Charles (“Charlie”) Gemora had one of the most unique, wide-ranging, and sadly unheralded careers in Hollywood history. Between the mid-’20s and the early ‘60s, he worked as a makeup artist, a prop man, a stunt man, a costume designer, a special effects artist, and what you might call a very singular and very busy character actor. In the spare time he could find between all that, he was also a sculptor and inventor. Damnedest thing was, he was by all accounts (and the proof is up there on the screen) excellent at everything he did.
The stories concerning how he got his start in Hollywood differ a bit. Everyone agrees Gemora was born in the Philippines in 1903, but in his teens stowed away on a ship sailing for California. The official story has it in the early ‘20s he started hanging around outside Universal Studios sketching portraits in order to earn a little extra money. Someone from the studio saw his work and sent him up to meet with the head of the makeup department. But according to Gemora’s longtime friend, makeup artist Bob Burns, he began as a stunt man, mostly doubling for children on account of his small stature. He was in the habit of sketching in between takes, and that’s when someone saw what he could do and sent him to the makeup department.
However it happened, in the decades that followed he would do the makeup for films as varied as The Grapes of Wrath, The Ten Commandments, and One-Eyed Jacks. Thanks to his abilities as a sculptor he was also asked to design the remarkable aliens for George Pal’s The War of the Worlds and the mechanical suit commandeered by The Colossus of New York (that design still haunts me). He even created the mechanical ants for the Charlton Heston feature Naked Jungle. But Gemora will always and forever be remembered as “The Gorilla Guy.”
He designed and built his first gorilla suit for 1925’s The Lost World, which coincidentally was the feature debut for Willis O’Brien, another artist who will also always be remembered for his gorillas.
Perhaps out of frustration after seeing the performance delivered by the Lost World actor inhabiting his suit, or perhaps noting the growing demand for screen gorillas, Gemora (an undeniably sharp cookie) set himself the task of carving out a very specialized onscreen niche. He would become a character actor quite unlike any other. Not only would he never have to learn any lines, he could also provide his own wardrobe. In 1928, Gemora made his screen debut bringing his own gorilla suit to life in The Leopard Lady.
In the early ‘30s he moved from Universal’s makeup department to Paramount’s, where he worked with the legendary Wally Westmorre. In 1932, he not only designed the extensive and revolutionary makeup for the studio’s still shocking Island of Lost Souls, but had a role in the film himself, lurking around the corner shadows as both a gorilla and, yes, the Gorilla Man. The move, however, did not interfere with his growing reputation as the gorilla go-to guy. Between ‘28 and ‘58, he would appear in 43 films, and only four of those involved non-gorilla roles (he played two aliens, a bear, and a cannibal). Gemora’s gorillas made their mark in horror films, including White Witch Doctor, The Gorilla, and two versions of Murders in the Rue Morgue. He also took a simian turn in comedies (he appeared with the Marx Brothers, The Ritz Brothers, Abbott and Costello, and Laurel and Hardy), jungle adventures, musical shorts, mysteries, even the occasional romance and drama.
Two things made Gemora’s gorillas stand out from all the others roaming Hollywood, and both can be traced back to the sense of craftsmanship and perfectionism he brought to all his jobs. Unlike other gorilla performers who merely became arm waving buffoons after donning the suit, Gemora spent hours at the San Diego Zoo studying and mimicking the movements and behavior of real gorillas in order to bring an authenticity to his performances. Perhaps even more important than that in the eyes of most filmgoers, Gemora’s handmade suits were the best in the business. Today famed makeup artist and special effects man Rick Baker (who’s played a few gorillas himself) holds up Gemora’s suits as the gold standard against which all other gorilla suits must be measured. Using his skills as both a makeup man and a sculptor he refined his design over the years, moving away from the immobile hard plastic face mask so familiar to those of us who have seen too many cheap non-Gemora movie gorillas. Gemora’s not only looked realistic, the faces had movement and expression, and audiences could even see Gemora’s living eyes behind the makeup, which was rare in those days and seriously amplified the realism..
Although he’d worked on much bigger films like, say The Ten Commandments, the high point of his career as a gorilla is generally accepted to be Stuart Heisler’s 1941 low-budget weirdie The Monster and the Girl. It’s a strange little genre-mashing murder mystery/courtroom drama/death row movie that takes a hairpin turn at the two-thirds mark and becomes a brain transplant/gorilla on the loose picture. Gemora’s gorilla is a masterpiece, and his performance is incredibly realistic, even considering he’s playing a gorilla with a new, revenge-seeking human brain.
Working the suit was strenuous business, however, and following a heart attack which forced him to hand over his suit to another actor halfway through the filming of 1954’s Phantom of the Rue Morgue (if you see the film you can easily note the change), Gemora opted for fewer and fewer gorilla roles, concentrating instead on his makeup and costume work, but keeping busy until his death in 1961.
For the more than one hundred films on which he worked in so many different capacities, Charlie Gemora only received twelve screen credits: Seven for his makeup work (including two after his death), and five for his gorilla performances (not including the two times he was credited as “Sir Charles, the Gorilla”). Of course the studios were hesitant to break the spell by revealing that it wasn’t, in fact, a real gorilla menacing Bob Hope up there on the screen, and thanks to the genius of Charlie Gemora, they could get away with it.