KING KONG: LOST AND FOUND
And the Prophet said - - And, lo, the beast looked upon the face of beauty.
And it stayed its hand from killing. And from that day, it was as one dead.
- "Old Arabian Proverb"
A full decade before I ever actually viewed the classic 1933 King Kong, I knew that he had two heads.
Oh, yes - - there was the distinctive "long head" on Skull Island, and then the "round head" sported for his New York trip.
True Kong buffs will claim that the giant ape actually had three heads, counting the life-size mock-up used primarily for munching unfortunate natives and New Yorkers. I also knew, among other things, that the giant wall prop was burned for Gone With The Wind, and that the reported cost of the entire production was $513,242.02.
As a youngster I was an enormous fan of King Kong. I spent the years preceding my adolescence absorbing all the King Kong trivia and background arcania that my young mind could hold. I read the countless "Best of the Horror Film" books available at the Wausau Public Library. I risked severe punishment by jostling loudly in my bed late one night until my weary dad let me watch an 11:30 showing of the truly awful King Kong Escapes on Channel 7 - on a school night! I took what Kong-related entertainment I could get; my house didn't have cable and VCR's were still a few years off.
This leads to my confession: I didn't actually see the film until I was in college.
Not actually viewing King Kong didn't deter me from my quest for information, a mania further fueled by the discovery of The Making of King Kong by Orville Goldner and George E. Turner at my local bookstore. It was filled with photos and sketches, and I read it cover-to-cover three times. At the age of 12 I could explain a Dunning process shot and tell you how many miniatures were used in the Skull Island cavern sequence. But I still hadn't seen the movie.
The fact is, I'd stick with any boring TV special if it promised to show even a 5-second clip of Kong. One night when I was 8 years old I stayed overnight at my friend Eric's house because a show promising clips from Kong was going to be on and he had cable. We made popcorn and sat on the floor waiting until I saw a full 17 seconds of the ape battling planes on the Empire State Building; a great memory. (Incidentally, later that same night I accidentally saw Eric's [quite attractive] mother topless in the bathroom. This is ironic because it was another sight I wouldn't see again for quite some time due to the lack of cable and VCR's in my young life.)
In 1976 Dino De Laurentiis made his ill-fated version of Kong to great bally-hoo. I saw that version six times before seeing the original.
I finally got the monkey off my back one evening at a friend's apartment. There were six people in the room, and I had to buy their complicity by supplying all of the beer - everyone else wanted to rent The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. My fellow viewers stayed relatively quiet and tolerated my nearly one-comment-per-scene narration for the entire 100 minutes of the film (they would not, however, sit still for my constant rewinding of all scenes showing the supercool giant Kong heads-and-shoulders prop).
Experiencing Kong didn't end my lonely quest. I still needed answers. On the esoteric front, there's always the desire to get to bottom of why this film is so enduring and dear to the world. But I had detective-type problems on my mind as well:
Why did the head-and-shoulders mock-up that I saw on TV in 1983 - called "the actual prop used in the film" by the anchorman - look slightly different than the one in the movie?
If there were only two 14" Kong models made, why did I see and read separate reports of an aged, orange-tinted variety at a Smithsonian display, and a metal skeleton advertised at a place called Movie World in Buena Park, California, and hear of a fully put-together Kong at Circus World Museum in Baraboo, Wisconsin?
Could Universal, bidding for rights in the early '70s, have made a better Kong update than De Laurentiis?
And why the heck was Forry Ackerman selling bits of "Kong" foam and rubber for $150 a pop?
A safari, to be sure. With jaw set as squarely as Carl Denham's as he began his journey to Skull Island, I went out looking for that beauty of a beast. First stop, some background.
Part I: The importance of digging King Kong
Talking to Mike McGrath arouses within me what can only be called "enthusiast envy."
Here is a Kong buff who was not only able to see the dang film early in life - when it could still make a purely cinematic impression on him - but also found, while in college, the company of like-minded sorts who spoke "the language."
"Me and some guys at school would stand in line at an event and suddenly say, 'Well, you would come...and these tickets cost me 20 bucks," just like a man entering Denham's show says in the movie," he recalls.
