King Kong the success was born in 1933. King Kong the smash happened in 1952. Sleeper Of The Year was among terms used by The Motion Picture Herald. Reissues were nothing new in the fifties. They’d been around since movies began. Major distributors stepped them up after the war and some clicked beyond expectation. The Wizard Of Oz finally got into the black based on earnings received from its 1949 encore, and Universal strengthened bottom lines with profits derived from a lease arrangement with Realart Pictures. RKO relied heavily upon reissues from that studio’s inception. Cimarron took $86,000 in domestic rentals when it returned in 1934. The Lost Squadron, The Lost Patrol, Of Human Bondage, and Star Of Midnight were all brought back during the thirties, as was hands-down RKO library champ, King Kong. Kong was the surest revival thing outside of Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs; a property distributed, but not owned, by the company. So many theatres were dedicated action houses, catering to patron appetite for westerns, thrillers, and adventures. They wanted shows to move and shunned ones that dawdled. There was generally but one trip to the well for Irene Dunne mellers, but a Gunga Din could play forever (and seemingly did!). For RKO, King Kong defined evergreen. Exaggeration of its financial success became the stuff of many a press release. They said early on that King Kong saved RKO from bankruptcy, but didn’t Little Women cost less and make more? Studio ledgers reveal it did. Domestic rentals of 1.3 million (and $663,000 foreign) against a negative cost of $424,000 resulted in profits of $800,000 for Little Women, while King Kong, having cost a greater amount to produce ($672,000), took $745,000 domestic (plus 1.1 million foreign) to finish $650,000 to the good. Top Hat of the following year would surpass both with a stunning 1.3 million in profit, the largest gain RKO would have on any release during the thirties (with the exception of Disney owned Snow White). King Kong as studio savior became part of the character’s mythology, and sure enough he helped keep wolves at bay for years beyond initial release in 1933.
Application for a Code Seal in 1938 necessitated infamous cuts whose retrieval some forty years later enhanced Janus’ commercial prospects when they took over Kong’s distribution. Audiences during the interim made do with a truncated version further compromised by lab darkened prints designed to minimize gory visuals. The 1938 reissue being but five years after initial circulation found many viewers recalling footage denied them now. There was $155,000 in domestic rentals that year, with $151,000 foreign. The final profit was $200,000, excellent for a reissue and approaching Little Women status, itself brought back in 1938 to lesser returns of $60,000 domestic and $10,000 foreign. As of 1938, King Kong’s cumulative profits would now equal those of Little Women. Another Kong reissue in 1942 brought it neck and neck with Top Hat. On that occasion, King Kong took $170,000 in domestic rentals and another $515,000 foreign (note the disparity … Kong found its biggest audience by far in foreign territories). This time, there was $460,000 in profits. With each reissue there were new prints; those from 1933 having been retired because of Code-banned footage. Fresh campaign material was also prepared. King Kong’s near leading status would be overtaken in 1943 by Mr. Lucky, a Cary Grant vehicle that earned a remarkable 1.6 million in profits (spurred by wartime attendance booms), the all-time highest for an in-house RKO picture on first-run release. It would be nine more years before King Kong would claim pride of place as greatest of all profit getters for its owner. Indeed, the Great Ape would leave his deepest imprint with the 1952 reissue. That would be the year in which Kong truly became the eighth wonder of the (exhibition) world.
