Every Picture Tells a Story
There was scant space between the release in 1933 of KING KONG and its sequel, the “seriocomic” SON OF KONG, but time enough for almost unimaginable tragedy — and I’m not talking about RKO selling off the Pathe soundstages containing much of the Skull Island jungle set (which necessitated the “Denham and company are immediately chased right off the beach” scene in SON OF KONG).
This story begins with a picture:
I’d first seen it on page 43 of Turner and Goldner’s “The Making of King Kong.” It intrigued me for a couple of reasons: first, and most obvious, it’s clearly badly torn; secondly, the person in the photo looks like he’s about to bite the head off of the photographer who interrupted him at work — but he’s wearing a hat and tie, as if he’d walked in off the street or was on his way out.
The subject of the enigmatic photo is Willis O’Brien, and properly describing the importance of this man in making KING KONG would take much more space than I’m allotted here, suffice to say that “OBie” arguably represented the heart and soul of the titular character himself. In animating Kong, OBie conveyed a richness of character that almost certainly derived from his own background. After seeing Kong’s battles with the T-rex and elasmosaurous, can there be any doubt that OBie was once a boxer? Watch Kong’s nuanced final seconds atop the Empire State Building with the following in mind: all OBie had to go on for that scene was this rather succinct scripted action, “He staggers, turns slowly, and topples off roof.”
There are those who make the case — rather convincingly — that Willis O’Brien deserved a KING KONG co-creator credit along with Merian C. Cooper. OBie’s conceptual drawings and work on CREATION, the project Cooper cancelled in favor of KONG, almost certainly informed Cooper’s vision of his “giant ape film” and inspired now-classic sequences. Furthermore, most of the visual lynchpins of the production — miniatures combined with humans, stop-motion animation of giant creatures, jungle vistas with astounding depth, incredible attention to detail — are the province of O’Brien and his staff.
Yet for all of his technical wizardry, Willis O’Brien seemed destined to be overshadowed by stronger personalities (in the case of Merian Cooper), opportunistic producers (his KING KONG VS. FRANKENSTEIN concept went overseas courtesy of producer John Beck, who sold it as KING KONG VS. GODZILLA without telling or compensating O’Brien), and broken promises (he had more projects fall apart than you can count on both hands).
Which brings us back to the picture.
Willis O’Brien’s first marriage was characteristically impulsive. Hazel Ruth Collette was twelve years younger than Willis when he began dating her, and, though some manipulation by the girl’s aunt, he found himself fairly trapped into an engagement. The marriage seemed doomed from the beginning; OBie felt snared, and, particularly when THE LOST WORLD created some financial success and leverage for him, he rebelled with the cad troika: booze, the racetrack, and other women. For her part, Hazel exhibited some markedly unbalanced behavior before and after Willis’s indiscretions that, in hindsight, should have served as fair warning of heartache to come.
The uneasy union produced two sons, William and Willis, Jr. By 1930, the couple was effectively separated, though Willis continued to take his beloved boys on various outings. Around 1931, the already troubled Hazel contracted both tuberculosis and cancer, and existed in a near-constant narcotic haze. The elder son, William, developed tuberculosis in one eye and then the other, resulting in complete blindness. The boys remained with their mother, and OBie continued to take them to events like football games, where the younger Willis would do descriptive play-by-play for his older brother.
By Fall of 1933, KING KONG had been in release for some time and was undeniably a smash hit. OBie, rightfully proud of his achievement, was now charged with capitalizing on KONG’s success with a hurriedly prepared sequel. The much smaller budget for SON OF KONG — less than half of its predecessor’s cost — meant that its chief technician, Willis O’Brien, the genius who brought the world of KONG to unforgettable life, would continue to make the same $300 a week he’d been paid before. To make matters worse, while O’Brien was left largely to his own devices while creating KONG, producers Merian C. Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack were now familiar enough with some of the processes O’Brien employed that they felt comfortable “making suggestions.” When enormous debates arose over matters that would formerly have been resolved simply and autonomously, O’Brien withdrew into a shell and effectively distanced himself from the production. (Can there be any doubt why Denham bandages lil’ Kong’s middle finger in the film?) Obie’s assistant Buzz Gibson is consequently responsible for most of the animation in SON OF KONG.
In early October, during the difficult sequel production, O’Brien brought his sons to visit the set, allowing sightless William to handle the delicate miniatures. It was undoubtedly quite a day for the boys and a tension reliever for their father.
Later that same week, a neighbor was shocked to hear shots ring out from the home of Hazel O’Brien. When the police arrived they found a nightmare: Hazel lay fully conscious on the service porch floor, a gunshot wound to her chest. Next to her was a .38 revolver with five spent cartridges. William, 14 years-old, lay dead in his bed with two bullets in his chest; 13 year-old Willis, Jr. was found nearby with the same wounds, clinging to life. He would die on the way to the hospital. Mentally unbalanced and despondent, Hazel had shot her two sons and then herself.
O’Brien was devastated. In a cruel twist of fate, Hazel’s self-inflicted bullet had not only failed to kill her, but actually drained her tubercular lung and extended her life. Too ill to prosecute, she remained in the prison ward of Los Angeles General Hospital. Willis O’Brien never visited her.
And the photo? The picture was taken very shortly after the murders during production of SON OF KONG. Imagine the scenario: OBie, already disillusioned with (and disengaged from) the film, comes in for a meeting and is asked to pose for a quick promotional shot. Without even removing his hat, he walks up to a model, puts one arm into a white technician’s smock, and turns to the camera. “Take the damn thing,” he probably spat.
Upon being presented with a copy of the photo later, OBie was shocked to see the pain etched on his face. He ripped the photo into pieces and handed it back; the print was kept by Marcel Delgado and, many years later, printed (without comment as to its content or condition) in Goldner and Turner’s “The Making of King Kong.”
The tragedy behind the photo was first brought to light via an extraordinary article by Don Shay entitled “Willis O’Brien: Creator of the Impossible,” which was presented in Cinefex magazine (#7, January 1982) — an absolute must-read for any fan of KING KONG. I’ve paraphrased Shay’s outstanding work above; you’ll want to read his entire article for yourself because, believe it or not, OBie’s travails didn’t end with the murder of his sons.
A sad tale, but one which makes the groundbreaking contributions of Willis O’Brien all the more amazing for his resilience in the face of almost overwhelming circumstances.
Originally published in FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND (May/June 2013)