A journalist by trade, McGrath later parlayed his enormous store of Kong knowledge into a gig writing card-backs for the outstanding King Kong card set by Eclipse. His task was to supply behind-the-scenes information, and he accomplished that task to wonderful effect (Yes, this is an unabashed recommendation for you to seek out a set of those cards).
"I think I was so intrigued by Kong at an early age because it was the first movie denied to me as a child," McGrath reasons. "We had an 'Early Show' on TV at 4:30, and during 'Sci-Fi Week' the kids got to take their dinner and eat it in the living room so we could watch the featured movie. However, my mom and older brother would get into discussions over whether I should be allowed to watch King Kong." It was decided that he could watch short bits, but would be removed from the room during traumatic, bad dream-inducing scenes. "They didn't understand, of course, that as a self-respecting kid I craved nightmares, and went out looking for the ingredients for better ones."
"I was in college when the uncensored Kong was finally released , and since it was released by Janus Films, I was able to see it instantly - Janus was the company that provided all the movies for the film society and student unions. My group of people actually hosted it on campus, and I made a big deal about it - that's when I wrote the newspaper column containing Ten Unanswered Questions About King Kong."
Here are the queries McGrath could remember :
What was Denham's plan for his big show? "It seems that Kong breaking free in the theater was the only boffo entertainment - it saved the show! Like Daffy Duck's famous 'dynamite trick' in the Warner Bros. cartoon; great, but you can only do it once."
Who cleaned up the mess on the ship during Kong's trip to New York?
Why does that guy drive, nearly unprovoked, right into the side of the hotel at the beginning of Kong's rampage? "Did this driver feel that ramming his car into a brick wall would improve his lot in this situation?"
What did Kong do with the other girls sacrificed to him by the natives?
Who was the Son of Kong's mom?
Why did the natives construct a wall big enough to keep out the prehistoric beasts of Skull Island, but include a door so massive that giant beasts could use it comfortably? "They take a girl out to the altar once a month and require a door five stories high? The answer to this question is another Warner's maxim; 'If we don't, we ain't got no picture.'"
King Kong has plot holes the great ape himself could walk through without stooping. To McGrath's list of incongruities, I add some of my own;
The voyage to Skull Island took six weeks (according to a line of dialogue inquiring as to how many potatoes the Chinese cook had peeled in that period). Are we to believe that the hero, Bruce Cabot, required all that time to finally make his move on Ann Darrow? For that matter, are we to believe that Ann Darrow - a street urchin, as far as anyone could tell - was unmolested by the Venture's crew of sailors for that entire period of time?
The voyage back to New York had to take at least a month as well. How did they feed Kong for that period? Where did they store the hundreds of gas bombs necessary to keep him sedated? How did they unload him at a New York port without attracting attention? What about permits?
How come Kong could easily scale - one handed - buildings with tiny window ledges for fingerholds and not that relatively dinky wall back on Skull Island, behind which resided a veritable Whitman's Sampler of chewy natives?
What possessed the two fleeing lovers, Ann and Jack, to "hide" in a hotel room with a window facing the street upon which Kong was rampaging?
Go ahead; play along at home.
An initial draft of the Kong screenplay was written by Edgar Wallace, a prolific writer of enormous fame in England brought over to the States by RKO to punch up some of their productions. According to his letters and journals, Wallace's work consisted of meetings and phone calls with producer Merian C. Cooper wherein Cooper fed aspects of the scenario to Wallace, who then incorporated them into screenplay form which was then reviewed by Cooper on a sequence-by-sequence basis.
As Wallace noted in a December 29, 1931 journal entry:
An announcement has been made to the local press that I am doing a super-horror story with Merian Cooper, but the truth is it is much more his story than mine. I am rather enthusiastic about it, but the story has got to be more or less written to provide certain spectacular effects. I shall get much more credit out of the picture than I deserve if it is a success, but as I shall also be blamed by the public if it is a failure, that seems fair.
