KING KONG Turns 80: A Retrospective
Article by Tom Stockman
The big guy once known as ‘The 8th Wonder of the World’ is celebrating his 80th birthday. A landmark accomplishment in cinema and fantasy, King Kong still holds the power to astonish and inspire, so in honor of its 80 years, here’s a look at the movie’s groundbreaking production and significant legacy.
Carl Denham, who brought Kong from Skull Island to New York, was an adventurous, globe-hopping filmmaker and the same was true of Merian C. Cooper, the mastermind behind the movie King Kong. Born in 1893, Cooper had been an aviator and hero in the First World War. He began his movie career in the mid-1920s at Paramount Pictures where he teamed up with Ernest B. Schoedsack, a pioneering motion picture photographer and news cameraman who would become his filmmaking partner. Their first successes were a pair of ambitious anthropological documentaries inspired by the success of Nanook of the North (1922). Grass (1925) was about the migration of a Persian tribe that blended footage shot on location with staged sequences. The follow-up, Chang: a Drama of the Wilderness (1927). a fictionalized look at life in the jungles of Southeast Asia, featured footage of wild tigers, snakes, and leopards. A highlight was an elephant stampede that destroys a village. That sequence and many others, filmed at close range from camouflaged shelters and pits placed near animal trails and drinking holes, were clearly dangerous to film. In 1927 Cooper and Schoedsack journeyed to Africa to film an adaption of A.E.W. Mason’s colonial warfare drama The Four Feathers starring William Powell, Richard Arlen, and dark-haired Canadian actress Fay Wray. There Cooper, who’d held a lifelong fascination with gorillas, got the idea for a film about a giant ape inhabiting an island alongside prehistoric monsters. Back in Hollywood, Cooper pitched his project to the MGM and Paramount brass but neither studio was willing to risk the costly and impractical project.
Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack
In 1932, Merian C. Cooper accepted an offer from old friend David O. Selznick as production head at RKO, a studio nearing bankruptcy, hard-hit by the depression. One of Cooper’s first tasks was to evaluate Creation, a proposed epic about a group of men who encounter an island of prehistoric creatures. Creation was a project conceived by special effects wiz Willis O’Brien, whose specialty was animating scale models, one frame at a time, to create the appearance of movement. O’Brien’s most noted achievement had been the 1925 silent The Lost World, Arthur Conan Doyle’s story of dinosaurs discovered on a remote South America plateau brought to modern-day London. When Cooper inspected O’Brien’s twenty minutes of Creation test footage (four minutes of which survives today) he saw a way to bring his giant ape concept to life. He pitched his idea to Selznick, who shared his enthusiasm. Creation was scrapped, but the studio green lighted Kong, known in preproduction as The Beast.
Creation test footage – 1931
British crime novelist Edgar Wallace, contracted by RKO to pen original treatments, was assigned to write The Beast. Merian C. Cooper fed him ideas and encouraged him to incorporate scenes from Creation into the story to utilize the dinosaur models Willis O’Brien had constructed. Over five-weeks, Wallace banged out a 110-page screenplay. He created the major characters, their relationships, and their role in the overall story as well as the beauty and the beast theme, but the author died suddenly of diabetes-related complications. Ernest B. Shoedshack’s wife Ruth Rose was brought on to finish the script and it was she who modeled showman Carl Denham on Cooper. According to Cooper, not a word of Wallace’s original screenplay, which had a needless subplot regarding escaped convicts, ended up in the final film but the author is given a “from an idea conceived by” credit because it was promised him.
Scheduled as ‘RKO Production 601’, the title changed from The Beast to The Eighth Wonder and finally King Kong. Originally Merian Cooper had pictured Kong as more half human/half beast. Willis O’Brien had hired Mexican sculptor Marcel Delgado to create his monsters for The Lost World and brought him on board for Kong. Delgado initially designed a missing link creature combining the features of a long-haired man and a monkey but Cooper hated that concept. He wanted Kong to be as fierce and brutal as possible so decided a pure male gorilla was best after all. The final Kong was 18 inches tall (there would be four Kongs built), a jointed aluminum armature covered with foam rubber and latex. Kong’s rabbit fur pelt was altered by the fingers of the stop-action animators between every frame that gives it a constant rippling effect. Delgado’s models for The Lost World had been built on wooden armatures, but metal ones moved more smoothly though each night the Kong models had to have their skins removed so the metal hinges could be tightened.
