Sunday, July 13, 2014

A brief history of King Kong and friends

A Brief History of King Kong and Friends

   Needless to say, I'm a fan of KING KONG, the 1933 epic which remains after so many decades one of the single finest adventure movies ever made. Amazingly, despite the advance of motion picture effects technology, the champion from 1933 still towers over nearly every great effects extravaganza produced since! Yeah, the film was something special, and so was Kong. Unfortunately, Kong seems to suffer from a curse that dictates each subsequent appearance of his is increasingly poor. Granted, there was nowhere for him to go but down the scale from his first feature, but the long journey hasn't been too kind for the big ape. Things started nicely, however.

Still for KING KONG shows a scene that never happened.

   KING KONG has influenced nearly everyone who ever saw it. A great many who entered the motion picture or effects fields point to the film as their inspiration. The movie, produced in 1933, remains just as exciting today. The film was such a smash hit, RKO rushed a fun sequel out the very same year! SON OF KONG was a delight, and remains beloved.

(There's also rumor of a Japanese film from 1938 called KING KONG IN EDO, but there's almost nothing on the film, aside from a couple of obscure photos -if indeed it actually existed!)

SON OF KONG, also 1933

   In the late 40's, much of the same creative team of KING KONG returned to giant ape antics with MIGHTY JOE YOUNG. This film rivals KING KONG in it's amazing effects work, although the tone is rather more kid-oriented this time around (not that that's a bad thing).

   KING KONG was re-issued in the 1950's and did spectacularly. The monster boom was ushered in, and King was at the forefront. The film played television as well as theaters, and was merchandised heavily in this era (cartoons and comic books, as well as pulp materials, featured their share of giant apes as well). Some kids were introduced to Kong via the newest and coolest magazine on the stand, Famous Monsters of Filmland.

   With the dawning of the 60's, Kong's fans got their first new giant ape movie in years. KONGA burst onto the scene via a mad scientist movie about animal enlargement experiments. The monster itself was played by a guy wearing the George Barrows gorilla suit (the first and last time the iconic suit was loaned out to someone else).

There was nothing subtle about the advertisements!

The film was adapted into a pornographic paperback novel! This distinction was also shared with REPTILICUS and GORGO!

The same three monsters also had their own comic book series!

In some parts of the world, the pretence was thrown out the window completely!
    Since the 30's, Kong's animator Willis O'Brien had been trying to sell a script called "King Kong vs Frankenstein" but nobody saw the potential until the early 60's, when producer John Beck bought the story. He took it to Japan's Toho studios, where the story was altered to feature Japan's own titan of terror. KING KONG VS GODZILLA remains one of the most popular (and satisfying) of all the Godzilla films.

Toho's Kong, version A, the suit with extended arms to give a more ape-like look.

Version B had shorter arms to allow the actor inside more mobility in fight scenes.
   In 1966, King Kong resurfaced as a Saturday morning cartoon series from Rankin/Bass and Toei of Japan. The show was the first animated series produced in Japan for American audiences. In this incarnation, Kong was the pet of a young boy named Bobby Bond, whose family was stationed on Mondo Island (when it wasn't said to be Skull Island!). Bobby's older sister and their scientist father would assist Kong in his battles against the forces of evil, not the least of which was the bald madman Dr. Who!

   Toho had been wanting to do another Kong film, and finally got to do one in 1967 when the Rankin/Bass series was adapted to the big screen. Gone were the Bonds, but Dr. Who remained, and brought a giant robot duplicate of Kong along with! The resultant film was KING KONG ESCAPES, one of the most fun of all giant monster/espionage/adventure movies! (So far, while Kong's films were steadily sliding in quality, they were still pretty nifty. The next decade would establish a severe dive in the grade.)

Toho also gave us some Kong-like monsters in THE WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS.
   Through the rest of the 60's and into the 70's, Kong remained very popular. The Volkswagon 411 commercial with animation by David Allen (and featuring the daughter of the original girl-in-the-paw Fay Wray) is the stuff of legend (which is good, because I couldn't find a good photo!) There was the King Kong model kit from Aurora, among other items...

 ...including comic books from around the world...