When Wallace fell ill and died early in the process, Cooper assigned James A. Creelman to the project. Unsatisfied with Creelman's output, Cooper tapped Ruth Rose, a.k.a. Mrs. Ernest Schoedsack (the co-producer/co-director of Kong), to create the final script which enjoyed favorable reviews at the time of the film's release. Today, the dialogue comes across as hopelessly dated with an opening sequence consisting of a show-stopping parade of expository line readings (many would argue - - and evidently David O. Selznick did via memo - - that the first eight and a half minutes of the film could be excised without notice; better to pick it up from when Jack Driscoll accidentally biffs Ann on the deck of the Venture).
He-man actor Robert Armstrong is no help. His characterization of Carl Denham is vintage '30s film thespianism --- that is to say, stiff-shouldered shouting and reciting with minimal use of inflection or show of emotion. While any actor would be challenged by the stilted dialogue he's faced with ("Some big hard-boiled egg gets a look at a pretty face and, bang! He cracks up and gets sappy."), Armstrong conveys the impression throughout Kong that he has just poured milk on a bowl of cereal off-camera and would like to get back to it very soon.
Given the above handicaps --- now-quaint proclivities of early filmmaking that King Kong shares with every other film of its era --- it becomes rather obvious that this movie is not a masterpiece for its acting and dialogue. Rather, King Kong is a jewel in the crown of American cinema for the fact that its visual scope is so all-encompassing and unique. We never saw anything like it before and, frankly, haven't seen anything close since. The Japanese, for all their love for "radioactive giant" monster films, could never construct a vision so intimately frightening and sympathetic as Kong.
The credit for Kong's tremendous visual impact falls squarely with Willis O'Brien. OBie, as he was known, developed and raised to high art the process known as "stop-motion animation," a by-now familiar process by which the illusion of movement is conveyed on film via photographing incremental adjustments of models one frame at a time. Persistence of vision creates a sense of "life" when the film is played back. Early audiences were stunned, to say the least. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle exhibited excerpt of an early OBie film called The Lost World in 1922 at a dinner of the Society of American Magicians. The New York Times said of the dinosaurs portrayed, "If fakes, they were masterpieces."
Doyle is, of course, the same man who verily believed in fairies.
While putting together a film called Creation at RKO, OBie's work was noticed by Merian C. Cooper when he was brought aboard the barely-afloat RKO studio by David O. Selznick to decide which pictures should continue in development and which should be abandoned. The bad news; Creation was deemed expendable. The good news; Cooper felt that Obie and his techniques would be perfect for his new idea concerning a "prehistoric Giant Terror Gorilla." After a test reel was shown to RKO execs in 1932, the die was cast; Kong went into production, and its title character would be portrayed by a rubber, steel and glass puppet brought to life by a method that made filming three strides in the jungle an all day operation.
Stop-motion animation was a painstaking process, to say the least. During production, new bulbs had to be put into every light for each new scene; a burn-out would ruin the shot as a replacement of even slightly different intensity would be apparent in finished footage. Days of work were once wiped out when it was discovered during screenings that live plants in the "jungle" background actually grew and bloomed in "seconds" of on-screen time.
The Kong ape miniatures --- two were reportedly made, each 18" tall --- had to be "skinned" every evening by craftsman Marcel Delgado in order to keep the underlying armature's screws and hinges tight, accounting for the changes the apes face seemed to undergo from scene to scene.
Were these guys nuts?
Thankfully, yes. The Kong production crew created a world in miniature. Nearly every shot is a production painting come to life, and any fan of King Kong has a favorite visual memory from the film.
"Kong fighting the Allosaurus. To me, that's the moment," McGrath states. "Just the way It's so beautifully framed, with Ann in the tree. I especially like the Allosaurus swishing his tail. I remember seeing a dinosaur expert on TV saying, 'Of course, we now know that they can't do that' - but it's still his favorite part of the film."
Although a big fan of Kong, McGrath doesn't fill his home with gorilla-related mementos. "The problem with Kong collectibility is that there isn't anything out there," he noted. "I'd love to have the Aurora Kong model. I remember all of the Aurora's being 98¢ each until the Kong kit came out at $1.49." Today, an unassembled Kong model (1964-1968) is worth up to $450; the later glow-in-the-dark version (1970-1975) goes for under $100. The dearth of additional Kong items is due in great part to the generic nature of a "big ape." For a long time, companies would produce products that approximated the look of Kong without the cost of licensing.