The miniature jungle settings were intricate combinations of scale construction and precisely arranged paintings on glass. These paintings, as well as other pre-production art, were credited to artists Mario Larrinaga and Byron Crabbe and were inspired, at O’Brien’s suggestion, on the moody wood-cut illustrations of 19th-century French artist Gustave Dore. They blended flawlessly with the miniature sets and the jungle soundstage, giving Kong a dreamy, stylish atmosphere that couldn’t have been achieved through any type of location shooting. The animated models were filmed one frame at a time, with minute adjustments between each shot. It could take an entire day to get the 24 exposures needed to fill just one second of screen time. O’Brien finished work on Kong’s battle with the tyrannosaurus rex before principal photography had begun. This footage so impressed RKO brass they upped the film’s budget substantially to $700,000.
“Cover your eyes and scream, Ann, scream for your life!” Merian Cooper knew he wanted to cast a blonde actress as Ann Darrow to contrast with Kong’s dark pelt. His first choices were Ginger Rogers and Jean Harlow, Hollywood’s ‘Platinum Blonde’, but both actresses were under contract with other studios. 24-year old Fay Wray, who had starred for Erich von Stroheim in The Wedding March (1928), was under contract with RKO and was known to Cooper and Schoedsack, having acted in their The Four Feathers. She was starring in Cooper’s first RKO film, The Most Dangerous Game (1932), another jungle-set adventure, and had proven her chops as a scream queen with Dr. X (1931) and The Vampire Bat (1932). Wray claims in her autobiography On the Other Hand that Cooper initially approached her with the deceptive offer to costar opposite “the tallest, darkest leading man in Hollywood”, whom she assumed was either Clark Gable or Cary Grant. Wray slapped on a blonde wig and was paid $10,000 to play Ann. RKO got their money’s worth in lungpower alone. Her terrified scream is Hollywood’s most familiar and the studio would dub it over the voices of weaker-lunged actresses in other films including that of Helen Mack in Son of Kong.
For romantic lead Jack Driscoll, Cooper wanted to cast Wray’s The Most Dangerous Game co-star Joel McCrea, but they couldn’t come to terms, so unknown contract player Bruce Cabot was tapped. Cooper was impressed with Cabot’s athleticism, a quality he would need for a role that required him to, among other feats, swing from a vine into a cliff-side cave. Carl Denham would be Wray’s The Most Dangerous Game wisecracking costar Robert Armstrong. Cooper apparently saw much of himself both in the personality and appearance of the fast-talking Armstrong who had a string of credits as hard-boiled detectives, promoters, and reporters. Coincidentally, Armstrong and Cooper would die one day apart in 1973. Yet another The Most Dangerous Game player, African-American actor Noble Johnson, was cast in King Kong as Skull Island’s tribal leader. Rounding out the cast was German actor and former silent film director Frank Reicher as the Steamship Venture’s Captain Englehorn. Armstrong, Johnson, Reicher, and Victor Wong as Charlie the cook, would reprise their roles for Son of Kong.
Bruce Cabot, Fay Wray, and Robert Armstrong
King Kong was one of the earliest films with a musical score composed specifically for it and that assignment went to Austrian-born Max Steiner. Kong was Steiner’s breakthrough, leading to a long string of credits including Gone with the Wind (1939) and Casablanca (1941) and 24 Oscar nominations. Merian C. Cooper recognized the importance of a good score, aware that music not only says what the actors cannot but can appeal directly to the emotions of the viewer, so budgeted $50,000 to employ a 46-piece orchestra. With Kong, Steiner set a new standard and was ahead of his time in utilizing a system of assigning musical themes for the main characters and accompaniment designed to mirror on-screen action. This use of themes, including a romantic one for Ann and Kong, was highly influential and RKO would recycle the score for several film including Son of Kong, The Last Days of Pompeii (1935) and The Last of the Mohicans (1936).
Max Steiner and his orchestra
Cooper and Schoedsack began shooting jungle locations for King Kong before The Most Dangerous Game had wrapped and between Game setups Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong, and the crew would film their own Kong jungle scenes. The ravine bridged by a fallen tree that Kong eventually hurls into the pit can be seen in Game as well as other elements of the Kong jungle set including a waterfall. The same screams of the men falling into the ravine after being shaken off the log by Kong are heard during the shipwreck sequence of Game.
THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME
In addition to the small models of Kong, Willis O’Brien had his crew construct a 20-foot tall head, chest, and shoulders made of wire, wood, and cloth covered in bearskin. Three men were inside, operating levers and compressed air devices to change Kong’s facial expression. This head was used for several shots, including some shocking ones of Kong chewing on screaming natives. A full-scale foot was built for scenes of Kong trampling natives and a giant hand for when Kong reaches into the cave where Bruce Cabot slashes at him with a knife. A second, larger and more intricate hand was also built, the central function of which was to hold Fay Wray. That hand, with the actress in it, was lifted by crane, and projected backgrounds helped give the illusion that they were thousands of feet in the air when Kong examines his captive while atop the Empire State Building.
Ernest P Schoedsack directed most of the live action sequences at RKO’s studio in Culver City, CA. Sets available there had been built in 1926 for Cecil B. DeMille’s The King of Kings and were recycled for King Kong. These included a massive 60-foot wooden wall with a 20-foot wide gate that was covered with African carvings, jungle growth and that massive wooden bolt. Exteriors for the opening sequence showing the steamer in New York harbor were filmed in San Pedro harbor in California and the interiors were all shot in RKO’s studios.
A stegosaurus, triceratops, plesiosaurus, T-rex, pterodactyl, and various smaller creatures were constructed in the same manner as Kong. These were 2 to 3 feet long, large enough so that they were able to place the animation camera a good distance away while retaining focus on all of the elements (scale fauna and glass paintings) in the shot. Much of the matching of the live action footage with the animated miniatures was accomplished using an innovative camera trick known as rear process projection where the actors performed in front a large projected image. O’Brien would claim that the most complicated sequence to film was the mountaintop battle between Kong and the Pterodactyl. The flying reptile’s beating wings required seven weeks of intricate animation for the scene that runs just one minute. To create jungle ambience, sound engineer Murray Spivack recorded animal noises at a nearby zoo, and then played them backwards for the sounds of the prehistoric beasts. Kong’s roar was created by recording that of a lion, then playing it slowly backwards dubbed over the roar of a tiger, producing a distinctive howl. Spivak himself vocalized many of Kong’s grunts.
Much has been written about the famous lost sequence from King Kong that was shot but cut after an initial screening by Merian C. Cooper, that’s never been found, a thrilling one in which sailors are eaten alive by creepy crawly giant bugs after Kong shakes them from the log into a ravine. One theory concerning the scenes excision is that Cooper thought it too ghastly, taking place just after the sailor’s violent fall into the gorge, and he wanted to keep the focus of terror on Kong. Another is that it was cut to simply tighten up the film’s pacing. This Spider Pit Scene has become a legendary, mythic lost sequence scene from which few stills exist. Director Peter Jackson paid tribute to this sequence by including an updated version of it in his 2005 King Kong remake. Even better, he recreated, in black and white and employing the original stop-motion technique, the scene as a special feature for the Warner Brothers 2005 DVD release of the original King Kong. A documentary about the effort on the disc shows Jackson brought together his brightest FX guys from New Zealand-based WETA studios, along with legendary creature creator Rick Baker and screenwriter Frank Darabont to brainstorm on precisely how it would be assembled. It’s a fascinating project that was pure heaven for monster kids who grew up reading about the scene.
The Empire State Building, the scene of Kong’s final clash with mankind, had been completed less than two years before he climbed it in King Kong. The art deco Manhattan structure was being celebrated as the great architectural achievement of its time, towering a record 12,500 feet. Footage of the four real biplanes was edited around scenes of miniatures, suspended on thin piano wire, flying around Kong, who is attempting to swat them like flies. Willis O’Brien’s crew built a twenty foot ramp that the animation camera itself moved down frame by frame toward Kong, creating the dynamic shots of the combative Kong being seen through the pilot’s eyes. Merian C. Cooper plays the pilot who points to Kong and shouts to the gunner in the cockpit behind him, who is played by Ernest P. Shoedsack. In a way, Kong is killed by the men who created him.
On March 2, 1933, King Kong premiered at the 6,200-seat Radio City Music Hall in New York City where the film was preceded by a massive song and dance production featuring the Dancing Roxyettes entitled Jungle Rhythms. It also played across the street at the 3,700-seat RKO Roxy, the first film to ever open at both of RKO’s flagship movie palaces simultaneously. This was the rock bottom of the Great Depression and just at the time newly inaugurated President Franklin D. Roosevelt had declared a “bank holiday”, closing most banks. As evidence that in times of trouble, people are more eager than ever to turn to escapism and fantasy, crowds stood in long lines, eager to shell out $.75 to see what was advertised as “The Picture Destined to Startle the World!” In its first four days, all ten daily showings at both theaters were sold out and King Kong grossed $90,000. The film had its Hollywood premiere at Grauman’s Chinese Theater on March 23. The life size Kong head and shoulders O’Brien’s team had constructed was placed in the theater’s jungle themed courtyard to greet eager filmgoers. Not to be outdone by his New York counterparts, showman Sid Grauman preceded the film with acrobats, a 50-voice choir, and a troupe of African American women dancers performing The Dance of the Sacred Ape. King Kong was a smash in Hollywood as well and, after opening nationally April 10th, went on to gross $1,800,000, lifting the struggling RKO studio out of debt.