   In the mid 70's, a bidding war between Universal and Paramount began. The item of interest being the rights to remake KING KONG for the new era, making use of the most advanced special effects techniques money could buy! Fans were excited, as Paramount won the battle and began to heavily promote the film. A number of exciting posters remain a bitter reminder of what could have been, as the film produced was a ponderous affair which strained to be relevant instead of trying to be good. The resultant film has largely been judged a slick but mindless fiasco, one of the most epic turkeys of a decade that had more than it's fair share of epic turkeys.

What could have been....

   Although the 1976 KING KONG was a disaster (although a slick one, as noted), Kong was still the monster of the hour. Toys and other merchandise were scooped off of store shelves as quickly as they could be stocked. Even more exciting, other studios were unashamedly cashing-in on the return of Kong by producing their own giant ape movies. These were seldom very good, but they were largely much more fun than the listless, if handsome, Paramount vehicle.

A*P*E may hold the distinction for being the dullest of the lot....

...while MIGHTY PEKING MAN probably remains the most berserk!

MIGHTY PEKING MAN also made the rounds under the far more exciting title of GOLIATHON.

QUEEN KONG, a spoof of the Benny Hill variety, may be the most obscure such film...
   Dino De Laurentiis, who had produced the disappointing 1976 film, apparently still had the rights to Kong ten years later, because in 1986 came KING KONG LIVES! The direct sequel to the 1976 film was a mess in every manner possible, from script to effects work. The films biggest flaw is it's very approach to the subject. In KING KONG LIVES, Kong isn't a monster mankind has to deal with. Kong is presented as the hero, and the American military is presented as the monster Kong has to deal with! The film plays like it were dreamed up by an 8 year old, and then written down by a moronic adult. From boring to outright asinine in just two films, that's quite an achievement.

In this one, Kong is revived via an artificial heart. Left unexplained is why anyone thought that was a good idea.

How many Kong fans are even aware of KING KONG LIVES?
   More uplifting, 1986 also saw the King Kong ride open at the Universal theme park in Florida. The ride featured a life-size mechanical Kong which was used heavily in advertising the facility. The Kong ride remained the park's most popular for a very long time.

   KING KONG continued to play on television and win new fans ever since it first appeared there in the early 50's. When technology allowed for the colorization of black and white movies by the late 80's, KING KONG was one of the first subjects to get this infamously annoying treatment. Still, that may have been better than the 1998 animated musical (!) THE MIGHTY KONG, which may have been seen by even fewer people than KING KONG LIVES!

   Universal again attempted to remake KING KONG in 1996, but the project fell through as the 90's proved to be a bad time for giant monster movies. The studio finally got a massively-budgeted retelling into theaters in 2005. Kong's name value made the film a commercial success, particularly on home video, but the film was another bloated mess. Shockingly, it retained the dumbest elements of the '76 version, including making the girl fall in love with Kong! (Carl Denham, Robert Armstrong's he-man adventurer who was the subject of the 30's films, was nothing short of my childhood hero. Appallingly, the '05 remake casts him as a mad man, while also turning Bruce Cabot's manly seaman Jack Driscoll into a wimpy screenwriter of a sort that seems far more 70's Alan Alda than anything 1930's Hollywood would produce...)

The final insult?
     Now we wait to see what happens next. If the record holds, the next Kong film will be downright un-watchable, but who among us isn't hoping for a reverse in the established trend?

The champ of '33 as rendered by actor, artist, and Kong fan Frank Dietz.

   Kong's fandom certainly shows no sign of waning. 2014 will see the release of Frank Deitz and Trish Geiger's documentary LONG LIVE THE KING. A title to which I can certainly nod in agreement....

(Note from the future: in 2016, Kong finally broke the curse and appeared in a pretty decent flick called KONG:SKULL ISLAND. Given a very 80's feel, this one finds a 1973 expedition running into a monstrously huge Kong.)

I want a copy of this....


  1. Excellent article
    Thank you for sharing it.
    I was lucky enough to see the King Kong Volkswagen ad on T V
    I will mention for the sake of completeness that there is also a( Pornographic ) film titled " Lost on Adventure Island " which features a giant Ape . I had a video copy. I believe it was stop motion animated )

  2. I love this article, especially that picture of the Finnish (?) comic from the early 70's. I actually had the English-language version of that, and man did I ever love it. Long live the King (Kong)!

    And am I wrong or was there a Doctor Demento song that was once a rather well-known tribute to Kong? How did it go, "King Kong! King Kong! Them white guys did him wrong..."