McGrath owns a copy of King Kong, The Original Motion Picture Score (United Artists, 1975) that he considers sonically disappointing - - - it's a re-recorded version of the Max Steiner score - - - but precious for its liner notes by Ray Bradbury. "The album actually names the pieces of music, and the portion that was written by Steiner to accompany Kong's destruction of the elevated train is entitled 'And That Children, is Why There is No 6th Avenue 'El' Today,' McGrath said with a laugh. "I gotta believe Bradbury contributed that name as well."
"Steiner's music is as much a part of the Kong mystique as OBie's models," McGrath declares. In his Kong card copy, he calls the score "the standard against which all movie music has since been judged."
The Girl in the Hairy Paw (Flair/Avon, 1976, edited by Ronald Gottesman and Harry Geduld) provided a good deal of material for McGrath while he was writing the Kong cards.
"It's a great book. It's just loaded with stuff - the ultimate Kong fan-boy dream," he reports. Sure enough, Hairy Paw contains informative photos (though, unfortunately, mislabeling Mighty Joe Young stills as Son of Kong and identifying a closeup of the small Kong model's head on p. 207 as the giant bust prop) and essays by the likes of Fay Wray, Willis O'Brien and Marcel Delgado. Reproduced within its pages is a portion of Edgar Wallace's original screenplay, containing a charmingly helpful parenthetical note next to the title character's first appearance; "Kong is a huge ape about 30 feet high - EW."
No-nonsense Merian C. Cooper has responded to the idea of "subtexts" in his film by saying flatly, "King Kong was escapist entertainment pure and simple. A more illogical picture could never have been made." However, true to its subtitle ("King Kong as Myth, Movie, and Monster"), Hairy Paw reprints some great examples of pop culture Kong appropriations (ads, magazine covers, the Aurora Kong model instruction sheet, the entire Mad "Son of Mighty Joe Kong" parody), and examinations of the Kong canon by the likes of Bob Newhart (his "Night Watchman at the Empire State Building" monologue) and Philip José Farmer ("After King Kong Fell" is another of his characteristic "this-really-happened" tales). Your eye is sure to be grabbed by the bold subtitle "HOW BIG IS KONG'S PENIS" within a piece by someone named Kenneth Bernard, wherein he ruminates at length (sorry) on phallic dimensions and the copulative potential between a normal human woman and Kong. Disturbingly, Bernard never refers to the fictional character of Ann Darrow, insisting instead to frame his speculation based on actress Fay Wray. For the record, he calculates a score of 24" for Kong's, uh, inseam.
Collectors take heart; while the above material is out of print, it still turns up at libraries and book re-sellers. Remarkably, there is not one book on the current market that details exclusively the production of King Kong. The researchers best friends are the essential, yet out of print, The Making of King Kong (Ballantine, 1975. By Orville Goldner and George E. Turner) and CINEFEX #7, which contains a very in-depth look at Willis O'Brien by Don Shay.
The film copyright for King Kong is held by Turner Entertainment/AOL-Time-Warner (which accounts for the fact that you can see a colorized version of the film). In 1993, Turner released a Kong movie box set that included a videotape and goodies including a poster, three frames of mounted film frames, and a documentary. On the model front, Dark Horse Comics has produced some impressive Kong vinyl and cold-cast porcelain figures, including an exceptional effort sculpted by Ray Harryhausen. For enthusiasts with deep pockets, a company called Monsters in Motion is offering a limited edition bronze Kong bust sculpted by the late Marcel Delgado for $475
But, hey - anyone can buy that stuff. What of the actual props and models from the Kong production? The stop motion method by its very nature produces enormous amounts of hand-crafted, one-of-a-kind material. While the studio furnace often provided an ignoble end to some wonderful items, I knew some material had to have slipped through. My search for the ultimate collectibles, including the Holy Grail of Kong him/itself, proved to be very interesting.
Part II: In which the Author hunts down the lost, misplaced, and mislabeled artifacts of King Kong
The Girl in the Hairy Paw footnotes a man named Clark Wilkinson of Baraboo, Wisconsin as the owner of one of the original Kong models --- Circus World Museum is in the same town, but was cited mistakenly in many reports. Numerous eyewitnesses swear to have seen it, and report that this specimen is in near-perfect condition.
