In 1933, four years after the legendary stock market crash of 1929, America was in the middle of the Great Depression. Unemployment stood at 25%. More than 5,000 banks had failed. It was the year the Dust Bowl began, the times of “The Grapes of Wrath”. An estimated two million people were homeless… migrating across the United States in search of a way to sustain themselves. Soup lines stretched around the blocks.
Contrary to the popular myth, the movies were not ‘Depression-Proof’. They suffered a steep decline along with the rest of the economy. Ticket sales had soared after the 1927 introduction of “talkies” but peaked at 90 million tickets a week in 1930. By 1933, that number had declined by more than a third, to 50 million. Combined with the rollback in ticket prices, 1933 still marks the lowest year at the box office post 1929.
But that year, the country (and the world) would be given something to get excited over at the cinema. Something the likes of which audiences had never seen.
“King Kong” co-directors Ernest B. Schoedsack (left) and Merian C. Cooper (right).
“King Kong” was the brainchild of director/producer Merian C. Cooper. As a child, he received a book about Africa, and it filled his imagination with wonder about the fearsome creature called the Gorilla. It made him want to be an explorer when he grew up.
He got his wish when he and his partner Ernest B. Schoedsack traveled to Africa to shoot footage for their 1929 picture, “The Four Feathers”. It was there, while observing baboons in the wild that Cooper conceived of creating a movie about a gigantic primate squaring off against modern technology, with a “Beauty and the Beast” theme running through it. Cooper had a friend who worked for the Museum of Modern History in New York City, and who had brought two Komodo dragons to the zoo (unsuccessfully). Cooper began to imagine a giant ape being taken captive and brought to the city to be displayed…
With the story forming, Cooper pitched the idea to legendary film producer David O. Selznick. Selznick, who was at Paramount at the time, wasn’t interested. The depression was already underway, and the potential cost of location shoots were prohibitive. “Kong”, for the moment, was dead in the water.
However, in 1931, when Selznick became the head of RKO pictures, he brought Cooper with him as his executive assistant. As part of the deal, Cooper had the freedom to make his own films. He began with “The Most Dangerous Game”, which required a giant jungle set being built. It also starred future Kong stars Robert Armstrong and Fay Wray. His friend and film partner (and future “Kong” co-director) Ernest Schoedsack was directing.
As part of his duties at RKO, Cooper was asked to evaluate a project whose budget had spun out of control, a film called “Creation”. “Creation” was the story of a group of shipwrecked people who discover dinosaurs on the island that they’re marooned on. Cooper had to recommend the production be scrapped (it was), but while he was analyzing the project, he watched several scenes of dinosaurs they had created using stop motion animation. “Kong”, which had initially been envisioned using footage of real animals, suddenly seemed a possibility again.
Stop motion wasn’t a new technology, “King Kong” was not the first to employ it.
The animation lead on “Creation” was Willis O’Brien… one of the pioneers of stop motion. By the time he worked on “Kong”, he had extensive stop motion experience.
Prior to doing stop motion animation, O’Brien worked as both a sculptor and a cartoonist. He began experimenting with stop motion as a way of bringing sculptures to life. Thomas Edison (who was involved in film production and distribution in the early years of cinema) bought a film from him in 1917 entitled “The Dinosaur and the Missing Link” and also ordered a series of stop motion comedy shorts. In 1925 O’Brien and his crew did the dinosaur filled film “The Lost World”, based on the novel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
It’s a technique that was widely used throughout the rest of the century, and is still occasionally used today (“Frankenweenie”, “ParaNorman”, 2012).
Now that he had the method for creating his ape, and the jungle set from “The Most Dangerous Game”, Cooper realized he could make “Kong” much more affordably than when he first pitched it. He proposed creating two test scenes for the film to his RKO superiors. If successful, he’d roll them right into the movie to avoid wasting money. The RKO board approved going ahead with the test reels after seeing some production sketches.
After the RKO board approved the production of a test reel, four Kong models were built. Two were jointed 18-inch aluminum covered with foam rubber, latex, and rabbit fur. One was a 24-inch model for the New York scenes, and a small model to take the fall off of the model of the Empire-State-Building. Kong’s facial features were fashioned of rubber, his eyes of glass, and his expressions were controlled by wires threaded through holes drilled in his aluminum skull. During production the rubber skin would dry out quickly under the lights, making it necessary to replace it frequently and rebuild his facial features. This contributed to inconsistencies in Kong’s look throughout the film.
The dinosaurs were made in the same fashion as Kong. Several of the models were originally built for “Creation”.
A “life-sized” bust of Kong’s head, neck, and upper chest was made of wood, cloth, rubber, and bearskin. It had 10-inch fangs and 12-inch eyeballs. In order to the control the mouth and facial expressions, it was filled with metal levers, hinges, and an air compressor. Three men were required to operate it. It needed bust to be moved from set to set on a flatcar. Two oversized hands were also made, and one giant foot.
Two scenes were shot. Kong shaking the sailors off the log and fighting the Allosaurus in the cave.
The RKO board was impressed. “Kong” was a go.
