MONSTER FILM GIANTS – Willis O’Brien
Willis O’Brien inhabited two distinct, virtually incompatible worlds. As a technician, he mastered the intricacies of model construction, animation, and composite photography. Success for him depended on meticulous planning and the careful execution of those plans. He had to be as exact as a scientist, as precise as a watchmaker. At the same time, O’Brien felt the urges of a creative artist. Paper and canvas could not hold the contents of his active imagination; scale models in dioramas remained frozen. Only film could bring to life his images of fantastic adventure.
Overall, O’Brien’s career boasts a dual triumph. First, although he often worked
with a team of specialized artists and technicians, it was O’Brien himself who blended subject matter with technology to define and perfect a new type of motion picture. In this way, he established precedents for generations of future filmmakers. He was not, however, only a pioneer, for he also created three enduring films: 77ie Lost World (1925) and Mighty Joe Young (1949) continue to amuse and fascinate viewers, while King Kong (1933) remains an unmatched work of adventure and imagination.
O’Brien was an innovator in the use of three-dimensional animation: the filming of a model one frame at a time, pausing after each exposure to move the model slightly. When this footage is projected at a rate of at least sixteen frames per second, the figure on screen seems to move independently and, if the animator has talent, naturally and with character. But this illusion of life remained insufficient, so O’Brien went further by constructing environments in which his fantastic creations appear at home, using both paintings and miniature sets. He then completed the illusion by combining these miniature worlds with living humans and full-sized sets through rear-screen or front screen projection and stationary or traveling mattes. Finally, the fantastic and the real coexisted, forming a new, cinematic whole.
Despite O’Briens achievements, a pall of frustration shrouds his career, though not the man himself. The American film industry of the 1930s and 1940s could not
accommodate O’Brien, with most producers unable to share his vision and unwilling to finance his projects. As a result, he spent far too many years preparing ideas that never reached the screen. The limited aims and imaginations of Hollywood must bear the blame, but O’Brien did prolong his fallow periods. Because he refused to compromise the scale of his visions, only large budgets were acceptable, and he lacked the knack of self-promotion that would convince producers to invest in his fantasies. Also, his limitations as a writer led to the development of plots with more weaknesses than strengths. O’Brien needed a collaborator.
At the same time, O’Brien’s personal life tended to be unstable. An ill-advised marriage led to the tragic deaths of his two sons in 1933. Only on his second marriage, to Darlyne, in 1934, did O’Brien at the age of forty-eight find a companion attuned to his personality. For many of their years together, however, the couple made do on a very limited income. Animator Ray HarryHausen, who knew O’Brien during this period, states that somehow, despite the “tragedy and disappointments in his life,” O’Brien “was a very happy man and a very wonderful person. He had a great sense of humor.”1
Born on 2 March 1886, Willis Harold O’Brien temporarily left his Oakland, California, home at the age of about eleven to work on cattle ranches. At thirteen he left again, working at a wide variety of unrelated jobs, including farmhand, factory worker, fur trapper, wilderness guide, and bartender. The young O’Brien’s fondness for and understanding of animals, especially horses, and his inarticulateness around people soon developed into introspection, self-reliance, and a quiet, soft-spoken manner.
Although seemingly drawn to physical, working-class environments where he had to fend for himself, O’Brien also possessed a naive, trusting nature and a tendency to act on impulse; these qualities, combined with an obvious restlessness, prevented him from achieving success in any endeavor. For example, after a few years as a cowboy, he owned eight horses, but then lost them all in a single poker game. On another occasion, he gave a season’s worth of fur pelts to some fellow woodsmen to take to town for him, and never heard from them again.
O’Brien’s interaction with the local Indians, however, left an enduring, positive impression, and the time he spent guiding some scientists in search of prehistoric fossils began a continuing fascination with dinosaurs. Also influential was his experience working as a cowboy and competing in small rodeos: One of his unfilmed projects, Gwangi, involved cowboys who capture a prehistoric beast, and in Mighty Joe Young some rodeo riders try to lasso a giant gorilla. That film’s hero, played by the very like able rodeo veteran Ben Johnson, even shares the name Gregg with O’Brien’s admired oldest brother.
A knack for drawing led O’Brien to some less physically demanding jobs, but the young man remained at loose ends, never following through when threatened with security and stability. His constant changes of occupation seem thoroughly random, revealing no clear progression, no attraction toward a goal, only a determination to get away from wherever and whatever he had been. O’Brien liked doing things, but evidently had little interest in accomplishments for their own sake. Starting out as an office boy for an architect, he quickly rose to the position of draftsman, but left to become a newspaper sports cartoonist. Then he entered professional boxing and won his first nine bouts, but gave that up after lasting only two rounds in his tenth encounter; the experience later contributed to the fighting style of his giant simians King Kong, Kong’s son, and Joe Young. O’Brien also worked for the railroad as a brakeman and then a surveyor, assisted the head architect of the San Francisco World’s Fair, and designed in clay the decorations for such stone structures as fire places.
While employed in the stonecutter’s shop, O’Brien modeled a miniature boxer, but felt dissatisfied with the result. He wanted to see it move by itself. With the aid of a local newsreel cameraman, he used frame-by-frame animation to create a one-minute film using models of a dinosaur and a caveman. This led a San Francisco exhibitor named Herman Wobber to finance a five-minute short, Vic Dinosaur and the Missing Link. At the age of twenty-nine, O’Brien had stumbled on his life’s work.
During this arbitrary, stream-of-consciousness existence, O’Brien seems to have lived in the experience of the moment, adapting to the present with little concern for the past or the future, a quality he retained throughout his life. Years later, when his second wife, Darlyne, asked him why he didn’t get discouraged after having so many of his projects cancelled, “he said he was like a spider [and] whenever they tear down his web, he would build a new one.” Along with this ability to accept outside influences and adapt to them, came youthful enthusiasm and unreliability. “He was a kid right up to the day he died” at age seventy-six, recalled Darlyne; “he was still a boy and a dreamer.” O’Brien enjoyed attending horse races and “liked to go pub crawling to be around the different characters and talk to them.” He also “loved his bourbon.” He was “lovable” and “a lot of fun,” but also “unpredictable” and “not very depend able,”2 two parts of the same psychological package.
O’Brien was a good worker, but only on what he enjoyed, and he lacked assertiveness. He relied on others to set up projects because he “couldn’t bring himself to go out and ask people for anything,” Darlyne explained. “He didn’t like to do that. He wanted to get away from it all and play and create something new. It was sheer luck that anything ever did come about.”3 According to Ernest B. Schoedsack, co director of King Kong, O’Brien “worked hard and was always dependable except when we would be fighting for time,” then he’d get worried and “head for the bar across the street.”4 Clearly, O’Brien did not learn to adapt to pressure or accept responsibility. His trustingly impulsive side also stayed with him, and his instincts did not always prove valid. Merian C. Cooper, Kong’s other co director, told researcher George E. Turner that he had “fired dozens of animators and effects men during production because so many of them were drinking buddies” hired by O’Brien.5
By the time the Edison Company purchased The Dinosaur and the Missing Link and hired O’Brien to make more such shorts, he had already completed Morpheus Mike and The Birth of a Flivver. Moving to New York, he set to work at Edison’s studio, where his solitary labors resulted in R.F.D. 10,000 B.C., Prehistoric Poultry, and Curious Pets of Our Ancestors. All of these shorts were released as Conquest Pictures in 1917. (O’Brien reportedly also worked on //» the Villain’s Power, The Puzzling Billboard, and Mickey’s Naughty Nightmares, but the exact nature of his contributions is not currently known.)
Most of O’Brien s shorts include no live-action footage; both humans and animals are animated models and, in their stress on caricature-like humor, the films resemble animated cartoons more than O’Brien’s mature work. In The Dinosaur and the Missing Link, when a character is stunned by a tree limb, we even see stars appear around his head. The climax, however, includes a brief fight between an ape called “Wild Willie” (the missing link of the title) and a small brontosaurus. Morpheus Mike begins in the present, as a woman hangs her washing on a line. A goat devours the clothes, but Mike, a passing tramp, retrieves them from the animal’s mouth and the woman rewards him with some food. Later, Mike imagines himself in a prehistoric restaurant, where he orders such treats as tiger stew and an ostrich egg, with each served by an elephant, using its trunk. The egg, however, cracks open and a baby ostrich emerges. When Mike orders “a trunk of soup,” he gets sprayed in the face with it. At this, he wakes up, having had water poured on his head.
In R. F. D. 10,000 B.C., Johnny Bearskin sends Winnie Warclub a love letter carved in stone, but a jealous mailman substitutes an insulting one. Winnie later cracks the innocent Johnny over the head with the missive. When Johnny and the mailman fight, a brontosaurus that pulls the mail wagon smacks the villain with its tail, knocking the top of his body off. The mailman’s torso flies through the air until its arms catch hold of a tree limb; it hangs there until the body’s lower half runs to the tree and rejoins the upper part. The mailman admits defeat, so Johnny wins both the girl and the mail delivery business.
O’Brien’s affinity for animals prompted him to give the prehistoric creatures in these films such winsome personalities that they steal scenes from his animated humans. In Prehistoric Poultry, a chicken-like dinornis rolls its eyes cutely and a small brontosaurus licks its master’s face. The brontosaurus in Morpheus Mike calmly observes the humans’ actions, grazes quietly after the wagon tips over, and laughs at its former master’s defeat. The three cavemen in The Dinosaur and the Missing Link—the Duke, Stonejaw Steve, and Theophilus Ivoryhead—vie for the hand of Araminta Rockface, and, perhaps revealingly, it is the less assertive Theophilus who wins the girl over his overtly aggressive rivals.
Otherwise, the films are interesting mainly as technical exercises. They look quite primitive: The human faces are expressionless, the elephant moves only its head and trunk, and the brontosaurus has a stiff-kneed walk. Some shots are fairly impressive, though, like one of Mike lighting his pipe and exhaling smoke. The films also offer such appealing, slice-of-life details as the mailman wiping his forehead after handling a heavy letter or Mike toying with a cane while waiting for his food.
O’Brien left Edison in 1917, when the studio abandoned its program of shorts, but soon Herbert M. Dawley, who had built and photographed dinosaur models himself, agreed to bankroll a new O’Brien film. Made in 1918, The Ghost of Slumber Mountain runs twelve minutes (projected at sound speed), but more than half of its footage consists of straightforward live action. Once again O’Brien depicted prehistoric life, but this time he omitted the cavemen and the broad humor. The animation itself easily surpasses O’Brien’s previous experiments. It presents several different creatures, their movements are fairly smooth, and once or twice the camera even moves during a shot. However, cautious about involving his humans with the dinosaurs, O’Brien contrived a plot that places the creatures outside of the film’s “reality.”
Two boys ask their uncle, a writer, to tell them a story “about wild animals ersumpin.”The film’s main body consists of this story, in which the uncle and a friend explore the area around Slumber Mountain. After the men happen upon the grave and cabin of Mad Dick, a hermit, the friend tells of having once seen Dick leave the cabin and gaze through an unusual instrument. That night, the uncle is led from camp by Mad Dick’s voice. At the cabin, a bearded ghost appears and directs the man to take the instrument to a mountaintop. He does so and, gazing through it, sees prehistoric animals feeding and fighting. Eventually, a tyrannosaurus chases the uncle and almost catches him. Then, at the last second, the man awakens, having dreamed about the ghost and the monsters while safe in camp. Finally, we return to the present, where the uncle has clearly made up the tale for his nephews’ benefit.
