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Where did that giant ape come from?

By Preetee Brahmbhatt
December 15, 2005 17:07 IST
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A still from King KongIt's been a little over 72 years since he first popped up on a big screen.

On March 24, 1933, the giant ape called King Kong made his first appearance at the Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Hollywood.

It was during the great American depression -- possibly the worst time for a film to be released -- and tickets cost around 15 cents each. Yet, by its first weekend, it had earned its makers a staggering $90,000. It went on to gross $2 million, scaring audiences and inspiring filmmakers ever since.

The original King Kong was born when an adventurer and explorer called Merian Cooper teamed up with another voyager called Ernest B Schoedsack and a pioneer in the art of stop-motion effects called Willis O'Brien. From these three minds came a beast that would haunt movie screens forever.

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Cooper was a bombardier in World War I, while Schoedsack was a cameraman. Together, they created a couple of documentaries about exploration and adventure. When Paramount Pictures suggested they do a film with a love interest, Cooper rekindled an old idea he had carried about a giant ape, thought about bringing in a woman, and gave Willis O'Brien a call.

Using an 18-inch tall model weighing a paltry 10 pounds and made of metal, with ball and socket joints, O'Brien packed in cotton, covered it in latex and added some fur. With this little figure, he shot a test reel involving a fight with a Tyrannosaurus Rex.

The producers liked what they saw, allocated an astronomical budget of $500,000 (that eventually jumped to $670,000), and the project took off. The adventure novelist Edgar Wallace completed the story a little before he died of pneumonia.

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A still from King KongWould it work? No one was sure.

After all, the plot was rather simplistic. It involved a filmmaker and actress setting sail for the unknown Skull Island, where they run into the giant ape who decides he likes the woman. Kong is captured and brought to New York. He escapes, climbs up the Empire State Building and is promptly shot down.

The filmmakers must have tapped into something archetypal though. By the time O'Brien and Cooper died, in 1962 and 1973 respectively, their monkey business had set new benchmarks.

They tried repeating the formula, of course -- because where there's a Hollywood success, there's a Hollywood sequel -- and came up with Son Of Kong a year later, featuring a friendlier ape. They also reunited 16 years later to create Mighty Joe Young, which was remade in 1998. The years in between saw Kong make a number of appearances, from the interesting to the bizarre.

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There was King Kong vs Godzilla in 1962, where the two giants were brought to Tokyo. Another Japanese film called King Kong Escapes was made six years later. There was an animated King Kong in 1966, a remake starring Jeff Bridges and Jessica Lange that flopped in 1976, and a really bad King Kong Lives a decade later, with Linda Hamilton playing the female lead.

So, Peter Jackson's attempt is the latest in a long, long line of films devoted to that fierce giant. According to reports, he was paid $20 million just to direct it -- the highest ever paid to a director in advance – and has opted to say close to the original rather than bring in strange twists and turns. Going by most reviews, he appears to have pulled it off.

The ape has begun to roar again.

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Preetee Brahmbhatt