Critics in 1933 were mostly kind to King Kong. Jim Bigelow wrote in his Variety review: ““Kong mystifies as well as it horrifies, and may open up a new medium for scaring babies via the screen.” The New York Times’ Mordaunt Hall declared: “through a variety of angles of camera wizardry the producers set forth an adequate story and furnish enough thrills for any devotee of such tales”. Yet King Kong failed to receive a single Oscar nomination in 1933. The Noel Coward-penned drama CAVALCADE, the second most successful film of 1933, would win the Best Picture Oscar that year. King Kong would have been a shoe-in for the special effects category but that award was not established until 1938. Willis O’Brien would have to wait until 1949 to receive his much-deserved Academy Award for the Cooper-Shoedsack production Mighty Joe Young.
In the wake of King Kong’s monstrous success, RKO quickly shot a sequel which was rushed into theaters before the year was over. Son of Kong picked up where the original film ended, chronicling Carl Denham’s (Armstrong again) return to Skull Island, this time with brunette Helen Mack, searching for a hidden treasure he needs to pay off all the lawsuits that resulted from Kong’s New York City rampage. Junior Kong was blonde, smaller, and friendlier than his dad and Son of Kong was a much softer and more juvenile sequel, a comic fairy tale that ran a brief 70 minutes. It suffered from a lower budget than its predecessor and was not nearly the financial success. Willis O’Brien used parts of his original Kong models to create the son and while the animation is equally polished, Son of Kong is a smaller scale film in every sense.
For King Kong’s 1938 rerelease, some sexuality and violence were excised to appease Hollywood’s Production Code, a set of moral guidelines unenforced five years earlier. These scenes included the one of Kong gently undressing Ann Darrow, then sniffing his fingers and several close-ups of Kong munching and stomping on Skull Island natives and New Yorkers. When King Kong was sold to television in the late 1950’s, it was this censored print that was syndicated so older monster kids grew up watching an abridged version. The film was restored for an early ‘70s reissue and many fans of the film were startled to see the complete King Kong for the first time.
Some censored moments that were restored in the ’70s
King Kong has been officially remade twice. In 1976 Italian movie mogul Dino De Laurentiis unleashed his heavily promoted version starring Jeff Bridges, Charles Grodin, and Jessica Lange as Dwan, to eager audiences. Though De Laurentiis bragged about the 50-foot robot ape artist/sculptor Carlo Rambaldi had constructed for the film, that prop was infamously underused and Kong was mostly played by Rick Baker in an elaborate suit, a development that angered both critics and the original film’s fans. With the exception of John Barry’s score, there is nothing noteworthy about the modestly successful 1976 version which climaxed with Kong battling helicopters atop the World Trade Center. Director Peter Jackson, hot off his Lord of the Rings trilogy got it right with his 2005 remake. Jackson who has stated that King Kong was the film that had inspired him to become a filmmaker, set his version in 1933 and cast Naomi Watts as Ann Darrow, Jack Black as Carl Denham and Adrien Brody as Jack Driscoll. The effects in this version were completely CGI, but it was made with respect for the original film, snatching bits of the corniest original dialogue verbatim, and even a few bars of Max Steiner’s theme. Jackson cast himself as one of the biplane pilots and was in talks with Fay Wray to deliver the film’s last line (“It was Beauty killed the Beast.”) when she passed away in August 2004.
The animation and special effects of King Kong left a legacy of their own within the film industry. It is impossible to find a special effects artist or a director of effects-heavy films who does not list Kong as a key influence. The techniques developed for Kong are applicable to modern FX technologies. As far ahead of King Kong as digital effects seem, they might not have been possible without the ingenuity of Willis O’Brien. KING KONG is one of those few movies that come across as vividly the 20th time around as the first and there’s no doubt 80 years from now people will still be enjoying the awesome achievement that is King Kong.
This article was originally written for, and was published in, Horrorhound Magazine