By 1952, Bela Lugosi’s career was nearing an end due to his continually declining health as well as Hollywood’s lack of interest in the one-time headliner. He had just completed work in the latest Arthur Lucan Old Mother Riley film, Old Mother Riley Meets the Vampire. With few options and his addictions in full swing, Lugosi would next star in a film that, while not necessarily his worst film, it would certainly be ranked very near the bottom…Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla (1952).
Our story begins with nightclub act Duke Mitchell and Sammy Petrillo getting stranded on an island known as Kola Kola. While the local natives are friendly, there is a mysterious scientist named Dr. Zabor (Bela Lugosi) who is sure to cause trouble. It seems Duke has fallen in love with the tribal chief’s daughter Nona (Charlita). However, Dr. Zabor loves her too and the jealous doctor has plans to turn Duke into a gorilla so he can win Nona’s heart.
On the surface, Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla isn’t a terrible film. It has a fairly acceptable plot and the acting isn’t horrible from most of the cast. Bela Lugosi, looking worn and tired, turns in a fairly pedestrian performance as a mad doctor. However, Lugosi has done worse so his part is acceptable too. The truly painful part of the film centers on the lead actors, Duke Mitchell and Sammy Petrillo. They are clearly doing their best to play like Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. In fact, it is these performances that lead to the more interesting back story of the film.
Sammy Petrillo had stumbled into a career by looking and acting like Jerry Lewis. Jerry Lewis briefly used Sammy Petrillo in some television sketches but Lewis was not happy with Petrillos’ act. Promises were made to help Petrillo but Lewis clearly felt threatened. Petrillo soon met singer Duke Mitchell and they formed a nightclub act where they would act like Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis along with other interpretations. In 1952, their manager, Maurice Duke, would pitch the idea of the duo hitting Hollywood. The only problem was that, in reality, the duo was horrible. Sammy Petrillo was a fair enough version of Jerry Lewis but Duke Mitchell was no Dean Martin. However, that didn’t stop Realart Pictures owner Jack Broder.
With Broder moving ahead on production of Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla, word reached Jerry Lewis. As Hollywood legend has it, Lewis and Broder argued over the use of Mitchell and Petrillo in a film. Paramount producer Hal B. Wallis, who had Martin and Lewis under contract, threatened to sue Broder and, despite almost coming to terms, a deal was never reached and the friendship was never rekindled. Broder moved ahead with the release, trying to cash in on Bela Lugosi’s role in the film. On an interesting side note, Mitchell and Petrillo continued their act despite being blackballed by the jealous Jerry Lewis. In 1956, when Martin and Lewis split, so did Mitchell and Petrillo.
Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla is the public domain and the print I watched was very good. Oddly enough, it doesn’t pop up too often on the usual public domain box sets. It’s worth a watch as Petrillo isn’t too bad in small doses and Lugosi is okay, but it is sad to see how far he had fallen. The worst part is the Mark of the Vampire (1935) ending and Duke Mitchell’s painfully bad singing. I mean really, really bad singing. The movie is on YouTube but the prints aren’t as good as my $1.00 Digiview DVD, so you might want to track that copy down. Consider this one a really good slice of smoked turkey. Still bad but there are worse flicks out there.