Forward : Working as a prelude to the upcoming Kong: Skull Island, which will be part of the Godzilla cinematic universe from Legendary Pictures, join us as contributor Paul Sell goes over the history of one of cinema's most famous monsters. This article is truly in-depth, exploring the character across many different mediums and looking deep into the history of the multi-studio star.
When you think of gorillas and apes, what is the first thing that comes to mind? Some might grab a banana and conjure up imagery of the eight wonder of the world, King Kong. The ferocious beast has stood the test of time and continues to captivate audiences with his massive size and gentle heart just like he did in 1933.
Perhaps the reason Kong has become a timeless character is due to his ability to scare us, as well as be sympathetic. This is an enormous monster that should not exist, breaking many laws of physics and nature simply by walking around, that can break the jaws of a T-Rex and climb the Empire State Building like it was a tree. Yet Kong would risk being mauled by a gaggle of angry dinosaurs to save someone he cares about.
There is a fiery heart filled with compassion inside of that beast, and we love him for it.
King Kong has starred in eleven films, including two upcoming films, countless spoofs and rip-offs, three animated television programs, a musical and three theme park attractions. Kong has inspired many famous filmmakers, including Peter Jackson, Martin Scorsese, John Carpenter, Ishiro Honda, Steven Speilberg, George Lucas, as well as authors like Ray Bradbury. Kong is one of the classic movie monsters of all time, right up there with the Frankenstein monster, Dracula, and Godzilla.
King Kong 1933: From Concept to Script
King Kong was one of the first giant monsters to grace the silver screen, with his 1933 début, "King Kong."
According to Mark Cotta Vaz's "Living Dangerously" (2005), this fantasy-adventure began as an idea conceived by the film's Director-Producer, Merian C. Cooper. Cooper had spent most of his childhood fascinated with gorillas and that grew further after he spent some time following a herd of baboons in Africa for his film "The Four Feathers." Cooper would later have many discussions with William Douglas Burden, a man who had visited the island of Komodo, home to the Komodo Dragons. Cooper was fascinated by Burden's tales, and this fed his desire of seeing these fantastic beasts of Komodo fighting a group of gorillas. Cooper then set out to make this dream a reality, which grew further after Cooper read Burden's book, "The Dragon Lizards of Komodo."
To market the scene better to studios, Cooper cut it down to just one large gorilla and added a terrified woman looking on, to give the scene a romantic punch, as well as a climatic scene that would take place in New York City.
Cooper first approached Paramount Pictures with his idea, but was turned down. This was occurring during the Great Depression, so Paramount feared that filming something like gorillas and Komodo Dragons fighting would cost too much money for not enough of a payoff.
Eventually, Cooper was approached by producer David O. Selznick, an up-and-coming film producer who would later go on to create his own film studio and produce films like "Gone With The Wind" and "Rebecca." Selznick brought Cooper to RKO Studios in 1931 as his executive assistant and gave free rein to make the movies that he wanted.
This first led Cooper to an adaptation of Richard Connell's "The Most Dangerous Game," and a fantasy-epic "Creation," about travelers that have been shipwrecked on an island full of dinosaurs. While "Creation" was a doomed project from RKO that Cooper inherited and was subsequently shut down, the production did allowed Cooper to meet the man who would bring King Kong to live - Willis O'Brien.
According to Ray Morton's 2005 book "King Kong: The History of a Movie Icon from Fay Wray to Peter Jackson," O'Brien was hired on for "Creation" to bring the many dinosaurs to life as cheaply as possible. His solution was to use stop motion animation and animatronics to simulate the movement needed on a model set. O'Brien would pose the animatronic dinosaurs, take a single shot of the figures, and move them slightly and repeat the process. Then, by editing and subtle film manipulation, the movement of these dinosaurs was fluid and consistent. The figures O'Brien created were mostly miniature, and it took him several hours to complete even a second worth of footage.
Ultimately, Cooper was unhappy with how "Creation" was turning out, but saw potential in bringing his idea all those years ago to life. He thought that O'Brien's stop motion style could be used in place of filming real animals fighting, as well as saving the studio costly location shooting in Africa and Komodo. To be economical, Cooper would use existing jungle sets from previous RKO pictures.
Cooper approached a weary board of RKO producers that eventually gave him the go-ahead after a presentation from Cooper, O'Brien, Ernest Schoedsack, his model dinosaurs, and the cast of "Creation," Fay Wray, Bruce Cabot and Robert Armstrong. Thus "Creation" was shelved and work began on Coopers' dream film, "King Kong."
Wray, Cabot and Armstrong, stayed on with the picture and were given the lead roles in "King Kong." Robert Armstrong would play the charismatic and inventive Carl Denham who would bring King Kong to the worlds' attention, Bruce Cabot would play Jake Driscoll, the one who saves the girl from the clutches of the beast, and Fay Wray played Ann Darrow, a struggling actress that happens to fall in the grasp of the monster, and the one who could tame his heart.
According to Gerald Peary's 2004 book "Missing Links: The Jungle Origins of King Kong," Cooper signed on noted-British fantasy writer Edgar Wallace to not only write the screenplay, but also write a novel about Cooper's dream, so that the film could open up with "Based on the Novel Written By Edgar Wallace." Wallace wrote a rough draft in about four days, but Cooper was not satisfied with the results and felt it needed a lot of work before they could use it.
Unfortunately, Edgar Wallace passed away shortly after revisions had begun on the first draft of the script, and sadly little of Wallace's ideas made it into the final script. Cooper still gave Wallace screen credit out of honor, and Wallace's novel was published later.
After the script for "King Kong" got passed through several different screenwriters, Cooper was left with something he wasn't satisfied with, feeling that it moved too slowly, had far too much exposition and would cost too much to film. So Cooper brought on Ruth Rose to tighten and fix the screenplay, even though Rose had never written a screenplay before. Rose used this to streamline the action and dialogue and cut down on the exposition. Instead of explaining how Kong would get from the island to New York, the film cuts from one scene to the next. Rose also added a pivotal scene in the beginning as Carl Denham picks Ann Darrow off the streets, and convinces her to join him on an adventure to this mysterious island.
Rose was every bit as important to making the film crew scenes authentic since she was the third essential part in all Cooper/Schoedsack productions and knew what shooting in the wild was like.
This would eventually lead to the classic King Kong story of a film director, Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) who has obtained a map to a mysterious far-away island, known as Skull Island. Denham brings on actress Ann Darrow (Fay Wray), to be in his film and become world-famous. Once the crew reaches Skull Island, they eventually find out the place is populated by dinosaurs, and a giant ape by the name of King Kong. After a lengthy battle with the dinosaurs and Kong, the crew is able to subdue the gorilla and bring him back to New York City, where Denham intends to let the world know about this spectacular creature.
King Kong 1933: Name and Title
As for coming up with the name of King Kong, Cooper was fond of strong words that started with the letter "K" like the Komodo dragon that inspired all this in the first place. According to Mark Cotta Vaz's 2005 book "Living Dangerously," Cooper's friend Douglas Burden had recently taken a trip to Komodo, and Cooper was fascinated by Burden's stories of the Komodo dragons. Eventually, Burden wrote a book about his adventures, the aforementioned "Dragon Lizards Of Komodo" where Burden referred to the dragons as "The Kings Of Komodo." That title, along with the similarity between Komodo and Congo, gave Cooper an idea, if the King of the Komodos fought the King of the Kongo.