The 1952 King Kong was a reissue whose time had come. Recent success of science fiction films had ripened the market for fantastic fare. RKO must have anticipated better than average grosses, as early trade ads reflect unusual confidence. In fact, this was the biggest push they’d made for vault product since the 1949 combo of She with The Last Days Of Pompeii. Both did brisk encore business (in fact, She surpassed its original take). In the wake of a good reception for these and 1951’s The Thing, RKO had reason to believe King Kong would click. A midlands saturation launch found Kong in 400 theatres generally in tandem bookings with Val Lewton's The Leopard Man. Openings were timed with schools out attendance. RKO rolled promotional dice and spent major dollars in the boldest appeal yet made to viewers at home. RKO sent out four open-body trailer trucks to cities in five exchange areas where King Kong was being saturated, these carrying replicas of the giant ape. The vehicles were twenty-four feet long and eight feet wide. Sides and tail pieces were made up to depict a row of city skyscapers, with the Empire State Building overlooking the center. The Kong figure towered ten feet above the trucks and had movable arms and head, while clutching a replica of Fay Wray in his hairy paw. A portable light plant on each truck powered floods to illuminate the display at night. Television spots, used but sparingly by studios over the past two years, were more or less untried as a major selling device. There were, after all, only 109 stations on the air in 1952, and it was no good trying to sell color Hollywood spectaculars on snowy and dimly lit home screens. Many star contracts contained clauses forbidding them to promote films on television. Obstacles were everywhere, yet benefits of TV advertising could not be ignored. The essential debate revolved around who would pay for it. Distributors felt exhibitors should at the least split the cost. The former was spending to customize trailers for bite size video use. They varied from twenty to sixty seconds. Film companies dropped between two and five thousand dollars on preparation of same. Rates for airplay in bigger markets were beyond the reach of most exhibitors, even if distributors supplied the spots for free. At New York’s WNBT, a twenty-second spot commanded $775 in "A" time and $500 during so-called "B" periods when less viewers were watching. There were volume discounts, but to be really effective, a saturation campaign had to run at least twenty to fifty spots a week in support of a feature’s local engagement. It required ten days to two weeks to hammer messages into home audiences for your upcoming theatre show, and such a blitz cost thousands even in smaller territories. RKO had previously spent in excess of $10,000 for the opening of Sudden Fear in Boston and twenty-five surrounding towns. Exhibitors agreed that television was being horribly neglected as a promotional devise, but no one had the answer as to equitable sharing of costs. The situation is not unlike what we’re seeing today with installation of digital projection in theatres. Who gets the tab? Besides, there was still deep suspicion of television as dangerous and harmful competition. The thought of enriching video coffers was unimaginable to showmen who’d assigned enemy status to the upstart medium. TV saturation was thus still regarded as experimental when RKO stepped up with King Kong. They’d seen benefits of tube selling with Sudden Fear and Disney’s Snow White reissue earlier that year. Now they were prepared to shoot the works and invest $200,000 into spot buying. They found out quickly just how much impact these promos would have.
In a lot of places where television didn’t reach, our grosses on "King Kong" were off, said RKO’s exploitation head Terry Turner. In these situations, radio saturation held up the gross. But where we had neither radio nor television, such as places in Idaho, the picture had to be pulled. There were problems in those cities in which newspapers also owned the broadcast stations. Buffalo and Milwaukee TV would not accept King Kong trailers at all. Publishers preferred that RKO spend greater money selling their movie with print ads, thus the freeze-out. Boxoffice was down in these locations as a result. It was becoming clear that television was Kong’s handmaiden in achieving what The Motion Picture Herald referred to as a phenomenal gross that summer. Our use of television has increased the gross at the boxoffice anywhere from twenty-five to two hundred percent, said RKO, adding that where "King Kong" was supported by TV trailers, the opening day was forty percent above normal. Some theatres were getting, in one day, audiences representing a week’s average. By August, trade and even mainstream press was commenting on the King Kong breakout. It was recently reissued, said Harrison’s Reports, mainly for laughs, as we understand it --- and lo and behold, it is again pulling ‘em into the movie houses by the thousands and tens of thousands. Harrison’s viewed Kong as the ticket to greater dollars for revivals in general. This is only one case out of many in which an old picture has been dusted off for another run and has proceeded to act like a fresh new smash hit. With domestic rentals of $1.608 million generated, the 1952 King Kong did indeed trump first-run RKO releases of the same year. Compare that number with domestic rentals received by the following in concurrent play --- Macao ($1.1 million), Tarzan’s Savage Fury ($750,000), Rancho Notorious ($900,000), At Sword’s Point ($950,000), and On Dangerous Ground ($500,000). Kong was walloping just released product everywhere. July 14’s TIME magazine was moved to call it Picture Of The Year, even as editors snickered at ancient biplanes on view and repeated the old canard of Kong having saved RKO from 30’s bankruptcy. Exhibitors nationwide joined the hosannas. A fine old picture, worth playing on your best time. Did very well at B.O. Good print and new sound, and priced right, said Charles R. Reynolds of the Marco Theatre in Waterford, California. Prints were indeed fresh, as it was necessary for RKO to use the new safety stock for 1952 engagements, but were they actually good? Surviving 35mm from the reissue reflect all sorts of problems connected with long-ago loss of original elements and dictates imposed by the Code, still very much in effect as of 1952. In addition to those cuts made in 1938, reels were now being printed out of frame and the picture remained too dark. The new generation discovering King Kong had no access to the picture as it looked in 1933, and so accepted and embraced this degraded Kong as cultural talisman for the Baby Boom, a status maintained and enhanced by RKO’s sale of the feature to television in 1955 (with runs to begin in 1956). As for TV spots used for the 1952 reissue, none appear to have survived. I’ve not run across any over years of collecting 16mm, and that would have been the format sent to stations. Has anyone ever seen these? There should be any number of variations among 20-30-60 second lengths offered at the time. Could they be forever lost?
