July 12, 2011
from July 2, 2007
Bradford B. Jacobs had sold the movie rights to The Big Ape. Literally anyone with a camera could make a Big Ape film because the rights had become so muddied and legally entangled that it was virtually public domain. Bradford didn’t care. He was richer than he could ever imagine and set to become even richer.
Although he sold the movie rights, he still maintained the merchandising rights. As the 1940′s opened there was a Big Ape merchandising bonanza in the making. Unlike other fictional characters, The Big Ape appealed universally. Men, women, children, of all ages loved the Ape and, more importantly, were willing to spend money on him. Businessmen wore Big Ape neckties. Women wore Big Ape embroidered skirts. Children went to school with Big Ape lunchboxes and read from Big Ape textbooks. Even the normally staid Wall Street investor was likely to be seen with a Big Ape pen and pencil set.
There were Big Ape comic books, Big Ape silverware sets, Big Ape costumes, dolls, toys of every type and even expensive Big Ape diamond jewelry. During this time, The Big Ape also conquered the world of television, hosting The Big Ape Variety Hour. Although TV, still in it’s infancy, was only in a handful of homes, it seemed as though everyone tuned in at 9 pm on the DuMont Network every Thursday evening. Long before The Cosby Show, this was Must See TV.
Films, however, were where The Big Ape shown the brightest. It should be noted, however, that because there was no one central force overseeing The Big Ape, his characterization often varied wildly from film to film. In some he could talk. In others he could fly. In still others he was average height while in others he was over 100 feet tall. The lack of consistency did not deter the audience. Nearly every single one of The Big Ape films produced in this era made huge amounts of money at the box office.
What follows is a list of some of the more notable Big Ape films of the 1940s.
The Big Ape Meets Hitler (1942) This was a propaganda film produced by the U.S. War Department. The Big Ape went behind enemy lines to kill Hitler. In this movie, The Big Ape was portrayed by a marine in a regular uniform, plus a gorilla mask.
The Big Ape Vs. The Little Dinosaur (1944) Largely played for laughs, The Big Ape found himself shrunk down to microscopic size to fight a similarly shrunken dinosaur.
The Big Ape Vs. Doctor Verlucci (1946) Astor Pictures had produced a very popular series of Doctor Verlucci movies in the 1930s and early 1940s. Doctor Verlucci was a scientist who often tried to dominate the world with assorted death rays and giant robots. After six films, the series had run its course. Doctor Verlucci was a villain and again and again he would get to the brink of victory when the hero would finally defeat him in the last reel. The public had just had enough. Looking to turn their fortunes around, the producers turned Doctor Verlucci into a hero and made The Big Ape his nemesis. To show how evil The Ape was, he wore a handlebar mustache and tied a girl to the railroad tracks.
Gorilla of Doom (1947) Wearing a space suit, The Big Ape came from Mars to steal all of Earth’s bananas.
Throughout the 1940s, The Big Ape could be seen virtually anywhere. Bradford B. Jacobs, however, could not. Bradford was busy with first the war effort, then post-war European reconstruction.
General Bruce E. Freedkin, from his Congressional testimony before the HUAC:
There wasn’t another man like Bradford B. Jacobs. No sir, he was a patriot. Whether it was the bullets he sold the army or the rafts he sold the navy, no one did more for victory than that man. I personally remember when he visited the front. He brought with him enough ammunition for every soldier to fight for another month. And if the soldiers couldn’t afford the ammo, he was ready to offer a generous line of credit.
While it wouldn’t be accurate to call Bradford B. Jacobs a war profiteer, it wouldn’t be all that far off. While he never sold anything to the enemy, he did keep close at hand a German-English dictionary, “if the need should ever arise.”
During this time he also met the man who would become his right hand. Literally. For a brief period of time Bradford refused to touch anything with his right hand. This was due to a Chinese fortune cookie which Bradford very badly misinterpreted. Reggie Van Der Leek could always be found at the right of Jacobs ready to do anything from shake a hand to lift a fork. This made for some very interesting meals, but BBJ, as Van Der Leek referred to him, was so filthy rich that no one would say a word.
Reggie Van Der Leek eventually became an executive of Jacobs Colossal Studios. JCS had evolved from making pictures to making supplies for the military to making whatever else Bradford could make a few bucks on. Reggie worked very closely with Jacobs as the years went on.
Reggie Van Der Leek, interviewed from his West Texas rest home in 2006:
Man whee-oh, that BBJ was weird. He insisted on calling everybody “Buck.” I was with him when he met the President and he said “watch it Buck, you’re blocking the buffet.” Hee, we all had a laugh. The President, he wasn’t so amused, but BBJ was more popular with the public so he had to shut up. I once saw a poll around 1948 or so that said that ol’ BBJ would win the Presidency if he ran, so that took the wind out of ol’ Buck’s sails a might.
Yeah, the public loved BBJ. Of course, he gave them The Big Ape, an’ that woulda been enough for any man, but not ol’ BBJ. He personally came out every Thanksgiving an’ shot a turkey for a poor family. On February ninth it was the anniversary of some relative of his, some ol’ Civil War hero or something. He’d get up in this gray Confederate uniform an’ take out this ol’ rifle an’ take the whole crew down to his family’s ol’ home in Jacobs Landing, West Virginia or someplace. Bought the town presents. Every gol-darned person there got an autographed Big Ape glossy photo.
Reggie wasn’t exaggerating about “the whole crew.” Bradford surrounded himself with a group of leeches and hangers-on that would make Elvis jealous. (When the two met in 1965, Elvis would profess his jealousy over Bradford’s crew in person.) Many of the people around Bradford had a legitimate business purpose. There were people whose sole job was to film his every move. There were other’s whose sole job was to film the people filming Bradford. There were still other’s whose sole job was to film the people were in the general area of Bradford while he was being filmed. This was not paranoia- in 1948 a crazed Big Ape fan tried to kill Bradford because he imagined that The Big Ape was ordering him to kill.
Other people around Bradford were there because they either amused Bradford, or Bradford thought they might amuse him in the future, or they had amused him in the past.
Bradford also became the host of Gravesend Radio Theater, hosting a series of spooky stories aired over WOR in New York. He didn’t need the money, he did it because he thought it would be fun. In fact, Bradford was motivated by only three things- money, fun, and money, in that order.
As the 1940s ended and the 1950s began, both Bradford B. Jacobs and The Big Ape were poised to make even bigger splashes.
TO BE CONTINUED IN PART THREE: THE ADORING PUBLIC