In honor of Asian Heritage Month, let’s take a look at the life and works of legendary gorilla suit maker/actor Charles Gemora.
Charles “Charlie” Gemora was born on August 15th, 1903 in the Philippines. Stowing away on a ship headed for America, Gemora arrived in California and made money selling portraits on the street in front of Universal Studios. His talent was quickly noticed and he was soon working in the special effects department. This led to his first onscreen role in 1928, a role that became a defining part of his career: a gorilla.
Charles Gemora’s goal of creating the ultimate gorilla costume made him the go-to guy in Hollywood for those looking for realistic depictions of gorillas, while those looking for more monstrous gorillas went to Ray “Crash” Corrigan (and later to his protégé/successor, Steve Calvert) and George Barrows. Back in those days, studios would often hire gorilla suit suit actors since they came with their own suits are were less expensive than building a new suit from scratch. These men often went uncredited in an attempt to make audiences think that the onscreen gorillas were real (as was common with many horror films of the time). Gemora’s costumes often made use of muscle padding and his “water bag” invention, which created the illusion of rippling stomach muscles, so it’s understandable that some studios would be tempted to advertise them as the real deal. One film, the infamous hoax documentary Ingagi, even tried to pass off scenes of Gemora in costume as documentary footage! However, this (and many other outlandish claims made by the risqué fauxumentary) were exposed in an official investigation.
His reputation as a gorilla suit actor was so great that rumors claiming that he originally played King Kong started circulating! Many just couldn’t accept that anything other than a man in a suit could have created what they saw onscreen, despite the fact that Kong was created using stop-motion animation (along with a large fake hand and mechanical bust for certain close-ups). Soon the rumors started saying that Gemora himself made the claim! However, he always denied any involvement with the film and the rumors seem to have stemmed from his playing a King Kong parody in the never-completed movie, The Lost Island.
In case you’re wondering about the quality of his costumes, here are two pictures of the costume Mr. Gemora constructed for 1941’s The Monster and the Girl. Similarly, here is a picture of the suit he made for 1954’s Phantom of the Rue Morgue. Compare that to these two gorilla pictures. Similarly, compare them to the King Kong costume used in 1986’s King Kong Lives. As you can see, he was truly a man ahead of his time. Castings made from one of his costumes were even used to create a Don Post Halloween mask! In addition to gorilla costumes, he also designed monster costumes for films like The War of the Worlds and I Married a Monster from Outer Space.