Welcome to Retro Time. In this blog, I’ll be covering topics related to film and television from past decades. These won’t be reviews, but rather a selection of memories, thoughts, and ideas designed to spark a little nostalgia and maybe inspire a conversation or two. Spoilers will likely come up, so please keep that in mind. Thanks for stopping by, and if you have any thoughts or ideas, feel free to chime in. I’d love to get your feedback. Now, let’s get ready to take a look back…
King Kong (1933)
For me, the original 1933 King Kong is one of those reliable films that has always just been there.
I couldn’t tell you the first time I’d seen it any more than I can tell you the first time I ever poured tap water into a glass or petted a dog. Likely, it was playing on the family TV during a time when my infantile mind had yet to form (as Lt. Commander Data would put it) any long-term memory engrams. In my mind, it’s always existed. I’ve always know it. It’s always just…been there.
To this day, I have a copy of it on DVD and am known to throw it on whenever I’m in the mood for some good stop-motion monster carnage from yesteryear. But recently, it dawned on me that I’ve never really taken the time to look into the film’s history. This is funny because I’m usually pretty interested in that sort of thing. I love to read about tales of early Hollywood and learn the backstories of some of my favorite classics. But for some reason, the story of King Kong’s creation has eluded me.
With that in mind, I decided to do some searching and I came across a few interesting tidbits that I felt warranted discussion. Keep in mind, this is basic stuff that anyone can find on IMDB or Wikipedia. I can’t vouch for the accuracy of any of it. All of the “facts” listed here are presented in the spirit of fun.
So with that said, let’s begin.
King Kong was pre-code. What that means is that it came out in that short window of time between 1929 and 1934 when talking films weren’t yet subject to the Motion Picture Production Code, otherwise known as the Hays Code. (Technically the code was adopted in 1930 but it wasn’t strictly enforced until July of 1934). Pre-code films were able to include things like intense violence and sexual situations that would later be censored by the Production Code Association (PCA). When you watch King Kong, you can see how it makes the most of its pre-code status. Kong’s numerous kill-crazy rampages can definitely be considered intense and wouldn’t likely have passed muster if the code were in full effect at the time of production. Had the film come out just a year later, I think we’d have a much different movie on our hands, probably one that was a lot less memorable.
The original cut contained a scene where four sailors fall into a ravine after being shaken off of a long and are subsequently eaten by giant spiders. Preview audiences were so disturbed by it that the producers decided to cut the scene out. To this day no print of this scene has ever been recovered. This inspired Peter Jackson to add a similar segment in his 2005 remake. Jackson also shot a version of the scene for fun using stop motion animation, which can be found on some DVD releases (link here). I’m a sucker for lost footage stories and would love to see that scene recovered someday.
The film’s producer, Merian C. Cooper, started off with the idea of a giant gorilla fighting planes on the Empire State Building and then worked backwards from there. He originally turned to the well-known British mystery/adventure writer Edgar Wallace to write the script and a book so he could sell it as based on an Edgar Wallace book. Wallace did a draft but died soon after. The script was then reworked and none of Wallace’s ideas were used. Despite this, Cooper still gave him a screenwriting credit. So what’s better? Having your name go down in film history for something you didn’t actually create or getting some credit for the work you did at the beginning of the process? You decide.
Cooper originally envisioned a story about an African gorilla fighting Komodo dragons on a remote island, ending with a spectacular death in NYC (see paragraph above). With the Great Depression in full swing, the studio was worried about the costs of filming in Africa and Komodo. Cooper then turned his attention to effects wizard Willis O’Brien who was working on a fantasy film called Creation, which was about a group of sailors fighting dinosaurs on a remote island. Creation was running over budget and was spiraling out of control. Cooper immediately decided that he could save money by using some of O’Brien’s dinosaur effects and shooting on the studio’s existing jungle set. This is how we ended up with the giant gorilla fighting dinosaurs theme that eventually made it into the film. So it appears that from Creation’s troubles, we got King Kong, an example of hardships eventually leading to gold.
Depression-era audiences ate it up. The film grossed $90,000 in its opening weekend. Think about that in 1933 terms when tickets to a movie cost about 35 cents and you can see how big of a hit it really was.
But to me, a bigger indicator of its brilliance is in the way it has stood the test of time. Upon its release, it had the virtue of showing audiences something new. That always tends to put butts in seats. Think about recent films such as The Matrix or Avatar. Both offered visual experiences that were unique and new to audiences. As a result, both were smash hits. But will The Matrix or Avatar still be enjoyed by future audiences who are decades removed from the eras they were created in? It’s hard to say. Only time will tell.
But for King Kong 1933, time has told. It has endured to this day and will continue into the future, a product of a small window in film history when new effects techniques managed to fall into the hands of visionary film makers who were free to let their imaginations run wild without the fear of censorship. The result was the equivalent of lighting in a bottle. A piece of work that has something to offer to audiences of all generations.
A film that will always just be there.
George Ebey is the author of the recently released sci-fi novella DEBBI as well as a contributor to the anthology Brave New Girls. He is currently working on a full-length series of adventure tales set on Mars. You can connect with him on Facebook at George Ebey-Author and on Twitter @Ebeybooks. Or visit his website at www.gerogeebey.com.