Next week at TFH we’re featuring a modest tribute to Bela! … Lugosi, of course. The films include Invisible Ghost (helmed by Gun Crazy‘s Joseph H. Lewis), 1947’s Scared To Death, and the subject of today’s Saturday Matinee, Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla.
The sole reason for the existence of Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla is Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. If anything, that considerably narrows down the blame for this 74 minute pleasure-killer from 1952.
It was at the height of Martin and Lewis’ extraordinary success in the early fifties (each appearance was a near riot, on stage and off, a bobbysoxer’s version of Beatlemania) that a motley collection of crooners and comics rushed in to steal some of the limelight.
None were so brazen (or motley) than the team of Duke Mitchell and Sammy Petrillo. Mitchell was an erstwhile lounge singer with a predilection for imitating smooth operators like Vaughn Monroe and Frankie Laine. Petrillo had only one impersonation in his toolkit but it was the key to their act.
It’s up to debate whether it was a blessing or a curse, but Sammy Petrillo was born into this world as a nearly exact duplicate of Jerry Lewis, an uncanny facsimile which Petrillo topped off with a more than serviceable reproduction of Lewis’ whiningly infantile outbursts.
Unable to afford the actual Martin and Lewis, producer Jack Broder (president of Realart Pictures, a reissue distributor of Universal monster classics) signed Mitchell and Petrillo for Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla, a low, low budget horror comedy in the vein of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein to be directed by the similarly low-budget director William Beaudine.
Filmed in six days for a budget of 12,000 while Martin and Lewis producer Hal Wallis threatened to sue and Lugosi sank further into Morphine addiction, Brooklyn Gorilla is useful only as a jaundiced example of opportunistic fly-by-night moviemaking.
By cynically co-opting the rising fortunes of two new stars and the fading fortunes of an old one, Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla shows us how an exploitation film can be genuinely exploitive.
Sammy Petrillo appeared in only one other movie of interest, a blink-or-you’ll-miss-him moment in the memorably sleazy The Brain that Wouldn’t Die, released in 1962.
Duke Mitchell passed away in 1981 but unwittingly participated in a post-mortem career renaissance with the recent revivals of The Executioner (1978) and Gone With The Pope (1976), each film idiomatic of the great grindhouse era and each showing more passion and integrity than any frame to be found in Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla.