It was way too early in the morning to get a call from a perplexed friend.
“Turn on the TV and go to that new station” he urged. “I need you to identify this film. It’s driving me crazy.”
The TV station in question was a new one, bidding for an affiliate license and not yet on the cable grid. As I fiddled with the tuner to try to make the picture clear, my friend continued.
“I’ve just about seen every damn picture made by Jerry Lewis but I’ll be damned if I can recall this one.”
At that moment, Bela Lugosi’s awesome puss became visible through the snow on my set. Immediately, I clued in on what was going on.
“That’s not Jerry!” I revealed.
“No. No. Not that guy! That’s Bela Lugosi! I never knew Jerry made a movie with Lugosi.”
“That’s because the guy who looks like Jerry isn’t Jerry.”
“Yes, it is. He’s just very young. Wait until you see him. They’re so young, Dean Martin is barely recognizeable.”
“That’s because it’s not Dean martin but a nightclub singer by the name of Duke Mitchell.”
“Jerry had another partner before Dean? Wow! I knew you were the guy to call.”
At that moment, “Jerry” appeared on the screen, jumping around in Lewis’ patented “idiotic behaviour” style. I cut in again.
“That’s not Jerry. That’s a Jerry Lewis impersonator by the name of Sammy Petrillo. The movie you are watching is called Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla.”
Sure enough, the station was filling it’s airwaves with public domain titles. And it seems that whenever you get your hands on a bunch of old films whose rights have expired, you’ll most likely find this 1952 curiosity.
The director of Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla, William Beaudine acquired the nickname “one shot” for his close adherence to the “If you can see it and hear it- the shot’s good” school of directing. It apparently came from his early days as a director of silents, when one of the producer’s cronies showed up on set and urge him to “pick up the pace”. Beaudine reportledly replied “You mean to tell me someone’s actually in a hurry to see this shit?” and never did a retake unless absolutely necessary. Shot in less than a week in the basement of Desilu Sudios, it has been reported major TV stars like Lucy and Desi used to go down on their lunch break just to watch Beaudine work. In all fairness, Beaudine was fast but he was efficient. He directed over 500 features in his carreer and has countless TV credits (like the classic Lassie show of the 50s).
Sammy Petrillo was the undisputed King of Jerry Lewis impersonators. In fact, it was Jerry that gave him his first big break, featuring him a his son in a sketch of one of the Colgate Comedy Hour specials he did with Martin.
The only problem was, Sammy never stopped impersonating Jerry and, with time, Lewis got really annoyed. We’re talking “Cease and desist” annoyed here.
In what has to be one of the sweetest scams ever in showbiz history, Mitchell and Petrillo went touring, booking themselves with pay-or-play contracts in hotels across America. Once checked in, they would call Lewis’ management and inform them of their location. It was just a question of time before the Hotel Manager would appear, apologizing profusely, to let them know that they had received a phone call from Lewis’ people informing them of the consequences of letting these two on stage. The pay-or-play contract would be honoured and they were welcome to stay at the hotel as guests. And so, Mitchell and Petrillo toured for well over a year, living the high life and never having to perform once.
After Dean and Jerry split, Duke and Sammy parted on amicable terms.
Sammy, for the most part, billed himself as “The World’s Youngest Has-Been”. Until his death in 2009, he was a fixture at autograph shows happily boasting that “Jerry never got $20 for his signature”.
I’ll give him credit. His Jerry was good enough to fool a fan into dragging me out of bed early half a century later.
Duke Mitchell, on the other hand, dubbed himself “King of Palm Springs” and went on as a crooner often under his italian name Dominic “Mimi” Miceli. He is credited as being the Elvis-like voice of Fred Flintstone on thos episodes where Fred signs. Other sources (like Michael J. Weldon’s Psychotronic Video Guide) claim he was Barney Rubble’s singing voice.
It’s here that Duke’s career takes a bizarre twist as director of two very bizarre obscurities. His first film Gone with the Pope reportedly never got a theatrical release but was finally released to video by Grindhouse releasing a couple of years ago.
But it’s his second film that delivers the goods for bad movie aficionados. Originally titled Like Father, Like Son, this grungy little independent feature also was released to home video as The Exeutioner and now as a DVD entitled Massacre Mafia Style. reportedly autobiographical, it tells the story of a crooner/hit man who goes up in the ranks after devising a money laundering scheme involving making low-budget films so crappy they lose money. Really? Now where would “Mimi” have found such a preposterous idea?
One thing’s for sure; It’s real hard to sit through. Fortunately, the best bit on this film is the opening scene, as “Mimi” and his cohort blast their way out of an office building after executing a rival boss by electrocuting him in a urinal. The combination of stupendously bad stunt choreography and Italian sing-along make this one of the Cinémasochist’s all-time favoritest clips ever. Just try and watch it just once!
Both Sammy and Duke are gone now, but their brief association with the immortal Bela Lugosi coupled with the film costing nothing to show, assure their immortality.
Here is their feature in it’s entirety.
Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla
Pain Level: 6/10
Quality of Pain: Benign. It barely tickles.
Like Father, Like Son/The Executioner/Massacre Mafia Style
Pain Level: 8/10
Quality of pain: Famiglia size!