While adapting Hacksaw Ridge, director Mel Gibson made a conscience decision to omit large parts of Desmond Doss’s story. Not because they were unconfirmed or found to be fraudulent, on the contrary, Doss committed so many extraordinary acts of heroism, that Gibson believed no one would believe them all. The man lead a life that was the definition of unbelievable.
If Doss’s story was unbelievable, there is no word in the English language to adequately describe the life of Merian C. Cooper. Remember those old Dos Equis commercials that involved a suave as hell older gentleman that did a bunch of meme-generating shit and then was declared “the most interesting man in the world?” That’s Merian C. Cooper.
There no way to list his accomplishments without it sounding like a cliche origin story of the world’s lamest action hero but I assure you, everything listed is absolutely true.
- Fought in both World wars
- Served with General Pershing, who led an expedition against Pancho Villa
- Spent 9 months in a German POW camp
- Fought alongside the Flying Tigers
- Escaped a Polish POW camp
- Had an affair with a Polish spy
- Was part of General Douglas MacArthur’s party aboard the USS Missouri for the Japanese surrender
Somehow, with all those things listed (and all the things that aren’t), he still managed to find time to direct one of the most influential films ever made: King Kong.
Apparently, he wasn’t content in merely being “the most interesting man in the world” but also wanted to be one of the most important as well.
The Making of King Kong
The making of Kong is almost as unbelievable as the man who created it. While studying a tribe of Baboons on the set of his previous film The Four Feathers, Cooper envisioned a scenario where large groups of African gorillas would battle against a bank of Komodo dragons.
He later decided to focus on one giant lizard fighting gorilla instead of a group and inadvertently created Hollywood’s modus operandi–“Bigger is always better.” I would bitch but King Kong is incredible and although the man has been dead for over 40 years, I’m still afraid of him.
After creating a rough outline, Cooper took the project to Paramount but they rejected it deeming it not cost-effective. To their credit, this was during the great depression when having 100 dollars was enough to put you in the 1%, so spending $650,000 ($14 million in today’s money and like a Gazillion in their money) was a risky endeavor.
After making four successful films for RKO, the studio head honcho David O. Selznick decided to give Cooper carte blanche to make whatever he wanted and he knew immediately what he wanted to do: an adaptation of The Most Dangerous Game.
Cooper brought on his old collaborator Ernest B. Schoedsack to direct and the two promptly got to work on the script and the casting. They hired Robert Armstrong and Fay Wray as the two leads and once construction got started on the huge jungle set, Cooper was pulled away to work on the studio’s out-of-control project Creation.
Pay attention to all of these elements (the actors, the jungle set, the special effects creator of Creation.) I don’t want to spoil what happens, but they might all be important in a minute.
Creation was the pet project of special effects guru Willis O’Brien. It was about two men who, through either time travel shenanigans or some sort of plot magic, encounter prehistoric beasts. Cooper hated it. He thought the story was boring and convinced the studio to shit-can-it.
He did, however, love the stop motion effects. He realized, that with the jungle set he already had, plus the effects O’Brien created, he could finally make that giant ape movie he conceived all those years ago.
Cooper, ever the economist, realized the most frugal and time-saving way to make the film, would be to have Schoedsack direct the actors and for him to focus more on the effects. Since they had just worked with Wray and Armstrong on their previous film, Schoedsack decided to bring them back for Kong.
He also brought on his wife Ruth Rose to polish up the script after the numerous re-writes. She streamlined everything, including a sub-plot involving a boat of scaled convicts, lots of exposition, how Kong gets to New York (spoilers), and injected the three leads with autobiographical characteristics, I.E., Denham being more like Cooper, Driscoll a stand-in for her husband and making Ann Darrow more like herself. Cooper loved the additions and with all the elements finally in place production on King Kong was underway.
There is no King Kong without Cooper or Schoedsack. Their contributions to the film are unquestionable but the lion’s share of credit goes to the special effects crew most notably Willis O’Brien’s (Buzz Gibson and a young Ray Harryhausen) stop motion work, the matte painters Henry Hillinck, Mario Larrinaga, and Byron C. Crabbé, and the cinematographer Carroll H. Dunning, who created a brand new process of realistically blending live action with matte paintings and stop motion work.
