we wake up to screaming in the living room. It’s one of the gibbons!
Charlie runs and grabs his gorilla head, donning it, he starts jumping and grunting trying to make friends. Gibbon apes are long and spidery. They love to scream. This ape refused to quiet down and in fact he got more agitated at seeing the head, jumping from furniture to walls and back. No doubt I would of felt the same too.
Before we know it, the Chinese maid’s 5 year old daughter comes running in, scolding this misbehaving animal like it’s another child. The ape stops immediately and grabs her hand to be walked quietly home. My last image is of a little girl walking down the road, holding the hand of Mr. Ape. Charlie is standing there shaking his gorilla head, wearing his pajamas and lift shoes, hand on hips.
I could almost feel him thinking, "Time to retire!" Well, shortly afterwards Charlie passed of a heart attack, (1961). It was quick. I’ve never recovered from the loss of such a generous and loving spirit. He lit the world for a brief starry period. He was blessed to be a part of The Industry when raw talent was your only resume’.
Charlie made many famous monsters in his career, but when all is said and done, The Gorilla reigned supreme and was ever with us.
I can truly say, King Kong might of died for love of a woman, but Charlie died for love of a Gorilla.
Amen to that.
Diana Gemora Jones