LOST SOULS: Charles Gemora
A Remembrance written for THE IRISH JOURNAL OF GOTHIC AND HORROR STUDIES site
Diana Fox Jones' Original Material
New Additions from Diana Fox Jones
GORILLA MEN Contributions
Born in 1903 into the turbulent period of American occupation of the Philippines, Carlos Cruz Gemora was the last of 18 children. Charles lost his father at a young age, and his eldest brother proved to be a selfish and cruel steward. A substantial parcel of land had been left in equal lots to the surviving children but the greedy firstborn campaigned to have all of the land signed over to him. Charles fled from his brother to Manila but was soon discovered and detained at a monastery, where he would remain until he was of legal age to sign the necessary documentation to hand over his birthright. At the young age of fifteen, Charles once again ran off to the capitol, this time determined to travel beyond his siblings grasp and make his way to the United States of America.
Manila was the center of American activity in 1920's Philippines and ships hustled personnel and goods from Californian ports. A teenage Charles managed to convince a few Yankee sailors to sneak him aboard their vessel and smuggle him into their home country. During the voyage, Charles was called upon to assist in some repairs that required a diminutive fellow, thus he entered the Port of Long Beach on the deck of the ship rather than huddled in the hold.
The future gorilla man and effects wizard began his stay in America washing bottles for a dairy and frequenting the gates of Universal Studios, hoping to earn some money as an extra in the burgeoning film industry. As he had once impressed American nationals and earned a few pennies back in his homeland, Charles would often sketch people as he waited for an opportunity to become a face in the silver screen crowds. It was not long before his innate talent was recognized by a studio passerby and Charles Gemora found himself in the employ of Hollywood’s dream factory.
Quickly establishing himself as a master sculptor, Charles worked on set pieces for grand Universal epics, eventually playing a major role in the creation of gargoyles prominent on the grand cathedral of THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME. His craftsmanship on that film lead to his position as set designer for Lon Chaney’s other opus, THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA. The Opera House set remains intact to this day and is apparently haunted by the Spirit of a Thousand Faces; high flattery from one industry marvel to another. Gemora’s hand can also be found in numerous Douglas Fairbank Senior films.
In 1927 Charles Gemora set upon the task of sculpting and creating a gorilla suit for a film adaptation of the popular play THE GORILLA. Apparently fascinated by the problem of making a man a jungle monster, Charles built himself a suit and appeared in THE LEOPARD LADY (1928), setting down a curious career path few men have trod, and fewer still have excelled in. Gorillas were a common feature in pictures of the period and were typically portrayed by extras or stuntmen in an ill fitting suit cobbled together for the individual production. Charles frequented the San Diego Zoo scrutinizing ape movement and form, dedicating many hours and dollars towards perfecting his gorilla alter-ego. One attribute that aided in his believable portrayal of our evolutionary cousins was his size. At only 5’4” and 130 lbs Charles’ gorilla appeared entirely realistic beside larger human actors.
The ability to craft and alter his gorilla suit enabled Gemora to outclass his contemporaries. While Charles was the head of the make-up department at Paramount in his later years, a youthful Bob Burns sat down with his idol and had the rare opportunity to hear the gorilla man’s trade secrets first hand. His suits were constructed from scratch, including the head, torso and limbs (the articulated metal armature that served as the framework for the mask, was created by parties unknown). Two types of arms were used, an ordinary pair used for close ups and a set of ‘walking arms’ that were critical to simulating ape-like locomotion. The performer reached down a sleeve to the ‘elbow’ of the suit where he could grip the stilt-like solid forearm which ended in a closed fist. This enabled Charles to lope about in a truly animal fashion. The simple notion of creating the beasts head from a cast of the inhabitants’ face and the use of eye black, resulted in a visually seamless mask that would solidify the illusion of a real ape menacing the screen and allowed for lingering tight camera shots. Charles was a slim fellow and required a great deal of padding to flesh out his gorilla suits. Unfortunately, kapok was employed; a material that was often used in mattresses and sleeping bags and had substantial insulating properties. Suits would eventually utilize water filled pouches that gave the belly a realistic sway. The thick and lustrous coat gracing his suits consisted of yak hair, and in later years, his daughter and assistant, Diana, was responsible for crocheting them onto the suit and keeping the hair maintained. All of these separate elements contributed to gorilla suits that were unparalleled in excellence for many decades. Yet a suit alone is not enough to make an audience laugh or scream. Where Charles truly excelled was in his ability take an awkward and uncomfortable costume and communicate with simple body language and his eyes. Although all gorilla men have taken that journey to the local monkey house to seek the essence of ape-ness, Charles identified the subtle commonalities in emotion and gestures between man and simian that make our evolutionary cousins so fascinating.
Over his years portraying apes, there were several distinct incarnations (Bob Burns tallies at least six, perhaps more) – as Gemora’s artistic skills improved and evolved, so did his simian counterpart. Suits that appeared in his early films were a reflection of the common man’s subconscious impressions of this murky cousin from the jungle. There was a harsh crudeness in their visage that oozed a weird terror that was as at home in the pages of pulp fiction as it was on film.
