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                        Celebrating the Art of Cinema, ... and Cinema as Art


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Founded in 2002 by USA TODAY front page editor Dave Colton, the "Rondos" annually celebrates the best in genre film, TV, journalism, graphic arts and more.  Enjoy this multi-media KONG treasure trove - which includes film clips from the 1933, 1976 and 2005 films; music score suites by Max Steiner, John Barry and James Newton Howard; audio commentary by Ray Harryhausen, Ken Ralston and director Cooper; archival film interviews with Roger Ebert, Forrest J. Ackerman, Leonard Maltin and George Turner; photos from Steve's personal collection and more.
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Views On Film:


(Film Commentary on Classic Cinema

and Contemporary Blockbusters)




     A former on-air TV reviewer of film as well as magazine publisher, Steve Vertlieb's learned, literate and much published dissertations on cinema over the last near half-century have made him a much sought after consultant on numerous projects, including an appearance in the 2006 award winning documentary KREATING KARLOFF, and as consultant on TCM's 75th Anniversary Restoration of Merian C. Cooper's original KING KONG.   Widely considered one of the nation's foremost experts on the legendary "Great Ape", his numerous articles on the subject (including that in the still definitive volume THE GIRL IN THE HAIRY PAW) is referenced to this day by film makers, teachers and cinema students alike.

     Divided into three departments - "Reviews", "33 1/3rd: The Art & Craft of the Film Score",  and "Vertlieb Considers" (editorial commentary on classic and contemporary cinema), It is the honor of the GullCottage / Sandlot to include Steve Vertlieb's 24 FRAMES as an integral addition to our online film magazine and ever growing cinema reference and research library.

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KING KONG's Trinity Of Reincarnation On Film

Steve Vertlieb

      Few creations in the long history of cinema have had the lasting cultural significance and profoundly enduring influence of the original 1933 production of KING KONG  Released during the heart of the great depression in the financial Winter of 1933, the heroic fantasy adventure generated unprecedented box office receipts and long lines at the box office at a time when Americans simply lacked the resources to eat regularly, let alone frequent the nation’s increasingly empty movie theaters.  KING KONG was so powerful in its originality, and in its persuasive power to lure a poverty stricken populace out of their homes and into darkened movie theaters, that it quickly became a social phenomenon, inspiring imitations, sequels, and prequels for decades to come.  Of them all, three features, running the gamut from "magical" to "misguided", have emerged as the "tentpole" depictions of the King.


     Merian C. Cooper’s celebrated gorilla was born in the mind of his creator perhaps as early as 1927 when his friend, W. Douglas Burden, a Director of The Museum of Natural History in New York City, published his book The Dragon Lizards of Komodo.  Burden’s historical volume on the nine foot carnivorous lizards occupying Komodo Island in the East Indies set the film director’s fertile imagination ablaze with thoughts of giant, prehistoric creatures marauding through a lost island, set apart from the rest of the world, and unchanged since the beginning of time.  Cooper and his partners, Ernest B. Schoedsack and Marguerite Harrison, had been filming acclaimed documentary features concerning primitive cultures and civilizations for “silent” cinema.  GRASS - released in 1925, and CHANG - released two years later in 1927, recounted their encounters with prehistoric tribal customs passed from generation to generation, untouched by societal evolution.

   Cooper & Schoedsack in GRASS: A NATION'S BATTLE FOR LIFE (1925)

     Purchasing two cameras and fifty thousand feet of film, the adventurous trio ventured courageously to the Persian Gulf where they filmed the annual migration of the Bakhtiari people.  Upon completion of the “shoot,” Cooper, Schoedsack, and Harrison returned to Paris where they processed the footage by themselves.  Jesse L. Lasky purchased the finished print for his Paramount Studios, and the film, now titled GRASS, enjoyed a successful run both in The United States and abroad. 

     Excited by their success, Lasky dispatched the team to Siam to film a scripted action / adventure yarn in the deep jungles of the region.  Released in 1927 by Paramount, CHANG again drew huge audiences and probably inspired later features and serials featuring the jungle exploits of both Frank Buck and Clyde Beatty, as well as MGM’s decision to green light TRADER HORN and its enduring series of TARZAN films.


     Not content to rest on their collective laurels, Cooper and Schoedsack once again journeyed to the “Dark Continent” in order to film “location” footage for their big budget film version of THE FOUR FEATHERS.  Billed by Paramount as “The last of the big silent films,” the adventure classic tale of cowardice under fire, released in 1929, featured Richard Arlen and Fay Wray as war time lovers torn apart by false accusation and bravado.   Cooper’s growing experience as a film producer would inevitably lead him to more fertile fields of live action production and story telling, and so he embarked upon a most dangerous game of chance.  Working from a premise involving the turning of tables in which the hunter might now become the hunted, the cinematic adventurers decided to produce a film based upon Richard Connell’s classic tale of role reversal. 


