5 Stories That Prove King Kong Movies Were Fueled By Madness
With Godzilla vs Kong about to hit the big screen (as well as your TV screen, iPhone screen and, who knows, maybe even your Game Boy screen) we decided to look back at some of the stranger moments in the histories of these two characters. After delving into the backstory of Japan’s beloved big boy ambassador, let’s now take a walk down King Kong’s flaming rubble-strewn memory lane. Well, it turns out that ...
The Original Idea Behind the Movie Was Just Terrible
The iconic movie about a ridiculously ill-conceived expedition almost began with an actual ill-conceived expedition. King Kong director and screenwriter Merian C. Cooper, originally proposed filming a “natural drama about an ape” that would revolve around a real-life fight between a gorilla and a Komodo dragon. Cooper’s plan involved literally flying to Africa, capturing an actual live gorilla, and then taking it to the island of Komodo where they would force it to brawl with a giant lizard while the cameras rolled. Then they’d write some dumb story around the footage, including a subplot in which the gorilla kidnaps a female member of an expedition, ultimately concluding with the gorilla being taken to a New York zoo, escaping and running amok before being gunned down. Uh, fun for all ages?
Cooper wasn’t the first to come up with such a story, he may or may not have been influenced by the 1930 exploitation film/fake documentary Ingagi. Considered a lost film until earlier this year when it was released on video, Ingagi was an elaborate hoax, purporting to chronicle a real-life African expedition. It’s also full of “notorious” content; super-racist depictions of Black natives, and scenes of a gorilla sexually assaulting women -- a grossly pervasive myth at the time that presumably paved the way for the “romance” of King Kong.
It turns out that even 90 years ago American audiences had godawful taste, because the movie was a big-ass hit. But the film’s true nature was eventually revealed when people noticed that A) it featured stock footage from other movies and B) some of the gorilla scenes were filmed at the goddamn zoo. Ingagi was even investigated by the Better Business Bureau who further exposed the hoax; the actor inside the gorilla costume confessed and the new species allegedly discovered in the movie, the “tortadillo” turned out to be a “turtle with wings, scales and a long tail glued on to it.” Despite these embarrassments, the film’s box office success led legendary movie studio RKO to greenlight the similarly-themed, but less-deceptive, King Kong.
King Kong Began As a Remake of Another Movie
Since it was the middle of the Great Depression, no one would fund Cooper’s globe-trotting experiment in animal cruelty. He was eventually hired to direct Creation, which was basically just a remake of the previously successful The Lost World, based on Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel about an island full of dinosaurs and precisely zero Jeff Goldblums.
Impressed by animator Willis O’Brien’s work, Cooper promptly torpedoed Creation, realizing that stop-motion techniques provided a means to film his wacky killer ape movie without any intercontinental abductions. And while at first the creature who would become King Kong was just a regular gorilla, he became 12 feet tall, and eventually even bigger purely because Cooper thought it would be super-cool if Kong fought the dinosaurs they’d already made for that other movie. They basically just took the plot of The Lost World (which involves, not just an expedition to a mysterious island, but the capture of dangerous creature who escapes on the mainland) and shoehorned a giant ape into the story, all to capitalize on the success of a racist scam movie -- and in doing so they inadvertently created one of the most iconic Hollywood films of all-time: 1933’s King Kong.
Even back in the ‘30s, Hollywood had a habit of churning out half-assed sequels; King Kong was such a huge hit, RKO released a follow-up later that same year. Son of Kong was basically a retread of the original but about King Kong’s albino child and was, oddly, more of a comedy. Screenwriter Ruth Rose’s logic was “If you can’t make it bigger, make it funnier.”
King Kong vs Godzilla Pissed Off Kong’s Creators
Decades after the original King Kong, Willis O’Brien attempted to bring the franchise back by pitching a movie in which Kong battles Frankenstein’s monster -- or rather, Frankenstein’s grandson’s monster -- in the streets of San Francisco. Since the iconic Frankenstein design was owned by Universal, the project fell apart -- that is until the producer quietly pitched it to Toho Studios, who were looking for a way to bring their own city-stomping icon, Godzilla, back to the big screen after a six-year absence. So in 1962 we got King Kong vs Godzilla, a movie weirdly about a pharmaceutical executive kidnapping King Kong, after he gets messed up on berry moonshine, just to boost ratings for a TV show.