The working title for Kong was simply "The Beast," but RKO was unimpressed by that title. David O. Selznick suggested changing it to "Jungle Beast," but Cooper didn't like that name. Cooper wanted to name the film after the main character, and wanted it to be something that stuck with people, that could evoke the mystery, horror and awe that it truly deserves, similar to Dracula and Frankenstein. This would eventually lead Cooper to take the "King of the Kongo" aspect and shorten it to "Kong."
After RKO sent Cooper many ideas for titles for the film, including "Kong: Jungle Beast" and "Kong: The Jungle King." Eventually, Cooper and Ruth Rose simply referred to the film as "Kong." Selznick approached Cooper about this, saying that with a one-word title like that, audiences might get the film confused with docudrama's at the time like "Grass" and "Chang," both films Cooper had produced earlier in his career. This caused Cooper to add the word "King" to the title, leading us to the now famous title of "King Kong."
King Kong 1933: Directing and Special Effects
Eventually, Cooper realized he would have to hire a second director, and chose his good friend Ernest Schoedsack, husband of Ruth Rose. Schoedsack had previously worked with Cooper on "The Most Dangerous Game." While Cooper was slow and methodical, Schoedsack cut to the chase and kept everything short. Eventually, the two agreed that they could make the film work, but Cooper would work with O'Brien on the special effects scenes, while Schoedsack would work with the actors.
Through the filming of Kong fighting the monsters of Skull Island, O'Brien pioneered many filmmaking techniques, including matte painting and rear projection, while still creating the staple for stop motion animation and miniatures.
These scenes became increasingly difficult for O'Brien and his assistant Buzz Dixon, when they realized they could not stop filming until the scene was finished. If they waited too long between takes, the miniatures might look inconsistent and the lighting would change throughout the day. As a result, O'Brien invented a surface gage to see how far along the animation had come.
The final result was a fight scene between King Kong and a T-Rex that took over seven weeks to film.
Through the use of matte paintings, many scenes filmed in the jungle were given more depth, to make the jungle felt far more dense than the set could offer. The matte paintings were put in the background of the sets, and not showing a blank canvas.
But the most difficult part of filming "King Kong" was combining the live action sequences with the stop motion scenes, while making it seem like the actors were in the same place as these monsters.
The filmmakers had two solutions to this problem. The first was a modified version of the Dunning Process, where several strips of film are processed through an optical printer and then synchronized a projector with a camera, so that those strips of film come together in one composite shot. This way, shots of the foreground, the actors, the stop motion animation, and the background, could come together in one frame.
The other solution was rear projection, where the actors would be filmed with a screen behind them and a projector would project the finished stop motion animations on the screen for the actors to interact with. O'Brien also devised a way to do this in reverse, by building a miniature screen inside the tiny set that the live action footage could be project upon.
All of these elements of special effects filmmaking came together to make Merian C. Cooper's dream come to life and create the 1933 classic that has become as timeless as its tale of beauty and beast.
Son of Kong
Opening nationwide April 10, 1933, the success of "King Kong" was enormous, as the film grossed $89,931 in its opening weekend, when ticket prices ranged from $0.35 to $0.75. Screenings for "King Kong" were sold out for months after its release, as the film set a record for all-time attendance in indoor theaters up to that point. According to Box Office Mojo, "King Kong" grossed $2.8 million, including re-releases, which comes out to roughly $51 million when adjusted for inflation.
Due to the success of "King Kong," RKO Studios wanted to capitalize on its success immediately, and thus green-lite a sequel as soon as possible.
Through the myriad of imitators, rip-offs and wannabes, RKO Studios released "Son of Kong" nine months after the first release of "King Kong."
Merian C. Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack approached RKO Studios about a sequel to "King Kong" that they wanted to be bigger and better than the first. RKO Studios approved of a sequel, but on the condition that the budget be significantly reduced and that the film must be released before the end of the year, giving Cooper and Schoedsack just nine months to work with.
Cooper stayed on the film as Executive Producer, while Schoedsack directed and Ruth Rose wrote the screenplay. Rose had no intention of telling a serious narrative like the first film, as she knew this film had no way of surpassing "King Kong" and did her best with something that wasn't bigger, but funnier.
The only actor to reprise his role in "Son of Kong" was Robert Armstrong, as the often-crazed but compassionate director Carl Denham, who was more than happy to return, as this film would give Denham a lot more character development.
In this film, Denham and the crew of the Venture, the ship from the first film, return to Skull Island to see if there is anything else as wondrous as King Kong, as well as a supposed treasure that could pay for Denham's problems in New York City. The crew ends up stranded on the island, and they find a baby albino gorilla, that is bigger than all Denham's men put together. The crew pieces together that this must be King Kong's child and attempt to befriend the baby in trying to get off the island.
Because RKO Studios wanted to quickly build on the success of "King Kong," the shooting schedule for "Son of Kong" was tight and the budget was rather limited. This did not give Willis O'Brien much to work with when he was told to create new stop motion animation sequences for this film. Most of the animatronics and stop motion scenes in "King Kong" took weeks to create, and now O'Brien was told to make more in far less time with even less money.
To cut costs, O'Brien reused as many old animatronics and miniature sets that he could salvage, in particular from both "King Kong" and "Creation" including an aluminum frame-work for King Kong that would be used for Little Kong and many of the same monsters. O'Brien was also forced to cut corners on the stop motion animation to give these scenes a more cartoonish feel.
In the original script, the ending to "Son of Kong" was to have Skull Island sink into the ocean after an earthquake swallowed it, as the crew of the Venture escaped from tribal attacks and a dinosaur stampede. Ultimately, this scene was scrapped due to time constraints and budget problems, and instead ended it on a somber note with Little Kong sacrificing himself so that Carl Denham can live after escaping from the sinking island, causing all the treasures and mysteries of Skull Island to disappear along with it.
For all the hardships and studio problems that Cooper and Schoedsack faced with creating "Son of Kong," they did their best to create a product that could live up to being a sequel to something that changed the way films were made.
Upon "Son of Kong"'s release on December 22, 1933, the film was met with mostly negative reviews, grossing roughly $616,000 at the box office, compared to its $269,000 budget, according to Box Office Mojo.
After this, RKO studios did not product anymore King Kong films, that perhaps the first film had captured lightning in a jar and it would be daunting to duplicate its success when audience's didn't seem interested in a franchise in 1933.
RKO Studios made one last attempt to cash in on the King Kong craze by creating "Mighty Joe Young," which involved Merian C. Cooper, Willis O'Brien and his new assistant, Ray Harryhausen, who would eventually become renowned for his stop-motion animation work in films like "Jason And The Argonauts" and "The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms."
"Wasei Kingu Kongu"
After that, King Kong went quiet for a while in the United States, but other parts of the world were still crazy about the eighth wonder of the world, in particular the country that is responsible for King Kong's rebirth - Japan.
RKO Studios was not the only company to build off the success of "King Kong" in 1933, as Shochiku Studios in Tokyo decided to make their own movie featuring a giant ape, "Wasei Kingu Kongu," translated as "Japanese King Kong." Shochiku Studios landed the job of translating "King Kong" into Japanese for their audiences, and wanted to create a comedic short to coincide with the release.
