Charlie Gemora: Hollywood’s famous gorilla man
—by Nick Thomas
Movie databases would suggest make-up genius Charlie Gemora worked on only about a hundred films.
“More likely it was over 1,000,” says his daughter, Diana, from her home in Oregon. “He began creating sculptures for film sets in the 1920s, which evolved into designing and wearing gorilla suits. From there, he became a successful make-up artist.”
Born in the Philippines, in 1903, Charlie was the youngest of 9 children. After his father died, Charlie ran away only to be found by his family and placed in a monastery for several years where he immersed himself in art books.
Yearning for a better life, the young teenager stowed away on a ship bound for San Francisco.
Arriving in America, Gemora found work at a fruit farm and later a dairy on the West Coast. After winning an art contest in 1922, he headed to Hollywood in search of employment as an artist.
“Universal was making ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ (1923) and hired Charlie as an extra,” said Diana. “Someone from the art department saw his sketches and said if he could draw, he could be a sculptor, and that’s how it all began. When an ape suit was needed for ‘The Lost World’ (1925), Charlie helped design it.”
Standing just over 5 feet tall, Gemora went on to design Hollywood’s most realistic gorilla suits, and also wear them in films alongside notable comedy stars such as The Marx Brothers, Abbott and Costello, Laurel and Hardy, and Hope and Crosby, as well as in many dramatic movies such as “Murders in the Rue Morgue.”
An artist herself today (see www.westgate-works.com), Diana says that despite her father’s busy schedule, he found time for his family. And at home with her friends, she says Gemora was entertaining.
“He didn’t dress up in the gorilla suits, but was a great story teller. He would corral my teenage friends and was like a Pied Piper telling them funny stories from his career. He was always a great practical joker on movie sets.”
Like the time he played the gorilla on the set of “Island of Lost Souls.”
“The Promotion Department wanted the public to think a real gorilla was being used, and kept Charlie in the cage for several days while in public view. They were on location at a wharf in Long Beach using real longshoremen and one sailor taunted Charlie relentlessly.”
Never revealing his identity, Gemora submitted to the abuse while plotting his revenge for the last day of shooting when he secretly loosened the bars of the cage.
“Charlie lunged at the sailor who burnt rubber on his shoes running away and never even came back for his pay!”
Many more stories from Gemora’s career can be found in J.L. Barnett’s detailed 2016 documentary “Charlie Gemora: Uncredited” (see www.charliegemora.com).
Although he went on to become a first-class make-up artist and prop designer – creating such iconic costumes as the Martian in 1953’s “The War of the Worlds” – Diana believes years of wearing hot gorilla suits took their toll. Gemora died in 1961 at the age of just 58.
“It killed him before his time,” she said. “He had to have oxygen tanks nearby while wearing the suits and after making ‘The Monster and the Girl’ (1941) had a major heart attack. He continued to work, but it was his last solo gig as a gorilla and only did the head close-ups and a little body work afterwards.”
Although rarely seen on film out of make-up, Charlie Gemora will always be remembered for creating early Hollywood magic on the big screen.
“King Kong might have died for love of his lady,” added Diana, “but Charlie died for love of a gorilla.”
Nick Thomas teaches at Auburn University at Montgomery, Ala., and has written features, columns, and interviews for over 600 magazines and newspapers. See www.tinseltowntalks.com