In a simple form, Slumber Mountain reveals the basic elements found in many later, more ambitious features with animated monsters: explorers who enter some sort of wilderness, where they find beasts that battle among themselves and threaten the awed hero or heroes. It also reveals a definite, if rudimentary, sense of dramatic structure, with the animal vignettes becoming progressively more impressive. First, a brontosaurus and then a bird-like diatryma stand and graze, simply impressing us with their presence. Then, two triceratops start to fight, but one walks away, yielding the bout. After that, the tyrannosaurus enters and kills the remaining triceratops. Until this point, events have remained distantly objective to the watching uncle, and to the viewer, but in the climax the character himself is threatened. O’Brien suggests the chase by intercutting the man and the beast, not by combining the two in a single shot.
Back in Oakland, O’Brien had impulsively become engaged to Hazel Collette, a woman twelve years his junior. When the Edison job took him to New York, he hoped his absence would discourage Hazel, but instead she and an aunt followed him east and so, around 1918, they were married. Although the union was not stable or satisfying, it produced two sons: William, born in 1919, and Willis, Jr., in 1920.
O’Brien’s films attracted the attention of Watterson R. Rothacker, who hired him to work on the advertising shorts made by his company. The two men soon developed larger ambitions and found themselves drawn to The Lost World, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1912 novel about prehistoric animals on an isolated South American plateau. O’Brien began developing ideas, sketches, and camera tests, but work was delayed in 1922 when Herbert Dawley threatened a SI00,000 lawsuit. O’Brien had never patented the articulated armatures he built for his models, so after The Ghost of Slumber Mountain Dawley obtained patents in his own name and O’Brien again found himself taken advantage of by a person he trusted. Eventually, he proved that he had used the method before working with Dawley. In 1922, Conan Doyle exhibited some of O’Brien’s footage as part of a speech he gave at a magician’s convention. Referring to his well-known interest in spiritualism, Doyle hinted that the images might be genuine, obtained by some mediumistic means. Without taking a stand on their authenticity, a newspaper report described the scenes: “Dinosaurs of one tribe appeared on the screen and rubbed jowls in an affectionate manner. Then entered the tyrannosaurs [which] fought among themselves, interlocked their great jaws and wrestled. Finally one broke the back of the other and was about to devour it, when up dashed a triceratops,. . . who drove the tyrannosaur away.”6The next day, Doyle explained his deception, admitting that the monsters were “constructed by pure cinema, but of the highest kind.”7
Later that year, Rothacker officially purchased screen rights to The Lost World.
When First National Pictures agreed to back the project, O’Brien received his first
chance to use animation in a large-scale feature. Principal photography began in
1923, followed by more than a year devoted to animation and other technical work. The Lost World was so much more ambitious than The Ghost of Slumber Mountain that O’Brien sought out technical assistance.
Through First National he obtained the services of Ralph Hammeras, an effects
specialist, and to construct the complex models he hired Marcel Delgado, a young, Mexican-born grocery clerk and aspiring artist he had met at the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles. “Obie didn’t know me from Adam,” recalled the still-amazed and grateful Delgado years later. “He was just taking a chance.”8 This example of O’Brien’s impulsive nature paid off, with Delgado contributing greatly to the appearance of the models in all O’Brien’s major films. For The Lost World, he built nearly fifty prehistoric animals, covering O’Brien’s metal armatures with sponge “muscles” topped by rubber “skins,” using Charles R. Knight’s well-known paintings of dinosaurs as his inspiration.
Because The Lost World placed its characters among the prehistoric creatures and
even had one animal brought back to London, O’Brien for the first time combined
live and animated action in the same shot. He usually accomplished this by first filming the actors on a set, but with part of the image (often the top or bottom half) blocked off and left unexposed. Then he rewound the film and, with the already exposed section of the image blocked off, recorded the animated creatures and model landscape on the empty portion. Finally, the footage was processed and a composite picture obtained.
To create the impression of vast, exotic locations, O’Brien employed Hammeras’s
recently developed technique known as the glass shot. This involves painting a portion of the set in perspective on a piece of clear glass, which is then placed between the camera and the full-sized set on which the actors perform. The camera films both simultaneously, so that the area around the actors knits seamlessly with the painted, miniature portion.
Released early in 1925, The Lost World must have startled and awed moviegoers,
many of whom had never seen model animation. The sense of fantastic reality created by this technique is attested to by contemporary critics, who generally were both convinced and thrilled. Although the film originally ran 104 minutes, for many years only a condensed version, running about one hour, has existed. This copy eliminates one major character, Gladys Hungerford, along with several complete scenes and shots from others, including some animation footage. (Recently, a print that may contain some of the missing footage reportedly turned up in Czechoslovakia.)
The scenario carefully follows the structure of Doyle’s novel. In London, the characters are introduced and the expedition organized, then it follows the group’s adventures in South America and concludes when they bring a prehistoric beast to London, where it escapes. In the book, Professor Challenger, a scientific maverick, had discovered an isolated plateau after studying the records of the explorer, Maple White, and Challenger had already sighted the creatures. His fellow scientists consider him a charlatan, so three skeptics accompany Challenger on his return: a rival scientist, Professor Summerlee; a big-game hunter, Lord John Roxton; and a newspaper reporter, Edward Malone.
The film’s Challenger remains an arrogant rebel, but he has not yet seen the
plateau, and the character of Paula White, the missing explorer’s daughter, is added. Thus the expedition’s motive becomes as much a search for Maple White as an attempt to document Challenger’s assertion. Another change involves Edward Malone. In the novel, Challenger dominated the action, but Malone told the story; the film makes Malone the main character and reduces Challenger to a supporting role, although he remains the most interesting figure.
Both novel and film have Malone in love with Gladys Hungerford and driven to
face danger by her demand that he prove himself. But Gladys is rarely around, so scenarist Marion Fairfax satisfies the assumed (and probably actual) audience demand for romance and a pretty face by having Paula White join the expedition. Ultimately, Malone is torn between Paula and Gladys, and a second triangle arises because Roxton also loves Paula. Much of this added material is overly familiar and tends to clog the story line, as does a sequence in a jungle trading post (cut from the condensed print).
Once his characters reach the plateau, Doyle divides his attention between the
monsters and two native tribes. The primitive ape-men vie with a more civilized tribe for supremacy, and the Englishmen help the latter group to exterminate the ruthless brutes. The filmmakers eliminated both tribes, retaining only a solitary ape-man (played by a heavily made-up Bull Montana, but related to O’Brien’s animated missing link character), who makes a few arbitrary appearances. To provide a visually impressive climax on the plateau, they added a smouldering volcano and a fire that panics the area’s animals. In the scenario, Professor Summerlee’s pipe starts the fire, but the condensed print omits this, leaving the vague implication that the volcano caused it.
The film’s most useful change occurs in the story’s final section. Doyle’s Challenger brought a baby pterodactyl back to England and, in a lecture hall, unveils this trophy as his final proof. The creature escapes and, after circling over the audience, flies out through a window and is never encountered again. To give this segment greater scope, the film replaces the pterodactyl with a brontosaurus, which escapes when its cage breaks at the London docks. The confused creature makes its destructive way through the city, until the Tower Bridge collapses under it and the animal plummets into the Thames. The scenario includes a final shot of the brontosaurus passing an ocean liner on its way home, but in the shortened print it could—for all anyone knows—have found its way to Scotland and Loch Ness.
The animated action of the dinosaurs in Tlie Lost World is generally smooth, and
O’Brien gave his creatures bits of business that make them seem naturally alive. One beast pauses to examine its wound and another, in close-up, sneers at an opponent. O’Brien also elaborated on the action described in the scenario. Originally, an allosaurus was to fight and kill first a trachodon and then a triceratops. In the film, it kills the trachodon, then heads for the triceratops, which pushes its child to a safer position and successfully fends off the menace. In a separate sequence, not in the scenario, an allosaurus attacks a monoclonius and is killed by it. Another allosaurus then enters and kills the monoclonius. As it stands over its victim, the allosaurus spots a passing pterodactyl, plucks it out of the air, and kills it, too. With these additions, O’Brien increases the action, while developing the one creature’s tendency to kill for the sake of killing and offering a contrast in the triceratops s protection of its young.
Still, the models lack the detail found in O’Brien s later work and sometimes move
awkwardly. Another problem is the limited interaction between man and beast, owing to the primitive methods available for creating composite shots. Most of the time the characters, as in The Ghost of Slumber Mountain, simply observe animal activity from the sidelines. This severely reduces the chance for true drama and excitement, which require a direct threat to human beings. An exception is the allosaurus attack on the camp, during which Malone hurls a burning stick into the creature’s mouth. This scene, like the animal fights, is a more ambitious and successful version of action first sketched out in Slumber Mountain.
Samuel Johnson once said that when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life,
but perhaps that does not apply to prehistoric monsters. In The Lost World, the brontosaurus does a bit of smashing through the city streets and stops to toy with a street lamp, but in general it finds little to do in London. The most convincing effects here are in the shots that do not include live actors. When the two are combined, one can at times see right through the beast’s body.
Most often, the beasts are viewed in long shots, with lilted cutting closer for impact or to show details, thus limiting the excitement. Similarly, the film does not introduce the menaces in a dramatic or atmospheric fashion, but instead cuts to them abruptly. This is true of both the animated beasts and the ape-man, and it typifies Harry Hoyt’s straightforward, unimaginative direction, which faithfully follows the detailed scenario. (There is no way of knowing the extent to which Hoyt, or anyone else, influenced Ms. Fairfax’s writing.) Perhaps the film’s cinematic high point occurs in a now missing scene of Gladys manipulating the smitten Malone. According to the scenario, his reaction to her beauty was to be intercut with shots of Gladys teasing a kitten with a catnip mouse, “its eyes shining with eagerness—its tail quivering with excitement.” After Malone grabs and kisses Gladys, the kitten catches the mouse.
The Lost World was a financial success in 1925, and it endures as a moderately entertaining film, at least in the condensed version, which lacks most of the deadwood and broad comedy. It also stands as a major step forward for O’Brien, a work that moved him into the world of features and proved the validity of his interests and techniques. The next stage remained: to consolidate his gains and make a great film.
O’Brien’s most immediate need, however, was to keep working. For a while, First
National considered making a follow-up to Tlie Lost World, and O’Brien spent several futile months preparing plot outlines and sketches for Atlantis, a film about a race of people who inhabit gigantic underwater caverns, fight sea monsters, and interact with a group that lives amid ice and snow. Available evidence suggests that, unlike The Lost World, this story was devoted entirely to creating a fictional world, one riled with spectacular, exotic sights but without central characters with whom viewers could identify—a kind of large-scale slice of fantastic life. O’Brien also started to plan a version of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein that would employ a giant animated Monster. Finally, he left First National.
In 1929, O’Brien and Harry Hoyt devised a new project, Creation, and in 1930 Hoyt
convinced RKO Radio to produce the picture. By summer, O’Brien and his staff
were hard at work preparing drawings, glass paintings, miniature settings, and dinosaur models. Meanwhile, O’Brien’s home life had deteriorated. Throughout the 1920s, as tensions escalated, O’Brien turned more and more to work, bars, racetracks, and other women. Hazel’s natural jealousy evolved into a paranoid resentment of everyone she perceived as luring her husband away, including his coworkers. This drove him still further from her, as cause and effect merged. Finally, in 1930—just as his professional life looked promising—O’Brien moved out of the house, although he frequently visited his sons and took them on outings.
Perhaps owing to Hoyt’s influence, the plot of Creation draws more on The Lost
World than did Atlantis. Its hero, Steve, loves the rich and fickle Elaine.To be near her, he takes a job on the family’s yacht when it sails to South America. Also aboard is another suitor, Ned, so a romantic triangle develops. Instead of seeking an unexplored plateau, this group stumbles into its adventures. Warned of a typhoon, they take refuge in a Chilean submarine, and the storm causes an island to rise from the sea. The submarine surfaces, damaged, in a lake surrounded by jungle at the center of a volcano. On shore, they encounter prehistoric creatures, and an arsinoitherium kills most of the sailors.