     Published as a short story in 1924 as THE HOUNDS OF ZAROFF, THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME was a natural progression for the maturing wild life film makers.  Man would become the prey, while a crazed big game hunter, bored by matching wits with four legged predators, might now trap and destroy “the most dangerous game of all,” his own species.  Directed by  Irving Pichel along with Ernest B. Schoedsack, and released by Radio Pictures in 1932, THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME Starred Joel McCrea as a celebrated big game hunter deliberately ship wrecked at sea in order to lure him to a private island owned by the mad Count Zaroff. 

     Leslie Banks as the demented recluse welcomes  “guests” to his deserted island in order to hunt them down by dawn, and add their heads to the walls of his hidden trophy room.  Fay Wray once again was the object of mutual desire, while Robert Armstrong as her often inebriated brother, provided Banks with his less than satisfactory prey.  With a thrilling score by Max Steiner, as well as a cast and crew that would soon become family, THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME was setting the sound stage for its sister production, being filmed simultaneously on those most dangerous sets.


KING KONG (1933) - re-release trailer 

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 "Main Title" / "Jungle Dance" (M. Steiner) - KING KONG: 1933 Score


     KING KONG related the remarkable tale of a giant beast, an impossible ape-ike creature whose imposing, horrifying shadow would follow the intrepid explorers whose heroic exploits had led them to its discovery.  Released by RKO Studios during the winter of 1933, the picture reunited Fay Wray and Robert Armstrong with Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack for yet another thrilling adventure in the lurid jungles of a primordial world.  They were joined by Bruce Cabot in, perhaps, the pivotal performance of his career. 

Filmed and released during the height of America’s great depression, the film followed a crew of ship wrecked survivors as they valiantly struggle to escape overpowering odds, caught in the cross hairs of economic upheaval.  Adrift at sea amidst the mocking skyscrapers of a bankrupt metropolis, a documentary film producer (patterned after Cooper himself) flees the merciless boredom of repetition in search of new worlds. 

A conqueror at heart, Carl Denham yearns for new challenges, new discovery, and new opportunities to break through the molding memories of his own worn career.  He is given a map of a strange, prehistoric island in which creatures from the dawn of time still exists, exalting a towering monstrosity who reigns supremely in a lost corner of a shrinking planet.  Their aged freighter, battered cruelly by marauding seas, deposits them on Skull Island, a terrifying precipice on the wretched edge of treacherous waters.


     There, amidst ravenous swamps and savage tribes, live the remnants of man devouring dinosaurs and a fierce monolithic gorilla whom the natives call…”Kong.”  He was a king and a god in the world he knew, a triumphant titan rampaging majestically through savage jungles, a towering prince among lost horizons.  Fearless and unchallenged, either by Gods or by men, Kong is ultimately defeated by the technological slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.  Wielded by Lilliputian invaders, gas bombs transposed from another reality ultimately devour this courageous denizen from the beginning of time, bringing him to his knees in choking slumber.

     Mighty Kong is transported by tramp steamer to the unforgiving jungles of New York where he is displayed, a fallen angel cursed by the stars, exhibited in chains against a burning cross.  He is a noble figure, a Christ like martyr suffering for the sins of humanity.  The purity of his primordial existence has been betrayed. 

     He is a tortured innocent, imprisoned in a world beyond his conception or forgiveness.  His final redemption, breaking free from the shallow bonds of captivity, leads him irretrievably to his fate amongst the stars from which he came.  In raging fury, Kong lords over the steel canyons of “civilization,” perched valiiantly atop the highest mountainous peak in the city.  The tower of the Empire State Building, its cratered caverns shuddering beneath the roars of her unwelcome captor, becomes the last tragic refuge of this embattled slave.  Slaughtered by unforgiving machine gun pellets, Kong topples to his death miles below upon the ferociously mean streets of the cruel, naked city.


Merian C. Cooper’s classic fantasy adventure remains, perhaps, the most celebrated retelling of “Beauty and the Beast.”  It’s martyred protagonist, an anti hero for the ages, profoundly influenced generations of film makers and fans, charting the career choices of Ray Harryhausen, Ray Bradbury, Peter Jackson, George Lucas, and Steven Spielberg among so many others.  Kong’s strangely passionate love for Ann Darrow, the symbolically virginal heroine played by Fay Wray, creates an open wound of masculine loneliness that leads unrelentingly to his slavery and demise.  Its rich violent symphonic themes, created by Max Steiner, contributed to one of the first important film scores of the sound era, a landmark musical achievement that would set the standard for all subsequent Hollywood soundtracks.  KING KONG was, in its time, a marvel of visual, special effects technology. 

    KING KONG (1933) - "T-Rex Fight": Commentary by Ray Harryhausen, Ken Ralston & Merian C. Cooper  

     Willis H. O’Brien, who created the stop motion effects that so effectively brought Kong to life, virtually invented the craft, illustrating the original silent version of Arthur Conan’s Doyle’s THE LOST WORLD (1925).  He would pass the torch to Ray Harryhausen during the filming of Merian C. Cooper’s MIGHTY JOE YOUNG some sixteen years later.  And, as the story of KING KONG has endured a lasting cultural significance in the nearly 82 years since its original release; finding a home in the deepest recesses of our collective culture, dreams and nightmares, perhaps it should have come as no surprise when in 1976 that not one, but two motion picture studios competed for the chance to bring Kong back to the big screen. 




