On the Set with…King Kong

Movie dinosaurs are better animated today and really look like living, breathing creatures. But in terms of sheer personality nobody beats the 1933 original version of King Kong. There are several fine books detailing how Kong was brought to life and focusing on the dedicated people who made it possible, headed by Willis O’Brien. For our purposes, let’s just walk around RKO Studios to glimpse some of the activities.

The man in the middle here wearing the fedora is KONG producer Merian C. Cooper. To his right is Cooper’s alter ego in the film, Robert Armstrong as movie producer Carl Denham. Like Cooper (and his partner Ernest B. Schoedsack), the fictional Denham traveled with his camera crew to far-off places to film scenes rarely encountered by most people. These docudramas such as CHANG and GRASS earned much critical praise in the 1920s but the lack of a love story and a pretty woman in the picture hampered their box office revenues. KING KONG would change all that with hunk Bruce Cabot (to the left of Cooper) and Fay Wray (we’ll see her later) on hand for the amour.

Here’s Cooper again looking at a figment of his imagination on the RKO lot. This life-size bust of Kong was used for close-ups in the film and was operated by two men who could move its jaw and eyes:

Here is a frontal view of the bust. For all the care taken to match this bust with the smaller models used in the film, the life-size edition missed the protruding jaw that really gave Kong much of his fearsome personality:

You’ve heard of actors wearing lifts on their shoes to make themselves appear taller – well, here is one of the full-size models of Kong that stood only 16 inches high. You can easily note how both the shape of the head and the mouth are quite different from the bust above:

Kong climbs the face of the cliff to reach his mountaintop lair. The Fay Wray miniature can be seen in his hand and this test shot gives us a nice view of the miniature sets:

This is one of the more famous photos where Kong saves Miss Wray from being carried off by a pesky pterodactyl who drops by looking for dinner:

Now compare this test shot with the photo above. While the pose is similar we notice that Miss Wray has not yet been added to to Kong’s left hand:

The pterodactyl again moments before Kong emerges from his lair. In this test shot an object subbing for Miss Wray is placed in the claws. Notice the pole on the left used perhaps to line up the shot:

The legendary giant spider at the bottom of the pit that is never seen in the finished film. Kong hurls several members of the ship’s crew into this abyss in one of the most nightmarish scenes in the film. Any sailors lucky enough to survive the plunge found themselves being eaten alive by this guy!

This is one in a series of cheesecake photos by Fay Wray taken to promote the film. She became a popular film star in the last years of silent films and then made a successful transition to talkies. Although Miss Wray appeared in many films following KING KONG, this would remain the one film that she is primarily remembered for:

Published in: on December 29, 2011 at 1:48 AM  Comments (1)  

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  1. The gentleman looking up at the bust of KONG is NOT director Merian Cooper, as is oft reported. This is mis-information instituted by Forrest Ackerman in 1960. The man is RKO contract player William Gargan.


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