Steve assumes leadership of the survivors, despite Ned’s resistance, and they establish a camp. When the unreliable Ned shoots at a passing dinosaur, it destroys their hut, but Elaine drives it away with a burning stick (as Malone had in The Lost World). Later, Ned shoots a young triceratops and is himself killed by its parent. Exploring further, the survivors discover an ancient temple loaded with jewels. After Steve saves Elaine from being carried away by a pterodactyl, a stegosaurus chases them into the temple, where they encounter a tyrannosaurus. While the two creatures fight, the humans escape, only to be threatened by the volcano’s eruption, a fire, and an animal stampede (as in The Lost World). Steve sends an SOS on a repaired radio and at the last moment seaplanes rescue the group, who have kept some of the temple jewels.
Although Creation has recognizable characters with which viewers can identify, its
central element—the romantic triangle—is too thin to support the vast array of plot details. Like Atlantis, this story remains a sprawling, overstuffed series of events. The climax that starts at the temple reveals this most clearly, as one danger follows another in an arbitrary fashion. What Creation lacks is a character comparable to Lost World’s Professor Challenger, a forceful, dynamic figure whose scientific and personal quest adds narrative drive that transcends the film’s romantic complications.
The humans in Creation are basically passive, avoiding confrontations and reacting to situations instead of initiating action; only Ned does that, and he’s the villain of the piece. According to Ernest Schoedsack, O’Brien “didn’t have a story sense, “‘J which may be true, but O’Brien’s approach to stories probably derived from his own sense of life, which would explain his inability to imagine characters who do more than adapt to events that happen to and around them. Creation, if finished, might have become an impressive fantasy film, but probably not a truly exciting adventure.
The filming of effects footage began in November 1930 and included the typhoon
and the emergence of the island, created in a tank with miniatures. The sole surviving test reel contains shots of Ned (Ralf Harolde) wandering through a primeval-looking forest, intercut with both real animals and an animated baby triceratops. Ned shoots the creature and its mother pursues him, but the reel stops before he is killed. The technical work here is O’Brien’s most sophisticated to date, with extremely convincing models, very smooth animation, and an effective combination of the actor with back-projected miniatures. Work continued into 1931, but costs mounted as the production fell behind schedule.
In October 1931, David O. Selznick took over as RKO’s head of production. With
the studio feeling the pinch of the Depression, he halted work on all films, pending an inventory to determine which would be kept and which dropped as too expensive or troublesome; at this point, Creation nearly met the fate of Atlantis. O’Brien’s financial status was equally troubled: On 20 October, Variety reported that he had gone to a bankruptcy referee, declaring assets of $5,866 against $1,752 in liabilities and a $5,516 uncollected judgment in a civil suit.
Luckily for O’Brien, and for film history, Selznick chose Merian C. Cooper to
conduct the studio inventory. Then in his late thirties, Cooper had already had a varied and adventurous career as a flier, fighter, escaped prisoner of war, explorer, and filmmaker. In 1925, he, cinematographer Ernest Schoedsack, and journalist Marguerite Harrison had traveled to southern Persia, where they filmed the Bakhtiari tribesmen in their annual migration. The result, Grass (1925), was one of the first important documentary features. Schoedsack then joined a zoological expedition as photographer. Also aboard was Ruth Rose, whose father had been a playwright and theatrical producer; once an actress, she was now a research technician. On Schoedsack’s return, he and Cooper took a filmmaking journey to the jungles of Siam, but their new picture, Chang (1927), was not planned as a strict documentary. Instead, the two men concocted a simple but exciting plot about a typical native family and then, filming entirely on location, staged the various spontaneous-seeming scenes.
After completing Chang, Schoedsack married Ruth Rose, who joined the team on
their next trip. This was to Africa, where they shot backgrounds and battle scenes for Four Feathers; the stars were filmed later, in Hollywood, and the film reached theaters in 1929. Cooper then entered the aviation business, while Schoedsack and Rose went to the Dutch East Indies, where they made another feature, Rango (1931), about a native boy, his pet baby orangutan (Rango), and the animal’s father.
Meanwhile, Cooper again felt the call of the wild. His friend, W. Douglas Burden—
a scientist and explorer associated with the American Museum of Natural History— had in 1926 visited the island of Komodo and brought two giant lizards back to the Bronx Zoo, where they attracted crowds and were eventually “killed” by civilization. Cooper became intrigued, he wrote years later, “with the possibility of photographing and capturing a giant gorilla … in the hopes of getting one back alive to the United States.” Cooper also imagined that a battle between his gorilla and one of Komodo’s prehistoric throwbacks could be a dramatic part of his movie, and he decided that he would somehow make the animals appear unusually large.10 “I wanted to go to Africa and film it in the real gorilla country,” he said in 1933, “but I couldn’t find anyone willing to put up the money.”11
Cooper had written down some ideas for his proposed film and brought them
with him to RKO. Fate was on his side, for he soon discovered Willis O’Brien’s
preparations for Creation. “When I saw all the prehistoric animals they had lying
around this studio,” he said in 1933, “I decided I’d make my gorilla picture anyway— and make it right here.”12 Cooper had always been more an adventurer and dramatist than a true ethnographer, and a jungle picture made entirely in Hollywood was the logical culmination of his previous projects: Grass was a standard documentary; Chang added a slight storyline and dramatic construction, while still being filmed on location; and Four Feathers was derived from a famous adventure novel, starred major actors, and was partly filmed in a studio. Cooper had traveled the world seeking the epitome of adventure that could, in fact, only be found in a jungle created from his own imagination.
With his inherent sense of drama, Cooper immediately spotted the weaknesses of
Creation, but he felt that some of its elements might effectively combine with his own idea. “The present story construction and the use of the animals is entirely wrong,” he wrote in a December 1931 report to Selznick. “My idea then is to not only use the prehistoric animals for their novelty value, but also to take them out of their present character of just big beasts running around, and make them into a ferocious menace. The most important thing, however, is that one animal should have a really big char acter part in the picture. I suggest a prehistoric Giant Gorilla.”13
“I always believed in personalizing and focusing attention on one main character,”
Cooper recalled in 1964,14 and this filled the dramatic gap in Creation. In addition, Cooper’s choice of a gorilla added an important element that a brontosaurus or a tyrannosaurus could not have provided. “I got to thinking,” he said, “about the possibility of their having been one beast, more powerful than all the others and more intelligent—one beast giving a hint, a suggestion, a prefiguration of the dawn of man.”15 A gorilla’s kinship to human beings would inspire audience empathy in a way impossible for any other type of animal.
“Then the thought struck me,” Cooper continued, “what would happen to this
highest representative of prehistoric animal life in our materialistic, mechanistic civilization? Why not place him at the pinnacle of the tallest building, symbol in steel, stone and glass of modern man’s achievement and aspiration, and pit him against modern man?”16 Starting with this climactic image, Cooper considered how to capture this semi human animal in the first place. “There is only one thing that may undo a brute,” he decided, “provided the brute approximates man, and that is beauty! It is beauty that kindles the spark of something the brute never has sensed before. He is amazed, he is subdued by this strange thing of beauty.”17 So Cooper decided to draw on a latently human facet of the animal—the ability to feel emotion, to respond to abstractions—as the element that raises him above the other beasts and also renders him vulnerable.
These decisions led Cooper to a plot that differs from The Lost World and O’Brien’s sun finished projects in a very significant way: An animal would serve as the emotional and narrative center of the film, and would be as much its “star” as any of the human actors. In addition, the importance of “beauty” to the storyline would make the inevitable female lead an integral part of the plot, not just an arbitrary addition.
RKO had recently hired the British mystery novelist and playwright Edgar Wallace, so Cooper assigned him to develop a script based on his ape ideas. Not long
after, Wallace wrote to his wife that “it is much more his story than mine,” adding, “the story has got to be more or less written to provide certain spectacular effects”18 described by Cooper. At the same time, O’Brien was already filming some effects footage. A full week before Cooper wrote his report to Selznick, Wallace watched him work on a process shot. “The camera shoots against a blue background lit up by about fifty orange arc lamps. It was two men making an attack upon a prehistoric beast. The beast, of course, was not there; he is put in afterwards, and every movement of the men is controlled by a man who is seeing the beast through a movieola, that is to say the film of the beast, and signals by means of a bell every movement that the men make.”19
Thirteen days later, on 25 December, Wallace noted that Cooper had received preliminary approval for the film from RKO’s New York executives. On 30 December, he visited the animation room and “watched the preparation of the giant monkey which appears in this play. Its skeleton and framework are complete. . . .There are two miniature sets with real miniature trees, on which the prehistoric animals are made to gambol.”20 Clearly, Cooper had been so confident of approval that he gave his production a head start, and a script was needed only to provide a context for action scenes that O’Brien was already filming in the guise of tests. The script of what eventually would be titled King Kong continued to evolve during shooting, and, thanks to his status at the studio, Cooper the perfectionist could permit as many rewrites, tests, and retakes as needed to give form to his vision. “I wanted to produce something that I could view with pride and say, ‘There is the ultimate in adventure.’ “21
O’Brien’s feelings at this point must have been mixed. On the one hand, he finally
had full studio backing for an animation project and could indulge to the full, in a
sympathetic environment, his loving passion for minute detail. He also surely recognized Cooper s inherent sense of dramatic structure. At the same time, his project was no longer his. It now was Cooper’s, although O’Brien certainly remained a major collaborator. “Frankly,” said Cooper in 1933, “I didn’t know the details of how we were going to produce these strange prehistoric animals and mingle them with real persons in modern settings,”22 and in later life he stated that King Kong “is as much his [O’Brien’s] picture as it is mine.”23 It was both Cooper and O’Brien who met with Edgar Wallace on 5 January 1932 to discuss his almost-complete script page by page. Nevertheless, final decisions were made by someone other than O’Brien. Without Cooper, O’Brien would probably still be known as the master animator, but with Cooper he became a creator of the finest adventure movie ever made and an enduring modern myth.
The Lost World, via O’Brien and Creation, had a considerable impact on King Kong.
The earlier film, and Doyle’s novel, provided the plot’s basic framework: An expedition explores an isolated location and transports a beast back to civilization, where it escapes. However, the addition of the gorilla and his attraction to the heroine provided a new dramatic core, one that extends the full length of the film and motivates both the humans and the animal.
The Lost World also influenced King Kong in more specific ways. Its brontosaurus
had knocked loose a fallen tree trunk that bridged a chasm, thereby trapping the characters on the plateau, and this became the giant log that Kong shakes to drop his pursuers into a ravine below. In both films, a normal-sized monkey is fond of the heroine, but in Lost World this fact is used only as a means of getting a ladder to the stranded explorers, whereas in Kong it has a thematic function. Later in the 1925 film, as Malone descends on the rope ladder, an ape-man pulls the ladder up; this situation evolved into Kong pulling up the vine by which Jack Driscoll and Ann Darrow try to escape from his cliff domain. In London, the brontosaurus had stuck its head through a window and disrupted a chess game, and a scene filmed for Kong, but discarded, had the ape do the same to a New York poker game. Both creatures arrive at a major urban landmark, but the brontosaurus simply happened upon Tower Bridge, whereas Kong heads for the area’s highest spot, the Empire State Building, because he had lived in a cave on Skull Island’s highest cliff.
In January 1932, Ernest Schoedsack returned from India, after shooting exteriors
for Paramount’s The Lives of a Bengal Lancer. When the studio then delayed production on that film, Cooper brought his friend to RKO. Eventually, Schoedsack directed most of the non-effects scenes of King Kong, but first, in May and June, he co directed (with actor Irving Pichel) the adventure-horror film The Most Dangerous Game (1932). Simultaneously, Cooper used Game’s elaborate jungle set in a test reel of Kong that he was preparing for the studio’s executives. He initially planned to use in Kong three cast members from The Most Dangerous Game—Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong, and Joel McCrea—but McCrea dropped out and Bruce Cabot replaced him.
