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Tuesday, July 07, 2009

King Kong Versus Godzilla!

My obsession over King Kong reissues is documented elsewhere, with 1956’s engagement posing ongoing question as to why RKO would place a feature back in theatres so soon after selling it to television. Further digging into trade magazines and newspapers of that year revealed a strategy that not only generated more admission revenue for the venerable monster classic, but also brought Kong head-to-head with import out of Japan Godzilla, King Of The Monsters! (the exclamation mark being theirs, not mine). We know the two battled seven summers later when Universal released King Kong vs. Godzilla for 1963 school-outers, but here was a preliminary match all but forgotten. Based on its excellent showing on television during the past few weeks, "King Kong" will again be released for theatrical presentation by RKO, said company vice-president Walter Branson in April 1956. It has been withdrawn from future video airings and will be released in June. I’d always assumed that King Kong remained on airwaves once New York’s WOR premiered it in March 1956. The weeklong run (broadcasts every day) had been a sensation. As it turns out, only two stations nationwide played the film that Spring. Besides WOR, there was WHBQ in Memphis, Tennessee. Both were General Teleradio outlets and affiliated with new owners of TV rights in the RKO library. King Kong’s enormous success among limited home viewers did not go unnoticed. Theatrical distribution rights for the backlog remained with RKO, whose 1952 reissue had sold like gangbusters, so precedent was there for King Kong to do it again. Branson announced a 116-date saturation booking for June among California venues carefully picked. As before, summer vacation was adjudged most lucrative for a show with considerable youth appeal. A Val Lewton produced oldie would go out with Kong same as The Leopard Man had for 1952 dates. This time it was I Walked With A Zombie.

The combo bowed at twelve Los Angeles locations on June 27, 1956. Here were two black-and-white flat ratio vaulties plopped down amongst wide screen blockbusters Trapeze (at the Beverly Wilshire) and Cinerama Holiday (at the Hollywood Warner), with Oklahoma and The Man Who Knew Too Much continuing long runs on neighboring blocks. The King and I in Cinemascope-55 would open at Grauman’s Chinese the day after. More attuned to Kong/Zombie’s modest proportion was a horror/sci-fi coupling that started in eighteen locations the same Wednesday as the RKO's . That was The Black Sleep and The Creeping Unknown, with "Glamour Ghoul" Vampira and consort Tor Johnson making lobby appearances in four of the hardtops. According to Gary D. Rhodes in his amazing book Bela Lugosi --- Dreams and Nightmares, the screen’s foremost Dracula showed up as well (and unannounced) for one of those lobby receptions, with Forrest J Ackerman among others lending assist. Did Lugosi realize that two neighborhood Los Angeles theatres were that very night playing yet another engagement of his original Dracula, once again with the 1932 Frankenstein? For such an intersection of old with new, June 27, 1956 was a dazzling occasion for moviegoing in LA, even as King Kong’s determined successor waited in the wings to knock the twenty-three year old monster sovereign off his throne.

