KING KONG AT 90: In Film and in Comics

An ANNIVERSARY SALUTE to the big ol’ ape…


On March 2, 1933 — 90 years ago — King Kong had its world premiere in New York City, which was only right considering what Kong did to Manhattan in the film. It opened exclusively at Radio City Music Hall and at the RKO Roxy and, according to an ad in The New York Times the next day, a combined 50,000 people saw the film on its first day.

While that figure may have been an ad man’s exaggeration, it is still possible considering several showings that first day and the enormous size of both theaters (with a combined seating capacity of nearly 9,500 seats). The public was anxious to have escapism from the Great Depression, which was still ongoing throughout the country, and this provided escapism on a monumental scale.

King Kong was a movie that stunned everyone, even tough New York newspaper critics. The Times review the next day opened with a header of “A fantastic film in which a monstrous ape uses automobiles for missiles and climbs a skyscraper.” Variety on March 6, 1933 stated “‘Kong’ surpasses anything of its type which has gone before it in commercial film-making.” The Daily News wrote on March 8, 1933: “King Kong, as spectacular a bolt of celluloid as has thrilled audiences in a couple of sophisticated seasons, is the product of a number of vivid imaginations.”

Merian C. Cooper “imagining” what his idea for King Kong will look like.

That last statement, “the product of a number of vivid imaginations,” was certainly true but it started with that of just one man, film producer Merian C. Cooper. He and his co-director/production partner Ernest B. Schoedsack had gone to various dangerous locations to film remarkable stories before this, with a number of wild animals appearing as dangers to the humans starring in the movie. This time, however, Cooper wanted to do a story where the animal was the star. In particular, a big ape. A really BIG ape.

Through the evolution of the story’s idea, it was decided to film it in RKO’s studio in Hollywood. The original screenwriter was Edgar Wallace, a famous English novelist, but he died of pneumonia while still working on the script and James A. Creelman (whose Hollywood writing credits went back to the silent era) was assigned to continue the script during pre-production. Schoedsack’s wife, Ruth Rose, did the final drafts of the script and she transferred the showmanship characteristics of Merian Cooper into Carl Denham and the adventurous but quieter aspects of her husband into Jack Driscoll.

In addition to the project undergoing different titles (“The Beast,” “The Eighth Wonder,” and “Kong”), there were also changes on where the planes would confront Kong at the end. It was first planned to be at the New York Life Insurance Building, then the Chrysler Building, and finally the Empire State Building, which had opened less than two years before. (Trivia: In the film’s planes vs. Kong ending, a close-up of one of the planes’ cockpits revealed producers/directors Cooper and Schoedsack as pilot and gunner, respectively.)

During the early days of the filming, stars Fay Wray and Robert Armstrong were doing double duty, acting in another Merian C. Cooper produced film, The Most Dangerous Game, during the day and then King Kong at night, often working on the same jungle sets.

Every movie is a collaboration of various cinematic talents, but probably none more so than King Kong at that time. For proof of this, try to imagine the film without these amazing contributors: Willis O’Brien, who (along with his team) created the miniature figures of Kong and the prehistoric creatures on Skull Island, as well as doing the stop-motion animation throughout the film; Max Steiner, whose dynamic film score was a rarity for a movie in those early days of sound movies; Murray Spivack, RKO’s director of sound effects, who invented Kong’s incredible roar and that of other prehistoric creatures… and the man who gave the green light, David O. Selznick, the executive producer, who oversaw this and other major motion pictures, including Gone With the Wind.

The movie’s greatness has not diminished in 90 years and here are 13 images and video clips of King Kong, the Eighth Wonder of the World, in film and on the page:

The opening credits with Max Steiner’s powerful music:

Bruce Cabot as Jack Driscoll, Fay Wray as Ann Darrow, and Robert Armstrong as Carl Denham:

Meeting Kong!

Three lobby cards from the original 1933 release:

Kong escapes! (Trivia: The New York theater interior scene was actually filmed inside Los Angeles’ Shrine Auditorium.)

1933 pressbook display of available posters for movie theaters.Note that the poster pictured on the left side of the second tier cost 30-cents rental charge at that time (theater managers were supposed to return them when done); in 2012, that same poster sold at auction for $388,375.

From the 1933 pressbook, a promotional gimmick of a six-part comic strip summarizing the plot to run in local newspapers. Art by Glenn Cravath.

March 1, 1933, New York newspaper ad the day before the film opened:

Line outside Radio City to see King Kong:

Gold Key comic from 1968 (the 35th anniversary of the film) with a painted cover by George Wilson. The edition is notable for no mention of RKO Studios or the movie at all. The comic — later released by Whitman in treasury size — is listed as an authorized edition, with a credit of “Created by Merian C. Cooper.” The reason is that Cooper lost a court case involving rights to the movie but retained the rights to a novelization of the film story… and it is that novelization that the Whitman/Gold Key edition was based upon.

The monumental climax:


— There Will Be Blood: KING KONG in the 1970s. Click here.

— Why the First GODZILLA Remains the King of the Kaiju Movies. Click here.

PETER BOSCH’s first book, American TV Comic Books: 1940s-1980s – From the Small Screen to the Printed Pagehas just been published by TwoMorrows. He has written articles and conducted celebrity interviews for various magazines and newspapers. Peter lives in Hollywood.

Author: Dan Greenfield

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  1. My favorite monster movie along with Bride of Frankenstein. BTW, today’s Willis O’ Brien’s birthday.

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    • You are so right! I love coincidences like that!

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  2. Wow ! 90 years. I wish I could go back in time and sit in the theater on opening night with a big tub of popcorn. It would be fun to see the audience reaction to Kong. They must have been blown away. Happy Birthday King Kong.

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