RKO screenwriter and best-selling British mystery/adventure writer Edgar Wallace was hired to do the script, but died shortly after submitting the first draft. James A. Creelman, who worked for them on “The Most Dangerous Game” was brought in to complete the job, but his work was dissatisfactory. Eventually, Schoedsack’s wife Ruth Rose was called in to finish the script. She and Schoedsack had actually fallen in love on board a boat on an expedition, just like Darrow and Driscoll. She tightened things up and added some biographical touches to appeal to the directors, and the script was ready to go.
For the cast, Cooper and Schoedsack had a couple of their stars in-house already. Fay Wray was at the top of her game. In fact, she starred in 11 movies that year. Her love interest in the film, John Driscoll, was played by Bruce Cabot, an unknown at the time who started in pictures just a few years prior. Robert Armstrong (Denham) was an RKO contract player, and, like Wray, had starred for Cooper and Schoedsack in “The Most Dangerous Game”.
But in order to film the effects needed, “Kong” needed to utilize every effect in the book and invent some new ones.
The camera would be set up with a matte painting of jungle trees and vines, etc on glass in foreground. Then the miniature set, with layers of model trees and vines, where they miniatures would be posed, and finally, another matte at the back. In took an enormous commitment with the miniatures in order to get the film made. A single minute of film contains 1,440 frames of film. It’s estimated they could do 10 frames an hour, which would work out to just under 150 hours of work just to get 1 minute of film.
Breakthroughs in composite photography were required, including an optical printer where they could stack different layers of filmed scenes. They also utilized rear screen projection… which wasn’t a new technology. In rear screen projection, a film is projected on a screen behind the actors, as the scene is shot, enabling a merging of special effects and live action elements. They also invented a front projection technology that could project a miniature film, one frame at a time, onto the miniature set as the stop motion work was being done, syncing the filmed elements to the stop motion puppetry.
Willis O’Brien actually patented the devices he invented for King Kong under the name of “Apparatus for Producing Motion Pictures”.
In the story, an ambitious film producer, Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) brings an expedition crew and an unknown actress (Ann Darrow, played by Fay Wray) to an uncharted island in hopes of filming a native legend, the mysterious Kong. When they arrive at Skull Island, the natives are in the midst of a sacrificial ceremony, where they give one of their women over to be a bride for Kong. Spotting Ann, however, they wish to offer her (and her blonde hair and fair skin) to Kong instead. The crew refuses of course, but the islanders sneak out to the boat and kidnap her.
She then finds herself bound to stakes as an offering to the gigantic ape, Kong. Kong takes her into the woods, pursued by the crew of the boat, who have now discovered Ann missing. Kong protects Ann from several different prehistoric beasts, most famously from a T-Rex. Throughout that process, he develops an affection for her.
And so, when captured and brought back to New York, the giant ape’s motivation is to capture Darrow and keep her safe. He breaks free from his bonds and follows her through the city, eventually grabbing her and leading her to the highest point he can find: The Empire State Building. It’s there that he’s attacked by bi-planes in a scene that has now become movie legend. Shot and bleeding, the giant beast eventually slumps and loses his grip, plummeting to his death on the city streets below.
The story of the modern watch of Kong isn’t how much the effects have aged, but in how well they’ve held up. The film was made 80 years ago, but the modern viewer can still watch, suspend their disbelief, and lose themselves in the movie.
The acting and the script don’t fare quite as well, admittedly. The misogynistic captain Driscoll chides Ann Darrow just for being a woman, then suddenly has a change of heart for no apparent reason and confesses his love for her. Denham is acted with the subtlety of a carnival barker, regardless of what the scene is. Kong gets a little rapey with Ann at one point. In fact, there are a number of moments that may surprise the modern, politically correct viewer.
But it’s still an incredible piece of movie history. A fascinating watch. It’s a fantastic adventure story, with the timeless beauty and the beast element running through it and an overarching theme of the modern society exploiting the natural world and primitive culture. And if nothing else, when you watch Kong and realize that he’s the great, great grandfather of all special effects, it’s impossible not to be impressed.
The studio closely guarded the special effects secrets. They even went so far as to disseminate misinformation, including the fact that Kong was actually a man in a suit. They didn’t want the fact that the towering Kong was in fact a puppet less than two feet tall.
They needn’t have worried. During its initial run, “King Kong” made an estimated $2 million, an enormous success, especially considering that the tickets were less than 50 cents and there was a depression on. The film turned a profit of $645,000. RKO turned a profit for the first time in its then 5 year history. Reviews were overwhelmingly positive, as well.
It didn’t receive a single Oscar nomination, though in fairness there wasn’t a visual effects category until 1938. However, time has remembered it fondly. “Kong” has become a film legend, and is cited today as one of the most classic films of all time.
When AFI released their list of the top 100 American films of all time, “King Kong” placed at #43. Ten years later it stayed strong at #41 on the tenth anniversary edition. In 1991, the film was deemed “culturally, historically and aesthetically significant” by the Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry.
“King Kong” is one of the high water marks in early cinema, and has proved its endurance by still holding a place in pop culture 80 years after its release. It’s an important film to see in order to solidify ones knowledge of film history and pop culture, and still a very entertaining movie even after all this time.
It’s definitely a “Movie That Everyone Should See“.