The shoot lasted a whopping eight months which had so much downtime, that actress Fay Wray completed two other films while waiting for it to be completed. After numerous reshoots and an extensive editing session (which we’ll get to in a minute), King Kong was finally finished and debuted at Grauman’s Chinese theater on March 2, 1933 to rave reviews and lines around the block.
The film Paramount once dismissed as being economically risky turned out to be one of the most profitable of the ’30s. And it’s all thanks to O’Brien and his shitty ass Creation script. Or maybe it’s all thanks to the monkey. I have no idea how the transitive property of responsibility works.
What King Kong Means to Us
I love King Kong for two reasons. One is that without King Kong we might never have gotten Godzilla – and Godzilla is my favorite giant monster. Second, I love King Kong because it’s still a kickass adventure story even now, nearly 90 years after it was released. I probably saw King Kong for the first time on my Gram’s couch on some rainy Saturday afternoon (as I saw so many classic films), well after I’d seen the 1976 version. While I vaguely remember enjoying that release – I think I even had the King Kong board game for that movie – the original instantly became my favorite version. Maybe it’s Willis O’Brien’s stop motion effects work, or maybe it’s the cracking story that never really slows down, or maybe it’s just Fay Wray. More likely it’s the crazy alchemy of all those things (and the production design) that still work for me. I watch the film every couple of years – usually telling myself I’ll just watch the “really good parts,” which is anything that Kong himself is in. Inevitably I wind up watching the whole thing, and half the time my wife will watch it with me.
Since most films before the 1980s are boring as fuck, I tend to skip older movies. I know that sounds sacrilegious to you pearl-clutching cinephiles but entertainment trumps importance any day of the week in my opinion. I don’t care how many critics call something a classic, if it’s not fun, it’s not engaging and if I’m not engaged, I’m checking my phone. I ain’t got no patience for a movie to get good eventually. I give every movie fifteen minutes and if it doesn’t grab me, I’m out. That’s why King Kong is one of the only films from that era I’ve ever seen twice. They pack so much plot into those first fifteen minutes, that it’s impossible to be bored. We’re introduced to our entire cast of characters, what they all want out of this excursion, and just a taste of what’s waiting for them when they get there. It moves so fast, that you could watch this entire movie twice before the third act of Jackson’s version even enters its third act. It wastes no time throwing you into this world and even less time throwing you into Kong’s. Skull Island is one of the most interesting concepts for a film of that time. An uncharted island that never evolved past the prehistoric era is a great idea but it’s a bit more than that. There’s an element of fantasy to it. Yes, there are dinosaurs roaming around but there are also gigantic apes and horrible bug monsters. It doesn’t adhere to logic, which opens the door to anything. Carl and his crew could run into anything and that’s what makes it fun. On top of that, the effects help sell the illusion and they still hold up today. The fights have real weight and power to them and Kong is arguably the most expressive stop motion creation ever. You always know what’s on his mind, which is incredible because his face is made out of modeling clay. They’re so good, they’ve aged better than movies that have come out just five years ago and this movie is damn near 100. As long as people go to the movies, people will talk about these effects and that monkey and everything else. It’s dug itself deep within pop culture and it’s not going anywhere any time soon.
Fun Facts & Trivia
I mentioned above that there were about 20 minutes removed from the final cut. The most well-known of these deleted scenes is the infamous “Spider Pit” scene. For years it was believed to have been lost and rumors quickly spread that it was cut because it was too frightening. Although the scene would probably be harrowing for 1930s audiences, the truth of the matter is that it was cut for pacing issues. Peter Jackson would eventually remake the scene for his 2005 version.
The massive wall and gate (that’s used in the film to contain Kong) were destroyed in 1939 for Gone With the Wind‘s burning of Atlanta sequence. Finally, Universal Studios once sued Nintendo, alleging Donkey Kong violated their trademark of King Kong. The lawsuit ultimately failed.
The film’s popularity is so strong, that it not only got a sequel but created a mini universe of remakes and knock-offs, including Son of Kong (1933), King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962), King Kong Escapes (1967), The King Kong Show (1966-69), King Kong (1976), King Kong Lives (1986), King Kong (2005), Kong: Skull Island (2017), and Godzilla vs. Kong (2021). With the upcoming sequel series on the horizon, the great ape has never been more popular. I guess you could say that Kong is king.
I waited for this entire review to make that joke. It was worth it.
Are you a fan of the original King Kong? Do you have a fun fact or piece of trivia on the film that wasn’t mentioned? Share it in the comments below!