There is no bigger movie star than King Kong. From his humble beginnings as a stop motion model, to a digitally enhanced super-beast, Kong has remained a pop culture icon for the better part of a century. Whether he’s stomping on an enemy T-Rex or swatting warplanes out of the sky, the colossal ape has captured the imaginations of entire generations of cinemagoers.
Perhaps it is because King Kong is so endearing, so empathetic, that he remains just as relevant today as he was in his first outing way back in 1933. Yes, he is a monstrous, giant ape, but beneath his beastly exterior beats the heart of a hero. Kong is the kind of giant movie monster that audiences love to root for, and that seems to never more true than in the upcoming release, Kong: Skull Island. In honor of his eighth major outing, we’re taking a look at the evolution of the eight wonder of the world.
Here are 15 Things You Didn’t Know About King Kong.
15. The Original Print Was Destroyed
There’s no denying the massive cultural impact the very first King Kong has had on moviegoers. Although film enthusiasts still comb through the 1933 production on Blu-ray, DVD, and theater screenings for its impeccable technique, there was almost a time when the original print of King Kong was lost for good.
Films predating the 1980s didn’t have much value once they left the theaters. Because of their worthlessness, most original film negatives were stored poorly, and a lot of them made before the 1950s were melted down to extract the silver nitrate.
In Kong’s predicament, there wasn’t a decent print to be found in the U.S., so the movie was reconstructed using various pieces of film that could still be found in England, Belgium and France. The prints were then duplicated and digitally enhanced frame-by-frame to create the new master version seen today. The entire process took over two years, but it was worth it to preserve the legacy of a groundbreaking film like King Kong. Now, if we could only get those original Star Wars reissues.
14. The Infamous Missing Scene
The first King Kong provided some of the most iconic shots in cinema history such as Kong’s first reveal, his breakout from his New York prison, and his eventual death atop the Empire State Building. However, most are unaware that a good amount of footage was cut from the final version, including a fight between Kong and three triceratops, as well as a sequence with a brontosaurus killing sailors in the water.
Perhaps the most infamous of all these scenes is the “Spider Pit Sequence,” in which giant spiders devour various crew members on Skull Island. When the scene played for an early test screening, many audience members were horrified, screaming and running out of the theater. Director Merian C. Cooper stated that he cut the sequence the next day, supposedly because it stopped the story rather for its bad reception. Though the sequence was initially considered lost forever, director Peter Jackson was able to reconstruct it using traditional stop motion effects, appearing on the 2005 DVD release.
13. Kong the Killer
Considering he’s a monstrous ape, it’s surprising how easy it is to sympathize with King Kong. The final shot of the gentle beast lying dead on the New York pavement is the classic portrait of a misunderstood monster. Even the trailers for Skull Island depict Kong as a sympathetic creature who is simply protecting his home turf from bombs being dropped on it by the U.S. military.
However, Kong didn’t start out so sweet. In fact, the original version of King Kong is about as depraved and violent as it can get. Several scenes of violence were removed from the U.S. prints of 1933’s King Kong from 1938 and 1971. These scenes included Kong stomping on Skull Island natives, shaking sailors off a log to have them fall to their deaths, and brutally chewing up an unsuspecting New Yorker. Though his image in pop culture today is more along the lines of a giant teddy bear, his original personification is a rather wicked beast. Let’s hope Skull Island gives us the best of both worlds with a Kong that is both sympathetic, but who’s not afraid to get down and dirty in a brawl.
12. Kong vs. the Komodos
Though Kong’s greatest enemy has always been mankind, he’s no stranger to duking it out with other giant beasts. One of the more famous sequences from the first King Kong is his fight with a Tyrannosaurus Rex, revolutionary at the time thanks to Willis O’Brien’s amazing stop motion effects.
But stop motion models were not the original vision that the director had in mind. Initially, Merian C. Cooper’s idea was to have an actual gorilla fight a few komodo dragons over a miniature set. Cooper even went so far as to pick out a pair of komodo dragons that he wanted to use for the sequence. However, the idea was eventually scrapped in favor of the stop motion animation of Kong fighting the T-Rex, mostly due to safety concerns regarding the live animals. It’s a good thing Cooper changed his mind, as King Kong would have become one of the first big cases of animal cruelty rather than a film that pioneered stop motion effects.
11. TOHO’s Kong
There are three different versions of King Kong that audiences are familiar with. There is the stop motion model from the early days, the computer generated image from the modern remakes, and the version that has a guy running around a movie set in a gorilla suit. That last one is the vision from Japanese company Toho, who licensed the character out from RKO in the 1960s.
During his tenure in Japan, Kong was featured in two Toho productions: King Kong vs. Godzilla in 1962, and King Kong Escapes in 1967. In both movies, the giant ape is beefed up in size to 148 feet tall and given the bizarre ability to harness electricity as a weapon. He was originally set to star in a third film titled Operation Robinson Crusoe: King Kong vs. Ebirah, but due to complications with licensing, was replaced at the last minute with Godzilla, and the movie was retitled to Godzilla vs. The Sea Monster.
