Missing Links: The Jungle Origins of King Kong
What strange beings inhabit the unexplored jungle regions of the earth? Carl Denham in KING KONG was neither first nor alone in seeking answers to this alluring question. By the time Kong was tracked down and brought back alive in 1933, there had been a long tradition of sojourns into the depths in earlier "jungle quest" movies.
A rather formalized narrative pattern was adhered to, regardless of whether the film was fictional or documentary. A party of explorers from "civilization" travel into the dark, foreboding tropics on some kind of scientific mission, typically aimed at challenging an ascribed-to biological theory about the area under surveillance. After the explorers have stood steadfast through a series of minor adventures and perils initiating them into the mysteries of the jungle, they are rewarded mightily for their perseverance. Before them appears some tremendous aberration of nature which undercuts the "normal" conceptions of life on this earth.
At its simplest thematic level, the "jungle quest" demonstrated vividly that the mysteries of the world can never be satiated; a supposedly extinct dinosaur or an unclassifiable variety of ape can storm out of the jungle growth, turning scientific belief on its head. It is this kind of inexplicable occurrence as payoff which flavors every "jungle quest" movie, and endows this type of film (a genre?) with its inexhaustibe vitality and appeal.
The lure of the jungle was felt early in the history of filmmaking, as turn-of-the-century documentarians employed by the Lumiere Brothers drifted away from well-traveled cities. Their aim was to capture on film those places where westerners never had traveled. KING KONG's Carl Denham echoed these early cameramen-adventurers in explaining his search for Kong: "I'll tell you, there's something... that no white man has even seen. You bet I'll photograph it!"
Lumiere films were short-length "actualities." The world-wide favorable response to Robert Flaherty's NANOOK OF THE NORTH in 1922 made the full-length documentary a commercially viable product. NANOOK prompted a series of expeditions to jungles and elsewhere with plans for ambitious films. Several of these projects are relevant to KING KONG, not as direct influences but as demonstrations of KONG's kinship with the more unorthodox topics of pioneering documentarians.
BALI, THE UNKNOWN: OR APE ISLAND, made even before NANOOK in 1921, concerned itself with the possibilities of a prehistoric "ape man" civilization in Bali. Even closer to KING KONG was an untitled film much planned but never realized. In February 1925, a twenty-nine person American crew arrived in Singapore with ambitions to capture on film a legendary "ape man" periodically sighted in this area. Promised funding from California for the shooting never materialized. With unpaid hotel bills, the movie company was forced to give up and return home to Missoula, Montana. The "ape man" eluded filming.
Closer to KING KONG was MAN HUNT, a 1926 release of FBO Studio (forerunner of KONG's RKO), which followed the adventures of a real-life Carl Denham type named Ben Burbridge, who travels into Africa in search of gorillas to bring back alive in captivity. After thrilling encounters with various jungle inhabitants (elephants, pythons, crocodiles), Burbride accomplishes his task, catching six gorillas for his return to civilization.
The thread between KING KONG and "jungle quest" documentaries is explained a bit by the knowledge that Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, co-directors of the movie, broke into film as part of the post-NANOOK documentary rush. They were employed as cameramen and artistic advisors for Captain Edward Salisbury on his travelogue called THE LOST EMPIRE, adventures in the South Seas, Ceylon, and Arabia, and for GOW, THE HEADHUNTER, set in the Fiji Islands. Both were made circa 1924, though not placed in general release until five years later.
Far more significant as a career move was a decision by Cooper and Schoedsack to collaborate with famed newspaperwoman Marguerite Harrison on the film called GRASS, which followed a tribe of Iranian nomads on a forty-eight day trek through the mountains. The object of this rugged journey, made annually by the tribe, was summer grassland for their flock, a more sober, pragmatic aspiration than that featured in most "quest" pictures. GRASS was released by Paramount in 1924, and widely praised for the anthropological seriousness of the filmmakers.
Paramount financed a second faraway filmic journey for Cooper-Schoedsack, to make CHANG (1927) in the Siamese jungles. The somewhat parallel locales between CHANG and KING KONG was one shift by the two filmmakers, working without a third collaborator, toward future interests. More salient was their qualifying of the documentary with fictional elements. The cast and environment were authentic; the plot was pre-planned and fabricated.A third element to note: Cooper-Schoedsack used a member of the simian family as an essential ingredient in the narrative. Providing comic relief was a gibbon monkey, Bimbo.