"Waterfall" / "Prisoner"
(J. Barry) - KING KONG: 1976 Score


     Universal was planning a large scale remake of the venerable tale with stop motion cinematography by animator Jim Danforth - who had worked with George Pal on THE SEVEN FACES OF DR. LAO, as well as creating many of the effects for ABC Television’s THE OUTER LIMITS series.  Their version, THE LEGEND OF KING KONG, would have utilized director Joseph Sargent (COLOSSUS: THE FORBIN PROJECT) at the helm of the production, along with a cast that included Peter Falk as Carl Denham.  Meanwhile, Paramount Pictures was plodding ahead with their own big screen remake of the cherished screen fable, under the auspices of producer Dino De Laurentis.  De Laurentis (DEATH WISH, SERPICO) mounted an enormous publicity campaign which, sadly, ruled the day.  Universal backed off of their more ambitious filming, and Paramount found itself the only player on a creatively diminished field.

     Unlike Universal, whose own scenario might have been truer to the integrity of the original production, Paramount decided upon a less costly proposal.  Whereas Universal, along with animator Jim Danforth, would have utilized Willis O”Brien’s cherished, though laborious, methodology of stop motion animation, Paramount’s production team decided to populate Skull Island with elaborate puppets and men in rubber suits.  De Laurentis both angered and alienated the fan community by belittling the achievements of Willis O'Brien, proclaiming sanctimoniously that the visual effects in the original picture might have been adequate for their time, but that technological advancements by 1976 had far surpassed the primitive stop motion effects of 1933.  Screenwriter Lorenzo Semple Jr later recalled:

   KING KONG: 1976 (l to r) Rene Auberjonois, Jessica Lange, Jeff Bridges, Charles Grodin and Ed Lauter

     “We made a very deliberate attempt not to be anything like the original movie in tone or mood. Dino wanted it to be light and amusing, rather than portentous. I don't think the original was meant to be mythic.... The original King Kong is extremely crude. I don't mean it's not wonderful. It was remarkable for its time, but it was a very small back-lot picture. We thought times had changed so much that audiences were more sophisticated. Dino felt we could have more fun with it. We hoped to do sensational things with advanced special effects on a big screen.” 

                                                                            Dir. John Guillermin and producer Dino De Laurentiis on set

      While Semple, Jr. has admittedly done some noteworthy work both prior to, and following the debacle of KING KONG (THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR, PAPILLON, and TV's THE RAT PATROL among them) the sheer arrogance of such a sweeping statement is either naïve beyond definition or criminally incompetent.  Cooper and O’Brien’s technological strides in pursuit of technical excellence were extraordinary for 1933 when KONG premiered before a “Depression” starved audience.

     They might easily have employed a man in a gorilla suit, rather than endure the painstaking process lf long months of stop motion animation.  Some 43 years later, this was the “technological advancement” spoken of by the producer and screenwriter?  In Bruce Bahrenburg’s 1976 book, The Creation Of Dino De Laurentiis' KING KONG,  De Laurentis is reputed to have told Barry Diller, then Paramount chief, that the germ of his idea had begun when he’d noticed a poster from the original Merian Cooper film hanging on the bedroom wall of his teenage daughter, Francesca, in their New York apartment.  From then on he’d dreamed of producing a big screen remake of the classic story.

KING KONG (1976) - "Morning"


     When Paramount’s version of KING KONG was finally released in December 1976, both the picture and its highly touted visual technology became the laughing stock of the industry, and an embarrassment to the studio.  De Laurentis and his technicians had constructed an enormous mechanical gorilla which barely moved or functioned.  It was used, ultimately, only for longshots in the completed film and, during its well publicized unveiling for the press, leaked motor oil all over itself. 

      Directed by John Guillerman (THE TOWERING INFERNO), and written by Lorenzo Semple, Jr. - who rose to prominence writing ABC Television’s campy BATMAN television series, the film featured a cast which included Jeff Bridges, Charles Grodin and, in her very first screen appearance, Jessica Lange.  Lange would, of course, overcome this less than stellar debut with numerous brilliant performances in the years that followed, … but everyone has to start somewhere.  The script for the film was decidedly “Semple” minded.  And Jack Kroll in his review for Newsweek noted that Kong’s roar sounded like “the flushing of a thousand industrial toilets".  Adding insult to injury to legions of life long fans, the sole creature besides Kong residing on the once lushly inhabited island was a wholly inadequately realized “serpent” whose guarded movements were pulled via marionette strings!


     Rick Baker performed valiantly inside the human scaled King Kong suit, but his performance was ultimately marred by the mediocrity of the production’s budget and script.  The one memorable aspect of an otherwise ludicrous attempt to surpass a fantasy masterpiece was John Barry’s eloquent, if somber, musical score which seemed written for something other than that in which it appeared.  In the end, to paraphrase Merian Cooper’s poetic finality, “Twas Dino Killed The Beast”.


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