Friday, March 2, 2012

King Kong—The Big Ape Who Saved RKO

Beast meets Beauty

On March 2, 1933 King Kong opened at not one, but two enormous New York City movie palaces, 6,200-seat Radio City Music Hall the 3,700-seat RKO Roxy across the street.  In the midst of the Depression it sold out 10 showings a day at both houses.  At ticket prices of $.35 to $.75 a pop, the flick grossed $89,931 over four days.

And that was just the beginning.  The film had its official premier to great hoopla three weeks later at Hollywood’s Grauman’s Chinese Theater and then went into general release to theaters across the country.  It went on to make more than $2 million dollars in its first domestic release and tons more internationally.

For the first time since being founded in 1929 RKO Radio Pictures turned a profit and leaped up in the ranks from just a notch above Poverty Row to status as one of the Major Studios alongside MGM, Warner Bros., Fox, Paramount, Universal, and Columbia.

That was excellent news for the studio which despite some early success with musicals and one Academy Award winning epic, Cimarron, was saddled with debt from the many deals that brought the elements of the studio together, many of them engineered by Joseph P. Kennedy who had walked away with a tidy personal profit.

Despite the success, however, by year’s end the studio was in receivership and would remain so until the 1940’s.  But without King Kong it would have collapsed entirely.

Young David O. Selznick had been brought on to get the studio out of the doldrums and succeeded by instituting the independent production unit system and signing new, bright stars who would pay off later—Irene Dunn, Katherine Hepburn, and Fred Astaire.  Among the behind the camera talent that Selznick lured was Merian C. Cooper, as a producer/Director.

Selznick was soon gone from RKO, but he laid the groundwork for a successful studio.  And none of his acquisitions was shrewder than Cooper.

Cooper was a bigger than life character juggling multiple careers.  He was an Army Air Service bomber pilot in World War I who was shot down, badly scarred by fire in the crash, and sent to wait out war’s end in a German POW campAfter the war he joined a volunteer American squadron in the Polish Air Force and fought against the Russians in the Polish-Soviet War.  Shot down once again and captured, he made a daring escape from notorious Lubianka Prison.  Cooper was decorated by Polish Commander-in-Chief Józef Piłsudski with the highest Polish military decoration, the Virtuti Militari.  Acclaimed as a Polish hero, his exploits were celebrated in a major film made before World War II in that country, The Starry Squadron.

Back in the states, Cooper became a booster of both military and civilian aviation.  He was on the founding Board of Directors and played a major role in steering Pan American Airlines.  He played a lead role in establishing the famous regularly scheduled Flying Boat passenger service between the U.S. and Europe.

In the 1920’s Cooper also became interested in making film documentaries.  Working for Paramount he produced, directed and starred in 1925’s Grass, depicting the migration of nomad herders in the remote Iranian highlands.  He followed that up in 1927 with Chang: A Drama of the Wilderness, the saga of the fight for survival of a Thai farmer against the beasts of the jungle.  Combining documentary with re-staged footage, including a famous elephant stamped crushing a village, the film was a sensation.  Footage, including that stampede, would be used in other films, notably the Tarzan series, for years.

Cooper’s associate on both films was Ernest B. Schoedsack, the principle cinematographer and co-director.  When Selznick hired Cooper for RKO, he brought Schoedsack with him.  He also took with him an idea he had developed while working on their last project for Paramount, a new version of the British Empire adventure story, The Four Feathers, parts of which were shot on location in the Sudan.

Cooper said the germ of an idea for a film came while observing a troop of baboons while on location.  But he also later claimed that the idea came to him in a dream while in a New York City hotel room.  The real inspiration, however, may have been a little seen 1927 serial by a very minor studio, Isle of Sunken Gold, which featured shipwrecked sailors and a beautiful woman fighting savage natives and their ape god “Kong” on a remote island.

Whatever the source, Cooper pitched a film featuring an ape fighting lizard monsters represented by Komodo dragons with location shooting in the Dutch East Indies and Africa.  Aghast at the cost, Paramount turned him down, making it easier for Selznick to lure him away with a promise that he could produce films of his own development in addition to studio assignments.

Once at RKO, however, Cooper put his ape film on hold to first develop the adventure yarn The Most Dangerous Game about a big game hunter and his companions  on a jungle island where they are hunted for sport by a mad Cossack.  The film stared a young Joel McRae, and featured the female lead from The Four Feathers, young Canadian actress Fay Wray .who was making a name for herself playing ingénues.  Veteran silent screen actor Robert Armstrong was in the film.  Composer Max Steiner worked on the score.  The studio built an elaborate and expensive jungle set for the film.

But that was not Cooper’s only project.  He was also assigned to rescue a way over-budget production called Creation, an adventure yarn about shipwrecked sailors on an island with dinosaurs.  The giant reptiles were created in stop-motion animation by special effects whiz Willis O’Brien.

When Cooper saw the early footage of O’Brien’s work, it all came together.  He resurrected his ape idea with O’Brien’s dinosaurs substituting for his original komodo dragons.   And he recognized that O’Brien could also create the ape, meaning that no remote location shooting would be necessary.  In addition he could use the Most Dangerous Game jungle set to save even more money.  He kept Wray and Armstrong from that film and cast the cheaper, first time actor Bruce Cabot as a rugged romantic leading man instead of established star McRae.

Cooper pitched the idea to Selznick who overrode a nervous corporate board to green light the now affordable production.