CHANG surpassed expectations by Paramount for profits from an esoteric semi-documentary. Cooper and Schoedsack were rehired immediately for an expensive fiction film, an adapation of A.E.W. Mason's THE FOUR FEATHERS, a Kiplingesque novel of betrayal and redemption in the British Foreign Service. The co-directors journeyed to Africa for authentic location photography, then returned to Hollywood to shoot the romantic story with Hollywood stars.
Cooper later claimed that he thought first of the giant gorilla that would evolve as Kong while shooting the African sequences of THE FOUR FEATHERS. One scene of a jungle fire might have stuck in mind, in which flocks of adult baboons battled for safe spots high in the trees. In the Hollywood sections of THE FOUR FEATHERS was a second link to what would be KONG. Appearing on camera thousands of miles from the baboons was a very young actress, Fay Wray. Was this budding starlet already envisioned by the filmmakers as the future object of Kong's desire?
Schoedsack, minus Cooper, made another semi-documentary of the CHANG variety at Paramount, the all-silent RANGO (1931), shot in the jungles of Sumatra with a native cast. Again, simians figured prominently in the tale. Rango, the titular hero, is an ourang-outang who is slain by a tiger, leaving his father, Tua, to mourn him up in the trees. The poignant moments of grief prefigured the melancholic demise of Kong several years after.
All these years, there was a simpler, less hazardous way to make "jungle quest" movies than by traveling into the tropical wilds. That was the method of Georges Melies, who demonstrated early in cinema the almost limitless means of simulating reality without ever leaving his Paris studio. It was Melies' development of the essential ingredients of trick photography - rear projection, single frame shooting, elaborate miniature models - which would become the basic tools of future "jungle quest" fantasies. That King Kong, for one, moved at all, much less with animated grace and facial character, must be attributed ultimately to Melies' stop-action wizardry.
Melies's choice of Jules Verne-type narratives for his most popular narrative films (JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH, A TRIP TO THE MOON, etc.) prefigured analogous "jungle quest" movies, in which scientists went exploring and met with uncanny adventures. Finally, credit must go to Melies for his life-time insistence that the realm of the fantastic was appropriate subject matter for cinema.
Unlike Melies, the first "jungle movie" cycle of narrative films in the USA, in 1913, relied on naturalistic elements to establish versimilitude. BEASTS IN THE JUNGLE, the three-reel Solax picture which spurred the cycle, mixed in with its actors an imported menagerie of two lions, a tiger, a monkey, and a parrot. Alice Guy Blache, who ran Solax, publicized the picture extensively, anxious to recoup an investment of $18,000 in the production. BEASTS OF THE JUNGLE was "the first picture in which as many different animals have been used... "and" ...in which the performers appear in the scenes with the wild beasts." The publicity paid off, and other studios quickly made jungle films, a cycle capped at Famous Players by Adolph Zukor's extravaganza, CAPTAIN KEARTON'S WILD LIFE AND BIG GAME IN THE JUNGLES OF INDIA AND AFRICA.
In 1912, Edgar Rice Burroughs, who never had been to Africa, contributed to ALL-STORY magazine an elaborate and brilliant jungle adventure story entitled "Tarzan and the Apes," a literary work equivalent in imagination and in creative geography to Melies' films. Tarzan stories were sensationally popular; and, in 1918, the gargantuan D.W. Griffith muscleman, Elmo Lincoln, was called to the Louisiana location for the making of TARZAN OF THE APES. Soon, Lincoln's emerged as the first star of "jungle quest" fantasies. Contemporaneous was the unveiling of the form's artistic genius, special effects expert, Willis O'Brien.
In line with Melies, O'Brien constructed his own imaginary studio universe; his was a kind of magical Stone Age mixing of aboriginal men and prehistoric monsters. Designs for the Edison Company were prescient of his legendary conceptions for KING KONG. Experimenting with clay models and stop-action photography, he masterminded a series of five-minute cavemen shorts featuring mobile, animated prehistoric animals in deadly combat. The first of these, "The Dinosaur and the Missing Link" (1914) offered a sneak preview of the battle far ahead of the fierce tyrannosaurus and Kong.
