Hollywood Flashback: Godzilla First Set Off on a Path to Destruction in 1954

War of the Monsters - Godzilla, Rodan, King Ghidorah - Photofest-H 2019
Maron Films Photofest

1965's Godzilla vs. Monster Zero.

The original movie starring the creature, back in theaters May 30 in 'Godzilla: King of the Monsters,' was a huge hit in Japan and earned a nomination for the country's equivalent of the Oscars, losing to 'Seven Samurai': "It's an example of the two extremes of Japanese filmmaking," says fan Roger Corman.

Godzilla, due back May 30 in Warner Bros.' Godzilla: King of the Monsters, began as a class act. The original 1954 Toho Studios film cost $900,000 ($8.5 million in today's dollars) and was nominated for best picture at the Japanese equivalent of the Oscars, but it lost to Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai. "It's an example of the two extremes of Japanese filmmaking," says Godzilla fan and low-budget movie impresario Roger Corman. The original went on to spawn 32 Japanese sequels and three Hollywood versions. As with many foreign stars, Godzilla got a name change on his way to Hollywood. In Japan, the gender-neutral creature was called Gojira (a mix of words for "gorilla" and "whale").

The adjustment came when low-budget filmmaker Dick Kay bought the U.S. rights and someone suggested "Godzilla." Kay said it "sounded more rough, more menacing." For the U.S. release in April 1956, he cut a half-hour from the Japanese version and added a new narrative that had American reporter Steve Martin (Raymond Burr) narrating the wreckage. "The film has a wildness and insanity to it," says Corman. "I was particularly impressed by the special effects. They were both good and over-the-top. Today, you'd say they had a campy quality."

Purists might grumble about the changes, but it worked in the U.S.; Godzilla was a hoot and American teenagers loved it. What had been a hit in Japan, where it sold 10 million tickets, was estimated to have earned $2 million in the U.S., or $20 million today. 

This story first appeared in the May 29 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.