Origin of 'Kong': The Unbelievable True Backstory of Hollywood's Favorite Giant Ape

The beloved movie monster that hits screens again in "Kong: Skull Island" was originally supposed to be an actual gorilla — battling a just-as-real Komodo dragon.
Photofest; RKO Radio Pictures Inc.
Merian C. Cooper, left, and the famous Empire State Building scene from 1933's 'King Kong'

With cinema's favorite supersized ape marking his eighth return to the big screen in Kong: Skull Island, The Hollywood Reporter decided to consult a King Kong expert, author and film historian Ray Morton, to learn about his origins. It turns out it was a fascinating journey to the 1933 blockbuster that started it all.

Kong was invented by a guy named Merian C. Cooper. He was born in Jacksonville, Fla., and went on to become a globetrotting adventurer, a really colorful guy. He was a war hero. He had been shot down a couple of times in both World War I and in the Polish-Russo War. He escaped from a prisoner-of-war camp. He had an amazing history.

Then he came back after the war and became a reporter for a while. And then he eventually became an explorer. He joined an explorer team and went around the world to all sorts of exotic places. And he and his partner, a guy named Ernest Schoedsack, started to make documentary films of these travels. So that’s how we sort of got into film. And then he also ended up going into aviation when commercial aviation was in its infancy.

During one of the expeditions that he went on, he and his partner made what they called "natural dramas." They were sort of documentaries. They would go and film real people and real animals in exotic locations. But then they created a fictional plot. They would edit the documentary footage to create sort of a fiction film based on real footage. They made a lot of money and these things became very popular.

On one of their expeditions, he watched a family of baboons. And that got him interested in apes. And then he later thought he’d like to do a story — a natural drama about an ape. A friend of his, an explorer name Douglas Burden, had gone to Komodo. He was one of the first people to go to Komodo, an Indonesian island where they had the Komodo dragon.

Cooper suddenly got this idea. He said he’d like to make a natural drama about an ape that fights a Komodo dragon. He thought that would be really exciting. So that was his initial concept. And he decided to make it a gorilla because he thought gorillas had more personality than baboons did. Gorillas at that time were not quite well known. They were almost still a little bit like mythical creatures. The first Western person saw a gorilla in the very early 20th century or perhaps late in the 19th century. So people just didn’t know that much about them. That’s important, because Cooper knew he could kind of make them into whatever he wanted.

His friend Douglas Burden had captured a Komodo dragon and brought it back to New York and put it in the Central Park Zoo, or perhaps it was the Bronx Zoo. It was on exhibition for a while and then it died. Cooper liked that part of it. So what he concocted was a story about an expedition that went to an island upon which lived a gorilla and a Komodo dragon. (There are no gorillas on Komodo but that didn't bother him.) And the gorilla would fight the Komodo dragon and then get captured. He would be brought back to New York City. Put in a zoo. And then it would escape and cause a lot of havoc before it finally got killed. That was the natural drama he wanted to do.

He also wanted to have the gorilla at some point kidnap a woman from the expedition. That was kind of the myth of gorillas back then — is they were like stealing women and running off with them into the jungle. So he thought that would be a good thing to have too.

Around that time, Ingagi was a huge hit. It was basically this exploitation film, promoted as a documentary — but it wasn’t. It was a guy in an ape suit raping a woman, in a 1930 way. Bestiality was the appeal of it. It’s a very notorious film. It made a lot of money because it had an ape having sex with a woman, basically. Also, it’s very racist. Supposedly it’s in Africa, so they hired a lot of African-Americans to portray Africans and then did it in horribly stereotypical ways. As far as I know, you can’t see that movie anymore. I’ve never been able to track a copy of it down.

There are a lot of people who say that it had a big influence on Kong, that somehow Cooper got inspired by it. I don't think that’s true. He read stories of fearsome, monstrous gorillas in his youth. I think that is a big influence on Kong. I think Burden’s expedition to Komodo was an influence, as well as the natural dramas that he and Schoedsack made, because Cooper was very much a 19th century man’s idea of a conservationist. Which is, you go out and shoot animals and have them stuffed and put them into a museum because you’re concerned about animals. That was kind of his thing.

So Cooper went looking for funding — but it was right when the Great Depression hit and no one was going to finance his expedition. Because the original idea was he wanted to literally go to Africa, capture a gorilla and take it to Komodo, so that they could film in this natural environment. Nobody wanted to fund that. So the idea kind of went on the shelf.