For the test reel, Cooper filmed a lengthy action sequence that probably began
with the sailors fleeing from a brontosaurus. It continued as an arsinoitherium chases the men onto the fallen tree trunk and Kong drops them into the ravine as Driscoll takes refuge in a cave. When a tyrannosaurus approaches Ann, Kong battles with the intruder, then carries the woman off, with Driscoll in pursuit. This footage impressed RKO’s officials, as well it might, and they gave final approval to the production. Selznick, in turn, fully backed Kong. “One of the biggest gambles I took at RKO,” he later commented, “was to squeeze money out of the budgets of other pictures for this venture.”24
In Edgar Wallace’s version of the screenplay, most of the animal action scenes
resemble those in the final film, probably because they were Cooper’s (and O’Brien’s) contributions. The fact that the Carl Denham character is a circus man seeking wild animals to exhibit also derives from Cooper’s notes. Wallace, however, didn’t so much develop what Cooper provided as alternate it with a new plot thread involving ex convicts who, with a woman and another man, have survived a shipwreck and find themselves on the island. One of the convicts is about to rape the woman when Kong arrives and carries her off. Wallace then mixes the action scenes with some coy inter play between Kong and his captive: He fixes a nest for her, imitates her washing her face in a pool of water, and brings a pterodactyl egg as a gift. Cooper disliked the way Wallace split the plot line and felt that the convicts were too violent and the ape too gentle.
After Edgar Wallace’s premature death on 10 February 1932, other writers worked on the script, including Dudley Nichols, Bartlett Cormack, and Horace McCoy. Finally, James Creelman and then Ruth Rose (Mrs. Schoedsack) took over. It is not clear what changes the interim writers may have made, but Creelman (with input from Cooper and Schoedsack) appears responsible for the final order of events, although his version still introduced Kong during the attempted rape of the heroine. When Cooper suggested having the natives sacrifice her to the giant ape instead, Creelman’s imagination dried up, so Cooper turned to Rose and she added that aspect, while playing up the beauty-and-the-beast parallel and rewriting the dialogue.
A key contribution to the films future success was the decision to base the three
main characters on Cooper, Schoedsack, and Rose. In the final script, Carl Denham is a documentary filmmaker and explorer who has teamed with Jack Driscoll the ship’s first mate, on several expeditions. Denham readily fits Fay Wray’s description of Cooper as a “voluble visionary,”25 and the solid, almost stocky Robert Armstrong evokes Cooper’s appearance, complete with his ever-present pipe. Driscoll(Bruce Cabot), taller and more overtly virile, fits Wray’s description of Schoedsack—the self styled “strong, silent one”26—equally well. Ann Darrow, the actress-turned-adventurer who falls in love with Driscoll, corresponds to Ruth Rose, although Marguerite Harrison, who had accompanied Cooper and Schoedsack on the Grass expedition, may have been another model.
Driscoll, however, is a sailor and not a filmmaker, so Denham also reveals some of
elements of Schoedsack. In real life, Schoedsack was generally the cameraman and Cooper the dramatist, but Denham is both, and some of his dialogue derives from the recent filming of Rango. For example, Schoedsack s trouble with a photographer so afraid of the jungle that he drank himself into uselessness turned into Denham’s explanation of why he operates his own camera: Once, in Africa, “I’d have got a swell picture of a charging rhino, but the cameraman got scared.”
When Denham is chided for taking a woman into danger, he responds sarcastically, “I suppose there’s no danger in New York!” This line originated with Schoedsack who, when asked in 1931 about the dangers of jungle filming, replied, “As dangerous as your poison liquor and your automobiles here in New York, I suppose.” On the same occasion, Schoedsack complained, “Everyone seems to think that stories, to be vital, must contain a love interest. A picture can’t be good unless it’s built around a throbbing scene between a male and a female. That’s a mistake, as Cooper and I tried to show with Grass and Chang.”27 The team’s alter ego, Denham, voices the same opinion in Kong. He doesn’t want to bring a woman along, but “the public—bless ’em!—must have a pretty face to look at. … Isn’t there any romance or adventure in the world without having a flapper in it? … I go out and sweat blood to make a swell picture and then the critics and exhibitors all say, ‘If this picture had love interest, it would gross twice as much. All right! The public wants a girl and this time I’m gonna give ’em what they want!’ “This drawing upon the experiences and personalities of real people gives the film’s characters an inner integrity that helps support the fantastic situations they encounter.
King Kong also reflects the basic theme of its makers’ prior films, which Schoedsack summarized in 1931 as “the elemental clashes. . . between man and nature.”28 Chang’s titles even list the jungle as a character, describing it as a “timeless” and “unconquered” force against which Man, the intruder, must struggle for survival. This image of the jungle as “a great green threatening mass of vegetation” was carried over into the fantasy world of Skull Island.
In Chang, the natives also fear certain beasts: They build high walls to protect their animals from tigers, but even more intimidating is the “giant Chang” or elephant. When a family captures a baby Chang that had trampled their crops, the creatures mother comes to rescue it, destroying their house in the process. The animal chases them to the village and soon a herd of elephants knocks over the buildings, causing general panic. All of this evolved into the Skull Island natives’ fear of Kong, a jungle creature that Denham describes as “monstrous, all-powerful—still living, still holding that island in the grip of deadly fear.”
The main thematic difference between the two films lies in Kong’s nearness to
humanity. The elephants in Chang may be strong, but “stronger still is Man’s Mind,” and so “brawn surrenders to brain” when the beasts are captured and domesticated. To an extent, this is also true of Kong’s capture, but, unlike the elephants, he is never tamed. Kong’s destruction results not from a lack of intelligence but from his attraction to beauty, which makes King Kong not only a human-versus-nature story but also a parable about humanity’s emotional vulnerability.
The parallels to Cooper and Schoedsack and their careers are interesting in them
selves, but they also give the film a remarkable resonance. Real filmmakers who want to make a picture that is “the ultimate in adventure” end up making a picture about a filmmaker who wants to make “the greatest picture in the world,” and when Denham describes “the idea of my picture,” he describes the very film in which he is a character. In a similar boxes-within-boxes situation, actress Fay Wray, playing in an adventure film opposite a giant ape, portrays Ann Darrow, an actress hired to play in an adventure film opposite a giant ape. These characters then find themselves in a “real” adventure that resembles Denham’s fictional plot. In effect, Darrow acts out in “real” life what her director expected her to act out on the screen. Appropriately, a key scene in this “real” adventure takes place on a theater stage, in front of an audience that has come expecting to see a movie, and, as this “real” audience in a theater watches a girl and an ape, it echoes the real audience watching a movie about a girl and an ape, and watching the “real” audience watching. Kong then leaps from the secure distance of the theater stage into his audience’s midst, even while remaining safely on the movie theaters screen.
This inward spiral of illusion and reality probably interested Cooper and Schoedsack and Rose, but it began as an eminently practical solution to the problem of creating a plot. Thus, by having Denham feel the need for a female lead, they have automatically introduced their own female lead, and Driscoll’s love for Darrow becomes his very necessary filmic motivation for chasing through the jungle after her.
Some intriguingly uncomfortable implications arise from this subject matter. The
movie’s audience is intended to sympathize at least partially with Kong, shackled
helplessly as an exhibit to be gawked at by a jaded paying public, and yet this is very close to what Cooper and Schoedsack have done with their own created Kong (and with the natives and animals appearing in their previous features). The implied criticism of Denham and his audience thereby becomes an implied criticism of Cooper and Schoedsack themselves, and of the film’s audience. Cooper, who may or may not have been aware of this, would probably reply that, unlike Denham, he had left his natives and animals safely in their own environment without transporting them to a world where they, like Kong or the Komodo dragon lizards, would have to die.
This valid argument, together with the film’s (and, ultimately, Denham’s) sympathy for Kong, does mute what would otherwise be a disturbingly negative overtone. Certainly, during the long period spent making Kong, the two directors became so closely involved with their creation that Cooper declared, ambiguously, “We should kill the son of a bitch ourselves.”29 So the two aviators seen machine-gunning Kong in the film’s climax are in fact those two real-life aviators, Cooper and Schoedsack; the men who unloosed this creature on an unwary populace have, unlike Carl Denham, fully faced their own unpleasant responsibility and destroyed it.
As directors, Cooper and Schoedsack were far from subtle stylists, but they did
understand dramatic structure and pace. In their bid to make the definitive adventure film, they rightly kept dialogue and character development to a minimum, while including many exciting encounters between people and animals. Unlike many makers of action films, they also realized that a continual series of such encounters satiates and wearies an audience, reducing instead of increasing the excitement. In an early interview, Schoedsack declared that a film should be constructed like a musical com position. It “should build up to climaxes, then allow some rest, then build again. I believe in pace. If necessary I use a stopwatch on the actors.”30 Both The Most Dangerous Game and King Kong evidence the speed and excitement generated by this approach.
King Kong begins with a series of scenes that lead to and depict the journey to
Skull Island. Here, the directors establish all the necessary information, so that the rest of the film can be an uninterrupted series of encounters, chases, climaxes, and pauses. However, they keep these early scenes as short and interesting as possible, with the exposition conveyed in ways that simultaneously move the story forward.
First we meet a theatrical agent who joins Denham, Driscoll, and the Captain on
the ship. The arrival of this outsider provokes dialogue that conveys the basic situation, as he reports that no actress could be found to join the mysterious expedition, which in turn motivates Denham to find someone himself and leads directly to the next scene. With its rapid pace, the film sometimes enters conversations after they have started. For instance, Denham spots Ann Darrow trying to steal some fruit from a vendor and decides to take her to a restaurant, but when we join them there, she has already finished eating, so the scene includes the important dialogue while omitting much unneeded action. Such efficient use of screen time continues throughout Kong.
Several scenes conclude with dramatic “curtain lines” that imply more than they
state. After finally explaining about Skull Island and its unknown beast, Denham is
asked what would happen if it didn’t like having its picture taken. He replies, “Well, now you know why I brought those cases of gas bombs,” followed by a fade out. Soon after, Denham films an on-deck screen test with Ann, asking her to look upward higher and higher and then to scream for her life. After the shock of her screams, the film cuts to Driscoll asking the Captain, “What’s he think she’s really going to see?” and the scene ends. The point has been made, without overstatement.
The developing romance is concisely conveyed in three short scenes. As the ship
sets sail, Driscoll calls Ann a nuisance and barely manages to apologize for an accidental sock in the jaw. Later, he says that she’s “swell,” but adds that “women can’t help being a bother.” Finally, after the natives have expressed an interest in sacrificing Ann to Kong, Driscoll admits, “I’m scared for you! I’m sort of-—I’m scared of you, too. Ann, I—I guess I love you.”They kiss. When Ann is kidnapped by the natives immediately afterward, Driscoll is ready to risk death to get her back.
Visually, these early scenes are efficient and informative, with the directors using
film technique to place subtle stress on the more dramatic moments. Denham’s explanation about the island to Driscoll and the Captain is shown mainly in group shots. Then, during a pause, Denham takes a few steps and we cut to a shot of him alone, as he says, “Did you ever hear of—Kong?” This isolation of Denham heightens the impact of his line, the first mention of the film’s true star.
The staging and structure of the action sequences are ideal. We follow the natives as they tie Ann to an altar and close the giant gate on her.T he script says only that Kong “steps from jungle opening,” but Cooper and O’Brien give his entrance a more dramatic buildup. As Ann squirms and the natives wait, the sound of growls and music that evokes a walking rhythm create anticipation. Some trees move, but we cannot discern the shape behind them until more trees are knocked aside and the ape’s imposing figure emerges.