Also before KING KONG, and essential to what KONG would be, was O'Brien's key silent-era designing assignment. He was hired for the Hollywood version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's novel, THE LOST WORLD (1925), which featured episodes in which the 20th century explorers in South America rubbed against lost-tribe ape men and dinosaurs. O'Brien's inspired vision of this land-that-time-forgot, untapped Amazon would be reiterated in his conception of KING KONG's Skull Island, set in untracked waters of the South Seas. Not only do the two filmic locales share topography and inhabitants - primitive men and dinosaurs living in proximity - but the existences of these mutant environments can be explained by the elaborate faux scientific theory postulated in THE LOST WORLD, the novel.
Conan Doyle argued the possibility of a freakish land in which Darwinian processes had been so jolted that evolution moved forward and yet was suspended at the same time. There, creatures of various genetic evolutions and from various periods of the earth's life coexisted, including the ostensibly extinct: dinosaurs, "ape men," long-disappeared Indian tribes. Survival of the species was the central issue of existence, occurring in many guises every tumultuous moment of the day. The Lost World was a land in upheaval, a shrill, screaming bloodbath answer to the prevailing romantic notion of a hidden, eternally tranquil sanctuary somewhere in nature. (Likewise, embattled Skull Island would prove the obverse of a Golden Age land.)
O'Brien's "dinosaur-eat-dinosaur" jungle environment for THE LOST WORLD took its visual cues from the lucid, detailed descriptions of Conan Doyle. The final London sequences, in which the explorer party return home, found O'Brien expanding far beyond the brief paragraphs which abruptly halted the book. Doyle had offered up a single, tiny-sized pterodactyl, which flew about London for a bit before heading homeward to South America. O'Brien added to the British finale his most phenomenal animated creation to this point, a 120-foot brontosaurus, which escaped into the streets, created havoc among the populace, caused London Bridge quite literally to fall down under its weight, then swam up the Thames to disappear into the sea.
As noted earlier, Merian Cooper claimed conception of the creature, King Kong, while making FOUR FEATHERS in 1927. But a better candidate for the inspiration comes through Willis O'Brien and THE LOST WORLD with its lost-in-time behemoth stumbling through the London streets, unleashing destruction with every step, so much like what Kong would do to New York. The brontosaurus even stuck its head through a third-story window, an action so novel as to be repeated in KING KONG, when the giant gorilla comes looking for Ann Darrow in the upper stories of a hotel. And the brontosaurus's collapse through London Bridge, the city's most iconic public site? O'Brien brought the scene back, transformed into Kong's Empire State Building tumble.
An even more literal link in THE LOST WORLD to KONG was the "ape man" of the movie, which chased the Londoners about the Amazonian jungle. Although played unconvincingly by an actor in painted makeup and furpiece attire, this character was at the center of an episode so close to what occurs in KING KONG that there can be no mistaking the THE LOST WORLD source. When KONG's Driscoll and Ann fled the mighty ape by climbing down a rope and dropping into the waters far below, they echoed Edward Malone's THE LOST WORLD escape by rope from the ape man down the side of a steep plateau. In both scenes, the excitement comes from the primate adversary taking hold of the rope and pulling it back, hand in hand, toward the top of the ravine. At the last moment, the dangling heroes in both films loosen their grasps and fall to safety, avoiding being mauled by the jungle beast at the top.
There is a far more obscure literary source than Conan Doyle which also affected the future shape of KING KONG, a 1927 pulpish gothic mystery, THE AVENGER, one of the 173 novels of British author, Edgar Wallace. He would go to Hollywood in 1931 and cooperate with Merian Cooper on the "idea" of KING KONG. Wallace also composed a completed early script version of KONG before dying suddenly in 1932, several months before the picture went into production. If not as essential a source as THE LOST WORLD, Wallace's THE AVENGER managed a modest influence on certain plot elelements of KING KONG and seems to have introduced sketchy versions of several of KONG's characters.
In Wallace's novel, a movie company travels on location to the gloomy English provinces (Skull Island). Jack Knebworth, movie producer (Carl Denham), reaches among the anonymous extras on his movie and brings forward a new star, beautiful Adele Leamington (Ann Darrow, Denham's soupline discovery). Adele is plagued on the set by a mysterious ourang-outang named Bhag (Kong), who chases her across the provincial terrain.