Popular British adventure novelist Edgar Wallace was bought in to flesh out Cooper’s sketchy ideas.  He was to create a novel in addition to a screen play so that the film could be advertised as “based on a novel by…”  Wallace produced notes which broadly outlined a story, but died before actual work on the script began.  None the less, Selznick kept his name on the credits with Cooper for the original story.

Cooper worked with Dangerous Game screenwriter James A. Creelman from Wallace notes.  Numerous changes were made, the most important being scrapping the shipwreck angle and changing the leader of an expedition to find the mythical ape from a big game hunter to a documentary director modeled on Cooper himself.

RKO journeyman writer Horace McCoy contributed to the script adding the worshiping natives and the giant wall to keep the Ape from their village.  Scenes to bring the Ape to display in New York were worked over.

The resulting script ran long with too much exposition and clunky dialoged.  Cooper brought in Ruth Rose, an experienced screen writer, actress and wife of old associate and co-director Schoedsack.  She greatly streamlined the script cut useless exposition, and created snappy dialogue.  Her biggest contributions, however, were in honing the characters.  Movie director Carl Denham became even more closely modeled on Cooper.  The tough but tender First Mate on the expedition ship, Jack Driscol was based on Cooper’s perennial second, Schoedsack.  The naïve young actress lured from the streets of New York to play the lead in the film-with-in-the-film was basically Rose herself.

Steiner was hired to do a score, but bean-counting executives told him to adapt and re-use existing material in the company archives instead of writing a new score.  Cooper personally paid the composer $50,000 to write one anyway.  The result was a masterpiece which re-wrote the book on scoring for film in the post-silent era.  After the movie made boatloads of money, the studio reimbursed Cooper for his investment.

When the Most Dangerous Game finally wound up production, shooting began on the Ape film, which still did not have a final name.  The complex nature of the production, including long sessions of stop-action work and complex scenes integrating Wray and live performers with working models of the Ape in addition to conventional live action footage, broke up shooting into several segments produced over nine months.  Cooper and Schoedsack divided directorial duties with Cooper handling the stop-action and special effects scenes and his friend the live action work with the actors.

There was so much time between various shoots that Wray completed two more horror pictures,  post production re-shoots of Most Dangerous Game scenes and starring in  Dr. X at Warner Bros.  Cabot also squeezed in another film and Cooper had to oversee other RKO projects.

The slender Wray, a natural brunette, was given a blonde wig to stand out better against Kong’s dark fir after nearly loosing the part to Ginger Rodgers or Jean Harlow.  She spent a day recording her famous screams, which she later refereed to as "my best dialogue."  King Kong and the other two horror pictures secured her reputation as the first in a long line of movie heroine screamers.

In the climactic scene when Kong is attacked by bi-planes, Cooper himself, the experienced aviator, played a pilot and Schoedsack his machine gunner.

The first cut of the film ran to more than 130 minutes.  Cooper slashed a scene in which sailors pursuing Kong are shaken off a log by the ape over a deep arroyo and fall to the ground to be eaten by giant spiders.  The scene so upset preview audiences that many left the theater.  That footage has been lost, but is still sought after. 

There was plenty of gore and violence left in the film in its final 90 minute cut. There was also a titillating scene where Kong undresses the heroine with his finger.

The whole package was thrilling and awed the critics and public alike.  It also remained a cash cow for the studio, which was frequently in financial trouble.  RKO re-released it in 1938, 1942, 1946, 1952, and 1956 and made money every time.  The 1952 release alone made $4 million.  By 1956 the studio had ceased to exist as a production unit, but lived on revenues from its catalogue.  After the ’56 release it was sold in syndication to television where it made more money yet.

But after the first release, the original cut was lost.  The strenuous Motion Picture Production Code had come into existence forcing several graphically violent scenes to be cut as well as Wray’s partial disrobement.  The cut footage was long thought to be lost, but in the early ‘60’s a complete 16 mm print was discovered and scenes were restored from that.  Still later a 35 mm was discovered in London and a new master negative struck from that.  Versions shown now on cable and available on CD and Blue Ray are from restorations of that print.

Based on the success of this film, Cooper was elevated to head of production at RKO after Selznick departed.  He ushered in the successful Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers films and a series of memorable films with Katherine Hepburn.  He later worked for Selznick’s independent shop and then at MGM.  

He interrupted his film career to return to the service in World War II where he commanded the first flights over the Hump between India and Burma, served as Clair Chennault’s second in command in China, and finally was chief of staff to the Fifth Air Force Bomber Command.  By the end of the war he was a brigadier general.

Cooper returned to his film career.  In 1949 he also re-united with his King Kong associates Schoedsack, screen writer Ruth Rose, special effects master Willis O’Brien, and actor Robert Armstrong to make The Mighty Joe Young. He was  the producer of some of John Ford’s finest films including Wagon Master, Rio Grande, The Quiet Man, and The Searchers.  He also contributed to the development of technological breakthroughs like Cinerama.

King Kong is still considered a classic.  A lot of the credit goes to O’Brien’s ape, particularly the subtle expressions that he created on Kong’s face in close-ups.  In this regard neither of two flashy remakes comes close to granting the ape an odd humanity.  And much of the credit must also go to the script which in addition to thrilling action developed a real relationship between the tormented Ape and his beautiful obsession, Ann.

And then there was that last line, one of the best in movie history.  Surveying the corps of the monster, producer Dunham observes to an awe struck cop, “…it wasn’t the was Beauty killed the Beast.”

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