The deal with Toho was done behind O’Brien’s back, and the animator who first gave King Kong life was reportedly “heartbroken” as a result, and died the same year. Meanwhile Kong’s creator Merian C. Cooper was “furious” at the movie, claiming that he owned the rights to the character -- which a court later confirmed that he did, but not until 1980. Meanwhile Toho continued the giant ape’s adventures with King Kong Escapes, a somehow even crazier movie based on the animated series made by Rankin/Bass, the same folks who had bravely exposed the cruel bigotry of North Pole society just a few years earlier. This one featured a mad scientist, ape hypnotism, and a battle between King Kong and his robotic doppelganger.
Somehow it was still less deranged than ...
There Were a Loads of Bonkers Imitations
King Kong, not unlike other pop-culture icons such as The Beatles and Mad magazine, invited a bunch of cheap imitations, many of which were completely insane. Take Konga, for example, the 1961 film about a mad scientist who uses an enlarging potion to blow-up a gorilla purely for the purpose of exacting revenge on his enemies.
There was also the Italian knock-off King of Kong Island, the ‘70s parody Queen Kong, and most baffling of all, the 1976 American-South Korean co-production A*P*E, which featured a laundry list of insane moments, such as a scene where the titular creature wrestles/slow dances with a great white shark, in a meta nod to the recent Jaws.
And best of all is the moment where the giant ape smacks away a helicopter and flips it the bird.
Of course, A*P*E only existed to capitalize on the release of …
The ‘70s King Kong Remake Was a Total Shitshow
While it was eventually decided that Merian C. Cooper did own the rights to King Kong, before that ruling, RKO sold off the rights to the character … to two different studios. Producer Dino De Laurentiis and Universal both made deals to remake King Kong, but since neither knew about the other at first, two goddamn Kong movies went into production. Eventually Universal sued De Laurentiis for $25 million, who then countersued for $90 million. Because of all the legal worries, De Laurentiis decided that the best course of action was to … rush his film into production in defiance of all reason and common sense.
Also adding to his repository of terrible ideas, De Laurentiis didn’t want to use stop-motion animation, and instead sought to create a full-scale animatronic King Kong -- which is … insane? Amazingly, they built the damn thing, with a cost of almost $2 million bucks. The only problem? It didn’t work. At all. The filmmakers had to scrap almost all of the scenes featuring the animatronic Kong, instead opting to just film a dude in a gorilla suit. Even when they did try to employ their costly creation, it failed spectacularly. In the dramatic unveiling scene, when Kong is first exhibited to the public, he immediately started “leaking” hydraulic fluid, prompting dirty jokes from the extras. In the end, robo-Kong was only used for about 15 seconds total in the movie -- which is more than $130,000 per second.
The production also built two giant mechanical ape hands for close-ups -- and according to actor Charles Grodin, thanks to Dino’s rushed schedule, they made two right hands by mistake. Even when that problem was solved, the freaking hands didn’t work properly, and repeatedly injured actresses while filming the (unnecessarily gratuitous) finger-groping scene. Despite all of this mismanagement, 1976’s King Kong was a financial hit, won an Academy Award for visual effects, and gave us some of the most gloriously bizarre marketing tie-ins of all time, including a promotion in which a new pair of jeans came with a genuine strand of hair from the giant, failed Kong robot, and a partnership with Jim Beam that included a signature Kong-themed cocktail and the world’s most terrifying decanter.
And we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention that De Laurentiis eventually made a sequel; 1986’s King Kong Lives, in which Kong somehow survives falling from the top of the World Trade Center and gets an artificial heart thanks to experimental surgery and presumably a dump truck full of cocaine.
Top Image: Paramount Pictures