All the deals had been signed, all the agents had their commissions and all the lawyers had their fees. It was now time to actually make a movie. The movie in question was the 1976 remake of the 1933 cinema classic, King Kong. So much time had been spent in litigation and lawyering and suits and countersuits that by the time everything was settled, actually making the movie seemed like something of an afterthought. But it was January of 1976 and Paramount had just announced that the finished film would be released by Christmas.
When you have less than a year to make and release a movie called King Kong, it’s probably wise to have the whole King Kong part squared away.
Yeah. That would have been nice.
This is as good a time as any to take a moment out to honor the magic and beauty of the original King Kong. While there was indeed a life-size Kong head, hand and foot, Kong himself was an 18” armature built by Marcel Delgado and brought to life by the magic of stop-motion animation at the hands of the great Willis O’Brien. It’s also important to note that The Lost World, O’Brien’s previous stop-motion effort, although impressive for its day, barely hints at the brilliance and wizardry he would display in Kong.
In addition to populating the film’s Skull Island with dinosaurs and a giant, lovestruck gorilla, Skull Island itself was a magical creation. Various layers of glass paintings combined with foreground miniature work, dotted with stop motion birds and flying reptiles, gave the fictional location a haunted, fog-shrouded atmosphere, often accurately compared to the drawings of Gustav Dore’. The unavoidable strobe effect caused by stop motion animation somehow adds to the mythical, otherworldly feel, making the strange world of Skull Island all the more believable.
When setting about to film the remake, producer Dino DeLaurentiis decided that stop motion looked hokey and outdated. According to Ray Morton’s King Kong – The History Of A Movie Icon, when the project was first announced, several animators approached the producer to pitch their services. DeLaurentiis told them that the production was leaning towards using a good ol’ fashioned man in a gorilla suit. Supposedly, every animator had the same response. “Get Rick Baker.”
Rick Baker was, at that time, a twenty-five-year-old special effects make-up wunderkind who was being mentored by the legendary Dick Smith. Baker said he would love to work on Kong, but was committed to Jeff Lieberman’s worm apocalypse epic, Squirm for another month. Baker was hired and told to show up as soon as he was free.
Aside from Baker’s proposed suit, the production also wanted a full-size Kong mannequin (ape-equin?), to be operated much like a giant marionette, for certain shots. With Baker back east making Squirm, Kong’s production designer, Mario Chiari, set about designing Kong’s look. Fun fact! He wasn’t a gorilla! In Chiari’s design, Kong was more a hybrid ape-man. A forty-foot australopithacus, and the giant mannequin of Kong was to be designed along those lines. To bring this giant size creation to life, DeLaurentiis brought in a friend, the brilliant artist and designer Carlo Rambaldi.
This was late 1975, early 1976, and Steven Speilberg’s blockbuster, Jaws was the only movie, the only thing, that anybody was talking about. Despite the fact that Jaws’ mechanical shark Bruce barely worked during filming (see the very first Cinemorph), Rambaldi felt that that was the direction Kong needed to move in. He convinced DeLaurentiis that if Joe Alves could create a convincing giant mechanical shark, he could create a convincing giant mechanical gorilla. A mechanical gorilla that, Rambaldi insisted, could perform all the action required in the script. (NOTE: there is an alternate story that the idea came from Delaurentiis. We’ll probably never know).
Rick Baker, meanwhile, had wrapped Squirm and returned to Los Angeles to find that plans for a forty-foot, fully articulated robot ape-man were being drawn up. According, again, to Ray Morton, Baker’s opinion was clear. “It’s impossible. He (Carlo Rambaldi) can’t do it. If NASA can’t do it, he can’t do it – especially on a short movie schedule.” DeLaurentiis and his production team poo-poo’d Baker’s concerns. They still wanted Baker to build a suit, based on Chiari’s ape-man concept, but only as a back up.
Baker wanted to leave the production (no kidding), but didn’t (thank God). DeLaurentiis gave Baker and Rambaldi each six weeks to develop their respective prototypes, may the best ape win. Baker worked out of his garage. His first move, despite the studio mandate, was to toss out Chiari’s ape-man design and make King Kong a Goddamn gorilla. Six weeks passed and it came time reveal his work. Seeing that he had gone ahead and built a gorilla instead of the approved design, DeLaurentiis and the production team were incredibly unhappy. Especially when compared to Rambaldi’s… Hey, uh …. Where is Rambaldi’s?
Rambaldi’s wasn’t ready. In fact, the company that bid on designing and building Rambaldi’s Super Kong said it would take eighteen to thirty-six months to build and perfect. The movie was premiering in twelve months, so that was a no go. Eventually, a different, much simpler design by special effects supervisor Glen Robinson was put into production. Rambaldi was not happy with Robinson’s design, but since his was unworkable, he had no choice. He wasn’t happy with Rick Baker’s suit design either, but his wasn’t ready on time, he had no choice there either. So Kong was to be a gorilla after all. Rick Baker won the competition and set about rebuilding, refining and perfecting the suit for the film.
There was just one catch. DeLaurentiis thought it would be better if Baker collaborated with… Carlo Rambaldi! Sigh. But Baker did it, 'cause he’s a pro. And Rambaldi was talented. He designed the cable mechanics for Baker's Kong mask's expressions and Baker gave him high marks. Rambaldi would later create E.T.
Glen Robinson's forty-foot Kong was built, as great expense, and appears on the for fifteen seconds. That said, it was a HUGE publicity magnet and, in the end, probably paid for itself.
Aaaaaaaaaaaanyway, King Kong was released on time by Christmas of 1976 to predominantly positive reviews and healthy box office. After eighteen months, per the agreement with Paramount and RKO, Universal Studios retained the right to do their own remake. This would happen in 2005 with Peter Jackson’s super lavish, loving, re-retelling. Before Kong 76’s release, there was a PR rumor circulating that DeLaurentiis’ remake was poised to not only revolutionize the fantasy film genre, but that it may even out-gross Jaws as the number one box office champ of all time. That did not quite happen.
It would happen just five months later, with the release of an underestimated, modestly-budgeted film from 20th Century Fox that took place, “…a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.”
Next week, two films in a pod.