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  • Writer's pictureSteve Vertlieb

Celebrating The 90th Anniversary of the Classic Fantasy Film Masterpiece “King Kong”

King Kong premiered ninety years ago on March 2, 1933, opening simultaneously at both the Radio City Music Hall and Roxy Theaters in New York City, followed by an “official” March 23,1933, opening at Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood.

I guess that I first saw the film as a ten year old, somewhere around 1956, on WCAU TV, Channel 10 in Philadelphia. I’d grown up hearing stories from my mom about being a young woman in the early 1930’s, and seeing a wonder-filled motion picture concerning a giant prehistoric ape in a lost world, escaping from captivity and carrying a woman to the top of the Empire State Building. I was so entranced by her stories that I often dreamt of Kong searching for me in the sometimes nightmarish realm of slumber, an enormous phantom stalking the streets of the city, peering through bedroom windows in menacing search of its prey. While I’d awaken from these dark fantasies screaming in the night, the imagery of the great gorilla both thrilled and mesmerized me, enticing this small impressionable boy into a surreal nether world of “beauties and beasts.”

I can remember my excitement when it was finally announced that “Kong” would make his long awaited debut on local television over WCAU TV, the then CBS affiliate. My mom had punished me for something that I either did or didn’t do, refusing to allow me to watch the film on our living room television set. I ran out the door in a panic, longing for an opportunity to finally see the movie that had tormented and tantalized my fertile imagination for so many desolate childhood years. I was swept from household to neighborhood household, visiting with each childhood friend until their moms summoned them to the kitchen table for dinner. I saw only scraps and isolated fragments of the film during that troubled afternoon but what I saw thrilled my thoughts and dreams beyond imagining.

The following Saturday afternoon I went innocently to The Benner Theater near my house to once more attend my fabled ritual of the weekly Saturday matinee. As the trailers to coming attractions unspooled, I suddenly felt a bolt of electricity surge through my little body, for there upon the magical movie screen came the black and white imagery of giant native doors slowly opening while a giant presence pushed his way to freedom on Skull Island. It was fate giving me a second chance, another opportunity to see King Kong at last, in the way that it was meant to be seen, upon the seemingly huge motion picture screen. I waited breathlessly for the days to expire and then, magically, it was Saturday once more. The majestic three notes that began and accompanied Max Steiner’s triumphant musical score filled my ears, and I was transported to another world … a land of strange, forbidding islands, dangerous coral reefs, and a majestic gate jealously guarding and concealing the wonder and power of the mighty KONG.

I’ve probably seen King Kong over three hundred times. I’ve never tired of the exhilaration and wonder that I felt when I first fell in love with the greatest, most revered “monster” movie ever conceived. As I approach relative maturity, I reached out to Bantam Books who had recently published a paperback version of the original novelization of the picture by Delos W. Lovelace. The editors of the publishing company were kind enough to provide me with a post office box by which I might contact the original creator of the story and subsequent motion picture, Merian C. Cooper. Although I never had an opportunity to meet this legendary adventurer and film maker, we conducted an intense correspondence over the last eight years of his life from 1965 until 1973. During those years there was rarely a week that went by when my mailbox wasn’t deluged with letters and special packages sent to me from this giant of the film industry, lovingly addressed to his youthful admirer and fan. Through mail, he introduced me to beloved animation genius Ray Harryhausen whose friendship, both through correspondence, telephone calls, and personal gatherings, endured for nearly fifty years. It was also through Merian Cooper’s posthumous introduction that I found an eagerly anticipated opportunity to meet and develop a relationship with his star, Fay Wray, at her apartment dwelling in Century City, California in 1980.

Acclaimed cinema journalist, and primary historian for American Cinematographer Magazine, George Turner, was scheduled to appear as a guest speaker at the official Sixtieth Anniversary King Kong birthday celebration at the historic Gateway Theater in Chicago during the Winter of 1993. Optical Effects pioneer Linwood Dunn was booked with him as a guest speaker for the event. At the last moment, Dunn was unexpectedly called away for another important assignment, leaving the festival without one of its two special guests. Scott Holton with Varese Sarabande Records suggested that the vacancy should be filled by a little-known writer who had known Merian C. Cooper through intense correspondence, and who had written a series of articles about the making of King Kong for the premiere issues of The Monster Times (January 1972), as well as the lead chapter for Avon Books’ The Girl In The Hairy Paw in 1976. Consequently, I was flown into Chicago and booked at the Chicago Hilton Hotel (several days following the departure of Harrison Ford, Tommy Lee Jones, and the cast and production crew for The Fugitive) and, along with George Turner, appeared on stage before an audience of 500 fans to talk about the making and production of the beloved fantasy film classic. It was an experience that I shall forever remember as a spectacular highlight of my own life and career.

In the years since 1968 when my own byline first appeared in a published magazine, I began my own writing career, sweetly encompassing over half a century of essays, articles, and commentaries in genre related books and magazines, concerning the immortal films and film makers whose works and creations continue to inspire my dreams. My series of essays on the making and production of the original 1933 production of the greatest “Monster” movie of all time appeared initially in the 1972 premier issue of The Monster Times. Editors Ronald Gottesman and Harry M. Geduld approached me about using my articles as the lead, or opening chapter, of their forthcoming book about the film, The Girl In The Hairy Paw. Scheduled to be published by Prentice Hall the following year, a change in management at the prestigious book company cancelled production, causing a delay of several more years. Avon Books in New York finally agreed to publish what would have become the very first volume ever printed about the iconic gorilla. The Girl In The Hairy Paw became a long awaited, and eagerly anticipated reality in the Spring of 1976 and did, indeed, feature my revised and revisited look at the production and reception of the classic King Kong as its opening chapter.


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