According to August Ragone "Eiji Tsuburaya: Master Of Monsters," (2007), the result was a black-and-white silent comedic short that used "King Kong" as a backdrop to its story, as the main character dresses up in an ape costume in trying to woo his girlfriend and plays King Kong for a vaudeville theater.
"Wasei Kingu Kongu" was directed by Torajiro Saito, who was a well-known Japanese comedian and film producer at the time and made this as quickly as possible to go along with the October 5, 1933 release date of "King Kong." As a result, the film supposedly does not feature any special effects. Just a man walking around a theater stage in an ape costume.
However, do not plan on watching "Wasei Kingu Kongu" any time soon, as it is considered a lost film. There are no known surviving copies of this film, as most old Japanese films were burned or destroyed during or after World War II. Some stills of the main character in the ape costume have survived, but nothing more than that. It is due to magazine articles and interviews with the cast and crew that we know this film even existed.
King Kong Appears in Edo
But there is another lost Japanese King Kong film, 1938's "Edo ni Arawareta Kingu Kongu," translated as "King Kong Appears in Edo."
According to "Chronology of Zensho films (in Japanese)" (2002), the film was released by Zensho Cinema as a two-part drama about the giant Kong Kong appearing in Japan's Edo period, often depicted as a feudal period filled with samurais. Posters of "King Kong Appears In Edo" show Kong grasping the damsel in this film, Chinami, in the palm of his hand and swatting the men trying to rescue her.
According to an issue of Kinema Junpo in March of 1938, the story of "King Kong Appears In Edo" follows the daughter of a wealthy man mysteriously disappearing one night, as he wrangles up the town to search for his daughter, Chinami. But one man, Magonojyo Go, refuses to help in the search, as he secretly keeps Chinami away from the rest of the town. Magonojyo is doing this as a way to get back at Chinami's father, who has his father imprisoned and killed many years ago for counterfeiting coins.
So, where does King Kong fit into all of this? Magonojyou has a pet ape that he used to kidnap Chinami, and the pet's name is "King Kong." In fact, this pet ape looks more like a Yeti than an ape, according to film historians.
So not only is the King Kong in this film not giant, but looks and acts nothing like Kong. The only thing this ape and Kong have in common is the name. Historians have noted that Zensho Cinema was on Japan's poverty section of filmmaking, and did not produce a single talkie between 1936 and 1941, which included 173 different productions. Zensho did not own any sound recording equipment and had to product everything as cheaply as possible.
So why did they make a King Kong film five years after the films initial release? Part of it was most likely due to "King Kong" being rereleased in Japanese theaters in 1938, and Zensho Cinema wanted to make their own film that would build off the success of this release simply by claiming their ape was giant.
A combination of marketing and timing led to moderate success for "King Kong Appears in Edo," but not with audiences.
Like "Wasei Kingu Kongu," this film is also considered lost and has no surviving copies. This would mark the end of King Kong for a while, as the only studios that attempted to make their own Kong film were cheap studios that claimed they could bring a giant ape to life but could never deliver that promise.
But Kong would be saved in the form of a new challenger, in an entirely different setting and vastly different period of filmmaking.
King Kong vs. Godzilla: King Kong Meets Frankenstein
In 1935, Merian C. Cooper attempted to create another King Kong film, one that would serve as a crossover with the ape-man, Tarzan. Cooper was planning on making this film with Pioneer Pictures, after a suggestion from David O. Selznick, who was the one to suggest the Tarzan connection. Afterwards, Cooper was bombarded with legal action from RKO studios for using their character, Kong, without their permission. Cooper was outraged by this, as he always believed that King Kong was his character and he could do whatever he wanted with Kong.
This brought into question the trademark status of King Kong, which led to many court cases and allegations. Since Kong was a giant version of a living creature, some parties believed that he fell into public domain and that no one company could own him, thus ineligible for copyright status.
After all the legal trouble involving the name and brand of King Kong, it had left companies uninterested in making another Kong film, fearing another court case they misused the character.
In the intervening time, there was a rise in Hollywood monster movies, in particular from Universal Studios in the late 1930s and 1940s. Universal was responsible for two massively popular monster movies prior to "King Kong", with "Dracula" and "Frankenstein" both being released in 1931. Afterwards, a flurry of sequels would spawn, including "The Bride of Frankenstein" and "Son of Frankenstein."
The success of these films gave birth to even more classic Universal monster movies, such as "The Wolf Man," "The Invisible Man" and "The Mummy." These films would also launch multiple careers for long-running actors as horror icons, such as Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney, Jr., as well as giving well-known actors like Claude Rains a jumping off point.
In 1943, Universal Studios tried something different by combining their monsters together into one film, with "Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man." The film had its titular characters, with the Frankenstein monster now being played by Bela Lugosi instead of Boris Karloff, and have the two fight to see who was superior.
This would not be the last time Universal would do something like this, as they had more monster mash-ups with "House of Frankenstein," "House of Dracula" and "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein." Each film attempted to bring in as many classic monsters as possible, while the latter also brought in two well-known comedians, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello.
This would bring about a long-running series of films where Abbott and Costello would meet a gaggle of Universal horror monsters that would last through 1955 with "Abbott and Costello Meet The Mummy."
The success of these monster movies throughout the 1940s and 1950s would bring about the next time King Kong would emerge, as an idea conceived by Willis O'Brien.
According to Steve Archer's "Willis O'Brien: Special Effects Genius" (1993), shortly after "King Kong," O'Brien came up with the concept of King Kong fighting a massive version of Frankenstein's monster. It wasn't until about 1960 that O'Brien proposed his idea to RKO studios, with sketches of Kong and a new Frankenstein's monster fighting in San Francisco, dubbing it "King Kong Meets Frankenstein."
After reading over O'Brien's proposal, RKO studios suggested changing the name to "King Kong vs. The Ginko," since they were afraid of Universal owning the rights to Frankenstein (though Universal only owned the rights to the Frankenstein facial make-up, not the character, according to The Frankenstein Legend (1973) by Don Glut).
At this time, RKO studios was also not a film production company anymore, so they did not have the money or the resources to make a film of this size. O'Brien was then introduced to producer John Beck, who promised O'Brien that he would find a company that could make his film. Beck hired screenwriter George Worthing Yates to create a working script for the film, which Yates eventually reworked to its original premise of Kong fighting Frankenstein, re-titling the film "King Kong vs. Prometheus," since an alternate name for Frankenstein in the original novel by Mary Shelley was "The Modern Prometheus."
Beck had a difficult time finding American studios that would take on the project, since the cost of producing the necessary stop motion animation was very expensive and time-consuming. Thus, Beck decided to look outside of America to find film companies that could take on this project.
Eventually, Beck found his answer with a flourishing Japanese film studio - Toho.
King Kong vs. Godzilla: Kong at Toho
Toho Studios had gained notice since the late 1940s by producing many well-known Akira Kuorsawa films, including Seven Samurai (1954), Drunken Angel (1948) and Ikiru (1952). But what caught Beck's attention was their work on monster movies, in particular the 1954-hit Godzilla, about a giant seemingly indestructible dinosaur, mutated by atomic bombs, rising out of the ocean and paralyzing the nation of Japan with fear and destruction.
