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Halloween Horror Celebration--Part 5...King Kong

Updated on August 25, 2010

King Kong gets tough

Fay Wray: The first scream queen


The giant Monster genre is mostly associated with the Japanese film industry, but it really began with the American RKO studios sci-fi/horror classic "King Kong" the movie that gave new meaning to the term 'Great Ape'.


The core of 'Kong'--the beautiful woman and a beastly creature involved in a lustful situation--Come from plot elements that have endured throughout the centuries, in numerous forms. From the fable of "Beauty & the Beast" (the hideous man-beast traps the beautiful Belle in his castle and she begins to fall in love with him); to the myth of "Eros & Psyche" (Beautiful Psyche thinks her unseen lover is a hideous beast); to "Gilgamesh" (the bestial wildman Enkidu is tamed by a prostitute); to "A Mid-Summer Night's Dream" (Titania is put under a love spell and becomes infatuated with a horse-headed man) or "The Odyssey" (Circe turns the sailors into wild pigs); In many and varied forms, the beauty and beast story has been a standard storyline through the ages.

Another basis for 'kong' comes from part 2, chapter 5 of "Gulliver's Travels", where Gulliver is picked up and carried off by a giant chimp. Many classic renditions of the famous scene have been illustrated over the years.

A type of Proto-Kong appears in Edgar Rice Burroughs "Tarzan the Ape Man" (1912) in the form of the savage Kerchak, absolute master of his jungle domain. The earliest drawings of Kerchak by Burne Hogarth show the influence of kerchak on Kong. Similarly, there is another ape in the story, Kala, who carries off the white baby. Later, when Tarzan grows into an 'Ape-Man', he himself carries off Jane and takes her to his jungle realm where he is king.

Arthur Conan Doyle's "the Lost World", also published in 1912, gave us the first modern Monster-on-the-loose-in-a-city sequence. Although in the Doyle novel it was a pterodactyl that got free, in the famous 1925 silent film version, it was a massive Brontosaurus that ran amok in London.

All these different ideas were known to writer Merian C. Cooper who would be the mastermind behind King Kong. Cooper, a war veteran and journalist, got involved in film when he produced a documentary in the Persian Gulf called "Grass" (1925). He made his first jungle adventure film "Chang" in 1927. He had developed a fascination with apes while shooting "the Four Feathers" in Africa. Later, he filmed another documentary about the large lizards called komodo dragons. The idea of a Great Ape meeting some huge lizards stuck in his mind, inspiring the idea of Skull Island (Kong's home) where dinosaurs mingle with a colossal ape.

Putting the pieces of the idea together, Cooper planned to take more footage of Gorilla's and lizards, use miniature backgrounds to make them look larger, and edit them together. For the title, he took a word from a small East Indian tribe which meant "gorilla". The word was Kong!

Cooper tried to get his cinematic opus realized, although he had trouble convincing a studio to back such a project during the depression. It seemed too expensive and impractical. After several years of frustration, the project seemed doomed.

But then fate stepped in, in the form of Willis O'Brien, the creator of stop-motion effects. Willis O'Brien had been using his impressive new process to bring dinosaurs to cinematic life for RKO's intended dinosaur flick, "Creation". Cooper saw the advance footage for the film and knew that he;d found the answer to his problems. O'Brien had also done the FX for the "Lost World" film several years earlier, but he'd improved and expedited the process. Cooper realized he could film 'Kong' entirely in the studio without need of location shooting. Destiny had brought the two men together. It was a dream come true for Cooper.

When "Creation" was shelved, O'Brien set to work on 'Kong'. Cooper was able to save money by using the same jungle sets built for the "the Most Dangerous Game" which was being filmed at the same time. This led to the use of two actors from "the Most Dangerous Game";...Robert Armstrong, who would play the pivotal role of movie director Carl Demhem, and the lovely Fay Wray, who would go down in history as Kong's precious toy-girl Anne Darrow. Fay Wray's now legendary scream would inspire the term 'Scream Queen'.

The recently completed Empire State Building had become the biggest tourist attraction in New York and it seemed to Cooper like the perfect place to set the finale of the film, after Denham brings Kong to New York. The Empire State Building represented to Cooper the ultimate symbol of the heights of modern society. What better place for Kong to meet his sad end? The image of Kong on the top of the Empire State Building is one of the most iconic pop-culture images of the 20th Century.

Part of the script for 'King Kong' was written by famed mystery writer Edgar Wallace. He wrote a 110 page first draft although he died before he could refine his final work. Cooper wrote a second draft and the final version was done by Ruth Rose. But Edgar Wallace got the screen credit. The film was billed as "the final work of Edgar Wallace".

The final result cost $513,000, a considerable sum during the depression era 1930's. Studio executives were very nervous about recouping their loss, never having been too enthusiastic about the project to begin with.

"King Kong" debuted in March 1933, and made $100,000 dollars its first week of release, which was a world attendance record for any film at the time. The movie became a huge hit and was a great boon to the cash-strapped RKO studios.

Naturally, the studio was eager to cash in on the success of 'Kong' and so immediately rushed a sequel into production, before another studio could jump on the Big Ape bandwagon and made their own Kong rip-off. Rather than ruining the ending of the original and bringing Kong himself back, it was decided that Kong would have an offspring...A son of Kong. This second generation Kong was smaller and far more benign. (We never learn where Mama Kong is.)

