'Bride of the Gorilla' in Classic Cool Context

This Saturday at 9 p.m., KCET brings you "Bride of the Gorilla," a schlocky horror film set in the South American jungle. Raymond Burr plays a plantation owner cursed to transform into a gorilla after murdering Barbara Payton's husband. This is the latest entry in KCET's "Classic, Cool Theater" series, which aims to give you not only a great film but also a vintage cartoon, two newsreels and an of-the-era musical number. All those extras add up to what makes "Classic Cool Theater" so special: context. In the spirit of this unique package, we're offering you a peek at the America -- and the Los Angeles -- that received "Bride of the Gorilla" in October, 1951.

Hollywood is seemingly full of bad girl actresses these days. With the glut of tabloid coverage, it would be easy to think the current crop of young starlets gets in to more trouble than those of any bygone decade. But just because TMZ wasn't around in the 1940s and 50s doesn't mean all of young Hollywood acted like Doris Day. Barbara Payton, the female lead in "Bride of the Gorilla," has a story that rivals any Hollywood tragedy.

When this movie was filmed in 1951, the 23-year-old, Texas-born Barbara Payton was under contract with Warner Bros. The film's producer, Jack Broder, asked Jack Warner if he would loan her to Universal, to which he gladly agreed after numerous reports of her infidelity. Payton was engaged to actor Franchot Tone at the time, but was also having an affair with Tom Neal. She eventually married Tone for 53 days after Neal beat Tone so badly that he was in a coma for several days. But she went back to Neal soon after.

Here she is visiting Tone in the hospital. Note she is also sporting a black eye:

Payton's party girl reputation eventually made her uninsurable as a major studio actress and she went to work for Hammer Films in the U.K. But she wasn't afraid to play up her real-life persona on screen. This is the trailer for the 1953 film, "Bad Blonde":

By the late 1950s, Payton was struggling with drug and alcohol addiction. She was also arrested for writing bad checks and prostitution.

Here she is in 1962 after showing up to the Hollywood police station with visible scars and bruises. She refused to file any complaint:

Payton died in 1967 of heart and liver failure.

Take a Closer Look Back

While the gorilla in "Bride of the Gorilla" was really just actor Steve Calvert in a suit, Los Angeles residents had been able to visit wild animals in person at the Griffith Park Zoo since 1913. That facility was the forerunner to today's Los Angeles Zoo.

Here's an abandoned cage from the Griffith Park Zoo that's still standing. The surrounding area is now a popular picnic ground:

Old Griffith Park zoo, via Flickr user DB's Travels under Creative Commons license

The zoo was greatly expanded in the 1930s as a Works Progress Administration project, but by the 1950s it had fallen into disrepair. The Los Angeles Daily News called it an "inadequate, ugly, poorly designed and under-financed collection of beat-up cages."

The Griffith Park Zoo was closed in 1965, a year before the opening of the new Los Angeles Zoo.

Here's an aerial view of the construction site in 1966:

While Payton's co-star in "Bride of the Gorilla" ended up being Raymond Burr, the plot line of a man who turns into a bloodthirsty creature at night brings to mind one of the film's other stars, Lon Chaney, who made the "Wolf Man" character famous in 1941.

Director Curt Siodmak originally considered Chaney for Burr's role, but thought he looked too old.