The film was less about a monster on the loose, and more about the horrors of nuclear weapons, a threat that Japan had faced personally when America dropped two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II. Godzilla (1954) was about a torn-apart nation facing a threat that they could not hope to stop or combat, and the people who had to face such destruction head-on.
Godzilla was a financial hit around the world, even being altered into a respectful American version, "Godzilla, King of the Monsters!" in 1956, which did its best to turn the film into something American audiences could appreciate. Ten minutes of footage were removed from the Japanese version, while twenty minutes of original footage were added, mostly focusing on a new character, Steve Martin (played by Raymond Burr), who would be an American reporter who witnesses the events of Godzilla's destruction of Tokyo.
Godzilla also caused Toho to invest in creating more giant monster movies, including Mothra (1961), The Mysterians (1957), Varan (1958) and a sequel to the 1954 success, Godzilla Raids Again (1955). Like with "Son of Kong," this film came right off the heels of Godzilla (1954) and was released one year later to financial success, although this success prompted them to make films about new monsters such as Rodan (1956). This caused Toho to put Godzilla on ice (literally) until they felt he could make a proper return.
John Beck approached Toho with the idea of "King Kong vs. Prometheus." Toho was immediately invested in the project, as the studio had been interested in making a King Kong film for some time. But Toho wanted to draw more people in the theaters than having Kong fight a Frankenstein monster, and thus decided that it would be far more profitable if the eight wonder of the world fought the king of the monsters.
This would eventually give birth to 1962's King Kong vs. Godzilla, about a Japanese pharmaceutical company searching for a monster to gain publicity, and end up finding King Kong on the small Faro Island and attempt to return the ape to Japan. Meanwhile, Godzilla has emerged from an iceberg in the Bering Sea and is now making his way towards Japan. The Japanese military quickly finds out they are no match for either monster and the only way to stop both of them would be force them to fight one another.
Unfortunately, Beck went behind Willis O'Brien's back by approaching Toho with this, according to Don Shay's "Willis O'Brien-Creator of the Impossible" (1982), and O'Brien was not credited for creating this idea.
King Kong vs. Godzilla: Production
Toho hired much of the same crew that worked on Godzilla (1954) to create this film, including director Ishiro Honda, producer Tomoyuki Tanaka, composer Akira Ifukube, and special effects director Eiji Tsuburaya.
Tsuburaya had been hired by Japanese filmmakers in the 1940s to make Japanese propaganda films, in particular to create realistic naval battle sequences. It has been said that many of Tsuburaya's sequences for these films were so good, that many people in audience believed they were watching real battles. After the war, Tsuburaya worked for Toho Studios and used his knowledge from his propaganda films to create terrifying monster sequences in Godzilla (1954).
When Tsuburaya heard that Toho wanted him to do the special effects for a King Kong film, he dropped every project he had worked on to support this film. Tsuburaya had been a massive fan of the special effects used in "King Kong" since he was a kid and considered it an honor to work on this film.
Due to the constricted time schedules of Japanese filmmaking, and even tighter budgets, Tsuburaya was forced to come up with a cheap, fast and effective way of shooting giant monster sequences. Tsuburaya admitted that he originally wanted to shoot every scene with Godzilla in the 1954 film using stop-motion animation, but could not due time constraints. Thus, his next best solution was a man inside a rubber monster suit, or suitmation. A miniature destructible city or landscape was built that the men in the suits could rip apart, while also using model tanks and airplanes to combat the monsters.
Suitmation would be used in virtually every later Toho monster film for the Showa era, and a style that would become synonymous with Japanese filmmaking. Ishiro Honda thought about using stop-motion for King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962) to have a similar fell to the 1933 film, but due to budget constraints Honda decided that suitmation was the more cost-effective way of filming, however some key shots were still filmed using stop-motion animation, especially near the climax of the film as the two monsters duke it out on top of Mt. Fuji.
It was also decided that King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962) would be shot in 2.35:1 aspect ratio, which was known as TohoScope at the time, but is more commonly known as widescreen today. Toho also chose to shoot the film in color, which marked the first time both King Kong and Godzilla would be seen in widescreen and color.
According to Stuart Galbraith IV's "Monsters are Attacking Tokyo!" (1998), Toho had to pay RKO Studios roughly $200,000 to use King Kong in their film, which set the production back a bit. It was originally planned to shoot most of the film in Sri Lanka, but most of the early sequences involving the discovery of King Kong on Faro Island were instead shot on Oshima, a small island off the Japanese coast.
Godzilla's suit for this film was altered slightly from his appearances in Godzilla (1954) and Godzilla Raids Again (1955). His small ears were removed, his dorsal fins were increased in size, and he was given a bulkier body, to make Godzilla look more like a dinosaur and a more intimidating threat to King Kong.
The King Kong suit, however, had a more difficult time being accepted, especially by Tsuburaya, according to Donald F. Glut's "Classic Movie Monsters" (1978). He rejected the first suit sent his way for the legs being too long and Kong being far too fat. Several other designs were used before the final concept was created for Kong, though the end result was the birth of the largest King Kong to this date at 147 feet tall in the movie.
According to August Ragone's "Eiji Tsuburaya: Master Of Monsters" (2014), Tsuburaya decided to give suit actors Shoichi Hirose (King Kong) and Haruo Nakajima (Godzilla) free rein when it came to the choreography of Kong and Godzilla fighting. The two decided to base most of their moves from professional wrestlers, a sport that had recently grown popular in Japan and spent several hours a day practicing their moves on each other.
According to Gaisha Kabushiki's "Godzilla Days: 40 years of Godzilla Movies" (1993), Tsuburaya was also responsible for the tonal shift in King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962) towards a more light-hearted feel, as opposed its darker and grim predecessors in the Godzilla series. Tsuburaya wished to appeal these films more towards children and broaden the giant monster genre's audience. Toho approved of the light-hearted tone and liked the comedy throughout Godzilla and Kong's final confrontation, much to Ishiro Honda's dismay.
The film was titled King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962) because, at the time filming began, King Kong was more popular in Japan than Godzilla, so it made sense to give him top-billing. Also, given that Godzilla was considered a villain at this point in time, it was also decided that King Kong would triumph over Godzilla, but leave enough ambiguity to suggest that Godzilla is still alive for future films.
King Kong vs. Godzilla: American Version
According to Steve Ryfle's 1998 book "Japan's Favorite Mon-Star: The Unauthorized Biography of the Big G", when John Beck sold the script for "King Kong vs. Prometheus" to Toho, Beck was also given exclusive rights of distributing King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962) in non-Asian territories, as well as editing and changing the film as he saw fit. Much like what happened with "Godzilla, King Of The Monsters!" Beck sought out to change the Japanese product so that American audiences would enjoy the film.
Beck worked with screenwriters Paul Mason and Bruce Howard to write a new screenplay for King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962) that American audiences could understand and appreciate. Beck, Mason and Howard then worked with editor Peter Zinner to recut the film, removing certain sequences and rearranging others.
Ultimately, the product that Mason and Howard came up with was to add American characters to the film, in particular United Nations reporter Eric Carter (who would be played by stage and television actor Michael Keith) who comment on the events unfolding in Japan from United Nations Headquarters, while also discussing Godzilla and Kong's motives with Arnold Johnson, the head of the Museum of Natural History in New York City.
