King Kong

ad in RKO Radio Flash, 2/18/33,
from AFI Louis B. Mayer Library
King Kong special preview at Grauman's,
ad in RKO Radio Flash 2/25/33,
from AFI Louis B. Mayer Library
Produced by RKO for a budget of $650,000 (includes $220,000 for the partial Creation negative), and released March 2, 1933, by RKO Radio Pictures, 35mm black and white negative, print 1.37:1 Academy screen ratio, mono sound, 103 mins., Re-released in 1938, 1942, 1952, 1956, 1971; Laserdisc released 1984 by Criterion with the first audio commentary by Ronald Haver; 60th anniversary colorized VHS released 1993 by Turner Home Entertainment that was digitally remastered to restore the three minutes of 29 censored scenes discovered in 1971 and to lighten the darkened scenes that originally hid gory details; DVD released April 2001.

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This film is a horror story set in Depression America in 1932 about a movie producer who travels to Skull Island on the ship Venture, captures a giant gorilla, and brings it back to New York. The King Kong story begins with the documentary films made by Merian Cooper such as Grass in 1925 and Chang in 1927. Cooper wanted to film "the ultimate in adventure" and he wrote the story of a giant ape creature who falls in love with a blond, a Beauty and the Beast fable. He was also influenced by the 1925 film The Lost World based on the story by Arthur Conan Doyle, and featuring the stop animation special effects of dinosaurs by Willis O'Brien and models by Marcel Delgado. This film ended with the dinosaur caught by Professor Challenger breaking loose in London and crushing the London Bridge to swim back to the Lost World. "O'Bie" and Delgado began work in 1930 on another stop animation film to be called Creation. Cooper was also influenced by his explorer friend W. Douglas Burden who told Cooper the story of his 1926 voyage to capture the giant lizards of Komodo Island in Malaysia, by the Tarzan films based on the stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs, and by the dinosaur paintings of Charles R. Knight common in many museums, by Frank Buck's Bring 'em Back Alive book published in 1930 and film released in 1932 about his capture of wild animals for zoos, by Barnum and Bailey's Gargantua, the largest ape in captivity. In 1931, David Selznick at RKO bought Cooper's story and the Creation project and began working on a screenplay titled The Eighth Wonder of the World drafted by Schoedsack's wife Ruth Rose who had been with her husband on his early adventures with Cooper and who was the model for the film character Ann Darrow. The name was changed to Cooper's original idea of "Kong", the Malaysian word for gorilla, which Selznick thought was too oriental and added "King" to the title word. Delgado built several Kong models, from the 18-inch miniature used in long shots, to the full-size hand and foot and face. The face was the most complex model, almost 7 feet wide with 85 motors operated by 6 men inside and covered with the skins of 30 bears. The large sets built on the RKO lot included the great Wall of the native village on Skull Island, which actually was left over from Cecil B. DeMille's 1927 King of Kings. The long shot of Kong climbing the Empire State Building was not done with an actor in a monkey suit, despite the claims of Charles Gemora. The $650,000 cost of the film included $230,000 used for Creation that was abandoned to produce King Kong instead. Merian Cooper was appointed RKO studio production head Feb. 14, 1933, and planned a series of promotions designed to generate public excitement. The film premiered March 2 at the Radio City Music Hall and the RKO Roxy to a record audience of 50,000 on the first day. This was the first time the same movie opened in both of the nation's largest theaters with combined seating of 10,000. National release began April 10. FDR was inaugurated March 4 and told Americans "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. . . that nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance." Although the New York Gov. Herbert Lehman proclaimed a two-day bank holiday, and FDR on March 5 declared a national bank holiday, King Kong earned $100,000 in its first week from 150,000 tickets. The film saved RKO, saved the Roxy Theater, and saved the nation from the real terror of the Great Depression.

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revised 10/6/06 by Steven Schoenherr | Filmnotes