Makes "King Kong" Look Like a Midget! said ads for Godzilla, King Of The Monsters!, its arrival (July 11) in fourteen Los Angeles theatres and seven drive-ins being but two weeks behind Kong and I Walked With A Zombie (one venue that played both Kong/Zombie and Godzilla was Burbank’s Sun-Val Drive-In of White Heat fame). The RKO combo had closed after a single week with prints headed for other territories to continue the Summer run-off. Godzilla’s campaign made intentions clear. Here was the proposed new King of monsters, the title’s exclamation mark giving emphasis to Kong’s displacement by a four hundred foot tall, fire-breathing gargantuan (instead of merely punching out a train, Godzilla eats it!). Japanese filming had taken place in 1954. I’d assume it was shot in standard ratio, having watched a recently released DVD and getting no indication of that having been cropped from widescreen. Did 1956 patrons receive Godzilla with top and bottom shaved for projection through wide apertures aimed toward expanded screens? They’d have been firmly in place by that year. King Kong must have been compromised as well in theatres committed to wider presentation and unwilling to switch back to standard ratio for isolated reissues. I had bad experiences of my own during the sixties and seventies at houses where old films were chopped at the top by operators busily framing images up and down so we could see at least part of what was going on (of course, most didn’t bother doing even that). Godzilla was a show I hadn’t watched since childhood. The alternate Japanese version is better regarded these days, but I wanted to see what 1956 stateside audiences experienced, so it was me and Raymond Burr waiting a long twenty-eight minutes for the titular reptile to make his first appearance. After that brief disclosure, it was another eleven before Godzilla surfaced again to wreak signature havoc. Being a man in a rubber (?) suit, he looks best in subdued lighting. The darkness hanging over this picture lends atmosphere, if not conviction, that later color ones would lack. It occurred to me that Godzilla’s fame resulted most from his being given a strong name as opposed to more anonymous King Dinosaurs and Beasts From 20,000 Fathoms that had preceded him. The monicker denotes strength and the fact he was coronated King of all monsters had persuasive force that carried forward to innumerable follow-ups. Would Jurassic Park and sequels endure better had one of its monsters been personalized and elevated to stardom of its own?

The King Kong/I Walked With A Zombie parlay continued successfully through Summer 1956. Pittsburgh reported the combination doing surprisingly well, despite patron knowledge that both would likely be back on television before long (others of the RKO library were meanwhile fanning out on home screens nationwide). Walked in with a home run weekend. I’m still trying to figure out what or why, said incredulous showman Donald L. Rexroad of Falconer, New York’s State Theatre, To have given this to TV when it still has this much business in it is unbelievable. Rexroad’s business with King Kong was reported at 30% above average, but of co-feature I Walked With A Zombie, he was more reserved. This one did not hold up its end of the program --- not enough thrills and chills to keep the audience interest at the peak "King Kong" had left it. Was RKO wise to have dualled these two? Zombie with its subdued effect couldn’t help but pale beside Kong’s dynamic showmanship. Given a choice among that company’s inventory, I’d have picked The Thing to accompany the big ape back into theatres (Howard Hawks’ thriller would instead be reissued the following year). Exhibitors agreed that King Kong was still boxoffice after all these years, unlike numerous oldies written off as decrepit even as they were TV bound. Don’t pay too much and you can bank well on Monday, said manager Joe Meyer of Ione, California after a profitable Kong-weekend. Ballyhoo updated for 50’s consumption included the (above) mechanized King Kong appearing "in person" on WFBM/Indianapolis during its daytime Open House Show, where the gorilla loomed over performing rock n’ rollers. Godzilla, King Of The Monsters! meanwhile played numerous situations in direct competition with King Kong, as here in side-by-side ads from a Cleveland, Ohio newspaper in September 1956. RKO’s Mighty Monarch Of Melodramas would maintain its legendary status into the sixties and beyond, with theatrical life enhanced by replacement of footage out since 1933. Continued television exposure did not disqualify King Kong from paid admissions as it would Godzilla, a flash-in-the-pan recognized as such by distributors who sold the would-be usurper to free-vee in April 1958, less than two years after it premiered in US theatres.


Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

Hi, John -- Great reading, as always! I wonder what the first-run numbers were on I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE. Could it have been chosen to accompany KING KONG because it had underperformed the first time around and here was a chance for more dough? Or maybe the "zombie" in the title was thought to be more of a grabber in '56. I'm surprised that RKO overlooked the obvious SON OF KONG as a running mate.

My old friend Norman Kay remembered seeing KING KONG playing at the RKO Boston in 1943, with the theater across the street feebly playing PRC's NABONGA in competition. That brave showman put up signage claiming it was "Bigger than KING KONG!" According to Norman, the guy wasn't fooling anybody!

12:50 PM  
Anonymous Jim Lane said...

On that 1956 U.S. release of Godzilla, King of the Mosters!, one person who certainly earned his pay was the (no doubt anonymous) functionary who translated the film's title and the monster's name. I don't know what kind of impression Gojira conveys in Japanese, but in English it sounds like the name of a Beverly Hills gardener. Godzilla, on the other hand, simultaneously conveys the sense of a deity, a lizard, and a gorilla. Brilliant!

