GORILLAS in His MIDST; A Jacksonville Adventurer Made the First Big Gorilla Movie 7 Years before King Kong Hit the Screen

Article excerpt

Byline: MATT SOERGEL

Seven years before King Kong, there was The Gorilla Hunt, in which a gorilla captured by Jacksonville big-game hunter/filmmaker Ben Burbridge terrorized New York City, smashing skyscrapers with its bare paws.

RIPS B'WAY WIDE OPEN!

Or so the poster for Burbridge's 1926 silent film would have you believe.

It was all a rather fanciful exaggeration. The Gorilla Hunt was, instead, a 46-minute nature movie, in which the Jacksonville real-estate man ventured into the Belgian Congo with native guides, his guns and his camera, seeking the mountain gorillas of Lake Kivu.

No Broadway. No skyscrapers. No white women carried off by a gorilla, as promised in another ad for the film.

Even so, in a nation decades away from 24-hour cable TV nature channels, it was a sensation, pushed by producer Joseph P. Kennedy, father of John, Bobby and Ted, into theaters across the country.

The Gorilla Hunt was widely credited with having the first images of gorillas captured on film. It had exotic Africans, wildlife and scenery. It even had an action sequence shot in Florida featuring Burbridge's son in a gorilla suit, just to spice things up.

It all worked. The film is "the most thrilling exhibition of awesome beasts and brave men, ever recorded on film," reckoned the Motion Picture Bulletin of California, in one of countless rave reviews.

The hubbub died down, eventually. Burbridge passed away in 1936. He was 60, and died, doctors said, of a "microbe" he picked up on a trip to Africa. And The Gorilla Hunt seemed to disappear, for decades.

But it wasn't forgotten. "I've been chasing this movie for 45 years," says his grandson, also named Ben Burbridge.

The hunt ended in 2004, with the posthumous help of Errol Flynn, Hollywood's Robin Hood. On an October day in Jacksonville, The Gorilla Hunt would finally make it back to the big-game hunter's family -- for one morning at least.

INTO THE WILDS OF AFRICA

Burbridge killed several gorillas and captured several more on African trips. In the photo above, he's shown with two juvenile gorillas, as well as a 450-pound gorilla he shot as it charged at him, trying to rescue the young ones.

He named one of captives Miss Congo and brought it to Jacksonville, keeping it for a while at his office at 420 Main St. Miss Congo became a star for a while. She appeared at gala premieres of The Gorilla Hunt, then was studied by scientists such as Robert Yerkes of Yale. Soon after, Yerkes founded a center for the study of primates in Orange Park known by locals at The Monkey Farm.

Miss Congo lived for years at the family's riverfront property in the jungle off San Jose Boulevard, where she settled into an apparently happy life. A newspaper article told how she "prefers automobile riding to any other sport," liked to be cuddled by Burbridge's sister-in-law, Juanita, and played on a children's playground.

Family lore holds that, after years of cajoling from the Ringling Bros. circus, Burbridge finally sold the family pet to help finance more of his adventures. Shortly after, Miss Congo fell into a malaise and died on the road with the circus, even after an emergency visit from his beloved friend, Juanita, from Jacksonville.

"It was melancholy. She missed Aunt Juanita," Ben Burbridge's grandson says. "Circus life did not agree with her, sadly."

BEHIND THAT MILD-MANNERED FACE

Burbridge was a star, too, with his picture -- with round spectacles under an ever-present pith helmet -- showing up in dozens of publications. It's a mild-mannered face for someone a newspaper described as "the only man who ever had a hand-to-hand fight with a gorilla and lived to tell the tale."

In photo at left, he's with Miss Congo, his hands bandaged from the duel, which started when he "launched at baby a flying tackle which would have nailed Red Grange," as a journalist wrote. …