King Kong was sold to television along with 741 other RKO features in 1955. The first airings would take place in March of 1956. WOR in New York had a sensation that month when they played King Kong for five straight days. Kids were watching every broadcast. This has been the biggest thing since Davy Crockett, said one station executive. In an effort to squeeze final theatrical coin out of Kong prior to the studio’s own demise, RKO reissued the venerable favorite one last time on June 13, 1956, comboed with Val Lewton’s I Walked With A Zombie. Exhibitors this time were hostile, knowing Kong was all over television and disinclined to play it for an admission now. With the closure of RKO exchanges, prints of King Kong moved over to independent franchisees, where it rented at minimal flat rates into the sixties. The character again lured youngsters when King Kong met Godzilla in 1963 combat. Guys in monkey skin substituted for stop-motion photography engineered by the great Willis O’Brien. Despite the risible quality of Universal’s Japanese import, King Kong vs. Godzilla managed a stellar $1.219 million in domestic rentals, this largely due to saturation booking and television campaigns much like those that propelled the 1952 King Kong to boxoffice heights. Another Nippon go at the topic was King Kong Escapes in 1968. This time Universal collected $1.112 million in domestic rentals. Again it was stuntmen flailing about in ape attire. Kong remained king because effects progressed little since 1933 when money was spent to make the original convincing even unto jaded sixties audiences. Perhaps realizing this, Janus Films leased theatrical rights in King Kong and other RKO favorites in a March 1966 deal that looked toward yet another theatrical revival. Bookings would be spotty until providence supplied footage discovered by a private collector in 1967. Seems a former projectionist had squirreled material cut from previous reissues, scenes out of circulation since first-runs in 1933. Janus acquired a 16mm reduction reel and blew it up to 35mm for another push to theatres in 1970. The hook lured curiosity seekers and press interest took King Kong well beyond art house ghettos where oldies generally unspooled. Despite black-and-white, these effects still dazzled and remained as inspiration for new Sinbad features Ray Harryhausen designed with similar stop-motion techniques. As if to demonstrate how little we’d progressed, Paramount unleashed its own King Kong remake in 1976, and wouldn’t you know it? Another man (this time Rick Baker) in ape skin. Restoration applied to the original bore fruit. A British Film Institute print was complete and seamless in the bargain, so no more jolts when the outtakes showed up. This was basis for a DVD that finally delivered goods for fans who’d spent lifetimes waiting. A CGI redo of King Kong in 2006 looked like cartoon monsters running alongside panicked actors. It wasn’t always easy telling one from the other. Everything the original did, this one overdid. Merian C. Cooper once said he cut the legendary spider pit sequence because it slowed the pace. Where, oh where, was his guiding spirit when this three-hour colossus lumbered into editing rooms? 104 minutes is plenty to tell the story of a big gorilla. How do you justify a near doubling of that? Still, it’s a devoted fan’s sincerest tribute, and for all that, deserves sympathy if not respect.
Many Thanks to Dr. Karl Thiede for valuable assist and advise with this post.
More about the Janus-RKO 1966 lease at this previous post on Citizen Kane, and much more on 16mm King Kong collecting here.
PHOTO CAPTIONS (From Top):
Lines Await King Kong in 1933.
Fay Wray and Robert Armstrong.
A June 1952 trade ad announcing saturation bookings for King Kong.
Fay Wray menaces producer Merian C. Cooper with Kong's pawprint.
RKO includes Kong among its first-run Summer lineup.
"King Of The Year's Boxoffice!" says this June 28 trade ad.
Local bally with native stand-ins. Note the background marquee.
Silkscreen banner for the 1952 reissue.
A duotone 1952 lobby card. The 1956 reissue would go back to full color sets!
Merian C. Cooper, Willis O'Brien, Fay Wray, and Ernest B. Schoedsack relax.
"King Kong Is Here Again!" says the pressbook cover.
Crowds assemble at the Palace Theatre on Times Square for King Kong.
1956 ad art for the King Kong/I Walked With A Zombie combo.
The 1933 camera crew on Skull Island.
A colorful insert for the 1956 reissue.
Another Summer (1963) and another Kong, this time battling Godzilla.
The ugliest, most unworthy poster ever devised? I'd tap Janus' Kong one-sheet.