On March 2, 1933, a beast proudly dubbed “The Eighth Wonder of the World” made his grand debut at Manhattan’s Radio City Music Hall and its sister theater across the street. Though ticket prices ranged from 35 to 75 cents, King Kong went on to gross a then-whopping $89,931 over the next four days in New York City alone. Not bad for a movie released at the rock-bottom of the Great Depression.
Since then, the simian celebrity has starred in several other movies, battled Godzilla, and even worked as a “spokes-primate” for Volkswagen.
But it’s the original picture that’s left the biggest influence on the motion picture industry, a movie that opened the door for every special-effects film from The Wizard of Oz to The Lord of the Rings. In honor of the 80th anniversary of its release, here’s a look back at the movie’s historic production, groundbreaking effects, and far-reaching legacy.
1. Fay Wray's tall, dark, and handsome co-star wasn't who she expected.
When producer/director Merian C. Cooper boasted to lead actress Fay Wray that she “was going to have the tallest, darkest leading man in Hollywood,” Wray assumed he was talking about Cary Grant. After Wray’s death in 2004, the Empire State Building memorialized the actress by briefly dimming its lights in honor of her legendary climb with Kong.
2. Merican C. Cooper originally planned to include live Komodo dragons in the film to stand in for dinosaurs.
According to some reports, Cooper even considered recruiting a few of the lizards to fight an actual gorilla over a miniature set before eventually resorting to stop-motion animals (partially due to safety concerns). A pair of these magnificent reptiles had previously been brought to New York before quickly perishing, a tragic tale which inspired much of Kong’s emotional pathos.
3. King Kong was the first movie ever to be re-released.
Opting to capitalize on the film’s astounding success, RKO studios re-released it in 1938, 1942, and 1952. The scene of Kong’s partial disrobement of Ann Darrow (played by Fay Wray) was cut from the 1938 run, while the ’52 version came with added footage of the Empire State Building.
4. King Kong’s chief special effects artist, Willis O’Brien, had previously worked for Thomas Edison.
Having seen some of his earliest work, Edison commissioned O’Brien to produce a series of stop-motion films beginning in 1916. You can see highlights from one of their more lighthearted collaborations above.
5. King Kong was Among the first movies to Have a Completely Original Musical Score.
Hailed as “the father of film composing,” Austrian-born Max Steiner, who had previously worked on Broadway musicals, was permitted by Cooper to compose a full-length musical score (at the director’s personal expense). Prior to King Kong, cinematic musicians generally borrowed tracks from earlier recordings. Steiner’s soundtrack includes character motifs and accompaniment designed to precisely mirror on-screen movement. Listen to the main title theme below.
6. The scene of King Kong attacking a train was added to prevent the film from taking up 13 reels.
The superstitious Cooper, hearing this unlucky number, exclaimed, “No picture of mine is going out in thirteen reels! I’ll shoot an extra sequence and bring it up to 14 if I have to!” Ultimately, the final version was whittled down to 11 reels, but the added footage quickly became some of the picture’s most memorable.
7. King Kong’s size was deliberately scaled up for the New York scenes.
According to film historian Rich Correll, “When they started doing the New York scenes, Cooper said ‘Because New York is so big, the ape should be bigger.’” So while Kong was depicted as being 18 feet tall on Skull Island during the movie’s first half, his “height” was scaled up to 24 feet during its urban climax.
8. Kong’s distinctive roar was created by editing Lion and Tiger growls.
After recording an array of animal noises which he slowed to half-speed, sound effects artist Murray Spivak “played a tiger roar backwards against a lion roar forward,” which produced “a sort of uncanny” howl. Spivak himself provided the “love grunts” Kong used while trying to win over Ann.
9. O'Brien, A former boxer, gave Kong a few wrestling moves he’d previously learned during his classic fight with an irate Tyrannosaurus.
See if you can spot the influence in this clip:
10. Cooper and his partner Ernest B. Schoedsack cast themselves as the pilots who gunned down Kong in the film’s climax.
“We might as well kill the son of a bitch ourselves,” said Cooper, who had flown in World War I. Inspired by this, Peter Jackson (a huge King Kong fan) climbed into a plane to take down the eighth wonder of the world for the 2005 remake.
Look for Jackson at the 0:36 second mark (he’s sitting in the co-pilot’s chair):
This story has been updated for 2021.