Beck spent roughly $15,500 to make the American version of King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962), and ultimately sold the rights of the film over to Universal Studios for $200,000 in 1963, according to Steve Ryfle's 1998 book "Japan's Favorite Mon-Star". The film then premiered in American theaters in June of that year.
King Kong vs. Godzilla: Performance
King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962) was met with a mixed critical response, but overwhelmingly positive box office results. In Japan, it has the highest box office attendance of any Godzilla film to date, as it sold roughly 12.55 million tickets throughout its time in theaters and grossed 350-million yen on its first theatrical run, or about 3.08-million American dollars, according to Peter Brothers' "Mushroom Clouds and Mushroom Men" (2009). It was the fourth highest-grossing film in Japan that year, and the second highest-grossing film from Toho of that year.
The success of King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962) prompted a rise in giant monster movies, especially in Japan. After a seven-year hiatus, Godzilla returned to Japanese theaters in a big way, which led to several more successful movies, including two more films in 1964, Godzilla's tenth anniversary, with Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964) and Ghidorah, The Three-Headed Monster (1964), which brought in other giant monsters Toho had developed over the years, including Rodan and Mothra. This has contributed to a film franchise that is still going strong to this day, with more than 25 entries since King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962).
This would eventually lead to the rise of Godzilla-like monsters in Japan, meant to capitalize on Toho's success. Most notably was Japanese film studio Daiei's solution, with their 1965 film "Gamera," about a fire-breathing turtle that could fly by spinning around in his shell. The key difference between Godzilla and Gamera though, was that Daiei fully embraced the child-like whimsy of giant monsters and aimed their film specifically at little children. Kids were often the main characters of these films, and were always the ones to befriend Gamera. So much so that Gamera earned the nickname "Friend to all children."
The King Kong Show
As for King Kong, his popularity was once again growing and American studios were fascinated with bringing him back to American audiences. But since the last time Kong was made in the States, a new form of media had become just as popular as the cinema - television.
With a television in almost every home by the mid-1960s, it was a growing concern that movies would soon become extinct and be replaced by television. So, American television company Videocraft sought to give King Kong his first television show. However, due to the cost of making a giant ape come to life every week for thirty minutes at a time, Videocraft decided to not create Kong through live action, but through animation, which was cheaper and quicker way of making this type of show.
At the time, Videocraft had two well-known executive producers, Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass. The two would eventually go on to form their own company, Rankin/Bass Productions, which would become famous for their Christmas specials, including "Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer," "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town" and "Frosty The Snowman." They would also go on to create an animated version of J.R.R. Tolkien's epic novel "The Hobbit."
Videocraft decided to pair up with a Japanese animation company to create their King Kong series. This would eventually lead them to Toei Animation, owned by the Japanese film studio Toei. Toei Animation would eventually become known for their various animes, including the well-known "Dragon Ball" series in the 1980s.
This would be the first anime produced in Japan for an American company, and the result was "The King Kong Show," launched on ABC that ran in the United States from September 10, 1966 through August 31, 1969, according to The Anime Encyclopedia (2nd expanded edition) (2006).
"The King Kong Show" was an animated adaptation of Kong's adventures, as he encounters and befriends the Bond family, who eventually take Kong around the world and have Kong fight many threatening foes, including monsters, aliens and robots. The design of King Kong was drawn by Jack Davis, who would eventually go on to create artwork for "MAD" Magazine.
The family that befriends Kong has three principal members, Professor Bond, the father of the family, the teenage daughter Susan Bond, and little Bobby Bond that Kong saves from a T-Rex in the first episode. There is also the returning character of Captain Englehorn from the 1933 film, who transports Kong and the Bond family around the world. The Bond family also has the reoccurring villain of Dr. Who (not the British one), a mad scientist bent on conquering the world and intends to use King Kong to reach his goals.
A traditional episode of "The King Kong Show" was usually broken up into the three segments - Two small episodes that followed Kong and the Bond family in their escapades, and a short called "Tom Of T.H.U.M.B." about a three-inch tall secret agent and his equally short Asian sidekick, Swinging Jack, as they usually attempt to stop a secret organization called M.A.D. from taking over the world.
There were 25 episodes of "The King Kong Show" before it was cancelled in 1969, but it was successful enough that Rankin/Bass felt they could extend the Kong franchise further by reaching out to an old friend: Toho...
Lost Project: King Kong vs. Ebirah
In 1966, Rankin/Bass productions and Toho started talking about continuing the King Kong film franchise, which would get audiences interested in seeing "The King Kong Show." Toho was eager to work with the character again, especially since King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962) was such a huge success. The resulting concept was Operation Robinson Crusoe: King Kong vs. Ebirah, pitting King Kong against a new monster called Ebirah. For marquee value, Mothra was also attached to the project.
However, the movie was not to be, failing to reach an agreement to suit all parties involved. The idea would live on, though. According to Steve Ryfle's Japan's Favorite Mon-Star: The Unauthorized Biography of the Big G, Toho decided to replace King Kong with a character that had become more popular than him - Godzilla.
This would eventually give birth to Ebirah, Horror of the Deep (1966), or "Godzilla vs. The Sea Monster" in America, the seventh entry in the Godzilla series that was helmed in the director's chair by relative newcomer Jun Fukuda.
The switch from King Kong to Godzilla is quite clear in Ebirah, Horror of the Deep (1966), as Godzilla performs many actions throughout the film that are uncharacteristic for him, but common place for Kong, such as Godzilla gaining strength from electricity (a power Kong had in 1962's King Kong vs. Godzilla), protecting the native girl from another monster, and throwing rocks at the titular Ebirah, a giant lobster, rather than using his signature atomic breath.
King Kong Escapes
The other film that Rankin/Bass and Toho agreed on did remain a King Kong film and saw the return of the filmmakers that gave us King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962), including Ishiro Honda, Tomoyuki Tanaka, Eiji Tsuburaya and Akira Ifukube. This lead to the 1967 film, King Kong Escapes. This plan would include incorporating stories and characters from the television show into the new film, in particular Kong's most popular villain from the show, Mechani-Kong, a giant robot built in the shape of King Kong. This also meant bringing in Mechani-Kong's inventor, Dr. Who.
In this film, the evil Dr. Who has begun to mine for the rare substance that can only be found at the North Pole, Element X. Dr. Who uses his robotic creation, Mechani-Kong to extract Element X, but as soon as the mechanical doppelgänger gets close the substance, it shuts down. Who is determined to get as much Element X as possible, and sets his sights on using the real King Kong to get it.
Meanwhile, a United Nations submarine arrives at the home of King Kong, Mondo Island, and intends to find Kong. Aboard the submarine is Commander Carl Nelson (Rhodes Reason), Lt. Commander Jiro Nomura (Akira Takarada) and Lt. Susan Watson (Linda Miller). The group finds Kong pretty quickly and watches him brawl with the many other monsters on Mondo Island, until Dr. Who shows up to capture Kong.
King Kong Escapes (1967) takes elements from particular stories of "The King Kong Show," as this new cast interacts with Kong similar to the Bond family did in the television show. In this case, Carl Nelson and Susan Watson befriend Kong and get him to fight evil forces, in particular Mechani-Kong. King Kong Escapes (1967) also takes several elements from the 1933 film, such as Kong fighting a T-Rex on the island and performing a similar killing blow. The final battle also takes place at the Japanese equivalent of the Empire State Building, the Tokyo Tower.