Only after Kong absconds with Ann does the ship’s crew reappear, and our first real exposure to the jungle comes through them. This section is wisely constructed so that the incidents escalate in danger, intensity, and excitement. First, the crew passes one of Kong’s footprints. Then, they spot a stegosaurus grazing placidly. It sights them and charges, but is quickly knocked out with a gas bomb before doing any harm. Starting with a spectacular scene would have made subsequent events anticlimactic, and because this is the crew’s (and the viewer’s) first contact with the local fauna, what we see is impressive enough. Even so, viewers receive a bonus when the beast, thought unconscious, stirs and
is shot. Then it rises, collapses again, and is finished off with another shot.
Next, the men reach a lake, so they stop to build a raft. Maintaining a rapid pace,
the film dissolves immediately to the task’s completion, efficiently eliding this unexciting activity. As the men pole their craft across the lake, a brontosaurus surfaces beneath it and sends them swimming to shore. But the land offers no safety, for the lumbering animal pursues them there. One seaman seeks refuge in a tree (as a native had when chased by a tiger in Chang), but is plucked from his perch by the long necked dinosaur. The survivors run onto the fallen log, but Kong, at the opposite end, twists it, dropping them to their deaths. Having eliminated the anonymous sailors, Kong turns his attention to Driscoll, who has entered a cave in the ravine wall. When Kong reaches down, Driscoll slashes at the giant hand with his only remaining weapon, a knife. Kong pulls his hand out and viewers are tempted to relax, but suddenly a lizard-like creature climbs up from below. At the last second, Driscoll notices this and cuts the vine, which sends the animal plummeting.
When Ann, who had been placed in a tree by Kong, screams at the approach of a
tyrannosaurus, Kong rushes to her aid. As the two giant creatures struggle, Cooper and O’Brien pull out all the stops, providing spectacular fight choreography and fairly rapid editing. Naturally, ex-boxer O’Brien has the ape throw a few punches at his taller opponent. Kong also tries to topple the dinosaur by grasping its leg, and the two do a somersault together. After Kong falls and knocks over the tree containing Ann, he jumps onto the tyrannosaurus’s back and sets about cracking its jaw. The entire fight, lasting nearly three minutes, contains thirty-one cuts between several camera setups, all of which keep Ann in view so the audience never forgets the danger the huge figures pose to her. (One must remember that separate camera angles require far more effort in an animation film than in live action.) After this impressive climax, toward which the film has carefully built, the audience finally has a chance to rest while the two survivors, Driscoll on one side of the ravine and Denham on the other, decide what to do.
As originally planned, the film up to this point contained even more animal action.
Escaping from the brontosaurus, the crew watches a fight between Kong and several triceratops in an asphalt pit. The shooting script describes the scene: “In the centre is a dry mound to which Kong springs. . . . Kong picks up boulders and hurls them down on the beasts as they try to reach him through the asphalt mire. He kills two. The third retreats.” This last triceratops then pursues the men. (It is not certain that this scene was ever filmed.) When one of the sailors hides behind a tree, the triceratops knocks it over, pins him to the ground, and “gores him to death.”
The rest of the crew, running onto the log, spot Kong on the other side and hesitate, but an arsinoitherium blocks their retreat, and Kong drops them into the ravine, where horrible creatures dwell. The shooting script describes the sailors’ fatein nine shots.
[Long shot] The men at the bottom of the ravine are attacked by giant insects who come
out of caves and fissures to eat them.
[Close-up] The surprised face of a sailor lying in the mud as he sees this.
[Close-up] Face of another sailor staring up in horror from the mud.
[Close-up] Face of a third sailor in the mud, horrified as he sees—
[Medium shot] An insect with octopus arms takes a man.
[Semi-close-up] Its arms wind about the struggling man.
[Semi-close-up] Two men on their backs staring up at a spider who attacks them.
[Close-up] The face of a fourth sailor, fallen in mud, staring in horror as he sees—
[Full shot] A giant lizard takes a man.
While animating the ravine sequence, O’Brien evidently elaborated on this action
and varied the nature of the creatures. As his camera operator recalled, “Obie wanted real snakes for the close-ups” and after he got them “we filmed stuntmen screaming as the snakes wrapped around their bodies.”31
Cooper rightly discarded both the asphalt pit scene, which didn’t directly involve
the characters, and the ravine footage, which deflected attention from the dangers faced by Ann and Driscoll. The result focused the action on the key characters and tightened the film’s pace. Because he completely removed the insects. Cooper also took the trouble to have the spider that had climbed the vine toward Driscoll’s cave replaced with the lizard-like creature. According to Cooper, when he removed the ravine sequence “O’Brien was heartbroken; he thought it was the best work he’d done, and it was, but it worked against the picture, so out it came.”32 Such editorial ruthlessness, exercised for the good of the total film, made Cooper an invaluable collaborator for O’Brien and helps Kong surpass every similar feature made before or since.
Having already provided more excitement than is found in most adventure films,
Kong again starts building tension as Driscoll pursues Kong and Ann, while Denham returns to the gate. When Kong reaches his cliff side lair, another series of scenes leads to a smaller climax. First, the ape fights a serpent-like creature, and in every shot care is taken to include either Ann, huddled in fear, or Driscoll, hiding behind a rock. These shots are made even more complex, technically and visually, by the inclusion of a pool of real water, another pool of bubbling lava, and wisps of rising steam—all of which had to be photographed separately and then combined.
Next, Kong examines Ann, pulling off some of her clothes. Although Schoedsack
stated that this scene was O’Brien’s idea and “done by Obie himself on his own,”33 a version of it appeared in Edgar Wallace’s early script. Not even the shooting script, however, mentions that Kong tickles Ann several times and sniffs her scent on his finger, so those details were added during production. The combination, in a single shot, of Fay Wray in a full-sized hand with the animated model of Kong’s body and his other hand is totally convincing.
When the ape investigates a sound made by Driscoll, a pterodactyl starts to fly off
with Ann, so Kong again bounds to the rescue. By this time, the menace has, in his
defense of Ann, also become a kind of hero. During the fight with the flying reptile, Driscoll and Ann try to escape by climbing down a vine. Kong, victorious over the pterodactyl, pulls the vine up, “reeling” them in. With no other alternative, the couple drop to the river below. (In the shooting script there is no vine, and the two simply jump into the water.) Some shots of Driscoll and Ann swimming and of Kong in pursuit were ultimately cut, briskly condensing the fugitives’ return to the wall.
After this minor climax, another slight pause occurs when Driscoll and Ann are
welcomed by Denham and the others. Suddenly, the action picks up again as Kong
appears and breaks down the barred gate. His rampage through the native village
(evoking that of the elephant herd in Chang) brings the film to a new level of excitement. Here, Kong’s threat is dramatized as he chomps natives between his teeth and stomps others into the mud. This third climax ends as Denham tosses gas bombs at Kong and the giant ape collapses on the beach.
Following the lead of The Lost World (the novel, but not the scenario), King Kong
skips the practical details of hauling the captive back to civilization, dissolving directly to the first night of his public exhibition. After another brief pause, tension again builds until Kong, mistaking the photographers’ flash bulbs for an attack on Ann, breaks loose. The film now provides more thrills, but without just repeating the kind experienced on Skull Islands This time, Kong is the outsider who encounters a strange world.
Kong bites a man plucked from an automobile, then climbs a building in search of
Ann. In a horrifying scene, he reaches into an apartment and takes a young woman from the security of her bed, holding her upside-down, many stories above the street. Her scent is not Ann’s, so he casually drops her to her death. After locating Ann in another room and carrying her off, Kong demolishes an elevated subway train, no doubt thinking it a kind of serpent. This incident, conceived by Cooper after filming had been completed, filled a key gap in the pacing of the New York sequence by providing a needed sub climax.
In the film’s final pause for breath, Driscoll and Denham listen to radio reports of
Kong’s approach to the Empire State Building and decide to attack him with war
planes. From here on, the picture moves rapidly to its tragic-heroic conclusion, as the giant ape is shot by these mechanical pterodactyls and falls to his death. Because of the empathy created for Kong, this one-sided battle becomes the film’s most emotionally involving scene, and the film thereby avoids the danger that its ending might not surpass some of the earlier sequences.
After Ann’s abduction from the ship, King Kong is almost nonstop action, superbly
orchestrated for maximum excitement and imbued with a rare emotional resonance. Thanks to Cooper’s insistence that Kong be shown doing brutal things, and not just defending himself or Ann, our feelings about him are subtly mixed. He is not just a sympathetic victim, although he is that, too.
Nor is the film just a beauty-and-the-beast fantasy, for dialogue extends that concept into the normal, human world. When Denham sees Ann with the ship’s pet monkey, he comments, “Beauty and the Beast, eh?” Driscoll jokingly misinterprets this, saying, “Well now, I never thought I was good looking The sturdy first mate then voices concern about Ann’s safety. “I never knew it to fail,” retorts Denham. “Some big hard-boiled egg gets a look at a pretty face and—bang!—he cracks up and goes sappy. . . .You’re a pretty tough guy, but if beauty gets you—” he warns, then explains: “It’s the idea of my picture. The Beast was a tough guy, too. He could lick the world. But when he saw Beauty, she got him. He went soft, he forgot his wisdom, and the little fellows licked him.” Here, the film broadens its premise to apply to all male-female relations, and the valid idea about vulnerability takes on a tinge of misogyny that (probably unconsciously) adds another edge to viewer response.
Although not a horror film, King Kong has much in common with films in the
genre. The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932), for instance, has an ape kidnap the heroine and carry her over the city’s rooftops. Variety’s description of “the gigantic gorilla and the frail, defenseless girl” in its review of that film (16 February 1932) sums up the horror-monster’s embodiment of primitive passions, of the sexual drive, of the id unleashed and out of control. That, too, is one of the qualities that makes Kong so appealingly dangerous, but it is tempered by his bewilderment and gentleness when faced with glowing blonde beauty, just as Frankenstein (1931) balanced the Monster’s physical menace with a sensitivity revealed by his attraction to sunlight.
Carl Denham, too, has a double edge due to characteristics shared with horror
films. Though not a scientist who creates a monster, he does discover one and, in the process, reveals a blend of admirable ambition and arrogant excess similar to that in Henry Frankenstein, as portrayed by Colin Clive in 1931. Denham’s goal is to do “something that nobody’s ever seen or heard of,” and he is willing to bend the rules to achieve it, by sneaking out of the harbor with a load of ammunition and gas bombs. This and his “reputation for recklessness” lead even Driscoll to ask, “Think he’s crazy, Skipper?” to which the Captain replies, “Just enthusiastic.”
Denham is so obsessive that he loses human perspective. Upon seeing the natives’ ceremony he exclaims, “What a show!” and, when told that a native will be the “bride of Kong,” he responds, “Great!” Denham’s detachment is most apparent when he considers using Ann as bait to lure the ape from his mountain (“We’ve got something he wants”), but his ruthlessness isn’t put to the test because Kong takes the initiative. It is to Cooper’s credit that he allowed, even encouraged, this complexity in his surrogate figure.
The full extent of O’Brien’s contribution to this collaborative enterprise is hard to
assess. Certainly some of the incidents originated with him, and his skill and sensitivity brought Kong to subtly characterized life. Archie Marshek, Cooper’s production assistant, called O’Brien “a husky, hard-drinking Irishman” and stated that “as we watched a certain personality develop in the ape we could see something of Obie showing through.”34 Darlyne O’Brien agreed: “I could see him in every one of its gestures and movements.”35 At the same time, his characterization of Kong is eminently realistic, without any caricature-like excesses. Even the more extreme moments—when Kong wiggles the cracked jaw of the dead tyrannosaurus, when his nostrils and the ridge above his eyes move as he sniffs Ann s scent, and when he plucks a villager’s spear from his behind, tosses it aside, and strides away—avoid the taint of exaggeration.
