Almost 84 years to the day since he first stomped out of Merian C. Cooper's imagination and onto the silver screen, King Kong is back in "Kong: Skull Island," a film that puts a new spin on how humans discovered the giant primate and the dangerous island he inhabits. As Legendary kick starts a new series of films with the famous beast, we looked back through Kong's long history to find some facts you may not have known.
The iconic image of Kong battling biplanes atop the Empire State Building was in fact the first image that director Merian C. Cooper envisioned when coming up with the idea for "King Kong" back in the early 1930s. He then worked backwards to make a story that would get Kong to that dramatic finale.
Late in the movie, a man standing in line to see Kong in New York grumbles to his wife, "These tickets cost me twenty bucks." That doesn't sound like much now, but back in 1933, with the Great Depression at its height, that was a small fortune to much of the country. For comparison, a ticket to see Lou Gehrig and the Yankees back in 1933 cost 35 cents. $20 in 1933 is about $375 in today's money, effectively making Kong's display in New York the "Hamilton" of its time.
In her autobiography, Fay Wray wrote that when she signed on to play Ann Darrow, the famed damsel-in-distress and eye of Kong's affection, Cooper promised her that she would co-star with the "tallest, darkest leading man in Hollywood." Wray thought that was Cary Grant.
Instead, her co-star ended up being an 18-inch stop-motion model. To make the model that would become the famed beast, Cooper's team used a metal skeleton and a mix of rubber and foam to form the musculature. Dark rabbit fur was then used for Kong's pelt.
When you see Wray screaming in Kong's grasp, that's real terror. According to TCM, crane operators had to wrap the fingers around her and then raise Kong's hand up ten feet. The more Wray struggled, the looser the hand's grip became. Eventually, she would have to signal to Cooper to stop filming because she was in danger of falling.
"King Kong" pushed the boundaries of what audiences had seen in movies, so much so that censors took out several scenes, including one where Kong peels off Ann's dress. These scenes were found and restored to their original glory when the film was released in 1971...except for one.
At an advance screening in San Bernardino, audiences reportedly screamed and fled in shock and disgust after watching a Skull Island scene where Kong knocks four sailors into a ravine, where they are devoured by giant spiders. The audience members that stayed muttered about the scene through the rest of the film, resulting in Cooper removing the scene himself. No copy of that scene has ever been recovered.
When Peter Jackson's 2005 remake was released on DVD, it contained a recreation of the lost spider pit scene. The new version used a combination of archival footage from the original film and new footage filmed using the same miniatures and special effects used in the original.
"Kong: Skull Island" is to be part of a cinematic universe that will lead to King Kong facing off against Godzilla in 2020, but that won't be the first time those two monsters have shared the screen together. The 1962 Toho film "King Kong vs. Godzilla" still holds the record for the highest attended Godzilla film in Japan, with 12.5 million tickets sold. The film inspired Toho to make Godzilla into a long-running franchise, and starting two years later, the Japanese studio put out a Godzilla film every year from 1964 to 1975.
Like the original, film crews had problems with Kong's animatronic hands when filming the 1976 remake starring Jeff Bridges and Jessica Lange, though they were much more humorous. According to Time Magazine, producer Dino De Laurentiis was invited to see a test of the hands, which each weighed 1,650 lbs. When he arrived, one of the arms swung in his direction, extended its middle finger...and promptly broke down, causing De Laurentiis to break out in laughter. The hand remained frozen, flipping off the world for more than a week until it could be fixed.
By 1976, the World Trade Center, not the Empire State Building, was the tallest building in New York. Since the remake used a contemporary setting, it was decided that the finale would take place at the WTC, which did not please the employees working at the Empire State Building. They responded by picketing the 102nd floor of the famed building in gorilla suits.
It took 18 months for CGI artists to make the Empire State Building seen in the 2005 remake. (It took 14 months to construct the actual building in 1930.)
Peter Jackson, who was one of Hollywood's hottest directors after making the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, was paid a whopping $20 million in advance to direct "King Kong," according to reports. It marked a Hollywood record.
The trailer for Jackson's remake featured a new version of one of the most famous lines from the original: "Scream, Ann! Scream for your life!" Ironically, that line did not make it into the remake's final cut.
Howard Shore, who wrote the music for the "Lord of the Rings" films, had written much of the score for Jackson's remake. But after creative differences arose, Jackson said he and Shore mutually agreed to remove all his music. Shore was replaced by James Newton Howard, composer for films like "Waterworld" and "The Dark Knight," who only had two months to come up with new music for the entire film.
Jackson's remake is filled with nods to the original. In an early scene, Carl Denham is looking for an actress to travel to Skull Island. An actress named "Fay" is brought up, but Carl says he's doing something with "Cooper" for RKO. That line is a nod to Fay Wray, Merian C. Cooper, and RKO, the studio that released the original "Kong."
One of the most notable additions Jackson made was a scene where Kong and Ann bond amidst the chaos in New York at a frozen pond in Central Park. The scene was not in the original script, but Universal granted Jackson permission to film it while the project was in post-production.
One of the most beloved segments in Universal Studios' long-running tram tour was a face-to-face confrontation with a giant animatronic King Kong, who would shake the bridge the tram was driving on and knock down a helicopter containing a foolhardy news reporter (played by "Simpsons" voice actor Tress MacNeille) Unfortunately, the building holding the "Kongfrontation" was destroyed in a 2008 fire that also destroyed much of the Courthouse Square set used in the "Back to the Future" films. The studio tour segment was replaced with a 3-D attraction inspired by the 2005 remake.
At the time, Jackson's remake was the most expensive film ever made, going way over its initial $150 million budget to a final cost of $207 million. Suffice to say, Universal was not pleased with the overrun, but their investment was paid off as the film made $550 million worldwide, plus an additional $100 million from DVD sales. The film was also a critical success, winning three Oscars for its sound design and visual effects.
"Kong: Skull Island" is the eighth film to feature Kong, with the franchise moving to Legendary Pictures. Legendary is the sixth studio to make a Kong film, following RKO, Toho, Paramount, De Laurentiis Entertainment Group, and Universal.