For international releases, Rankin/Bass were in charge of the dubbing process for King Kong Escapes (1967), but Universal still retained the rights to King Kong, so they would release the film in the United States. Rankin/Bass decided to have different voice actors dub over the lead roles for the American release of King Kong Escapes (1967), with veteran voice actor Paul Frees handle most of the male roles, including Dr. Who. Rhodes Reason got to re-dub over his lines, but Rankin/Bass decided to not have Linda Miller re-dub her lines.
This was most likely due to Reason being apart of the Screen Actors Guild, while Miller was only a model at the time. Miller later said that she hated the scratchy and annoying voice they chose for her in the American release of King Kong Escapes (1967), but adored her Japanese voice, and hated that Arthur Rankin Jr. did not contact her about re-dubbing over her lines.
In the summer of 1968, Universal Pictures released the American version of King Kong Escapes (1967) on a double bill with a Don Knotts comedy "The Shakiest Gun In The West" and opened to mixed reviews, most saying that the special effects were noticeably bad. Outside of Japan and the United States, King Kong Escapes (1967) got a decent worldwide release, but under different names in most countries. Its original Japanese name was "Kingu Kongu no Gyakushu" or "King Kong's Counterattack." Other foreign names, according to J.D. Lees' Godzilla Abroad (1996) included "The Revenge Of King Kong," "The Return Of King Kong" and "King Kong On Terror Island." The most interesting name came from Germany though, which was translated as "King Kong: Frankenstein's Son."
King Kong 1976: The Rights to Kong
Beneath the surface of the release of the two Toho King Kong films continued the constant battle being fought over the legal rights of King Kong and who had control over the character - Creator Merian C. Cooper or the studio that produced the first film, RKO Studios. According to James Van Hise's "Hot Blooded Dinosaur Movies" (1993), when Cooper found out that RKO studios had licensed King Kong to Toho for King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962), Cooper immediately opposed the project and felt his rights to Kong were unassailable. In 1963, Cooper filed a lawsuit against John Beck and Universal Studios to prevent the distribution of King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962) in the United States. During this time, Cooper became aware that RKO studios had profited off of King Kong for years without notifying Cooper's estate, mostly through Aurora toy sets of King Kong.
According to Cooper's executive assistant, Charles B. FitzSimons, the companies producing these model toy sets, as well as John Beck coming up with the idea for King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962), should have approached Cooper about all this, and not RKO.
Cooper later said, "My hassle is about King Kong. I created the character long before I came to RKO and have always believed I retained subsequent picture rights and other rights. I sold to RKO the right to make one original picture 'King Kong' and also, later, 'Son Of Kong,' but that was all."
In the court case, Cooper and his team put forth several legal documents to support that he owned King Kong and had only sold the rights to RKO for the first two films. Cooper also brought forth people to vouch for him, including David O. Selznick. Unfortunately, Cooper had lost two key documents that would have turned the case in his favor, the first being a letter from the then-president of RKO Studios Mr. Ayelsworth and a formal binding letter from Mr. B.B. Kahane, the current president of RKO, saying that the studio only owned the rights to the first two Kong films and nothing more. Cooper said that he lost those documents while serving his World War II military service.
Without those documents, Cooper lost his legal rights in King Kong to RKO. In a letter addressing the issue, Cooper stated, "It seems my hassle over King Kong is destined to be a protracted one. They'd make me sorry I ever invented the beast, if I weren't so fond of him! Makes me feel like Macbeth: 'Bloody instructions which being taught return to plague the inventor.'"
This court case kept filmmakers from pursuing more films starring King Kong for some years. It wasn't until 1975 that interest in a new Kong film would appear... only to cause another legal battle.
King Kong 1976: Kong at Paramount Pictures
In the mid-1970's, Hollywood had changed a bit and had begun to follow a new system of summer blockbusters. As the 1970s progressed, Hollywood film budgets began to increase, and so did box office returns. In 1972, Francis Ford Coppola released "The Godfather" on a budget of somewhere between $6 million and $7 million, grossing almost $134 million at the domestic box office that year, according to Box Office Mojo, and went on to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards.
But the film that would change everything when it came to summer blockbusters came out in 1975 - Steven Spielberg's "Jaws." Produced on a budget of roughly $9 million, Spielberg set out to make a giant man-eating shark come to life and make audiences think twice about getting in the water. The massive shark that terrorized the beach was an animatronic creation, using a full-body prop that was lowered into the water by a crane. This shark, nicknamed Bruce by Spielberg (named after the film's lawyer, Bruce Ramer), was on-screen for less five minutes of the movie and the audience never got to see what Bruce looked like until more than halfway through the film.
Audiences ate "Jaws" up, and kept forcing the film to play in some theaters for more than a year. "Jaws" ended up grossing $470 million at the worldwide box office, according to Box Office Mojo, a number unheard of in 1975. With a new found need for big budget blockbusters, it's no surprise that studios looked to create a new, large scale King Kong film. What was unexpected, though, was two different studios getting that idea around the same time. According to an article in a February 1976 edition of the New York Magazine, this happened because Sid Sheinberg, president of MCA/Universal, mentioned the idea of remaking Kong to his friend Barry Diller, president of Paramount Pictures.
Seeing dollar signs, both unknowingly went off to their respective studios to create a new King Kong movie. Stories differ on the next turn of events, with Diller possibly hiring producer Dino De Laurentiis to create the film, while De Laurentiis claims
he was the one who came up with the idea of a new King Kong film. De Laurentiis wanted to remake the story of the 1933 film, but updated with a modern-day look and feel. He especially felt that special effects had come a long way since 1933 and this would be a brilliant time to showcase how much the film industry had changed.
This turn of events led to two parties approaching RKO to get the rights to make a new King Kong film. On one side was De Laurentiis and the other Universal, each approaching RKO with a $200,000 licensing fee but with different percentages on the earnings (3% from Paramount Pictures, 5% from Universal) according to "King Kong: The History Of A Movie Icon" (2005). Paramount ended up signing a contract while Universal claims they had a verbal agreement to the same effect. Around this time, both finally discovered that two King Kong films were being made, "King Kong" at Paramount Pictures and "The Legend of King Kong" at Universal. Both unhappy with this turn of events, a court battle ensued. Universal struck first and sought $25 million in damages from both De Laurentiis and RKO. De Laurentiis counter-sued for $90 million in damages on the grounds of copyright infringement.
Rather than wait for any legal battle to settle, De Laurentiis rushed
into making his King Kong film instead. Pouring millions into the budget, and spurring up advanced advertisements, De Laurentiis made his project known to the public. Faced with lengthy legals battles and the prospect of launching a King Kong film immediately after Paramount Pictures already did, Universal canceled their project under a mutual agreement with De Laurentiis for a percentage of the profits from the Paramount Pictures film and the rights to make a King Kong movie at a later date.
The battle for King Kong and its resolution made headlines. Many ran articles in February of 1976 quoting Universal president Sid Sheinberg, such as the Anderson Herald, as he stated: "Our agreement permits Mr. De Laurentiis to make the best possible film, and permits Universal to select the best possible approaches to its King Kong venture. Universal intends to produce and release a King Kong film under optimum production and distribution conditions, subsequent to the De Laurentiis film release."