The script describes Kong as killing the serpentine creature in his cave by squeezing it to death, but O’Brien has him grab one end and slap the body against the ground like a whip, a much more visually dramatic action, but still a natural one. Kong’s reaction to the gas bomb is full of gestures, unmentioned in the script, which prolong his collapse without overstating it: He wipes his eyes, clasps his throat, rubs his eyes with the other hand, slumps onto one elbow, then crawls on all fours until he loses consciousness. Similarly, his end atop the Empire State Building elaborates subtly on the script’s limited description (“He staggers, turns slowly, and topples off roof”). Injured by an airplane s bullets, he touches his chest wound and inspects the blood on his fingers; it is while he pets the reclining figure of Ann that more bullets hit him; he looks up and sneers weakly at a plane; drained, he tilts backwards but grasps the building’s tip, then he leans back again, his grip loosens, and he falls. These actions present Kong’s death simply and straightforwardly, without milking it for sentimentality, building up its brutality, or turning it into an operatic aria.
O’Brien’s attention to detail made the settings into a convincing primeval world.
To create depth and dimension, he used four or five layers of glass paintings depicting trees, mountains, and sky. In between, he placed animation tables containing portions of model sets with real and artificial foliage and creatures to animate. To this, he often added separately filmed bits of actual landscape. The explorers’ plunge into the jungle of Skull Island had to feel like a descent into the imagination’s deepest, most unconscious fears. The plot’s events provide the needed sense of unbridled animal energy, but at least as important are O’Brien’s dense, engulfing jungle and his craggy, barren cliffs and caverns.
King Kong was a triumph for all those involved with it, and especially for O’Brien,
who had fought to establish the validity of his techniques and to use them in a fantastic adventure. Humans and models are extensively combined in the same shot, but not by the primitive double-exposure method of The Lost World. ‘Brien often rear projected live-action footage onto tiny screens placed within the miniature sets, then rephotographed it frame by frame as he animated the models. Having designed this procedure and devised the necessary equipment, he no doubt recalled Herbert Dawley’s actions of years before and this time he patented his idea. He also used the Williams and Dunning matte processes and the recently developed optical printer, which combined separately filmed images onto a new negative.
But superb technical work alone would not have been enough. O’Brien’s feeling
for physical form and texture, his ability to create bigger-than-life creatures out of
tiny models, and the many-faceted plot combine to make King Kong the “escapist entertainment pure and simple”36 that Cooper had sought. It also became such a
basic, evocative fable that later viewers could, with some validity, see it as an allegory about ecology, colonialism, or slavery. Such a masterful combination of insights and talents—and such a lavish investment of production time on detail, on trial an terror—would never again occur in the field of stop-motion animation.
When King Kong premiered on 2 March 1933 in two of New York’s largest theaters, the Radio City Music Hall and the RKO Roxy, it did such impressive business, despite President Roosevelt’s “bank holiday,” that the studio bragged in a Motion Picture Herald ad, “With no money last week King Kong played to 189,402 paid admissions.”37 Such receipts immediately inspired a sequel, which began shooting in April, but one with a small budget, short shooting schedule, and elements discarded from Kong and Creation: some violent and rebellious crewmen, an ancient temple and treasure, and an earthquake that destroys Skull Island. Cooper, who had recently replaced Selznick as RKO’s head of production, now had less time to devote to a single film, so Schoedsack directed alone.
Knowing they could never equal Kong, the filmmakers wisely took a different
approach with Son of Kong (1933). More than half of this short film is spent getting the characters to Skull Island, and the “little” Kong they encounter acts more like a mascot than a menace. In the words of Ruth Rose, “It was a case of ‘if you can’t make it bigger you’d better make it funnier.’ “38 Unlike its intense predecessor, Son of Kong provides relaxing diversion. Even so, its plot is surprisingly realistic, even grim.
The story joins Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) a month after the death of
Kong. Once the epitome of confidence, he now hides from process servers, dodges lawsuits, and voices regret at the ape’s fate. Penniless, Denham flees the city with Captain Englehorn, hoping to survive by hauling cargo among the islands they know so well. Meeting with little success, the former showman pauses on Dakang to attend a tiny circus. Its owner, Petersen, has a drinking problem that cost him a job with a big circus, so he and his daughter find themselves trapped by poverty on the furthest fringe of show business. Their pathetic acts include some costumed musical monkeys and the untalented Hilda Petersen (Helen Mack) singing the aptly titled “Runaway Blues,” as the natives in the audience stare uncomprehendingly.
Petersen’s drinking buddy, Helstrom, is also a runaway, hiding from the law after
losing his ship in an insurance fraud. During a drunken argument, Helstrom hits
Petersen with a bottle, and an upset lamp starts a fire. Waking, Hilda frees the monkeys and drags her father from the flames, but he dies and the monkeys flee. Meanwhile, in a coincidence that is the plot’s biggest weakness, Denham recognizes Helstrom as the man who originally gave him the map of Skull Island. Hoping to escape from Dakang, Helstrom concocts a story about treasure on the island and Denham swallows the bait. After they set sail, Hilda is discovered on board. Like the others, she “just didn’t have anywhere to go,” so she joins this ship of failures.
By the time they reach Skull Island, Helstrom has stirred up a mutiny, and, in the
film’s biggest surprise, the villainous crewmen suddenly spout communist propaganda. “You don’t give us a living wage,” they tell Englehorn, as they set the Captain, Denham, Hilda, and the cook adrift. Although Helstrom expects to take command, he is told, “We’re through with captains on this ship” and the revolutionaries toss him overboard “with the rest of the bosses.”
This unnecessary political overtone must be a case of the filmmakers venting their
own negative opinion of Marxism. Cooper had, years before, fought for Poland
against the Bobheviks, and Schoedsack’s greatest anger while making Kong had been directed at by-the-book union men. “The rest of us were working all night trying to finish up animation scenes, because if you left those little sets standing too long between frames the tiny plants shrink and ruin the effect,” he recalled. One particular employee would “walk off and leave them and it caused us to have some pretty crude scenes. I tried to congratulate him once—’that’s good, you got fifteen feet finished today’—and he snarled and muttered something like, ‘yeah, tomorrow you’ll probably want me to do twenty feet!’ “The snarling and muttering mutineers in Son of Kong represent Schoedsack’s revenge.
On the island, Denham and Hilda discover a young, twelve-foot gorilla caught in
quicksand. The two help him escape, and from then on the grateful Little Kong serves as their guardian angel: He defends them from a cave bear and a dragon-like creature, shakes a tree to provide coconuts, and helps them enter an ancient temple where there really is a treasure. Another dragon conveniently kills Helstrom, then an unexpected earthquake causes the island to sink. Little Kong saves Denham from drowning, and the survivors are rescued by a passing ship. By helping Kong’s son—and having the son like him—Denham has shed the burden of guilt he had carried. At the end, he still has some of the temple jewels, he wins the girl, and the two are presumably freed from lives of aimless futility.
The Dakang scenes contain a realistic sense of human desperation, but on Skull
Island one never feels the presence of real danger. Still, the earthquake provides
impressive spectacle, and Little Kong’s fights are lively, especially the bout with the bear, which is full of tumbling, rolling, and punching. Elsewhere, Little Kong reveals the kind of cuteness avoided in King Kong. After one battle he salutes his friends, then clasps his hands in a boxer’s victory gesture. When Denham and Hilda walk away, the gorilla looks directly into the camera, scratches his head, and shrugs his shoulders. Denham befriended Little Kong because “I felt I owed his family something,” but despite this he—like the film itself—shows little respect for the youthful simian, calling him a “half-wit” and a “big dummy.”
In the climax, as the island sinks, Little Kong stands on a mountain top with Den
ham in his hand; the animal’s foot is caught, but he continues holding Denham above water, even after his own head submerges. When the rowboat pulls near, Little Kong’s hand releases Denham, then disappears underwater. This ending has tragic overtones only if a pet’s self-sacrifice for its master can be called tragic. It is quite touching, however, and not as sentimental as it sounds. At least the filmmakers didn’t have the hand wave a final goodbye before sinking!
One of King Kong’s few weaknesses was the use of a full-size mechanical head for
most of the ape’s close-ups. This head, with a different physical structure than the
model’s and hardly any expressiveness, always broke the illusion created by the animated figure. In the sequel, all of Little Kong’s close-ups use animation, so the overall effect is much more consistent. Son of Kong’s blending of live action and miniatures in the same frame is also more thoroughly convincing than in the first film.
One cannot tell who, besides Schoedsack, determined the different tone of Son of
Kong and its title character. The film lists Ruth Rose as author of the story, but
includes no screenplay credit at all. According to Archie Marshek, Cooper “was ill
during much of the shooting,”40 and researcher Don Shay states that O’Brien
“washed his hands of the entire project, refusing to contribute anything substantial in the way of personal creativity.”41 Reportedly, he left much of the animation to Buzz Gibson, a former grip whom O’Brien had trained. But why would O’Brien react this way? Perhaps he resisted the jokey quality and felt it demeaned the initial accomplishment, yet his early shorts had a broad sense of humor, as did O’Brien himself; Orville Goldner, who worked on King Kong, has even claimed that O’Brien was “always try ing to corn things up” and that Cooper and Schoedsack “had to sit on him about it.”42 If O’Brien did have that tendency, surely he would have enjoyed working on Son of Kong.
Darlyne O’Brien believed that her husband “felt it was too soon to follow King
Kong with a picture of the same type” and took offense at his employers, who “felt that they didn’t even have to consult” him on technical and creative matters any more.43 Another possibility must also be considered. Schoedsack’s comment that O’Brien disappeared into the nearest bar when faced with deadlines could easily apply to this film, for unlike Kong, the sequel was made under extreme time pressure. O’Brien’s mood may also have been affected by a news item published by Variety while Son was still in production. The trade paper stated that, despite King Kong’s profitability, RKO’s New York executives had “rung the finish gong on horror pix” for the studio. The reported reason was the executives’ sensitivity to “the kidding Kong has received inside the industry. Kidding was based on the ultra fantastic angles in the beauty-and-the-beast tale.”44
Nor was O’Brien’s personal life pressure-free. In the years since he had left his wife, she became a victim of tuberculosis and cancer. His older son, William, also contracted tuberculosis and the disease left him blind. These events and the drugs Hazel took for her illnesses probably affected her already precarious mental state. Matters reached a breaking point in early October, just as Son of Kong was being readied for release, when Hazel shot and killed both William (aged fourteen) and Willis, Jr. (aged thirteen), then turned the gun on herself. “My husband is not to blame in any way,” she was quoted as saying. “I just couldn’t sleep and there was no one to leave the kids with.”45 Hazel survived her suicide attempt, but was considered too ill to stand trial; she died in November 1934. As if this were not enough, a woman O’Brien was dating near the end of 1933 was diagnosed with breast cancer and killed herself.
With all of these elements linked together in his mind, it is not surprising that, even fifteen years later, O’Brien was reluctant to discuss Son of Kong.46 At one point in the film, after Denham has bandaged Little Kong’s injured finger, the curious monkey inspects the result with his wrapped middle finger extended. It is tempting to imagine O’Brien, overwhelmed by circumstances and three sheets to the wind, dropping in at the studio and leaving behind this gesture as his comment on life in general.
Ironically, Son of Kong’s Skull Island sequence contains a rapid-fire series of arbitrary but exciting events that recalls O’Brien’s plots for Atlantis and Creation, and however much or little he contributed to the film, it probably reflects his inclinations more than is generally realized. Overall, Son of Kong may not be as “serious” as its parent, but it does capture a young boy’s sense of adventure and is, like the title character, quite likeable. It also illustrates how lucky was the conjunction of personalities and circumstances that produced King Kong.
