Last week's Kong Files column was, I admit, a bit grim ("Every Picture Tells a Story"), and I expect that a bit of levity in this installment might be just what the doctor ordered. Toward that end, welcome to Part One of an ongoing series that I'll call "The Wrong Kong." This week's episode: "Kong" Meets Desi.
If I've learned anything in all these years of digging through King Kong lore and legend, it's the fact that you have to check almost everything out, no matter how strange. Take, for example, the time I got an email from someone who'd seen my "King Kong: Lost and Found" website and felt certain he'd seen the original King Kong armature on I Love Lucy.
Well, not so odd. In 1957, television's "it" couple, Desi and Lucy Arnaz, actually bought the entirety of RKO Studios — lock, stock and props — for their Desilu Productions (this included the backlot section known as "Forty Acres," where episodes of TV shows like The Andy Griffith Show, The Adventures of Superman, Ozzie and Harriet, The Green Hornet, The Untouchables, Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C., Hogan's Heroes, Lassie, Batman, and Star Trek would be filmed. Click here for an intriguing photo comparison of identical sets as used in Star Trek and The Andy Griffith Show.)
Turns out that the I Love Lucy notion was simply a case of faulty memory. One of Desi and Lucy's first major sponsors was the Westinghouse Corporation, for whom they would produce various specials and The Desilu Playhouse television series. The sponsorship was significant enough to merit creation of a promotional film made for Westinghouse employees and CBS affiliates, which I was able to track down hidden in the maddeningly arbitrary chapter breaks of a DVD entitled The Funny World of Lucy (Goodtimes DVD [www.goodtimes.com]). The presentation is fairly bizarre; one of those eerie scenarios where you're ostensibly seeing the real Lucy and Desi Arnaz (not to mention "neighbors" Vivian Vance and William Frawley), but there's a laugh track and everyone involved constantly shifts back and forth between being their civilian selves and their television characters. (Interestingly, Vivian Vance is quite trim in the film, which was probably produced during the months that I Love Lucy was not shooting. This would almost make one believe the rumor about her being contractually obligated to remain at least 20 lbs. overweight during periods that I Love Lucy was in production.)
I'll help out viewers wishing to fast forward to the relevant action: the section you're looking for starts at 6:13, and the plot is typical I Love Lucy. Sensible man's man Desi Arnaz simply wants to give a tour of the RKO facilities to a representative from Westinghouse. Unfortunately, crazy Lucy is plotting to have her new dressing room stocked with all manner of the latest Westinghouse appliances and hopes to place her order with the rep while he's there. Inexplicably (and somewhat incoherently, as his accent seems especially pronounced in this film), Desi puts his foot down and demands that they "wait" to make their purchases. Will this stop Lucy? My goodness, no. Vivian Vance — once again, looking good — and William Frawley stop by Desi's manly office to invite the couple to lunch, which gives Desi the opportunity to send Lucy on her way with "the neighbors" (he gallantly attempts to slip Frawley some bucks; "Ez un me, Beel..."). Scheming ensues as per typical Lucy.
Savvy TV exec Desi knows who butters his bread, and he lays it on thick with the Westinghouse representative — big plans, great shows, high class, etc. Then it's on with the tour, during which they stop by what seems to be a prop storage area. Do I have to tell you that Lucy pops up routinely in this or that disguise to "place her order" with the rep while Vance and Frawley distract Desi?
And then it happens. Frawley walks up to a miniature ape (what happened to the lunch plan?), picks him up and asks Vance, "Do you recognize this little fella?"
"No, who is it — one of your relatives?" she answers (cue laugh track).
"This happens to be the star of one of the most famous pictures ever made — KING KONG," Frawley recites as he manhandles the prop, finally passing it to Desi.
Now, at this point I should state that Desi has kept a butt burning for the duration of the program, some sort of cigarello or cheroot or tiperillo or something, and the fact that he's about to handle a fur-covered prop of some historical significance does not prompt him to seek out an ashtray. He simply affects an elegant two-finger grip on his sweet tobacco stick as he takes the expensive, chemical-packed prop from Frawley (note his right hand in the screen capture).
At 14:32 to 15:09, we finally get a clear look at the gorilla in question (albeit with a trail of smoke rising from his head): It's not King Kong. Despite Desi's contrary assurances to the starstruck Westinghouse rep, he's obviously holding an armature made for another Cooper/Schoedsack/Armstrong/O'Brien "giant ape" film, MIGHTY JOE YOUNG. Close, but no cigarello.
There's an interesting moment at 15:06 where you can perceive another gorilla miniature directly behind Mighty Joe Young. For a moment it almost seems as though Frawley may have simply grabbed the wrong armature, but a closer examination reveals that it's more likely that we're seeing a partial armature made for the same film. (Inset photo courtesy of Greg Kulon.)
This isn't the only time Mighty Joe Young would fool people; in future installments of The Kong Files we'll see how the loveable, orphan-rescuing cousin-of-Kong made mis-credited appearances with Merian C. Cooper and as centerpiece of a basement "movie museum" in northern Wisconsin.
As for RKO/Desilu, it was sold in April of 2004 to an investment group for $125 million. It's unlikely that they're probing the crawlspaces looking for Lost Spider Footage.
(Writer John Michlig's online article KING KONG: LOST AND FOUND can be seen at http://www.skullisland.net/KongBoomer.html. He's currently working with filmmaker James Mansfield on a documentary entitled EIGHTH WONDER: THE AMAZING TRUE STORY OF CARL DENHAM AND THE BEAST-GOD OF SKULL ISLAND, the startling details of which he promises to share in the very near future.)
THE KONG FILES and contents are © 2004-2006 John Michlig and written for KongisKing.net, subsidary of The One Ring®, Inc.