This would finally clear the way for the 1976 film "King Kong", now just around the corner from its release.
King Kong 1976: Cast and Crew
In this modern-day retelling of the 1933 film, the executive of the Petrox Oil Company, Fred Wilson (Charles Gordin), has recently found infrared imagery that locates a previously unknown island in the Indian Ocean. Wilson intends to form an expedition to the island, believing it could have a huge deposit of untapped oil. An enthusiastic paleontologist, Jack Prescott (Jeff Bridges), hears about the mission and sneaks on board after being turned away. Prescott eventually meets with Dwan (Jessica Lange), who has been unconscious for most of the trip, and reveals herself as an aspiring actress. Once they reach the island, the crew learns there is no oil on the island, but plenty of monsters.
De Laurentiis initially wanted director Roman Polanski to helm this film, according to Bruce Bahrenburg's "The Making of Dino Le Laurentiis' King Kong" (1976), with Polanski just coming off his successful crime-thriller "Chinatown," and also directed the horror film "Rosemary's Baby." Ultimately, Polanski was not chosen to direct the film, and De Laurentiis was eventually led to director John Guillermin, who had been known to direct big-budget action/adventure films throughout his career, including "The Towering Inferno."
De Laurentiis and Guillermin did not get along well, as Guillermin had a tendency to break into outbursts on set and argue with his cast and crew in front of everyone else. One day, Guillermin got into a heated argument with executive producer Frederico De Laurentiis, Dino's son. After the incident, Dino De Laurentiis told Guillermin that he would be fired if he was ever disrespectful to his cast and crew again.
Dino brought in screenwriter Lorenzo Semple Jr. to handle the screenplay for "King Kong." Semple Jr. took the original screenplay for the 1933 film written by James Ashmore Creelman and Ruth Rose and did his best to reinterpret this screenplay without copying the original, especially in terms of mood and tone.
"Dino wanted something light and amusing, rather than portentous," said Semple Jr., according to Steve Swires "Lorenzo Semple, Jr. The screenwriter Fan Loves to Hate - Part 2 (1983). "I don't think the original was meant to be mythic. It was remarkable for its time, but it was a very small back-lot picture. We thought times had changed so much that audiences were more sophisticated. Dino felt we could have more fun with it. We hoped to do sensational things with advanced special effects on a big screen."
The key example of this film changing something from the 1933 film was that, at the end of the movie, rather than climbing the iconic Empire State Building, King Kong now climbs to the top of one of the World Trade Center Towers, which were taller than the Empire State Building.
When it came time to cast the lead roles, De Laurentiis looked for some fresh faces that had mostly not been exposed yet. The lead roles went to Jeff Bridges, an eventual Academy Award winning actor known for such roles as "Tron," "Fearless" and "The Big Lebowski," Charles Grodin, who starred in "The Heartbreak Kid" and "The Great Muppet Caper," and newcomer Jessica Lange as Kong's love interest. Lange would go on to star in several movies and won two Academy Awards, one for Best Actress for 1994's "Blue Sky" and another for Best Supporting Actress in 1982 for "Tootsie."
Originally, De Laurentiis wanted to cast Meryl Streep in the lead female role, but he ended up deciding against it because De Laurentiis thought she was "too unattractive," according to Hayden Manders "This Meryl Streep Mic Drop Is Too Good To Be True" (2015).
King Kong 1976: Special Effects
As for the special effects involved in "King Kong," special effects developer Rick Baker and creature designer Carlo Rambaldi took a cue from films like "Jaws" and decided to bring Kong to life using large-scale animatronics.
Baker and Rambaldi's collaboration on the effects for "King Kong" did not go well at all. The only time the two seemed to agree on anything was designing the mechanical masks that would be used to show Kong's vast range of expressions. Baker worked on the design of the masks, while Rambaldi did the cable work to make Kong as expressive as possible. The two ended up designing seven different masks for Kong, since there were too many cables and mechanical issues to fit all the necessary expressions into one mask.
These masks were composed of a plastic skull over which were placed artificial muscle groups activated by Rambaldi's cables which entered the costume through the feet of the Kong model, with a latex skin over the top of the plastic skull. These masks used hydraulics to move, which required a team of operators working off-set with control boards. Finally, Baker put contact lenses over the eyes of the masks so Kong would resemble a gorilla. Baker wore the King Kong suit and performed as Kong throughout most of the film.
Carlo Rambaldi also built a massive scale mechanical King Kong for the movie that took months to create. The mechanical Kong was 40 feet tall and weighed over six and a half tons, the largest mechanical creature ever built, according to Michael Bahrenburg's 1976 book. However, the final product proved to be impossible to operate without looking like a robot, and was only briefly used in the final film, being on-screen for less than 15 seconds.
Massive mechanical arms would be built by Baker and Rambaldi also, used to fit Jessica Lange in the palm of Kong's arm. Like the masks used for Kong's face and the giant mechanical Kong, the arms used hydraulics, and required another large team of operators to handle its movement.
By the end of the production, Baker was not happy with how the effects turned out and felt they were not convincing in the slightest. While Baker felt that the masks used on Kong did give him a great range of facial expressions, giving the film a nice emotional punch, he was not happy with how the large mechanical Kong shots turned out or the ones involving Kong's arms. Baker believed the only reason Kong looked acceptable was because of the brilliant cinematography from Richard H. Kline, who knew the right angles to capture Kong without making him look like a massive robot.
King Kong 1976: Release and Performance
"King Kong" was released in American theaters on December 17, 1976 by Paramount Pictures. It was highly anticipated throughout the year, as advertisements built up the film and the now-iconic poster of King Kong at the top of the World Trade Centers was released to public.
The film, however, was met with mixed reviews from critics, some praising the large-scale and nostalgia of adapting King Kong, while others felt the same as Rick Baker and that the effects were not convincing in the slightest. People praised the performances of Jeff Bridges and Charles Grodin, and Richard H. Kline's cinematography. However, "King Kong" almost killed the career of Jessica Lange, after receiving several negative reviews on her performance, according to Marshall Fine's Editorial Reviews (2007). While Lange did win the Golden Globe for Best Acting Debut in a Motion Picture that year, she did not appear in another film for three years.
"King Kong" was nominated for three Academy Awards that year, including Best Cinematography for Kline, Best Sound and shared the win for Best Visual Effects with "Logan's Run."
Financially, the film was a modest commercial success, taking its $24 million budget and grossing $52.6 million at the domestic box office, slightly more than doubling its budget, and ended up being the seventh highest grossing film of 1976, according to Box Office Mojo. Unfortunately, most films only get to keep around half of their domestic grosses, with the other half going to the theaters and other locations playing the movie. So despite its success, the movie was held back by a huge budget for its time. In fact, none of the other top 10 box office films that year had a budget over $10 million. Luckily, though, "King Kong" found its true success once it reached television screens. NBC bought the rights to air "King Kong" and it was a massive hit. NBC paid Dino De Laurentiis a staggering $19.5 million for the rights, according to Hubpages, to air two screenings of "King Kong", the first taking place in 1978 where it was broken into two parts and the second in 1980 where it was a three hour event.
