Although his cinematic trip to Manhattan didn’t turn out as planned, King Kong‘s debut at the Radio City Music Hall 75 years ago today launched the oversized ape from Skull Island to instant icon status, the one height he has successfully managed to not fall from.
The brainchild of adventurer-turned-producer Merian C. Cooper, King Kong was a revelation to its initial audiences who had never seen such a film before. While Kong‘s special effects maestro, Willis O’Brien, had created the stop-motion animation dinosaurs for the silent classic The Lost World eight years earlier, this was the first time anyone had seen a giant monster rampage outside a jungle setting. For those first New Yorkers, Kong wasn’t just rampaging through civilization, he was tearing up the elevated train that some of them had probably ridden to the theater. The adventure was just outside the theater’s door, with the Empire State Building visible from just about any point in the five boroughs of New York City.
But Kong‘s appeal wouldn’t be confined to just Gotham. Theater patrons across the country thrilled to the sight of Kong’s scaling of the Empire State Building. In Los Angeles, a young Ray Harryhausen saw the film and would be inspired to a career in special effects, eventually getting to work with Kong‘s O’Brien on 1949’s Mighty Joe Young. In Japan, a knockoff film King Kong Appears In Edo was quickly produced. Although Japan would become the genre’s biggest producer, Kong was still the first giant monster film, providing the template for all monster movies to come.
Kong would prove popular enough that it would become one of the largest grossing movies in studio RKO’s reissue program, hitting theaters every couple of years to bring a couple of hundred thousand dollars into the studio’s coffers all the way into the mid-1950s, when it was sold into television syndication by the studio’s owner Howard Hughes. Fittingly, one of its first airings was in New York City, where it was shown for five days straight on station WOR.
When repeated theatrical revivals and televisions screenings weren’t enough, audiences would turn to spinoff projects of varying quality for more tales of Kong’s escapades. For the Japanese, Kong would fight Godzilla and later Escape to fight the dinosaur Gorosaurus. His story would be retold in 1976 in a film that substitutes the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers for the Empire State Building and which launched the career of Jessica Lange. At the end of 2006, Peter Jackson released his three-hour love letter/remake.
Surprisingly, for all the other times Kong was brought back to the silver screen, it was only the original film that utilized the time consuming stop-motion animation. Perhaps there is something in the meticulously handcrafted work that ultimately appeals over the efforts of the Japanese’s man-in-a-suit “suitmation” techniques or Jackson’s computerized Kong.
It would be tempting to try and read some subtext equating Kong with the Great Depression and how he would fall to the indomitable spirit of the American people as embodied by the Empire State Building, but that would be missing the point. Cooper, O’Brien and the film’s co-director Ernest B. Schoedsack only wanted to thrill their Depression Era audiences for a little while. And their ambitions achieved appropriately Kong-sized success.