Wilkinson, now nearing 90 years old, maintained a film collection in his basement that he opened free of charge to the public. "For 17 years I had eight rooms full of displays in my 'Hollywood Museum of Movies,'" he explained. "I had gowns that Elizabeth Taylor wore from MGM, and Bela Lugosi's cape. Life magazine was here once to photograph me," he remembers. "I closed up the museum in 1965...or when I was 65 - one or the other; it's hard for me to remember. I still have a coffin from Hal Roach studios that I plan to be buried in."
And the King Kong model? "Yes, I had King Kong. I received him in response to a letter I wrote to Mr. Schoedsack. He sent it with a note saying, you know, 'Keep it covered.'"
I was astonished. He explained that he'd since sold it to "a young fellow and his girlfriend," but could not recall the name of the person. He also sold the note from Schoedsack and had no copy.
I would have been completely incredulous if it wasn't for Wilkinson's apparent lack of guile. "I exhibited him under a glass dome, and a lot of people were able to see him in my museum," he went on. It became clear where the "Kong in Baraboo" stories had come from.
A careful look at the one of the only surviving surviving pictures of Wilkinson and his "Kong" solved the mystery; he actually had, in wonderful condition, one of the models used by OBie and understudy Ray Harryhausen for 1949's Mighty Joe Young. The "young fellow" who bought Joe from him many years ago is special effects artist Lyle Conway of California, who still owns it.
(An addendum to the Clark Wilkinson enigma: Issue 25 of FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND ["Special King Kong Photo Filmbook," 1963] contains a contemporary picture of Harry Benham, the first screen Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde - provided by "his friend Clark Wilkinson.")
The Real Deal
Alas, the actual Kong is nowhere near as whole as his cousin Mighty Joe.
Enter Bob Burns. You may know him as one of Hollywood's original "gorilla men;" he portrayed, among countless other simians, "Tracy" on the "Ghost Busters" TV series of the 1970's. Burns has worked in and around fantasy movies for decades as an actor and special effects man, and has the distinct honor of being able to say that he sat next to Tor Johnson at the premiere of Ed Wood's Plan Nine From Outer Space. A genial and generous soul, his involvement in the horror and science fiction movie industry has made him many life-long friends, and those relationships have helped him to become the consummate collector of classic props.And he has the king of them all.
"The Kong armature came along in about 1975," Burns recalled. "A fellow named Phil Kelison knew OBie pretty well, and loaned him [Kong] to a museum near Burbank called MovieWorld. When the place went belly-up, Kong just sort of disappeared." Burns kept reminding Phil about the item until finally provoking him to see about get Kong back.
"The guy gave Phil some sort of song and dance - 'Oh, he's lost..,'" Burns continued. "So I happened to be at this fella's place with a friend to pick up Robby the Robot, which he'd bought when the museum went under. Over in the corner of this big old storage building, I see Kong standing there, and I said, 'Whoa!"
Burns was unable to get it at that point, but alerted his friend Phil to the situation. "After some discussion with Phil, during which the guy claimed he wanted to open another museum in Oregon and exhibit Kong there, Phil said, 'No, I think you've had your chance,' and took it back. Not much later, he called me and asked, 'Will you take this guy off my hands and take care of him, please?'" He didn't have to ask twice.
King Kong's condition wasn't too regal. "These were tools, so the studio used them as much as possible," Burns noted. "My Kong is the long-headed version of the two armatures made --- this is the one that roams the jungle on Skull Island. He survived because he did double duty, serving as the skeleton of the 'Son of Kong' as well." According to reports by the people involved at RKO during the King Kong era, the other model was dismantled and junked.
"When Phil had Kong, he was basically coming apart," Burns says of his armature. "The rubber and fur 'flesh' of the son of Kong was only there in clumps, and it smelled terrible as the materials decomposed. Then a chemist friend of mine told us that the rubber was eating into the metal skeleton and gears, so we had to remove the remaining covering before the armature itself was destroyed." Phil took the crumbling figure to a local commercial cleaner where it was steamed free of "flesh." "When the guy was told what he was spraying, he started exclaiming, 'I'm killing King Kong! I'm killing King Kong!'" Burns recalls with a laugh. By the time Phil loaned Kong to the MovieWorld Museum, he was as he appears now, a metal skeleton.