King Kong Lives
This massive payday for De Laurentiis convinced him that people really wanted to see more of King Kong. This would lead to De Laurentiis forming his own film production company, De Laurentiis Entertainment Group, in 1984. The company received further funding from James Hunt, the then-governor of North Carolina, after Hunt said that the Entertainment Group increased economic activity in state, since the company was based out of Wilmington, North Carolina.
The De Laurentiis Entertainment Group would go on to produce several successful films, including "Manhunter," "Maximum Overdrive," "Evil Dead II," "Blue Velvet" and distributed "The Transformers: The Movie." But Dino knew that audiences were still interested in King Kong and intended to make another film that would capitalize on the success of the 1976 film. Since Dino owned his own film studio, he did not need to go through other connections to make a sequel and could release it on his own.
This would eventually lead to the 1986 sequel, "King Kong Lives."
Taking place directly after the events of the last film, King Kong survived his fall from the top of the World Trade Centers and was put into a coma for ten years. He was monitored by Dr. Amy Franklin (Linda Hamilton), who gave Kong an artificial heart to survive. However, Kong loses so much blood during the surgery that Dr. Franklin fears Kong will die, until explorer Hank Mitchell (Brian Kerwin) arrives with a captured giant female gorilla, dubbed "Lady Kong." The blood transfusion is successful and King Kong awakens, only to grab Lady Kong and escape the complex.
Dino De Laurentiis hired John Guillermin to direct once again, and also brought back Carlo Rambaldi to create the special effects, but without the aid of Rick Baker this time. De Laurentiis also hired an entirely new cast for this film, and cast Linda Hamilton in the lead role, who had just come off a very successful role in James Cameron's 1984 hit "The Terminator." Brian Kerwin, who played the male lead, had only acted in a few films prior to this, including "Murphy's Romance," but had been a television actor for years, starting in 1976 with "The Young and the Restless." Reportedly, Kerwin's role was first offered to Peter Weller, but Weller turned down that role to work on the film that would define his career: "RoboCop."
De Laurentiis wanted to make "King Kong Lives" more comedic and funny than its predecessor, which made the jobs of writer Steven Pressfield and Carlo Rambaldi far more difficult. Pressfield was a new writer in Hollywood and this was his first screenplay after 17 years of trying to make it into the business, so making a pair of giant apes tearing apart cities seem funny proved to be difficult.
Rambaldi, however, had difficulty working with a tiny budget. The overall budget for "King Kong Lives" was $18 million, according to a Los Angeles Times article published by David T. Friendly in 1985 called "De Laurentiis rejoins the ranks." This was considerably smaller than the earlier film with its $24 million budget. Rambaldi did not have access to his previous masks or models from the 1976 film either and had to make everything from scratch. He used many of the same methods as the earlier film, including a mask that ran on hydraulics and large mechanical arms. For most shots that had both King Kong and Lady Kong, Rambaldi used suitmation and miniatures.
"King Kong Lives" opened in American theaters on December 19, 1986. The film received overly negative reviews. Film critic Roger Ebert pointed out, "The problem with everyone in 'King Kong Lives' is that they're in a boring movie, and they know they're in a boring movie, and they just can't stir themselves to make an effort."
The film was also a box office flop, only earning $4.7 million during its theatrical run, according to Box Office Mojo, and was seen as a failure by Dino De Laurentiis.
Writer Steven Pressfield later pointed out that "King Kong Lives" was a life-changing, validating failure. After spending 17 years trying to get into the film industry, he wrote a film that bombed and he realized he had become a professional, because even though he hadn't yet had a success, he had a real failure.
This was the last film director John Guillermin would make, and would contribute to the end of the De Laurentiis Entertainment Group. The company filed for bankruptcy in 1988, after the joint box office failures of "King Kong Lives" and "Million Dollar Mystery." The company was eventually bought out and is now EUE/Screen Gem Studios.
King Kong Encounter and Kongfrontation
"King Kong Lives" would mark the end of Kong in cinema for some time. Film studios were afraid of another box office bomb and that audiences had moved on from the character.
However, the newest revival of King Kong did trigger another barrage of legal battles to decide who owned the rights Kong. According to Ray Morton's King Kong: The History of a Movie Icon (2005), the initial legal battles surrounding the 1976 "King Kong" and the rights to the character still lingered in the courts. While the three parties of RKO, Universal and De Laurentiis argued back and forth over the matter, Colonel Richard Cooper, son of the deceased Merian C. Cooper, stepped forward for the Cooper estate. Shortly after, Universal discovered that the copyright of the novelization of the orignal "King Kong," written by Edgar Wallace, had expired without renewal. Universal then claimed that this made King Kong public domain and that they should be able to make a movie based on a public domain story without infringing on anyone's rights, so long as it stayed within the context of the original story.
Richard Cooper filed a cross-claim towards RKO, saying that while the novelization rights had not been renewed, the Cooper estate still had control over the plot and story of "King Kong."
After a four-day bench trail, Judge Manuel Real ruled that the novelization and serialization of "King Kong" did fall into the public domain, and Universal could make its movie so long as it did not infringe on the original elements of the 1933 film, which was still owned by RKO.
However, less than a month after his ruling, Judge Manuel Real made a subsequent ruling, stating that all the rights in the name, character and story of King Kong (outside of the 1933 film and "Son of Kong") belonged to the Cooper estate. This would become known as the "Cooper Judgment" and was a massive victory for Richard Cooper, as it proved what Merian C. Cooper had said for years about King Kong.
Shortly after this, Richard Cooper sold the rights to King Kong to Universal Pictures, outside of book and publishing rights to the character. There was one more instance of King Kong legal troubles, involving the creation of the Nintendo video game character Donkey Kong, but the court ultimately ruled that Universal was in bad faith for suing Nintendo for copyright infringement over their character.
Since then, Universal has largely owned the rights towards King Kong. While RKO studios still owned the rights towards the first two films, Dino De Laurentiis owned the rights of his Kong films (although De Laurentiis eventually sold those rights to Studio Canal), and the Cooper estate owning the book and publishing rights, Universal was allowed to do as they pleased with the character. This led to King Kong becoming a major attraction at Universal's theme parks.
The first of these attractions opened at Universal Studios Hollywood in July of 1986, months before "King Kong Lives" hit theaters. This ride, pictured above, was part of the theme park's famous studio tour. It involved the tram being confronted by King Kong on the Brooklyn Bridge. Called "King Kong Enounter," the ride used a massive animatronic Kong, built by Disney Imagineer Bob Gurr. Universal, however, was looking to expand its theme park footprint and to continue to challenge Disney. This resulted in the opening of Universal Studios Florida in June of 1990. One of the rides the park opened with was called "Kongfrontation".
This ride behaved much like the "King Kong Encounter" part of the Studio Tour in concept, as attendees are chased by Kong, but with far more story through news reports and showing of clips from the 1976 movie. Where as the Studio Tram ride was grounded, though, this new ride featured an aerial tram that lifted guests above the New York streets below.
The attraction, pictured directly above, proved popular at the park. In 1992, it was incporated in Universal Studios Florida's second annual Halloween Horror Nights. Called the "Tramway of Doom", this October only event adapted the "Kongfrontation" ride as a mashup between two properties. As a result, guests would escape King Kong and leave their vehicles only to be caught in a maze that was located on the ground of the ride which involved Darkman from the 1990 film of the same name.
Paul Sell is a longtime Godzilla fan and often times contributor on various Godzilla and Toho message boards.