I should mention, however, that the brilliance was lost on my circle at least, as we kids mispronounced the name: we called him "Gonzilla." Ironic, I suppose, because after a couple of weeks, gone-zilla was exactly what he was, not to return until TV and sequels in Tohocolor.

12:53 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Scott, the 1943 numbers for "I Walked With A Zombie" were good. Almost all the Lewton horrors were reissued during the fifties (excepting "The Ghost Ship" and "Bedlam", I think), mostly in support of higher-profile RKO features. I'm actually surprised there aren't more 35mm safety prints of these floating around, as they would have made up at least, for example, 200 or so prints for "Zombie" and its 1956 saturation plays with "Kong." I have heard of 35mm collectors who had safety 35's of "Kong" from the fifties.

As to "Godzilla", Jim, I think it probably burned off pretty fast during that summer of 1956. If I can get final domestic rentals for that one, I'll add them to the post.

4:57 PM  
Blogger Samuel Wilson said...

Check out that double feature at the Hipp: Godzilla and Bride of the Monster! Imagine the people reeling out of that theater. No one will ever have such an experience again.

To attempt to answer Jim Lane's question, the story I've heard is that the name "Gojira" conjures up something like "gorilla whale" in the Japanese mind. I think Americans got the better part of that bargain.

11:56 PM  
Anonymous Jim Lane said...

Samuel Wilson's comment sent me to take a closer at that Hipp Theatre ad for Godzilla, and lo and behold, just above the ad there's a remnant of an article that reads: "DeMille and his staff have edited the Bible and have come up with the story of the greatest human being that ever..." Obviously something about The Ten Commandments, confirmed by the words "God" and "Pharaoh" visible down the column to the left. Made me curious to read the rest.

And by the way, I checked with my uncle (he who took me to see King Kong on its 1956 reissue) and he has no recollection of any second feature on that bill -- this from a man who remembers where he sat on which date in what theater for movies he saw when he was six years old. I'm sure that if I Walked with a Zombie had been on the bill, he'd have stayed for it, and we'd both remember seeing it.

12:08 PM  
Anonymous G.D. Wilson said...

John, you solved a longtime mystery for me. I've screened a print of the "Monsters We've Known and Loved" episode of the TV series
"Hollywood and the Stars" for many years. It features a brief non-RKO clip of a bizarre mechanical King Kong which I could never identify, until you presented the pic of the rock 'n rollers with the same mechanized beast. Thanks!

5:16 PM  
Blogger Christopher said...

:o))...thanks to the snow and frost..we know which theatres we can go and watch these in the comfort of ice cold air conditioning!..

11:27 PM  
Blogger Joel Bocko said...

John, your choices (and images) have been included in the master list for "Reading the Movies" to be found here:


1:38 AM  
Blogger 42nd Street Memories said...

When THE THING was reissued in 1957 it was paired with a different monkey MIGHTY JOE YOUNG.

7:15 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Received the following comment from Movie Man of the excellent "Dancing Image" ...

John, your choices (and images) have been included in the master list for "Reading the Movies" to be found here:


8:43 AM  
Blogger Tom said...

Thanks for posting these articles and images. Awesome.

8:44 PM  
Blogger James Corry said...

Summer of 1956 must have been a HECK of a time for the kids! Not only did they get "Kong" and "Godzilla" but "Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers"/"The Werewolf" to boot! I'm not sure (off the top of my head) when "The Creature Walks Among us" was released, but I'm sure it's SOMEWHERE in that, THOSE were the days!!

Best, as always,


11:25 PM  
Blogger Tbone Mankini said...

A few years ago,UK newspapers had a spate of giving away DVDs,the original Japanese GOJIRA amongst them....first time I had seen how much more serious it was than the US version. ...and the subsequent series of Toho films... LA DOLCE VITA and loads of Ealings were amongst the freebies

12:12 PM  

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