The Smithsonian has been after Burns on a regular basis to donate the one-of-a-kind item to its collection, but he won't do it. Perhaps he still has a bad taste in his mouth from an early encounter with an outside contractor working for the museum.
"Several years ago a guy was putting on a traveling show for the Smithsonian, and he wanted Kong for the tour. I didn't want to chance losing it, so I said no. He assured me that the insurance company would pay for a re-construction if anything happened to my armature, which misses the point entirely, of course. He got so mad that he said he'd make his own. 'That's fraud,' I warned. 'I don't care,' he said."
Incredibly, the exhibit coordinator evidently had a similar ape-like puppet pulled from the archives and began to exhibit it as "The Model Used in the Movie King Kong." The fraud appeared along with a large sheet of Mario Larrinaga storyboard art for the unfinished film "Creation" (which morphed into "King Kong" after Merian C. Cooper canceled it), the familiar concept drawing depicting Kong atop the Empire State Building (created by Willis O'Brien, Byron Crabbe and Larrinaga), and a very large French Kong poster.
"It had sort of orange fur and was old and beat up," Burns said of the stand-in puppet. "My friends and I weren't fooled, of course. We know all the tricks, and it was obviously bogus."
A news crew filmed the fake Kong, believing that they were seeing the real deal, and the story went out on CBS. "I worked at CBS, and everyone at the network knew I had the real Kong. We did our own cut-in with the actual Kong in time for Dan Rather to make a correction. The Smithsonian just about died." The fake Kong remained on the tour, however, with a plaque that was amended to read "This may have been the model...". Its current whereabouts are unknown, but don't be surprised - or fooled - if it turns up in the near future.
Burns also owns an armature for Mighty Joe Young. "It's smaller and lighter than Kong, but is considered to be the best armature ever designed and made. When Industrial Light and Magic was doing The Empire Strikes Back they borrowed Joe from me to study it while they built tauntauns." Ray Harryhausen, who worked with Willis O'Brien on Mighty Joe Young, has since informed Burns that he has "Joe # 1," the model that OBie himself used.
"Roy looked at it and knew right away that it was '#1' because it has hinge joints. The newer armatures, including the other Joes used in the movie, had ball-and-socket joints; only OBie could deal with the tricky hinge joints and actually preferred them, so this one is his," Burns said.
Also in his collection; a scale "guide" model of the great wall and gates, the head of the Elasimosaurus that comes up out of the water in Kong's cave, and a foot from the Kong model. "I had one of the original programs from the premiere in 1933, but like an idiot I gave it away about 30 years ago," Burns recalls. "The guy cut it apart and sold pages at $100 a piece. It wouldn't hurt so much if he wouldn't have destroyed it." If there were a way to assign a cash value to Burns' collection of Kong material, it would mean little to him. "I could never sell these artifacts," he said. In fact, much of the intrinsic value of Burns' items is derived from the spirit with which they were given to him. These treasures are in good hands.
In 1983, Burns joined a large group of craftsmen in the construction of a recreation of the long-gone Kong "big head" prop for exhibit at the 50th anniversary re-premiere of King Kong at Mann's (Graumann's) Chinese Theater. His wife, Kathy, created and constructed the large fur pattern needed to cover the bust, and the fruit of their labor stood in the east forecourt just as he did in 1933 at the first premiere. Kong was so authentic looking that several news reports indeed mis-identified it as the original prop. Sadly this giant bust is no longer exists, a victim of the elements and looters while in storage.
Dwarfs in the Jungle - The Kong That Might Have Been
It's little known that in the mid-'70s, an era that saw Dino De Laurentiis throw wads of money at an insipid Kong remake, Universal had plans of their own to do a Kong epic. An optimistic Burns caught wind of the planned production and decided to get involved.
"I tried to talk them into stop motion animation," he recalls. "Animator Dave Allen constructed a new Kong model and put together an 18 second test. I cut together a soundtrack from the original movie, and the finished product was very nice."
