The original `Kong' pulled in profits -- at 15 cents a ticket

December 11, 2005|By CHRIS KALTENBACH | CHRIS KALTENBACH,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

It made the American Film Institute's list of the 100 Greatest American Movies (No. 43), as well as the group's lists of 100 Greatest Thrillers (No. 12), 100 Greatest Love Stories (No. 24), 25 Greatest Film Scores (No. 13), even the 100 Greatest Movie Quotes (No. 84, "Oh, no, it wasn't the airplanes. It was Beauty killed the Beast").

All that, and the movie's star isn't even human. Or for that matter, real.

Almost from the day it premiered in New York on March 2, 1933, King Kong has been regarded as an American movie classic. In its first four days -- in the midst of the Great Depression and at a time when tickets cost an average of 15 cents -- the movie earned almost $90,000. Kong, with a budget of $672,000, cost about three times as much as the average film released that year. Nonetheless, it earned back more than twice that figure and rescued its studio, RKO Radio Pictures, from the threat of bankruptcy.

It also may have inspired more people to become filmmakers than any other movie. (Citizen Kane may give Kong a run for its money in that department, but just mentioning those two films in the same breath suggests the rarefied air Kong breathes.) Stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen, author Ray Bradbury, director Peter Jackson -- all cite Kong as a seminal influence on their careers.

"King Kong set me off on my career," Harryhausen told the Chicago Tribune. "I didn't know anything about animation, but I made it my duty to find out how it was done. The picture left such an impression I had to see it again and again, whenever it was reissued."

Kong sprung from the fertile imagination of Merian C. Cooper, a war hero and adventurer who specialized in adventure films shot in exotic, remote locations; his Chang, released in 1927, was shot in Siam (Thailand), while Grass (1924) followed a Persian (Iranian) family on its semi-annual trek across snow-covered mountains.

Drawing on childhood memories of books about the hunt for African gorillas, Cooper suggested to his partner, Ernest B. Schoedsack, that they make a movie about a giant ape and a terrified woman. The pair loosely patterned the film's male protagonists, film director Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) and ship's first-mate Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot), after themselves. And they assigned stop-motion animator Willis O'Brien to bring the giant gorilla to life (using miniatures designed and built by Marcel Delgado) and hired first-time screenwriter Ruth Rose (who was married to Schoedsack) to handle the script.

The result was movie magic, just the sort of escapism Depression-era movie audiences craved. Theaters showed the movie around the clock and still lines formed. So popular was Kong that RKO rushed a sequel into production and had it ready before the year was up. Son of Kong brought back Armstrong and a few other cast members and took them back to Skull Island, where they discovered Kong's considerably sweeter-tempered offspring. The film ends with the island sinking into the sea, making the idea of future sequels somewhat problematic.

But Kong didn't need any help to stay in the public eye; subsequent theatrical re-releases through the 1950s kept money rolling in to the studio. It also quickly became a TV staple, eventually spawning an animated series that aired in 1966.

By the 1960s, however, time had taken its toll on the movie. Censors snipped several scenes from the film shortly after its release in 1933, including a curious Kong peeling off some of Fay Wray's clothes and a furious Kong biting the heads off some Skull Island natives and stomping some others into the ground. And when the film showed up on television, nervous executives actually darkened the entire film, to tone down what they saw as excessive bloodletting. Those who purchase the King Kong DVD, released late last month, will find the film returned to its pre-censorship glory.

The original film's reputation even survived a disastrous 1976 remake starring Jessica Lange and Jeff Bridges, for which filmmakers made the mistake of trying to update Kong to the present day and pepper the dialogue with one-liners. Jackson's remake, opening in theaters Friday, returns Kong to 1933.

The Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service contributed to this story

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