10. Hitler’s Favorite Movie
Like music and art, the appeal of cinema is universal. Every person in almost any country has a favorite movie, and that includes the likes of horrifically brutal dictators. North Korea’s Kim Jong-Il was reportedly a huge cinephile whose favorite movie was Friday the 13th, while Saddam Hussein enjoyed thrillers like the Will Smith led Enemy of the State.
Perhaps the most infamous dictator in the world’s entire history was Adolf Hitler, who was also a fan of certain films. One of those films was King Kong, which the German dictator reportedly watched several times over and remained as one of his favorite movies. Being that it stars a giant monster trampling on its victims, it’s not hard to see why. Even weirder is the fact that Hitler’s other favorite movie was the Disney flick, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. To be honest, we can’t see any similarities with that one.
9. King Kong vs. Frankenstein
This year’s The Mummy reboot starring Tom Cruise will signal the beginning of Universal’s shared Monster Universe, featuring the likes of Dracula, Frankenstein, the Invisible Man and various other spooky properties. It’s certainly not worst idea in the world given Hollywood’s recent infatuation with extended universes. Audiences love a good monster movie mashup, so it’s no surprise to learn that there was a time when King Kong almost went toe-to-toe with another popular monster: Frankenstein.
King Kong vs. Frankenstein was originally the dream project of Willis O’Brien, the stop motion animator for the 1933 version of King Kong. O’Brien had even written a treatment for the movie that featured Kong duking it out with a large monster created by Frankenstein’s grandson in San Francisco. The story was eventually fleshed out into a screenplay by George Worthing Yagtes, who retitled the movie King Kong vs. Prometheus. Unfortunately, no American studios were interested. The script was eventually sold to Toho studios, who replaced Frankenstein/Prometheus with their own classic monster: Godzilla.
8. Remakes and Knockoffs
Like any wildly popular property, Kong has seen his fair share of sequels, spinoffs, reboots, remakes, and knockoffs. His first official sequel hit theaters less than one year after the release of King Kong, titled Son of Kong. Afterwards came his brief stint at Toho with the release of King Kong vs. Godzilla and King Kong Escapes, which did away with stop motion effects and instead had a man dress up in a gorilla suit.
In 1976, the colossal ape was given his first official remake starring Jeff Bridges, with a direct sequel ten years later titled Kong Kong Lives. In 2005, the movie was remade yet again, this time with The Lord of the Ring’s Peter Jackson behind the director’s chair. This month will mark Kong’s eighth official feature with Kong: Skull Island.
Besides a series of sequels/remakes, Kong has inspired an entire string of knockoffs and copycats. These include the likes of 1969’s The Mighty Gorga, which is about a giant ape being captured to perform in the circus, and the various Mighty Joe Young movies which were made by the same creative team responsible for King Kong, including Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, who directed the first movie in 1933.
7. Tall, Dark and Handsome
There are few shots in cinema as iconic as actress Fay Wray in the clutches of King Kong atop the Empire State Building. The 1933 blockbuster catapulted Wray into stardom, allowing her to become one of the most famous actresses on the planet overnight. While it’s hard to see anyone else in the role of Ann Darrow, Wray initially needed a little more convincing before she took the part.
After deciding that a blonde would provide the perfect contrast to Kong’s dark pelt, director Merian C. Cooper landed on Wray for the lead role. To sweeten the deal, Cooper enthusiastically told Wray the he planned to star her opposite the “tallest, darkest leading man in Hollywood.” The actress took this to mean she would be playing alongside Hollywood hunk Clark Gable, until Cooper later showed her a picture of her real co-star: a colossal ape.
While she might have been slightly misled, Ann Darrow became the role that Wray was best known for. Two days after the actress’s death in 2004, the lights of the Empire State Building were dimmed for 15 minutes in honor of her legendary climb with Kong.
6. Size Matters
People often ask how tall King Kong is, but there is really no definitive answer. In his first appearance in 1933’s King Kong, the colossal ape’s height frequently changes throughout the course of the film. Originally, director Merian C. Cooper envisioned Kong to be around 40 to 50 feet, but animator Willis O’Brien and his crew scaled the models so Kong would only appear 18 feet tall on Skull Island. When Kong makes his move to the Big Apple, he’s slightly beefed up in size to around 24 feet. However, this didn’t stop Cooper from playing around with the set, manipulating the miniatures so that Kong would appear almost 60 feet tall in some scenes.
When the character was licensed by Toho studios, his size was significantly increased to 148 feet so he could pose as a possible threat in King Kong vs. Godzilla. In the 70s remakes, Kong was scaled to be 42 feet, and in Peter Jackson’s version from 2005, he was dialed back down to 25 feet. The upcoming Skull Island changes Kong’s height once again, this time to mammoth proportions. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, director Jordan Vogt-Roberts stated that, “This is going to be the biggest Kong there’s ever been. Not a 10-foot or 30-foot, but a 100-foot ape.” Good news considering Kong will square off against Godzilla in 2020; he’ll need all the extra height he can get.