Since Allen's studio let them use their facilities to do the work, they asked that the finished product be put on the company's promo reel. "That's how the people at Volkswagon saw it and decided they had to have Kong in a commercial," Burns said. "Dave worked on that as well. Ad people are funny - Kong was so impressive that nobody could remember that the commercial was for a car, so it didn't run for long." The newer Kong model, in perfect condition, now lives in a bell jar at Burns' home.
Despite Allen's efforts and the presence of animation expert Jim Danforth on the payroll as a consultant, Universal nixed the costly stop motion option and decided to try an actor in a suit. Burns, of course, just happened to have a gorilla outfit, and a friend involved in the production made sure he got the call when it was time to shoot test footage.
"It was a real experience," Burns recalls with a sigh. "Universal decided they didn't want to use my gorilla outfit, so they got the Bigfoot costume from The Six Million Dollar Man and put it on me. This thing was made for Andre the Giant, so they had to fold up the legs and arms - it really looked awful."
Worse yet was the mask situation. Since Universal wouldn't expend the money necessary to do a cast of Burns' head, the makeup man was forced to sculpt an ape on a cast of Joe Don Baker. "He's a big guy," Burns noted. "I'm big rotund, but Baker is big giant. The mask was way too large and kept popping loose. They used a new kind of adhesive to secure it to my face - the kind of stuff made for holding artificial limbs in place - and at the end of the day they had to destroy the mask to get it off my face, which ended up looking like hamburger for weeks."
The footage shot that day may never be seen, since Universal aborted its Kong production in the face of pressure from De Laurentiis. The question is: Could Universal have done a better movie? "The script was very good," Burns remembered. "It was set in the '30s, and very true to the original."
The production values were another story. "They made a jungle and beach set, and I was to walk up and grab a Barbie doll that represented Ann Darrow. After one take, the director came over and said, 'That was nice, but on this next take, can you kind of shake and jiggle a lot so it looks like animation?'" Burns recalls laughing under his mask all day. "They brought back Clifford Stein, Universal's head effects man for years and years, to do this thing. I remember him saying to me as we stood near the set, 'I don't know why I ever came out of retirement to do this piece of crap!'"
At some point, it was decided that a dwarf in the ape suit would save some money because they could build smaller sets. "Oh yes, he was there while I was there," Burns laughed. "I'd get done with my turn, and they'd put this guy on the same set to do his thing. The funny thing was that the dwarf was actually smaller than the prop trees! For much of the time all one could see was some stirring in the bushes until he came out to a clearing."
As if it makes any difference, Universal also planned to use "Sensurround."
Bad movie or not, the aborted Universal effort opens up intriquing collecting possibilities. Scripts are floating around, and enough pre-production had been done to mean that poster designs and set sketches were drawn up. Although no cash values can be placed on these items at the present time, look for the future of Kong memorabilia collecting to include Universal-Kong material as a "hip" and hard-to-get addition to legitimate items.
Still the King
Recently a Kong one-sheet from 1933 sold for a whopping $52,000, testimony to the enduring commercial appeal of the unfortunate ape.
King Kong is indeed cinematic royalty that has stood the test of time proudly. Unfazed by a "serio-comic phantasy" sequel (Son of Kong), numerous blank-eyed affronts by Toho studios (King Kong vs. Godzilla and King Kong Escapes), bungled attempts at resurrection (De Laurentiis' misguided remake and awful sequel, King Kong Lives), and initial disregard for its artifacts (today they see fit to put a naked Sylvester Stallone prop on the ceiling of Planet Hollywood, but in the '30s everything went into the trash heap), the frightening image of Kong continues to turn up in pop culture. A product of meticulous craftsmanship and superhuman behind-the-scenes effort, the film is broadcast on TBS and AMC so regularly that no one in this generation need suffer my long wait to see the real thing. Even children whose grandparents weren't yet born when the film was released identify the Empire State Building as "the skyscraper King Kong climbed."
Rest assured that, machine gun-armed biplanes or not, he will outlive us all.
Two Kong models as they appeared during filming. (From the collection of Bob Burns)
Bob Burns and Kong.
Kong as he appeared in the late 1960's. (From the collection of Bob Burns)