News for Nov. 11, 2004

Cooper, Schoedsack, O'Brien and The Origins of Kong

11/11/04, 6:31 pm EST - Xoanon

by Rick Klaw

The first giant gorilla movie, King Kong (1933), is one of the greatest giant creature movie ever made. Derived from an idea by crime writer Edgar Wallace and producer Merian C. Cooper, King Kong is essentially a re-telling of “Beauty & the Beast”. The superior, groundbreaking special effects developed by Willis O’Brien, who updated stop motion animation, remained the industry standard until the 1980's with the emergence of computer-generated effects. Thanks to O’Brien’s camera work, a good script, and a stirring soundtrack, King Kong revolutionized film making and established the ape as a major player. The 1950's re-release of King Kong inspired another popular monster, Godzilla, and launched that decade’s giant monster movie craze.

Meriam C. Cooper and his co-director Ernest B. Schoedsack had already established a name for themselves by inventing and popularizing “natural dramas”. They would go on location throughout the world to film wildlife in exotic locations, often putting their own lives at risk. For their first big hit Chang (1927), they entered a Laotian jungle that no white man had ever been. They shot close ups of dangerous, man-eating tigers and an elephant stampede. This was in the days before zoom lenses and the heavy cameras had to be hand cranked. The Cooper/Schoedsack footage was used as stock footage for decades in Hollywood jungle features.

Under the insistence of movie studio heads, the duo incorporated actors into their next feature, the first film adaptation of A. E. W. Mason’s The Four Feathers (1929). In post production, the film was heavily edited by others, leading the friends to personally edit their future films.

Cooper and Schoedsack would temporarily go their own ways. Schoedsack directed the hunting film Rango (1931) which featured comedic sequences with monkeys and apes. He followed it up the next year with the first movie treatment of Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game.” Cooper flew to New York to be on the board of the fledgling Pan Am.

Prior to King Kong, Willis O’Brien was best know for his special effects on the initial film version of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World (1925). The first movie to have actors and stop motion effects share the screen, The Lost World, a commercial success, impressed even the most cynical critics.

Thanks to a series of mishaps and studio closing, it would be another five years before O’Brien would start on his next feature, Creation (1930-31). The movie was scrapped at RKO when new studio head David O. Selznick, who would later produce the legendary Gone With the Wind, decided it was too expensive. Luckily for O’Brien, the finished dinosaur effects work on Creation, caught the eye of Meriam C. Cooper, who had convinced Selznick to produce his new idea King Kong.

Cooper approached Schoedsack, while filming The Most Dangerous Game for RKO, to co-direct. The duo used many of the sets and actors from The Most Dangerous Game including Fay Wray, who plays the beauty that breaks the beast’s heart. King Kong became one of the most successful films, both critically and financially, of all time. O’Brien, Cooper, and Schoedsack teamed up once again on the tepid but humorous sequel Son of Kong (1933). As critically disappointing as that movie was, their third foray into a giant ape film more than made up for it. Mighty Joe Young (1949) is the classic story of friendship and devotion between a young woman and her giant gorilla companion. While Kong was a tragic monster, Joe Young is a lovable and playful character who is exploited, but by the film’s end becomes a hero. For his efforts, O’Brien won an Oscar for visual effects. Sadly, Mighty Joe Young was a financial disaster and its failure essentially ended O’Brien’s career.

There have been other King Kong movies including two Japanese features (King Kong Vs. Godzilla and King Kong Escapes), an awful 1976 remake with its even worse sequel King Kong Lives (1986), and the animated The Mighty Kong (1998, with the voice of Dudley Moore as Denham). None of these films match the content or the effects of the original classic. With a superior cast, cutting edge special effects, and a story set in the 1930's, people are once again excited about a new incarnation of the classic film. Academy award winning director Peter Jackson hopes to make the first successful King Kong feature without the original team of Cooper, Schoedsack, and O'Brien. As do millions of King Kong fans.

An award-winning editor, writer, and bookseller, Rick Klaw’s first collection of essays, reviews and other observations Geek Confidential: Echoes From the 21st Century was recently published by MonkeyBrain, Inc. He was the co-founder and managing editor of MOJO Press and the former fiction editor for RevolutionSF. One of the more opinionated people in an industry of opinionated people, Klaw produces the popular column “Geeks With Books” for SFSite. He has written for The Austin Chronicle, Weird Business, The Big Book of the Weird Wild West, Gangland, Michael Moorcock’s Multiverse, Science Fiction Weekly, Nova Express, Electric Velocipede and other venues.