|For better or for worse, King Kong '76 is where it all started.|
In 1976, it was big. Really big.
Every store sold plush apes. Every gum machine was stocked with "Killer Gorillas". It made the cover of People Magazine. Twice. Time Magazine. Famous Monsters of Filmland (of course). Mad and Cracked parodied it. On TV, there was the Great Grape Ape Show, and The Ghost Buster's Spencer, Tracy and Kong (Tracy was the gorilla -- but then, you knew that, didn't you?). Topps trading cards, lunch boxes (both metal and plastic), Jim Beam decanter, board game, model kit, 3-D View-master, jigsaw puzzles, John Berkey posters, dinnerware set, stuffed pillows, Coca Cola glasses, belts, buckles, T-shirts, women's kneehigh socks, 7-11 slurpee cups, drinking straw, kite, soundtrack album, sheet music and, of course, King Kong fridge magnets.
Oh yeah, it was Big.
With a staggering 24-million dollar price tag, the 1976 King Kong was the very first of the modern big budget special effects-intensive mega-movies. The critics were aghast. 24-million dollars? It was unheard of.
For better or for worse, King Kong '76 is where it all started.
A gigantic 40-foot tall animatronic King Kong was constructed (though used in only a few seconds of screen-time), against which the mechanical T. Rex later used in Jurassic Park seems like a piddly newt.
For the first time, an animatronic mask was used (ie. a mask controlled by remote operators, rather than by the actor's own facial movements) -- which quickly replaced stop-motion and has since become the norm in Hollywood. The effects won a Special Academy Award for visual effects and SFX wizard, Rick Baker, who designed and wore the mask, has since made a career of ape costumes in such films as Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Gorillas in the Mist, and Disney's version of Mighty Joe Young.
King Kong was the top moneymaker for 1976, and ended up one of the top for the decade [according to Corel All-Movie Guide: The Ultimate Guide to the Movies]. During its first six weeks it took in $80-million. It remained in theatres for more than 15 weeks, with a final Worldwide Box Office tally of US $132.6 mil. ($52.6 mil in the US and Canada. According to Time Magazine, in 1976, anything over $50 mil Domestic was considered a "Big Bopper" -- ie. a success.) Jessica Lange, who played Dwan, became an instant star.
By any standards King Kong was a huge success story, a fantastic hit with audiences, literally on a par with Star Wars which came out only months later. But alas, the critics were less kind and, in the end, it was the critics who wrote (or rewrote) history. (Note to critics: It Grossed $132.6 mil Worldwide on a $24 mil investment. It was a financial success. Accept it.)
You have to search long and hard to find a single kind word about the '76 King Kong in any modern book on film. Even Rick Baker, in a book about special effects, who might be expected to be proud of his groundbreaking work, could only bitterly lambaste the movie, because he had wanted his King Kong to knuckle-walk!
It seems to me, there is something unbearably tragic about a movie which did everything right, which succeeded so completely, which literally shaped the future of movie making and movie marketing -- and yet, still ended up labelled as a failure.
(And the situation is made worse by the fact that the version now shown on network TV has been so shortened that it isn't even worth watching. Most of the stuff with Dwan and Kong in the jungle was cut out -- which means most of the special effects! Avoid it like the plague. Rent the video or DVD. I mean it!)
Anyway, welcome to Kingdom Kong, an affectionate tribute to the first of the modern big-budget blockbusters and a hit motion picture that stomped off the screen and won over audiences everywhere. Billed as "The most exciting original motion picture event of all time", it certainly wasn't really original (being a remake), but, to a little kid, which I was at the time, it delivered everything that tag-line promised. When Kong first let loose his mighty roar outside the giant wall on Skull Island, I was terrified. When he tore open the giant snake to save Dwan, I just about tossed my cookies. And when his heart slowly stopped beating at the base of the north tower of the World Trade Center, I admit I cried just a little.
A final point I'd like you to keep in mind. I've seen King Kong '76 many times over the years, and I still love it. But one thing I can never recapture: When I saw it as a kid in 1976, the ads claimed Kong was played by a 40-foot robot gorilla. Only much later did I find out the promised robot only appeared in a few seconds of screen-time. So, imagine that, if you will. Me, wide-eyed, watching that movie, watching Kong stomp through the jungles of Skull Island, through the streets of New York, climb the World Trade Center, fight off the helicopters, all while carrying tiny Jessica Lange in his massive paw...and I truly believed it was a 40-foot robot gorilla. 40 feet!
Now that, my friend, was a motion picture experience!