A script was hastily thrown together by Ruth Rose, and Willis O'Brien was brought back to do the Stop Motion effects. Robert Armstrong reprised his role as Carl Denham. The second film was slower paced, with less action. Having less time to work, O'Brien couldn't create any more dinosaurs but he did give us a huge bear to tussle with baby Kong.

"The Son of Kong" debuted less than a year after the first film and made a decent profit but it was far from the blockbuster that "King kong" had been. Its not as well regarded today by fans as the superior original. Rushed into production and release far too quickly, there was no time to make a quality film. This was all about cashing in on the Kong craze and beating rival studios to the rip-off.

Years later, Cooper and O'Brien (Who was in a career slump) reunited for another simian cinematic adventure, "Mighty Joe Young" (1949) about a large ape brought from Africa and put on display in America. Although the plot is basically similar to Kong, the execution is different. Its a milder film, more in line with "Song of Kong" than with the original.

Willis O'Brien's career continued to slump, especially after his work was surpassed and eclipsed by his former protege Ray Harryhausen, who would become the reigning king of Stop Motion effects for decades to come. O'Brien, desperate for cash, was now working for Universal, who had bought the rights to King Kong after RKO folded. O'Brien also had creator rights to Kong. He very much wanted to make a new Kong film so he could reignite his career by doing the FX for it. He wrote a script called "King Kong Meets Frankenstein" (Utilizing Universal's most popular creature, the Frankenstein Monster) but Universal wasn't interested. However, O'Brien knew that Japan's Toho Studios--famous for the 'Kaiju Eiga' or Giant Monster films--were eager for new monster material.

O'Brien got permission from Universal to loan Toho Studios the rights to use King Kong. Although Toho wasn't interested in the Frankenstein script, they did arrange with O'Brien for the use of Kong in a trilogy of Kaiju Eiga films. (O'Brien didn't get to do the FX since Toho didn't use Stop Animation in its monster films, but he did get a substantial finder's fee from Toho for arranging the use of Kong. Toho also used Frankenstein in a film called "Frankenstein Conquers the World") Toho now had control of Kong for three films and could do whatever they wanted with him.

Toho decided to team Kong with their most popular monster Godzilla. They'd been looking for a worthwhile plot for the third film in the increasingly popular Godzilla franchise. King Kong seemed to fit the bill nicely.

Some changes were made to Kong for the Toho films. For example, he was much larger in the Japanese films than he was in the American version. Also, he was no longer done by stop motion effects. Kong was now a man in a costume (And not a very good one.)

"King Kong Vs.Godzilla" (1963) was an immense hit, becoming the top grossing film in Japan at the time, just as the original "King Kong" had been in America. The new film also made a big profit in the USA.

A second Kong film was released by Toho, called "King Kong Escapes" (1967) a very campy revamp of Kong's story, featuring a mad scientist villain called Doctor Who. The film has a cult following but even its fans admit its pretty silly stuff. Even the box office wasn't up to the level Toho expected. This may be the reason the third Kong film was never produced. The script for the final film of the Kong trilogy was re-written for Godzilla and became "Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster".

Producer Dino de Laurentis decided to remake 'King Kong' in a highly anticipated project for Paramount Pictures. This time, there would be no Stop Motion effects. Instead, Kong would be a man in a costume, just as in the Toho films, although it has to be said that the new costume was much better. Kong's costume was designed by make-up genius Rick Baker, famous for doing the alien make-up for the "Star Wars" series. Jessica Lang made her film debut as Kong's new main squeeze.

The new "King Kong"(1976) was a modernized version, having Kong climb the World Trade Center rather than the Empire State Building, and battle helicopters instead of Bi-Planes. Despite a bigger budget, this new version was a weak remake of a classic film that pales in comparison to the original.

As disappointing as this film was, it was infinitely better than the terrible sequel, "King Kong Lives" (1986) where we find ot that Kong didn't die in his plunge from the WTC but was instead in a coma and being kept alive by over-sized life support equipment. Kong is given a giant 7 million dollar mechanical heart to replace his damaged one by a pretty scientist. (Linda Hamilton of "theTerminator" fame) But poor Kong needs a transfusion. Enter Lady Kong, discovered in Borneo, who is conveniently just as big as Mr. Kong. She is hurriedly airlifted to Kong's facility and, in one of the most totally ridiculous scenes ever put to film, they operate on Kong with Giant surgical instruments. All this leads not only to Kong's recovery but to a bizarre giant ape romance and to the birth of Kong Junior, just as Daddy Kong dies (again). Mommy Kong and junior are returned to Borneo to live a happy jungle life.

Peter Jackson, famous for his award winning "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, decided to do another remake of "King Kong" with only slightly better results. Despite some advantages--the huge budget, state-of-the-art FX, the fact that the film is set in the depression, and the presence of beautiful Naomi Watts as the leading lady in distress--the new "King Kong" (2005) just doesn't work. Its far too long (3 hours) and overloaded with superfluous FX, gratuitous action sequences that add nothing to the plot and misplaced humor, especially from comedian Jack black who is very miscast as Carl Denhem. Kong himself looks good but his actions are far too human.

That's the last of Kong so far. But we can expect to see more of the big ape in the future.


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