5. Creating Kong
Ever since he was a boy, Merian C. Cooper was fascinated by gorillas. When he was shooting the movie The Four Feathers in Africa, he came across a family of baboons which inspired him to make a motion picture about primates. While fleshing out his story, he decided to make the gorilla of his movie giant sized and came up with the idea of the creature fighting warplanes atop the Empire State Building.
To help bring his vision to life, stop motion animator Willis O’Brien was enlisted to create the model, though the two had to go through several versions before they saw eye to eye. Cooper hated the first few models that O’Brien created for being too human-like in appearance. Cooper told O’Brien that he wanted Kong to be brutal, fierce, and monstrous, and gave his animator the dimensions of a bull gorilla that he received from the American Museum of Natural History to use as a blueprint.
The final model of Kong had the basic look of a gorilla while still retaining certain human qualities, with O’Brien incorporating nuances from a creature he had made for the 1915 silent film The Dinosaur and the Missing Link. All that was left was a terrifying roar for the creature, which was created by playing a tiger growl in reverse with the roar of a lion playing on top, and voilà: King Kong was born.
4. Animated Kong
King Kong is one of the most recognizable movie icons of all time, but Kong has dabbled in other mediums besides that of cinema. The eighth wonder of the world has been in several televised cartoons, the first dating all the way back to 1966 with The King Kong Show. The cartoon series saw the famous gorilla go on various adventures with a human family as they fight other giant monsters, robots, aliens, and mad scientists.
His second animated outing came in 2000 with Kong: The Animated Series, which featured a cloned Kong with DNA spliced with a human. The series, which aired on Fox Kids lasted for a total of 40 episodes and two straight-to-DVD movies, Kong: King of Atlantis and Kong: Return to the Jungle. Kong’s latest animated series aired last year titled Kong: King of Apes as a Netflix exclusive, set in the year 2050 with Kong wanted as a framed fugitive for destroying a priceless museum.
In addition to cartoon adventures, Kong has also had a prolific video game career, including a video game based on Peter Jackson’s remake and another based on the animated series for Gameboy. He’s also served as the chief inspiration for the design behind one of Nintendo’s most famous characters. We won’t say who, but his name rhymes with Honkey Pong.
3. Legal Rights
While King Kong is one of the biggest names in film history, it has never been the sole property of one person. For years, the Kong brand has been the source of various allegations and courtroom proceedings to determine who really owns the rights to the famous movie monster. Although Kong was conceived from Merian C. Cooper’s imagination, American film company RKO believed they had the rights to the giant ape as well.
In 1962, Cooper caught wind that RKO was licensing the character out to Toho to make the project King Kong vs. Godzilla. A lengthy lawsuit ensued, where Cooper insisted he only gave RKO permission to make the first film in 1933, its sequel Son of Kong, and nothing else. Rights over the character sparked up again in the 70s when Universal Studios disputed with Italian film producer Dino De Laurentiis over who had the actual permission from RKO to produce a King Kong remake.
Then in 1982, Universal Studios filed a lawsuit against Nintendo for creating a widely successful impish ape called Donkey Kong. Universal claimed that the video game mascot was a blatant ripoff of Kong, but in the end, the courts decided that Universal did not have exclusive trademark rights over the property. That, and the fact that no one could confuse King Kong with Donkey Kong. A fair point, considering one of them is 100 feet tall and the other is a normal size gorilla who wears a tie.
2. The Origin of the Name
There are some names in movie history that are just perfect. Character names like James Bond, Indiana Jones, and Luke Skywalker all have a certain gravitas to them, and King Kong is no different, conjuring up images of aggressiveness, power, and dominance. Though Kong is a household name today, it took a while for the team behind the movie to land on something that good.
When Merian C. Cooper set out to write his first draft of King Kong, the title was simply referred to as The Beast. When RKO executives were unimpressed with the generic title, it was changed to Jungle Beast, which the production company also considered bland. Because of Cooper’s infatuation with words that started with the letter “K”, it was eventually changed to Kong, but since executives thought audiences would think that the film would be mistaken as a docudrama, which were usually one-word titles, “King” was added to create the monster’s full name. King Kong is a title that sticks in the minds of audiences everywhere, and is heaps better than just calling him, “the Beast.”
1. He Already Beat Godzilla
After the success of the MCU, every major studio is now trying to create the next biggest franchise, and that includes Warner Bros. Together with Legendary Pictures, the production company is underway with their very own MosterVerse, a shared cinematic universe centered around giant monsters. The first installment of the franchise was the 2014 reboot of Godzilla, with Kong: Skull Island as the second entry, followed by Godzilla: King of Monsters in 2019.
Of course, these movies are just leading up to the main event of Godzilla vs. Kong, which is aiming for a 2020 release date. If you’re curious as to which movie monster will come out on top, then you can always re-visit the first time they fought onscreen in 1962’s King Kong vs. Godzilla.
Though some will tell you that their last brawl in the Toho produced film is a draw, there are others that argue Kong was the clear winner. After both monsters tumble into the ocean, Kong is the only one to resurface. Now, it is possible that Godzilla simply remained in the water and swam away, but by not showing his face, it does raise some questions as to who really came out as the winner. Either way, we can’t wait for when the two iconic legends square off for round two in 2020. Take your bets, people!