How King Kong Almost Didn’t Get Made

King Kong (1933)

In an essay about Soviet writer Isaac Babel appearing in her book The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, Elif Batuman describes a meeting between the writer and an American prisoner:

A shot-down American pilot, barefoot but elegant, neck like a column, dazzlingly white teeth, his uniform covered with oil and dirt. He asks me worriedly: Did I maybe commit a crime by fighting against Soviet Russia? Our position is strong. O the scent of Europe, coffee, civilization, strength, ancient culture, many thoughts. I watch him, can’t let him go. A letter from Major Fauntleroy: things in Poland are bad, there’s no constitution, the Bolsheviks are strong … An endless conversation with [Frank] Mosher, I sink into the past, they’ll shake you up, Mosher, ekh, Conan Doyle, letters to New York. Is Mosher fooling—he asks frantically what Bolshevism is. A sad, heart-warming impression.

It seems that Frank Mosher was none other than Captain Merian Caldwell Cooper, the future producer of King Kong in 1933. Their encounter took place in Galicia in 1920, when Cooper was a member of the Kosciuszko Air Squadron.

Captain Merian C. Cooper (Alias Frank Mosher)

Cooper was captured by horsemen attached to Budyonny’s Cossack Cavalry. He would have been killed on the spot had not an “unnamed English-speaking Bolshevik” saved his life. That Bolshevik was one of the greatest Russian writers of the 20th Century, Isaac Babel, who was served with the Bolshevik cavalry, collecting material for his great book of stories entitled Red Cavalry.

Somehow, Cooper made his way back to the U.S., along with a fellow flyer named Ernest  B. Schoedsack, whom he was to hire in later years to direct King Kong.

 

 

 

Favorite Films: King Kong (1933)

Who Can Resist That Mug?

I must have seen the original King Kong (1933) over twenty times by now, and I never seem to grow tired of it. One of the reasons I love it is that it is Pre-Code. As such, it gets away with many scenes that a few scant years later would have received the kibosh from the censors at the Hays Office. In one of my favorites, Kong employs Fay Wray as a scratch-n-sniff toy, stripping away her outer garments as if they were onionskins and holding his fingers up to his nose. You can see the scene on YouTube here.

A few years before he died, I happened to meet the producer and co-director of the film, Merian C. Cooper. He spoke to a film class at UCLA for which I was the graduate teaching assistant. During that class, he gave his own interpretation of what Kong was really about. Now I don’t necessarily take his word for it, but he says that the ape was a symbol of the downtrodden black race which did not know its own power. Maybe, but there are too many vignettes of the giant gorilla munching on black natives or crushing them like insects under his feet for that reasoning to be altogether convincing.

While I liked the big gorilla, I went ape for Fay Wray. After seeing countless movies of the period with goldilocks-looking blondes wearing those stupid cloche hats, like cloth helmets, it was refreshing to see a healthy young woman who would be considered a knockout today—without having to squint your eyes. Oh, and she was also a pretty good screamer.

Fay Wray in the Notorious Scratch-N-Sniff Scene

There have been numrous remakes and near look-alikes, but I still think the only ones worth considering were done by Ernest B. Schoedsack with or without Merian C. Cooper. I am specifically referring to Son of Kong (1933) and Mighty Joe Young (1949). In the age of CGI, Kong just ceases to be interesting. The model work in the Schoedsack/Cooper films was nothing less than superb.