Classic movie site with rare images (no web grabs!), original ads, and behind-the-scenes photos, with informative and insightful commentary. We like to have fun with movies!
Archive and Links
grbrpix@aol.com
Search Index Here




Wednesday, January 23, 2008











The Mighty Monarch Of Melodramas!









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.

15 Comments:

Anonymous Jim Lane said...

My uncle Conrad took me to see Kong on that '56 reissue, and I'll always be grateful that my first glimpse of the great ape was in a 900-seat theater rather than on TV, where (I always felt) he tended to be reduced to the dimensions of Bonzo or Zippy the Chimp. Later that year I caught it on TV -- the first broadcast on the West Coast, if memory serves -- and I remember that the opening scenes were cut; they opened with the first scene between Fay Wray and Bruce Cabot as the Venture is leaving New York harbor.

The last time I saw it before the outtakes were restored was at a campus screening in '68, where the college audience packed the place and crowded the aisles; they had come to jeer (you know how they could be) and were unanimously spellbound. I can still see a shaggy-bearded hippie standing stunned in the lobby after: "I thought it would be old-fashioned and kinda funny but...wow! I mean wow, man. Just wow!" (And by the way, John, you're right about that awful Janus one-sheet.)

On a side note, I was interested to read that The Wizard of Oz went into the black on its '49 reissue. I'd always heard that it didn't turn a profit until it was licensed for that first CBS broadcast in 1956. Is that just another canard, like the one about King Kong saving RKO from bankruptcy in 1933?

8:12 PM  
Blogger Vanwall said...

I can't remember a time when King Kong wasn't being shown on TV every few weeks or so - in any number of slightly cut versions. After a while, I kind of resented the time it took away from other films being shown instead, but I eventually came around to seeing it as a constant to judge other works by, and I was amazed a little by how well it stood up as a film even in the early 70's compared to newer stuff. It was shown on TV a lot less after the late '60's, but by then I had seen it so often, I could watch it in my head.

11:04 PM  
Anonymous John said...

I recall seeing "King Kong" on a triple bill around 1960-61 with "Mighty Joe Young" and "Godzilla". What an afternoon that was!

Another great movie memory was the Saturday afternoon showing of "King Kong vs. Godzilla" at the local Auditorium Theatre. "KKvG" was paired with a black and white British crime drama that I think was titled "The Looters". The British film was shown first that afternoon and the assembled throng was out of control...screaming that this film was boring and we wanted our Toho mayhem. Twice the manager stopped the film and told us to cool down and the second time threatened to kick us all out.
Somehow, we made it through the film and the crowd was rabid during "King Kong vs. Godzilla". It was the most out-of-control situation I can recall at a Saturday matinee. I wish I could relive that experience again

6:57 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I enjoyed the "remake" of the Spider Pit Sequence on the King Kong DVD. I wonder if the original footage still exists somewhere....

12:45 PM  
Anonymous Chris said...

I find the Janus poster ribald and amusing, not "awful."

Kong looks a tad stoned.

12:53 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

I LOVE the Janus poster! It's such a perfect slice of the college market circa 1971, captures the time and the attitude exactly. Makes me want to sit back with a box of Screaming Yellow Zonkers and my statue of Bogie and watch Kong tonight. It also reminds me, somehow, of the Christmas card New Yorker Films sent out with Santa Klaus Kinski on it.

Incidentally, I once read or heard that actually RKO's most profitable hit of all time was Hitler's Children. I'm sure if that's true, it's because it cost next to nothing, and contained a salacious sex-practices-behind-the-Nazi-curtain theme. Variety showed a rental of $3.25 million on it, which is way bigger than the other figures you cite such as Mr. Lucky (and yes, that was a figure from the days when they recorded rentals rather than grosses).

12:57 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Chris, I wouldn't dislike the Janus poster if it were for anything other than "King Kong". Let's just say I'd rather hang an R-56 one-sheet on my wall if given the choice.

Michael, I'd checked on "Hitler's Children" when I wrote the story and found it posted a final profit of 1.2 million, following a worldwide rentals total of 3.3 million. "Mr. Lucky" ended with 1.6million profit after worldwide rentals of 3.4 million. They're close, But "Mr. Lucky" seems to have edged ahead in the final figures.

Jim, "The Wizard Of Oz" did have one more reissue prior to the 1956 network sale. MGM recovered $577,000 in additional profits when they brought it back in 1955.

1:49 PM  
Anonymous Mike In Ohio said...

I saw Kong On the big screen once and only once in one of those film classic packages back around 1976 along with the likes of "Top Hat" and "Citizen Kane". I will never forget though, the FIRST time I ever saw "King Kong". I was about six or seven and we were living in rural Russell Township about twenty miles outside of Cleveland Ohio. Goulardi was big then. He had a Saturday afternoon show as well his evening fare. My next door neighbor, Patrick Painter, had gone on and on to me all week about how King king was going to be on Goulardi on Saturday afternoon. He explained to me that Kong was a giant ape that fights a T-Rex, tears up New York City, climbs up the Empire State Building and get shot down by airplanes. My father was off on Saturdays, and after we did our chores we were not allowed to stay in the house and watch TV during the dayime. Pats dad was working so we made plans to watch it at his house, I couldn't wait! Saturday arrived and I ran over to Pats and knocked on the door. His brother answered and informed me that Pat had gotten into trouble the night before (not unusual) and was grounded, and furthermore, no one was allowed in. I was crushed. I went around to the side of the house and talked with Pat through the living room window, it was one of those old casement types with no screen. Soon Kong would be on and I would miss it and no telling when it would be shown again. Then Pat got a brainstorm. He angled the TV so I could see it through the window. For the next two hours I leaned against the sill and watched King Kong. That memory, I am happy to say, will stay with me till the day I die.