Life for Willis O’Brien took a turn for the better in 1934, as he courted Darlyne
Prenett, whom he married on November 17, shortly after Hazel’s death. Darlyne evidently matched his personality well, and the two embarked on a stable, enduring relationship. Far less stable, though, was O’Brien’s relationship with the film industry. When Merian Cooper produced She (1935), he changed the setting of H. Rider Haggard’s story from Africa to the Arctic and considered including some O’Brien animated mammoths, but budget reductions cancelled that plan. O’Brien did work on Cooper’s The Last Days of Pompeii (1935), using miniatures and glass paintings to extend partial sets of buildings and to depict the volcanic eruption that destroys the city. For Cooper’s Technicolor feature Dancing Pirate (1936), a tedious musical about a nineteenth-century dancing teacher mistaken for a pirate, O’Brien provided a shot that combined live action with glass paintings to depict a distant ship at anchor.
Finally, in 1938, O’Brien and Cooper began work on a new animation project, this
time with MGM’s backing. Entitled War Eagles, this grandiose story had much in
common with The Lost World and O’Brien’s unmade features, but with an emphasis on flying that surely appealed to airman Cooper. A young pilot and a Challenger-type professor with an eccentric theory venture into an unknown section of the Arctic (as the heroes of She had done). There, they discover a race of Viking throwbacks who ride giant prehistoric eagles and live above a lush valley inhabited by dinosaurs. The pilot engages in some O’Brien-style cowboy action when he ropes and rides a wild eagle. He also romances a Viking woman, after saving her from a tyrannosaurus when a bomb buries the creature in a landslide. At one point, the evolving screenplay also had the Vikings capture an allosaurus and transport it in a large wagon.
When the explorers learn that America is at war, they and the Vikings ride their
eagles to New York, where, in a midair battle, they defeat the enemy’s airplanes. At the end, they perch in triumph on the Statue of Liberty, yielding a patriotic collage of American symbols that probably reveals the response of Cooper, the anti-fascist fighting man, to the growing threat of war in Europe.
Much time, effort, and money were spent making drawings, paintings, and miniature settings, and Marcel Delgado built several models of people and eagles. O’Brien even shot a short test of animated spearmen on their eagles attacking a tyrannosaurus. At about this time, the teenaged Ray Harryhausen contacted O’Brien and described his own experiments with animation, which had been inspired by King Kong. O’Brien invited Harryhausen to the studio, looked at some of his work, and offered much-needed encouragement. Gradually, O’Brien became a mentor to the aspiring animator, who had been born in the same year as one of the sons he had lost.
Sometime later, O’Brien told Harryhausen he had, from the start, felt “an antagonism by the staff at MGM—against somebody coming in from outside and trying to do a picture there.”47 After the outbreak of a real war in Europe prompted Cooper to reenlist in the Army Air Corps, MGM quickly dropped the film. O’Brien then took whatever work he could find, which included joining the team that animated George Pal’s Puppetoon shorts, a team that also included Ray Harryhausen.
At the same time, O’Brien developed new ideas for features, and in the summer of 1941 he and producer John Speaks (who had worked on Pompeii and Dancing Pirate) started effects work at RKO, which had agreed to finance Gwangi. This plot revived several aspects of War Eagles, but on a less elaborate scale. In it, a group of Wild West show cowboys discover a valley in the Grand Canyon that contains prehistoric monsters (but no lost civilization).They try in vain to rope Gwangi, an allosaurus, but only when it is trapped in a landslide can they cart it back as an exhibit. The creature breaks loose, fights some of the show’s lions, and wreaks havoc in the town until a truck forces it over a cliff to its death.
While Delgado constructed an allosaurus model, O’Brien drew detailed storyboards to illustrate the planned action scenes. Ray Harryhausen also recalls seeing “a series of Dioramas in three-dimensional cardboard cutouts for each set-up.”48 After several months of work, but no actual filming, Gwangi—like War Eagles before it—was shelved and by February 1942 Speaks and O’Brien had left the studio. O’Brien then spent about a year in Chicago, doing effects work for military documentaries. Returning to Hollywood, he created glass paintings for such traditional films as Going My Way (1944) and The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945). Even that sort of work was in short supply.
By 1947, O’Brien had celebrated his sixtieth birthday, and, as he struggled to make a living, Merian Cooper—along with Schoedsack and Rose—reentered his life. Together, they began work on O’Brien’s last major feature. A script was completed by September 1947, with revisions added throughout the fall. Then, after more than a year spent on animation and live-action filming, RKO released Mighty Joe Young in the summer of 1949.
As with King Kong, Cooper built this story around an animal. He even borrowed
Kong’s premise: A callous showman brings a giant ape to civilization, with destructive results. However, for King Kong’s 1938 re-release the Hollywood Production Code had compelled RKO to remove Kong’s more violent actions and the scene of him undressing the heroine. As if in response, Cooper turned Mighty Joe Young into a film without emotional complexity, a sentimental fairy tale with no deaths or even injuries, and with a happy ending for the ape.
From Rango, in which a young boy raised an orangutan in the jungle, came the
device of having a child, Jill Young, adopt and raise a baby gorilla, whom she names Joe. Years later, this animal has become more than a pet; “Joe’s the only friend I have,” says the now-orphaned girl. (The fact that Joe somehow grew to abnormal height goes unexplained.) Unlike Kong, Joe is a consistently sympathetic figure, although as an animal and because of his size he is still potentially dangerous.
The pivotal character of showman Max O’Hara plans to open the Golden Safari,
an elaborate nightclub with an African motif. “Nobody’s ever seen anything like what I’m gonna give ’em,” he announces. Borrowing an idea from O’Briens unfilmed Gwangi, Max brings some rodeo cowboys to Africa, to capture animals for use as decor. When the giant gorilla shows up, they try to rope him, too, but without success. Eventually realizing that Joe is tame, Max convinces Jill to perform with her friend as the nightclub’s star attraction.
Like Carl Denham, Max O’Hara derives from Cooper himself. His refrain, “It isn’t
big enough,” even echoes a comment made by Cooper during the filming of King
Kong. Max, however, reflects Cooper (and Denham) in a distorting mirror. Denham had taken his films and expeditions seriously, and the dangers he faced were real, but Max (played, as was Denham, by Robert Armstrong) makes up his adventures from the relative comfort of a camp chair. His goal is publicity, not adventure. This urban type is a fish out of water in Africa, and broad satire turns to farce as Max struggles to saddle a resisting horse. Although Max is a comic figure, the film mocks him affectionately. He may be a self-centered, fast-talking manipulator, but he is also honest, appealingly enthusiastic, and ultimately sincere in his effort to help Jill and Joe.
Max has built his nightclub in Hollywood, and Cooper’s treatment of the film cap
ital is far less gentle than his handling of Max. Ruth Rose’s screenplay refers to the
Golden Safari’s architecture as “very garish and in the worst possible taste,” a description that also fits its grotesquely excessive decor, with lions pacing in glass cages behind the bar, a clutter of fake trees and vines, and the orchestra perched in an elaborate “tree house.” Over the years, however, some viewers have mistaken this satirictackiness for the real thing.
The nightclub’s customers—the inhabitants of Tinseltown—also receive harsh
treatment in the script, which describes them as “over-dressed” and “underbred.” The fans who besiege Jill outside the theater are equally pushy and rude (“Gimme your autograph!”). Originally, the film also contained a long scene in which Max introduces Jill to Taylor Z. Bascombe, “the biggest shot in town,” who embodies the worst aspects of Hollywood producers as he and his friends make condescendingly crude jokes about “the farmer’s daughter” and reveal their arrogant ignorance of Africa. After clumsily spraying the distraught Jill with champagne, Bascombe embraces her “with mock solicitude.” However, after a preview of Mighty Joe Young, Cooper eliminated this scene (and a few other, shorter segments), which tightened the film’s pace but also weakened its criticism of Hollywood’s denizens. Nevertheless, the shallow, obnoxious customers and fans remain in the film. With Cooper drawing on his own nearly two decades of exposure to Hollywood, the glamor and bright lights with which Max tempts Jill are shown to be much overrated.
The film treats the full-grown Joe’s first appearance in Africa matter-of-factly, by
abruptly cutting to a full shot of him, but Joe’s entrance onstage at the Golden Safari is much more impressive and ingenious. As Jill sits at a piano playing his favorite song, “Beautiful Dreamer” (“Old Black Joe” in the screenplay), the nightclub’s audience starts to feel cheated. Then Jill’s platform rises and Joe emerges into view standing on an elevator stage, holding the platform above his head. While the stage below him slowly rotates, Joe poses like a Las Vegas showgirl and the amazed patrons gasp, then burst into applause.
This introduction is quickly followed by a tug-of-war between Joe and several
wrestlers. Although relatively innocuous, this act subtly shifts the performance’s mood as the customers’ response changes from awe to laughter. The show is a hit and seven teen weeks pass, but spending his off-hours in a cage depresses Joe, and their new act disturbs Jill: Joe is dressed like an organ grinder’s monkey, and the customers throw fake coins at the stage and at Joe. (This sad, demeaning treatment of an animal recalls the costumed musical monkeys seen in Son of Kong.)
Just when Jill (Terry Moore) and cowboy Gregg Johnson (Ben Johnson) find them
selves in love and decide to take Joe back to Africa, three drunken customers shatter their hopes by sneaking backstage and plying Joe with liquor, then burning his hand. Joe loses control, breaks free, and destroys the nightclub. No one is injured, and Jill guides Joe back to his cage, but a judge nonetheless orders Joe shot. Max finally realizes that Joe and Jill “don’t belong here” and arranges to smuggle them and Gregg back home. On their way to a waiting freighter, they pass a burning orphanage and stop as Joe helps the couple rescue some trapped children. After this good deed, Joe is officially forgiven and allowed to return to Africa.
Mighty Joe Young’s exaggeration and simplicity keep it from equaling the achievement of King Kong, but the changes do give the new film a distinctive, independent identity. With his slouch and low-hanging arms, Joe looks more like a real gorilla than Kong did, and numerous animated close-ups allow him to register curiosity, concern, and anger, while his bright eyes and expressive mouth further define a winning personality. True, Joe’s cuteness sometimes goes too far, as when he sits in the back of a truck drumming his fingers on his knees, but, more important, the film evokes the desired emotions. Even reluctant viewers will find themselves rooting for Joe’s survival and possibly shedding a tear or two at the climax.
Realizing that he needed an assistant, O’Brien typically followed his nature by hiring Ray Harryhausen, the young man who had first met his mentor nearly ten years before. “Most of Obie s time was, by necessity, consumed in planning and devising ways of doing the many complicated shots,” Harryhausen recalls. “He only had time to actually animate four or five scenes. He animated several shots of the nightclub and two or three of the roping scenes.”49 Ultimately, Harryhausen did 80-85 percent of Mighty Joe Young’s animation.
One of the film’s grips, Pete Peterson, also expressed an interest in animation, so
O’Brien gave him a chance, and Peterson, who suffered from multiple sclerosis,
revealed patience and skill. “Obie was so sympathetic to anyone who had an illness like Pete’s,” recalled Darlyne O’Brien. “Even if he hadn’t been a good animator, I’m sure that Obie would have put him on the film. As it turned out, he was a wonderful animator.”50 Peterson’s work can be seen in the piano act and Joe’s escape in the truck, plus occasional shots elsewhere. Peterson married after completion of Joe, but his wife died three months later; O’Brien was bound to identify with Peterson’s troubles, and, after Harryhausen left to make his own films, O’Brien and his new surrogate son continued to work as a team during the 1950s.
