The genesis of King Kong was director Merian C. Cooper's fascination with gorillas when he was very young. As a boy, he had read Paul du Chaillu's 1861 book Explorations and Adventures of Equatorial Africa. His fascination increased when he studied a tribe of baboons in Africa while filming The Four Feathers in 1929. Cooper later claimed the his "original vision" was of a giant ape on top of the world's tallest building, fighting off airplanes.
In 1931, Cooper brought the original idea for King Kong to Paramount studios. Paramount turned the script down, mainly because it was during the Great Depression and the costs of sending a film cast and crew to Africa and Komodo would be too much. Later that year, producer David O. Selznick brought Cooper to RKO studios as his executive assistant, with the promise that Cooper could produce his own films there.
Cooper proceeded to produce The Most Dangerous Game, a 1932 jungle adventure, at RKO- the film starred Fay Wray and Robert Armstrong. Cooper was to produce a handful of films after this, but the "ape film" idea stuck in the back of Cooper's mind. After a personal presentation of his idea for the film to executives, he finally convinced RKO to take a chance and produce it.
The original King Kong screenplay (written by Edgar Wallace) was called The Beast. It was to undergo several other titles before completion, including The Eighth Wonder, The Ape, King Ape, and Kong. David O. Selznick was to leave RKO studios halfway through production of the film, but he was to make one lasting and important contribution- it was his idea to change the title from Kong to King Kong.
For two of the film's three lead roles, Cooper cast an actor and an actress from The Most Dangerous Game in King Kong- Robert Armstrong was cast as director Carl Denham and Fay Wray took on the film's central role, that of the ape's "unrequited love" Ann Darrow. Before Fay Wray was cast, Ginger Rogers and Dorothy Jordan were both considered for the Ann Darrow role (Jean Harlow was offered the role and turned it down).
When Cooper offered the female lead role to Wray, he told her he wanted her to star in a film "with the tallest, darkest actor in Hollywood." Excited, Fay thought she was going to be in a movie with Clark Gable or Cary Grant. Bruce Cabot was cast as Fay's love interest, Jack Driscoll.
Both Wray and Armstrong were experienced in films at the time, but it was to be Cabot's first lead role. Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack were both co-directors and co-producers of the film.
It was Wray's idea to have Ann Darrow be a blonde in the film (figuring the blonde hair would be a good contrast to the ape's dark skin). She bought the blonde wig she wore in the film herself, at Max Factor's in Hollywood.
Although the original script of the movie was written by Willis O'Brien, he died in February of 1932 and the final script was written entirely by Cooper. Willis O'Brien was, however, to make one major contribution to the film- it was his idea to give the ape "human characteristics."
There were several King Kong models used in the film, each 18 inches high. They were the first animation models made of metal skeletons and joints. Each model was made from a metal mesh skeleton, a mixture of rubber and foam for the muscle structure, and rabbit fur for the ape's hair.
Besides the 18-inch Kong models, a giant Kong head, hand, and foot were constructed. The 20-foot high gorilla head was operated by three men who controlled various levers to change the ape's facial expressions. Willis O'Brien, originally the chief technician on the film, disliked the Kong head, he thought it had limited dramatic possibilities.
For the scenes of Kong's giant hand, the hand was attached to a crane and raised ten feet first. A technician then placed Fay Wray in the hand and closed the fingers around her. Then the hand was lifted higher for filming.
Wray said her screams in the film were real, the more she screamed, the looser the hand's grip grew. When she felt like she was about to fall, she had to signal Cooper to stop filming.
The giant foot was constructed to show a closer shot of Kong's foot crushing the natives on the island. King Kong's roar in the film was a tiger's roar combined with lion's roar- this combined roar was then played backwards and more slowly.
Both Merian C. Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack had been wrestlers; they acted out the fighting scenes on the island between Kong and T-rex in the effects studio.
The Kong model on the island is different from the Kong in New York- the Kong on Skull Island has a longer face, which the filmmaker's thought made it look "too human."
Once in New York, the original idea was for Kong to break loose in Yankee Stadium, but Cooper changed the idea to a mid-town theater.
As an interesting sidebar, King Kong does not actually appear in the film until almost 47 minutes in.
After completing her role in the film, Fay Wray spent a day in a sound recording studio, recording what were to become possibly the most famous screams in motion picture history. Wray was to refer to them as her "aria of the agonies."
Because of the incredibly slow stop-motion used on the film (this was each separate frame of King Kong's motion being moved by a technician's hand and filmed, one after the other), the movie took an incredible 55 weeks to complete. The film took so long to make that after the cast had finished, Fay Wray actually acted in four different films in the interim before Kong's release.
The famous scene of Kong picking up the elevated train in New York was the film's final scene shot. This scene was added because King Kong ran for exactly 13 reels and Cooper was very superstitious. The addition made it 14.
King Kong opened in New York on March 7, 1933 and in Los Angeles on March 24th. It went nationwide on April 7, 1933. It was an immediate smash hit.
It became the only movie to open at both of New York's biggest theaters, the Roxy and Radio City Music Hall simultaneously. The total seating was around 10,000, and it sold out every performance (10 a day) in both theaters.
King Kong grossed $90,000 in its opening weekend nationwide, the biggest opening of all-time up to that point. Not just a domestic success, at the King Kong premiere in London on Easter Sunday of 1933, 12,000 people had to be turned away. King Kong was to be the third highest-grossing film of 1933. It is reputed that the film's success saved RKO studios from bankruptcy.
King Kong was reputedly Adolf Hitler's favorite film (along with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and the films of Laurel and Hardy). Der Fuehrer would reportedly get highly thrilled and excited when he would watch the scenes of Kong lifting Fay Wray up in his arms.
Interestingly, at the film's premiere, Fay Wray was to recall: "I wasn't too impressed. There was too much screaming… I didn't realize that Kong and I were to be together for the rest of or lives, and longer." She described King Kong as her "little man."
Although she was to live 75 more years, she was only to watch King Kong four times in her life. Robert Armstrong and Merian C. Cooper died one day apart- Armstrong died on April 20, 1973, and Cooper passed away the next day. Fay Wray lived until August 8, 2004.
That night, by a bizarre coincidence, in the emergency room in a New York hospital, a worker there noticed that the film playing on television at the time featured the patient- King Kong was showing on television as Fay Wray took her final breath. Two days later, on August 10, 2004, the lights on the Empire State Building were dimmed for 15 minutes in her honor.
[ed. note: the newest King Kong film, Kong: Skull Island, opens nationwide this weekend.]