5:36 AM  
Blogger MDG14450 said...

I have a small-size copy of the Janus poster that I pulled off a telephone pole in Maine around '74. I've hung onto it all these years, but I've never liked it enough to display it.

2:23 PM  
Anonymous Earl B said...

Here's a bittersweet story: back in the 70s, my local theater - once a great movie palace - had fallen on hard times, and was planning on closing its doors forever. For its swan song, it showed KONG with the gimmick of charging 49 cents for all seats/all shows. (Not sure why KONG was chosen as its last picture, but the rumor was that it had been the theater's first attraction when it opened.) Anyway, attendance was so great (incredibly, nearly every show sold out!), the one-week engagement was stretched to two weeks, and investors became interested in the now-viable theater. Fast forward to today: the theater has been restored to its former glory, hosts all sorts of stage and screen fare, and has even been recognized as a historic landmark. And all because of KING KONG. So why is this story bittersweet (and why have I not identified the theater)? Because, alas, for reasons unknown to man and beast, whoever controls the place now makes no acknoledement of KONG's part is its resurrection.

9:51 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

Here's the real question-- if Kong was such a hit, why didn't they make dinosaur and giant beast movies all through the 30s and 40s? Why couldn't Willis O'Brien get a project off the ground? Is there any other example of a movie that was a big hit yet basically had no immediate successors or imitators (save its own sequel) for nearly a generation after its debut? The distance from Kong to Mighty Joe Young is the same as if, after Snow White, Disney hadn't made another animated feature until Peter Pan.

10:30 AM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

Remember "Son of Kong," which was rushed out within the same year. That's probably why we didn't see anymore from RKO until Mighty Joe.

9:00 AM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

I mentioned this story to John and thought his readers might enjoy it:

My old friend Norman Kay recalled seeing the third "Kong" reissue, which played in Boston in '43. What actually made more of an impression on him was the small theater across the street, which was running PRC product. The humble front was decorated in jungle colors, and the marquee bravely read:

NABONGA

BIGGER THAN "KING KONG"

You gotta give the theater manager points for daring to dream!

2:56 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

I think a possible reason for the fact there was no big-scale fantasy follow-up to "Kong" was the fact that Merian C. Cooper was largely off the lot after the mid-thirties, other than independent productions released through RKO. His would have been the initiative needed to get another large scale project off the ground, I think ...

6:18 PM  
Anonymous Philip Grecian said...

I was four years old when the 1952 reissue came out. One of THE big memories of my childhood was seeing the Kong trailer on television.
Here's the way I remember it, though no such footage appears in the movie:
The camera, in POV, moves rapidly up a hill, to reveal Kong standing at the top, roaring.
It scared the hell out of me, and when I expressed this to my mother she told me that Kong was nothing more than a "giant robot" (I'm not sure why this was supposed to comfort me) that had been taken apart before the war...and the metal had been used to build jeeps!

In my memory, the saturation was pretty intense, because I saw that spot many times on the small television screen. MY question is: Why do I remember that POV shot up the hill to Kong? Am I just remembering it incorrectly?

11:52 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home

grbrpix@aol.com
  • December 2005
  • January 2006
  • February 2006
  • March 2006
  • April 2006
  • May 2006
  • June 2006
  • July 2006
  • August 2006
  • September 2006
  • October 2006
  • November 2006
  • December 2006
  • January 2007
  • February 2007
  • March 2007
  • April 2007
  • May 2007
  • June 2007
  • July 2007
  • August 2007
  • September 2007
  • October 2007
  • November 2007
  • December 2007
  • January 2008
  • February 2008
  • March 2008
  • April 2008
  • May 2008
  • June 2008
  • July 2008
  • August 2008
  • September 2008
  • October 2008
  • November 2008
  • December 2008
  • January 2009
  • February 2009
  • March 2009
  • April 2009
  • May 2009
  • June 2009
  • July 2009
  • August 2009
  • September 2009
  • October 2009
  • November 2009
  • December 2009
  • January 2010
  • February 2010
  • March 2010
  • April 2010
  • May 2010
  • June 2010
  • July 2010
  • August 2010
  • September 2010
  • October 2010
  • November 2010
  • December 2010
  • January 2011
  • February 2011
  • March 2011
  • April 2011
  • May 2011
  • June 2011
  • July 2011
  • August 2011
  • September 2011
  • October 2011
  • November 2011
  • December 2011
  • January 2012
  • February 2012
  • March 2012
  • April 2012
  • May 2012
  • June 2012
  • July 2012
  • August 2012
  • September 2012
  • October 2012
  • November 2012
  • December 2012
  • January 2013
  • February 2013
  • March 2013
  • April 2013
  • May 2013
  • June 2013
  • July 2013
  • August 2013
  • September 2013
  • October 2013
  • November 2013
  • December 2013
  • January 2014
  • February 2014
  • March 2014
  • April 2014
  • May 2014
  • June 2014
  • July 2014
  • August 2014
  • September 2014
  • October 2014