The King Kong Family

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Our story begins in 1886, in Oakland, California, at the home of the O’Brien’s. A boy was born. His parents named him Willis and, although no one knew it at the time, he would be father to one of the greatest children in movie history, King Kong.

After a number of jobs, Willis O’Brien would find his place. A spare time hobby making models would get the attention of people like Thomas Edison, for whom he would make films like “R.F.D. 10,000 B.C.” and “Prehistoric Poultry,” using his models and stop-motion photography. For those unaccustomed to anything other than CGI, the idea of stop-motion is to take a model, move it ever so slightly, shoot a frame or two of film, move it again, shoot again, repeat continually. In hours, you have several seconds of action on film. A ten-minute film could take several weeks to complete. But O’Brien had the knack.

After a series of stops and starts, and the film “The Ghost of Slumber Mountain,” he would be employed by Harry O. Hoyt for the 1925 film, “The Lost World.” In the film, a previously unexplored area near the Amazon River turns out to be a prehistoric world of dinosaurs. The film ends with a Brontosaurus escaping its bonds and ravaging London.

These films can be found on YouTube.

Willis O’Brien and friend from “The Lost World”


In 1931, he began work on the film “Creation”. After creating 20 minutes of film with dinosaurs and humans battling each other, Merian C. Cooper canceled the project as being “boring”. However, he had an idea about a giant gorilla fighting komodo dragons. This would become “King Kong.”

“King Kong” would have everything. There would be dinosaurs, exotic islands, a beautiful heroine and equally handsome hero. And, of course, there would be Kong, The Eighth Wonder of the World! Using articulated models and stop-motion photography, the inhabitants of Skull Island would be brought to life.

The censors would remove scenes of people being eaten and stomped by Kong, as well as the downward flight of one unlucky woman who screamed like Fay Wray. Fortunately, they would be saved and restored to the film. The Spider Pit scene, where the crew met horrible ends at the claws of giant insects and other monsters, was also removed. It was felt by the producer that it stopped the action dead. This scene is lost.

And the public loved it. “King Kong” would be one of the top-grossing films for 1933. So much so, that a sequel, “Son of Kong” was prepared and hurriedly released in the same year. O’Brien felt the follow-up film was cheesy, as he didn’t have the time to do justice to the animation.
On a side note, those big wooden doors that Kong blasts through to get to the village…they were burned as part of the burning of Atlanta sequence in “Gone with the Wind.”

Kong would be copied almost immediately. Carl Laemmle at Universal would have a cartoon made called “King Klunk”, making fun of Kong (see YouTube). In 1938, the Japanese would produce “King Kong Appears in Edo”, which was a two-part silent film. Sadly, this film is considered lost.

In 1949, a “Kong Light” version would appear in the form of “Mighty Joe Young”, a huge gorilla raised by a girl, who can calm him by playing “Beautiful Dreamer”. Although Willis O’Brien was the head animator for the film, Ray Harryhausen did much of the actual work involved in animating Joe. This film would be remade in 1998 by Disney.

Ray Harryhausen and Mr. Joseph Young of Africa


In 1951, the British would give it a go with “Konga”, starring Michael Gough. No animation here. A man in a gorilla suit was made to look enormous through varied camera tricks.

In the 1960’s, Japan also broke out the monkey suit for “King Kong Escapes” (1962) and “King Kong vs. Godzilla” (1967) (KKvG). In both films, Kong was a good guy, taking on his robot likeness and fighting the King of the Monsters to a draw. For years, there has been the rumor that there was a different ending for the American version and the Japanese version of KKvG. That is untrue. Both versions end the same way. For a blow-by-blow account of the two films and their cuts, I refer you to the following website: It is very thorough.

If you look around the Internet, there is many a meme about how angry Godzilla still is about having a tree shoved down his throat by Kong.

1976 saw the Battle of the Sexes. Dino DeLaurentis built a life-sized King Kong for the movie of the same name. The fun part of the film was the articulated Kong-sized hand. Aside from slowly crushing Jessica Lange and her stunt double to death, during testing, the hand gave the middle finger to DeLaurentis and remained that way for a week.

Jessica Lange, soon to be bruised


Meanwhile, an international team of filmmakers put a new spin on the monkey suit with “Queen Kong”. Instead of running off with the leading lady, the leading man, called Ray Fay, found himself in the monkey’s paw. Somehow, I seem to have a paperback copy of the novelization of this film. Must have got it at a yard sale. It’s on my bookshelf, next to paperbacks of “Gorgo” and “Reptillicus”.


Queen Kong


Once again, poor King Kong found himself at the bottom of a tall building. In DeLaurentis’ case, it would be the World Trade Center. But this would not be the end. Ten years later, oversized paddles would be put to Kong and his heart would be started again in “King Kong Lives” (1986). The monkey suit strikes again.

After that, there was little word from Skull Island.

Peter Jackson would end the silence in 2005. CGI would be the order of the day and, honestly, it wasn’t all that bad. But, let’s talk about Peter Jackson for a moment. Now, it is no secret that I hate remakes, especially of classic films. I have only seen two remakes that I thought were worthwhile: the 1978 version of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” and the 1950 remake of “The Philadelphia Story”, named “High Society”. (John Carpenter’s “The Thing” is not a remake. It is almost word-for-word John W. Campbell’s novella, “Who Goes There?” which the 1951 version isn’t.)

It turns out that Jackson is a huge fan of King Kong. He is even the proud owner of two of the articulated dinosaurs from “Son of Kong”.

If you get the special edition of both the original Kong and his remake, it includes his filming of the Spider Pit scene that was removed and lost from the 1933 film. He had the original shooting script and even used stop motion to make the scene. That’s devotion!

Of course, this year, Kong would be rediscovered on Skull Island and a whole new franchise has been born. I’d like to say more about this film, as I am aware of the spoilers in it, but I haven’t seen it yet. What can I say? I can’t get to every film.

Okay, so I have seen every Godzilla film. Sue me.

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About Ernie Fink

Ernie Fink has been a fan of film, mainly in the genres of horror and mystery, in equal parts, for over fifty years. His love of horror in the cinema begins with "King Kong" and in literature with Edgar Allan Poe and Bernhardt J. Hurwood.  With mysteries, he skipped from the Hardy Boys right to Hercules Poirot, only to find John Rebus and Harry Hole waiting in the wings. He has been known to read subtitles extensively, and rarely leaves a theater until the lights come up.
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