It was 80 years ago today that King Kong (1933) premiered in New York City at Radio City Music Hall. The film's premiere in Los Angeles was a few weeks later on 24 March 1933. It was on 7 April 1933 that King Kong went into wide release across the United States. It proved to be phenomenally successful, a true blockbuster of its era. It was the Jaws or Star Wars of its day.
In some respects it is surprising that King Kong would prove to be one of the most successful and influential films of all time. Fascinated by gorillas from boyhood, Merian C. Cooper developed the concept of a film centred on a giant gorilla on a remote island. Even in a day when jungle movies (both documentaries and dramas) were common, it was an unusual concept. It should then perhaps not be surprising that when Mr. Cooper took the concept to Paramount in the early Thirties, they turned it down as too expensive as it would have involved on location shooting in Africa and Komodo (initially Kong would have battled Komodo dragons instead of dinosaurs).
Fortunately, two events would bring King Kong to the screen. The first occurred when Merian C. Cooper became David O. Selznick's executive assistant at RKO in 1931. As part of his deal with Mr. Selznick, Mr. Cooper could make his own films. The second event occurred when Merian C. Cooper saw the test footage for stop motion animator Willis O'Brien's proposed film Creation. Mr. O'Brien had been trying to convince RKO to make the film for seven years, and spent $100,000 for approximately twenty minutes of test footage. In the end Creation was cancelled, but the test footage convinced Merian C. Cooper that through Mr. O'Brien's stop motion animation he had an economical means of producing his film about a giant ape.
With a budget of $672,000 King Kong was definitely a big budget film for its era. What is more it was a special effects showcase, in many respects the 2001: A Space Odyssey of its day. Willis O'Brien's stop motion animation was on the cutting edge for the time. While stop motion animation had existed in some form since the 1890's, on King Kong Mr. O'Brien made improvements to the technique that would pave the way for everything from Ray Harryhausen's classic films to Gumby. Contrary to popular belief, special effects extravaganzas did not begin with Star Wars, much less 2001: A Space Odyssey, as King Kong was one of the first.
In addition to its impressive special effects for the time, King Kong was one of the earliest talkies to feature its own original score. For King Kong RKO had wanted Max Steiner to simply reuse music form previous productions as a cost cutting measure. Fortunately, Merian C. Cooper thought King Kong should have an original score. As a result Mr. Cooper paid Mr. Steiner $50,000 out of his own pocket to compose an original score for the film. In the end RKO would repay Merian C. Cooper the money he had spent on the score.
Indeed, King Kong was not only an early special effects extravaganza, it was also an early blockbuster. In the film's first four days at Radio City Music Hall in New York City each of its ten shows a day were sold out. What is more the film grossed $89,931 in those first four days, which set a record at the time. It not only repeated this success upon its premiere in Los Angeles, but also when it was released nation wide. Audiences literally had to stand in line at cinemas to see the film across the United States. In the end King Kong would gross $1,856,000 in its initial release, which made it one of the highest grossest films of its time. It also single handedly save RKO, which at that time had been in receivership.
In 1933 movie merchandising was very much in its infancy, so that even given the success of King Kong it did not produce a good deal of merchandise in the Thirties. That having been said, it did produce two significant pieces of merchandise. Indeed, it was one of the first films to have a novelisation of its screenplay published. Originally Meriam C. Cooper had hired the legendary Edgar Wallace to write the novelisation as a means to promote the film. Unfortunately Mr. Wallace died before he could complete the novel. Mr. Cooper then turned to his friend Delos W. Lovelace, a former reporter turned fiction writer, to write the novel. Based on the first script of King Kong, the novelisation would differ from the movie in some ways. Regardless, it sold well and has remained in print for years. Beyond the novelisation of King Kong, a collection of sheet music based on Max Steiner's revolutionary score was also published. Of course, since its initial release King Kong has produced a huge amount of merchandising.
The success of King Kong naturally meant that there would be a sequel. The Son of Kong was rushed into production and released in December 1933. It would not repeat the success of King Kong. The film received largely negative reviews and only did modest business at the box office. Since then Toho Studios made two films featuring King Kong (King Kong vs. Godzilla in 1962 and King Kong Escapes in 1967). There have also been two remakes: the notorious 1976 remake by producer Dino De Laurentiis and the 2005 remake directed by Peter Jackson. In 1966 Rankin/Bass produced an animated series loosely based on the original film. There have also been books, comic books, puzzles, and tons of other merchandise based on the original King Kong.
There can be no doubt that much of the initial success of King Kong was due to its revolutionary special effects. The combination of rear projection and stop motion animation had only been attempted a few times before, most notably on The Lost World (1925) on which Willis O'Brien had also worked. That having been said, special effects were not the only reason behind the success of King Kong. Had it been a Depression Era equivalent of a Michael Bay film, a special effects spectacle empty of any personality, it would have long ago been forgotten. The fact is that King Kong is a well crafted film that just happens to have special effects.
Indeed, King Kong arguably has one of the best stories of any film in cinematic history. It is essentially a variation on the tale of beauty and the beast, in which the "beast (in this case, Kong)" falls in love with the beauty (Ann Darrow, played by Fay Wray) and is destroyed in the end. The film's story is made all the more emotionally gripping by the fact that audiences could actually sympathise with the "monster." Through Willis O'Brien's stop motion Kong could actually express emotions and seem as real as the actors in the film. As a result audiences knew Kong was in love with Ann and then felt sorry for him. It is for this reason that Kong's death atop the Empire State Building remains one of the most iconic scenes in film history.
King Kong was both one of the earliest blockbusters and one of the earliest special effects extravaganzas. At the same time, however, it was very much a film with a heart. It is the fact that it is a film with heart that has allowed it to last for 80 years. There can be no doubt that people will still be watching it 80 years from now.