And what of movies made without any of the KONG party? STARK MAD (Warner Brothers, 1929) was a "jungle quest" fantasy which is lost today. That's unfortunate for film history, because descriptions suggest a genuine influence on KING KONG. One scene from the plot summary sounds particularily relevant: those on an expedition into the South American jungles enter a Mayan jungle to find a gigantic ape chained to the floor. OURANG (Universal, 1930) was a film seemingly never released. If it followed true to its advertising campaign, OURANG would have been ahead of KING KONG for its bestial sexual theme in its story of a woman carried off by ourang-outangs through the jungles of Borneo. A Universal ad in VARIETY showed an attractive female struggling in the arms of a large primate,three years prior to the subjugations of Ann Darrow.
About this time, Willis O'Brien teamed for the first time with Merian C. Cooper, working on a KONG prototype called CREATION, about a shipwreck on a mysterious island filled with dinosaurs. A bit of this film was shot, then abandoned; O'Brien wasn't happy yet with his story.
By 1930, the KING KONG project was forming from at least three directions: from Willis O'Brien's THE LOST WORLD experience, from Cooper-Schoedsack's in-the-field documentary work, from Edgar Wallace's THE AVENGER. And jungle movies were suddenly so much in vogue that VARIETY commented in January, 1930, "So many people are going into woolly Africa with cameras that the natives are not only losing their lens shyness but are rapidly nearing the stage where they will qualify for export to Hollywood."
The cycle culminated with a tremendous box office hit, TRADER HORN (MGM, 1931), shot in spectacular fashion, and with ninety-two tons of technical equipment, by W.S. Van Dyke on African location. The time was ripe for KING KONG, though what was needed was an interested studio. The infamous INGAGI incident of 1930 served as catalyst for RKO's commitment to such a project.
In April, 1930, representatives of "Congo Pictures, Ltd." walked along Market Street in San Francisco offering the theatres purchase rights to a picture, INGAGI, said to show footage of Sir Hubert Winstead of London's sensationalist travels into the Belgian Congo. Every theatre but one turned down the film as a fake. The Orpheum decided not only to exhibit INGAGI but to promote it vigorously. A tabloid newspaper filled with stills from INGAGI was distributed door to door in the area of the theatre. A jungle exhibition was set up in the lobby. The Orpheum brought in $4,000 worth of business the opening day, an unprecedented $23,000 for the first week. RKO Studio, owner of the Orpheum, picked up national rights, and soon INGAGI was playing everywhere. It doubled house records in Seattle, was termed "the talk of the town" in Chicago, and soon was among the highest grossing films in the USA.
"Photography is poor," said VARIETY. "Accompanying lectures, synchronized on the film, are supposed to have been done by Winstead, but the speaker uses a plain American accent." None of this mattered to the public, nor the fact that three-fourths of the picture was taken up by tired stock shots of elephant herds, hippopatami, and sundry animals scurrying about the jungle. Real attention was directed to INGAGI's last ten minutes, which showed an African tribe of completely naked "ape women" (though obstructed from full view by strategic thickets) sacrificing one of their woman to a gorilla. INGAGI publicity centered on this final scene, shamelessly foregrounding the erotic aspects of the sacrifice, the perverse implied union of woman and jungle animal.
Audiences kept coming, prompting several Better Business Bureaus to appeal to the watchdog Hays Office to investigate the suspicious-looking documentary footage. In May, 1930, the Hays organization, announced its findings: "Congo Pictures, Ltd." never once stepped out of the West Coast in shooting the movie. Three thousand feet of the movie were duped from an ancient documentary of the Lady McKenzie expedition called THE HEART OF AFRICA. The sacrificial ending was filmed with caucasian actresses in blackface at California's Selig Zoo. Following a conference at the Hays Office, RKO pulled INGAGI from all its houses, ending its brief but lucrative run.
INGAGI had done so well that promoters everywhere had scurried about for silent-era jungle documentaries to be dubbed with sound and rereleased. But INGAGI's withdrawal motivated filmmaking to go in other genre directions, to the 1930-31 gangster cycle, for example. Only RKO kept in mind the potential profits in combining gorillas, eroticized women, and the extra ingredient of ritualized sacrfice. In 1931, Willis O'Brien, Ernest Schoedsack, Merian Cooper, and Edgar Wallace were all busily employed at RKO. THE FOUR FEATHERS' actress Fay Wray would join them in 1932, and also credited screenwriter, Ruth Rose. KING KONG, at long last, was just around the corner.
(Slightly revised from its original printing in THE GIRL IN THE HAIRY PAW [New York, 1976], ed. by Ronald Gottesman and Harry Geduld)