Through a number of different circumstances, Cooper ended up becoming RKO Pictures head David O. Selznick’s assistant in the early 1930s. Part of his job was to look at projects and tell Selznick whether they should keep doing them or not. One of the projects was a film called Creation.

Willis O’Brien was the man who pioneered stop-motion animation as a feature-film technique. He had worked on a film in the 1920s called The Lost World. That was for First National, which later became part of Warner Bros. It’s basically about explorers who go to a South American plateau and discover dinosaurs. They bring them back to London. One dinosaur escapes and causes havoc. It was based on the story by Arthur Conan Doyle.

That film was a big hit in the mid-1920s. And O’Brien had been hired along with the director to do Creation. The deal was at RKO. They were going to use stop-motion animation and it was basically a remake/sequel of The Lost World. Explorers would find dinosaurs and they would interact with them and bring them back to society — that kind of thing.

Cooper looked at the project and didn’t think it was very interesting dramatically. But he loved O’Brien’s techniques. He started to think that stop-motion might be the way to do his gorilla movie without having to spend a lot of money and travel around the world. It could be done on the lot at RKO. He could do it on soundstages. And O’Brien could animate the ape.

Cooper’s original idea was that the ape in his story was going to be 12 feet tall — because people thought gorillas were 12 feet tall back then. He wasn’t trying to make it gigantic. He just thought that’s how big gorillas are. But then he saw the dinosaur model tests that O’Brien had created for Creation. And he thought, "Wouldn’t it be cool to have the gorilla fight the dinosaurs? That would be better than a Komodo dragon."

And that’s where Kong became gigantic. Because there is nothing in the records before that to suggest that he wanted to do a gigantic ape. He couldn’t resist having him fight dinosaurs. So Kong got big.

Cooper was at heart a showman. He loved gimmicks, but not gimmicks for their own sake. He was one of the first guys behind Technicolor. He loved Cinemascope. He was the guy behind Cinerama. So he loved anything that movies could do differently — and that was different than stage and different from novels.

The thing about King Kong is it's the most elaborate and I still think best stop-motion animation movie ever made. Because the budget of the original King Kong was the budget of two A-pictures in those days — two big-budget features put together. It cost almost $500,000 by the time they were done — or $10 million in today's dollars, a fortune for a movie at the time. Almost every other stop-motion animation movie that you can think of is very entertaining. But they’re a little bit low-budget and cheesy. Kong was never that.

The live-action stuff was shot at the RKO-Pathé, lot which is now the Culver City Studios down in Culver City. King Kong’s wall was eventually re-dressed as Atlanta for Gone With the Wind and was burned down. So when you see Atlanta collapsing in Gone With the Wind, that’s actually Kong’s wall collapsing. The wall was itself a leftover from the 1927 Cecil B. DeMille movie The King of Kings. All of the miniature work, the actual Kong stuff, was done on stages at RKO, which is now Paramount Studios in Hollywood.

Cooper liked one-world titles for his natural dramas. One was called Grass. One was called Chang. Another one called Rango. He had an affection for short, to-the-point, bullet-point names for his films. As for how he came up with "Kong," the best answer I can get is that he modified Congo. basically. I’ve heard other interpretations but I think that's the true one.

The "King" part was actually David O. Selznick. When it was being written it had four or five different titles: The first title was Kong. Then it was renamed The Beast. Then it was renamed The Eighth Wonder. It became Kong again when they shot it. And then David O. Selznick thought that an alliterative title would be good — and that they should make him seem more magnificent. So David Selznick added "King" to it right before the film was released.

Cooper told some people stories that he got the idea for the Empire State Building ending because he was in downtown Manhattan and saw an airplane buzzing around the Woolworth Building. That’s actually not true. Cooper told a lot of stories after the fact that played well. But what really happened was they came up with the idea when they decided to gigantize the monster. Cooper thought, "Well, I want him to run around New York. But now that he’s giant, we got to have him do something spectacular." The idea was he would climb the Chrysler Building because the Empire State Building hadn’t opened yet.

The original ending had no airplanes. Kong climbed up to the top of the building and was hit by lightning and that’s what killed him. But then the Empire State Building opened as they were writing the script. And Cooper always wanted everything to go bigger and better. So what’s better than the Chrysler Building? The Empire State Building! What's better than lightning? Fighter planes!

And so that's it. All these ideas were pulled from different places and gelled into this insane movie that really makes no sense — except that we love it. We have to.

Ray Morton is the author of King Kong: The History of a Movie Icon from Fay Wray to Peter Jackson and Close Encounters of the Third Kind: The Making of Steven Spielberg's Classic Film.

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