In 1930 Charles appeared in the now-forgotten exploitation blockbuster, INGAGI. The despicable essence of the film is simple; although it purported to be a documentary picture depicting an expedition into Africa, CONGO PICTURES manufactured a degrading tale about a tribe that worshipped gorillas and who offered up their women to mate with them. The very name of the film INGAGI was claimed to be a native term for gorilla, but this was also a fallacy. It was not long before the exotic tale of Dark Continent bestiality was exposed as a fake. African-American girls in the picture were recognized by members of Californian audiences. One of the white explorers was also identified as a LA theatre actor. With the whiff of doubt in the air, savvy viewers also began to raise the possibility that the amorous ape of the picture was none other than Hollywood’s new simian thespian, Charles Gemora. According to an article in MOTION PICTURE, Charles denied any involvement until called in for questioning by the Hays Office. Whether or not the film was authentic was the last thing on the minds of enthusiastic movie goers. Ticket sales reached record heights despite the eventual withdrawal of the picture from theatre chains (the unofficial 2nd highest grossing film of 1931 at 2 million). Roadshow viewings swelled and the gorilla-gets-girl premise that pre-dated KING KONG, drew crowds for years and inspired other similar exotic exploitation films like ANGKOR and LOVE LIFE OF A GORILLA
MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE saw Gemora paired with Bela Lugosi in what should have been a perfect vehicle to showcase the grotesque gorilla suit of his early career. Unfortunately for Charles, although he had proven that his suits and performing skills were more than adequate in previous films, jarring shots of an actual chimpanzee were substituted in for all of his close-ups. Gemora related to Bob Burns that he had no idea there was any problem with his performance until he viewed the finished project.
Besides the obligatory adventure and horror films, Charles Gemora would make several pictures over his career with a host of comedic greats like the Marx Brothers, Abbott and Costello and many others. In THE CHIMP (1931) Charles ably demonstrated his crack comic timing and mischievous wit in the company of comedy giants, Laurel and Hardy. The short features the duo trying to discreetly enter their boarding house with a circus ape in tow and attempting to keep the creatures presence a secret from their landlord. Bob Burns recalled that both Charles and Stan had adoring praise for one another’s talent and character. Gemora would appear again in their feature SWISS MISS (1938).
In 1943, THE MONSTER AND THE GIRL featured Charles as the titular monster in one of his finest gorilla suits and delivering a nuanced and affecting performance that would outshine all others. This odd entry into the 40’s Universal horror revival provided the gorilla impresario with the added challenge of portraying a creature who possessed the transplanted brain of an executed prisoner bent on vengeance. The brain donor has a sister who had fallen into the clutches of a white slavery ring and his attempts to aid her result in a frame up for murder. This bizarre role taxed all of Gemora’s emoting abilities as he struggled to relate the inner workings of a man agonized by his siblings fall from grace and his desire to utterly destroy those that precipitated it. THE MONSTER AND THE GIRL remains one of the great gorilla suit performances and is acknowledged by modern effects master and former gorilla man Rick Baker as Gemora’s finest hour.
All gorilla men agree on one fine point of suit work; it’s an uncomfortable and often brutal task. Enacting laborious scenes in hot, cramped suits that could weigh 60 pounds or more, took a heavy toll on even the fittest of men. Charles Gemora had a distinct reminder of the physical cost of gorilla suit work in 1943 when he suffered his first heart attack. Despite the obvious impact of his profession, Charles continued to appear onscreen in other ape roles, though less and less frequent.
Throughout his years of aping about on film, Gemora continued to work in the Paramount make up department which led to his most widely recognized contribution to cinema history. As recounted to author Tom Weaver by Gemora’s daughter Diana, Charles collected his 12 year old protégé about suppertime one night in 1952 and hustled her off to his studio lab for an emergency work session. The producer of WAR OF THE WORLDS had just informed Gemora that the Martian created for the film would not work in the cramped farmhouse set and he had one evening to create a replacement. Father and child labored into the dawn hours and ferried a still soggy creature to the stage for shooting. The Martian upper torso was placed on a dolly with Charles half inside on his knees as he manipulated the arms. Prop men would pull the dolly through the scene as Diana worked the air pumps to create the realistic ’throb’ of veins. According to Diana, the fragile alien came very close to teetering over and blowing apart. Luckily, Charles Gemora’s talent and ingenuity carried off one of Sci-Fi’s iconic moments (with no small assist from his girl Friday).
Poor health finally got the better of cinema’s greatest gorilla man in 1961 when he passed away after another heart attack. One of his final gorilla appearances in PHANTOM OF THE RUE MORGUE (1954) had found Charles weak and unable to do anything other than close ups. All strenuous actions were performed by a stunt double.
When Bob Burns visited Charles around 1958 it was apparent that Gemora was excited about Bob’s interest in him. “He said a few people had talked to him about making the War of the Worlds Martian suit…but nobody had ever talked to him about doing the gorillas.” Charles Gemora was a humble yet brilliantly creative mind whose talents were by no means limited to his gorilla suit mastery. He had an inventive streak that lead to numerous makeup and effects innovations that according to Diana, were never properly accredited. Reflecting upon her father, Diana had this to say, “He lit the world for a brief starry period. He was blessed to be part of the Industry when raw talent was your only resume”