Charles Gemora Going Ape in Hollywood

Stowing away on a ship from his native Philippines, Charles Gemora ended up in Hollywood without any direction or a penny to his name. But it was at the dawn of cinema and opportunity was there for anyone with a dream, and Gemora chased his dream by showcasing his immense artistic skills outside the Universal lot. This put him on the studio’s radar and starting with the 1923 masterpiece Hunchback of Notre Dame starring Lon Chaney, the Philippino immigrant found himself working on a number of high profile films in a number of different roles. Over a career spanning decades, Gemora worked as a set designer, make-up artist, special fx artist, costume designer, and even the occasional acting role. But he did have a certain niche in Hollywood that he first debuted in 1927’s short Goose Flesh. Charles Gemora was the go-to performer to play gorillas onscreen which he did in close to 60 films.

During an era where men in ape suits were prevalent onscreen, Gemora was the best of the best. According to Hollywood-lore his short stature made him the perfect size to fill these roles. In addition to this, his talents in the filmmaking process meant that he could expertly construct his own gorilla suits and do his own make-up as well. Beyond the production standpoint, Charles Gemora was strangely gifted at playing gorillas. Unable to use his voice, Gemora knew how to use movement and body language in his performances for optimal. He would spend hours at the zoo studying the primates there learning how they move and interacted with both humans and others of their kind.

What began as his working on gorilla costumes in the silent era gave way to the film worker donning them himself. Charles Gemora would make his ape-tastic feature film debut in 1928’s The Leopard Lady as a gorilla trained to be a killer. His ability to both deliver a great performance and tolerate the cumbersome suit soon made him the go-to for other filmmakers. In the years which followed he would cultivate a CV of credits such as: Zozo the Gorilla in The Circus Kid, Gorilla in the sound remake of The Unholy Three as well as a number of early Tarzan films.

During his career as a primate actor it would understandably be the horror and comedy genres which gave him the most to work with. In 1932, he worked with Bela Lugosi in two Pre-Code horror masterpieces Murders in the Rue Morgue and Island of Lost Souls as Erik the Gorilla and Gorilla on the Pier respectively. In 1941, Gemora gave what many consider his best performance in a hairy costume in the criminally underrated The Monster and the Girl. Beyond playing your standard gorilla, this movie sees him play a gorilla with the brain of a man who was wrongfully executed and seeking revenge. This means he not only had to portray a physical gorilla but with with the soul of a human and he nails it to perfection. He got to bring the funnies alongside some of the greatest comedy teams in cinema history like Laurel and Hardy and the Marx Brothers. Perhaps he is best known for working with Bud Abbott and Lou Costello in one of their best movies for Universal, Africa Screams.

During a career that spanned decades, Charles Gemora worked in numerous roles on a number of classic films such as: Phantom of the Opera, Double Indemnity, War of the Worlds, The Ten Commandments and more. He also a pioneered new techniques and technologies in the realms of make-up and cinematography. But what Charlie Gemora is known as to film historians is the “ape-guy”. This may sound like a slight, but it is instead a salute to a man who carved his own path to the Hollywood Dream. Charles Gemora was a true cinematic genius and the artform is richer for having his talents behind the camera and in front of it in the form of a primate cutting loose.