Part of O’Brien’s time during preproduction was spent in debate with Merian
Cooper. Don Shay records that O’Brien “wanted to have another ferocious gorilla
escape from its attendants in the cellar [of the nightclub] and come up on stage where Jill Young is performing. Her screams were to have reached Joe, who was then to have broken out of his cage and engaged in a destructive battle with the other gorilla.”51 Cooper overruled O’Brien on this point, and rightly so, for this action—like many aspects of O’Brien’s unproduced plots—lacks originality: It is too much like Kong’s theater scene, whereas Coopers version omits the visual redundancy of a second gorilla, lets Joe’s drunken stagger add to his personality, and ultimately arouses more sympathy for the animal.
For the film’s climax, according to Harryhausen, O’Brien argued to have Joe and a
second gorilla “let loose in San Francisco on top of a cable car, beating the heck out of one another as the cable car broke loose going down the hill!”52 Cooper also rejected this visually striking but far-fetched idea and replaced it with the more emotionally involving orphanage sequence, even though it meant that the film lacked an all-out fight between giant creatures, something which O’Brien clearly desired.
Technically, Mighty Joe Young functions on a high level of accomplishment, with
totally natural animated movements and the flawless knitting together of live and animated action in a single shot. The roping sequence is a fine example, as horsemen gallop across the screen in front of and behind Joe, tossing ropes over his head and being plucked off their mounts as they pass. Rapid editing among various camera positions further increases the excitement. Other highlights are Joe’s destruction of the night club, which includes considerable interaction with people and lions, and the rescue at the orphanage, which faces the major challenge of combining fire with animation.
These spectacular scenes are supplemented with quiet but affecting moments, as in the epilogue of Max watching a filmed greeting from Africa. At first Joe just stares into the camera. Then he sees Jill and Gregg waving and, after awkwardly trying it himself, finally catches the rhythm and waves a friendly goodbye to Max and the film’s viewers. Mighty Joe Young also manages to avoid King Kong’s few flaws, such as the dummies that fall limply into the ravine and the mechanical head and foot used for close-ups, but unfortunately the miniature humans and vehicles used in several shots are unconvincing.
O’Brien and his staff filled Mighty Joe Young with bits of action, many of which were added during the animation. In Joe’s first scene, the script has him push over a lion’s cage, which breaks, freeing the occupant. The film, instead, has him smash the cage open with his fists, trip on it as he pursues the lion, and throw a rock at the escaping feline. In another addition, during the roping sequence Joe tackles a horse and picks the rider up by his foot. The orphanage climax is extended beyond what the screen play includes by having Joe save the last child a second time, when the building’s wall starts to fall. The shooting script was already full of events, but these and other additions further contribute to the film’s richness of detail and to the gorilla’s personality.
For this film, O’Brien again used large glass paintings to fill out the settings and
miniature projection to combine live action with animation, but less extensively than in King Kong, for Mighty Joe Young is narrower in scope—there are no prehistoric beasts or dense jungle settings. However, production costs in general had risen since 1933 and the film cost far more than its predecessor. In addition, as Harryhausen explains, “all the overhead of the studio got dumped on our picture,” which made it appear to be even more expensive.53
As a result, Mighty Joe Young did not make much of a profit, so discussions about a possible sequel (Joe Meets Tarzan) did not progress far. But O’Brien won an Academy Award for the film’s special effects and he managed to interest producer Jesse Lasky and Paramount Pictures in another of his stories, known variously as Emilia and Guloso, ElToro Estrella, and Valley of the Mist. This is the first of O’Brien’s original stories to include a human interest element, one resembling that in Mighty Joe Young, only with the sex and nationality changed: A Mexican boy raises a pet bull, but unlike Joe Young, this animal is normal sized. In need of money, Emilio’s father sells the bull, Guloso, to a producer of bullfights. Knowing that this means death for his friend, the boy is distraught.
Onto this situation, O’Brien rather awkwardly grafted the remnants of Gtvangi.
Emilio investigates tales told by the local Indians, discovers the inevitable valley of
dinosaurs, and—with the Indians’ help—captures an allosaurus, which he intends to trade for the life of his pet. When plans go awry, the dinosaur escapes and enters the ring, where Guloso kills it after a furious fight. In one version of the story the bull then dies of its wounds, but in another it gets to live.
Because O’Brien reportedly wrote this story in 1944, it very likely influenced
Mighty Joe Young. By the same token, O’Brien himself had probably been influenced by “My Friend Bonito,” a similar tale about a boy and his bull—but no dinosaurs—written by Robert Flaherty; in 1941, while O’Brien was preparing Gwangi at RKO, “Bonito” had been set for inclusion in Orson Welles’s never-finished RKO film, It’s Alltime. At any rate, O’Brien spent six months preparing Emilio and Guloso, with Harryhausen again assisting, but money problems arose and Lasky terminated the project.
O’Brien later sold his story to producers Edward and William Nassour, whose all animated short feature, Emilio and His Magical Bull, did not appear until 1975, and then only briefly. Incidentally, another story about a boy and his bull, also without dinosaurs, was filmed as Tlte Brave One (1956) and won an Academy Award, which caused turmoil in Hollywood when its credited author, Robert Rich, turned out to be the then-blacklisted Dalton Trumbo. It remains unclear whether Trumbo conceived his plot independently or derived it from either O’Brien s or Flaherty’s.
Around 1952, Ray Harryhausen told O’Brien that he had a chance to work on a
low-budget project, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. Darlyne O’Brien recalled that the older man responded, “I would prefer to make better pictures. I don’t want to make the smaller, cheaper pictures.”54 But O’Brien was still unwilling or unable to promote himself and, according to Darlyne, “he just sat back and waited, thinking that someone would come along with a story that they would want him to do. But nothinghappened.”55 Cooper did contact O’Brien about filming H. G.Wells’s The Food of the Gods and also considered using the new Cinerama process for a picture about events that occurred during the transfer of Kong from Skull Island to New York. Neither of these ideas moved much beyond the talking stage.
O’Brien was not financially secure and needed to work, so he eventually had to deal with the independent, low-budget producers who were making imitations of Harryhausen’s The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, but his luck was bad even in that realm. To the Nassour brothers, he sold another story spin-ofF from Gwangi, in which a rancher, accused of killing cattle and murdering a business rival, claims that a giant animal is actually responsible. When the deputy sheriff and an Indian companion investigate, they find and capture the creature, but on the way to town it escapes and terrorizes the citizens until the deputy kills it with an improvised spear. O’Brien, expecting that he would later be hired to do the animation, also sold his Gwangi model to the Nassours, whereupon they “promptly dismembered” the creature,56 studied its construction, and supervised the animation themselves! Then, in publicity for The Beast of Hollow Mountain (1956), they rubbed salt in the wound by bragging about the originality of their “Regiscope” process.
The final screenplay eliminates the murder, adds a romantic rivalry, and spends so
much time developing the characters’ rather familiar problems that the dinosaur doesn’t even appear until the last quarter of the film, at which point it conveniently resolves those problems. It also has the rancher do his own investigating and limits the scope of the climax by having the monster threaten only a few people in a cabin. Its new finale, however, is well-conceived, as the hero (Guy Madison) swings out over some quicksand to lure the creature to its death. Despite these changes, the juxtaposition of cowboys with an allosaurus remains pure O’Brien, and The Beast of Hollow Mountain may also reveal his influence in its Mexican setting, its references to native legends, and the supporting character of a poor Mexican boy.
Even working on a low budget, O’Brien would surely have created a far more convincing beast than the one the Nassours provided, which runs awkwardly and holds its floppy forearms like a begging dog’s paws. In close shots, the creature repeatedly bares its teeth and waggles its unbelievably long tongue, but otherwise the model reveals little flexibility. Most of the time, animated shots are intercut with separate shots of the live action; when the two are combined, the background figures sometimes appear out of focus.
O’Brien had more success with producer Irwin Allen, who employed him to
supervise the prehistoric sequences of his documentary Tfw Animal World (1956), with Ray Harryhausen doing the animation. Of course, humans did not coexist with dinosaurs, but Allen wanted to include a little menace, so after the narrator states that man had not yet been created, he adds, “but if he had been—” and we see a brontosaurus pick up an animated cave man and walk out of the shot with him in its mouth, screaming. The film includes a confrontation between a brontosaurus and an allosaurus, but no fight. A brontosaurus egg hatches. A ceratosaurus kills a stegosaurus, then another ceratosaurus leaps into the shot, and as the two fight over the carcass they fall over a cliff (in live-action model footage). When a triceratops and a tyrannosaurus are about to fight, a volcano erupts, the ground shifts, and the tyrannosaurus falls into a newly opened crevasse—a cataclysm the film uses to represent the end of the dinosaur era.
“Irwin Allen said take all the stops out and make it bloodthirsty,” recalls Harryhausen, “because he had a lot of shots in the picture of lions and tigers tearing animals to pieces… so I went completely wild, having a ceratosaurus rip ofF a big slab of a stegosaurus’s flesh, dripping blood.”57 After a preview, however, Allen backed down and removed the gory shots, both animated and live action. Nevertheless, O’Brien and Harryhausen made this nine-minute slice of dinosaur life the most memorable portion of The Animal World.
In a frustrating twist of fate, O’Brien, who disdained the kind of low-budget film
that Ray Harryhausen had begun making, next found himself working for the same producer, Jack Dietz, and director, Eugene Lourie, with whom Harryhausen had made The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. According to Paul Mandel, Dietz initially hired Lourie to direct The Black Scorpion (1957), and Lourie contacted O’Brien and Pete Peterson to do the effects. The two were then “working out of Peterson’s garage,”58 so O’Brien was reduced to the improvised conditions that Harryhausen himself had recently escaped.
After some preliminary work, Lourie left the project and Edward Ludwig took
over as director, but O’Brien and Peterson stayed, despite the short rime (about three months) budgeted for the animation. The pair spent part of their working time in Mexico City. “We lived in a hotel rather than having an apartment,” said Darlyne, “and we didn’t come home with any money at all. But it was fun, it was worth going.”59 O’Brien, now in his seventies, supervised the effects for Scorpion, with Peter son doing the animation sitting down because of the pain caused by his illness.
Them, the popular 1954 movie about giant ants, provided the model for Tlte Black
Scorpion’s screenplay, but although O’Brien made no acknowledged contribution to the writing of Scorpion, aspects of the new film suggest that he had some input. Whereas the menaces in Tliem are mutations caused by atomic radiation, the giant scorpions are prehistoric creatures freed by an erupting volcano from their cavern far below the earth’s surface. Other elements by now associated with O’Brien are the Mexican setting, the natives’ superstitious belief in a “demon bull,” and the climactic confrontation in a bullring. In both Scorpion and Tlie Beast of Hollow Mountain, mysterious disappearances (of people in one case, cattle in the other) frighten the natives, and fearful cowboys desert their ranch. Each film also features an orphaned boy played by Mario Navarro; in addition, two other Mexican actors have roles in both pictures, which at least reveals that the producers were familiar with Hollow Mountain.
Although The Black Scorpion’s humans have little personality, the script’s major
weakness is the way characters often announce important revelations to each other. A local doctor tells the hero (Richard Denning) about a wound in the back of a victim’s neck, the venom in his system, strange bacteria found in soil samples, and a large, clawed footprint. Later, the second male lead (Carlos Rivas) shows him a scorpion embedded in a piece of obsidian, a doctor from Mexico City offers more information, a military man reveals that some scorpions may have escaped from the sealed cavern, and a news broadcast announces that the largest beast has killed all the others and is headed for Mexico City. The film’s failure to include scenes that dramatize these discoveries may be due partly to its low budget, but it also reveals the writers’limited imaginations.
But if the human actions lack vitality, the scenes with animation—the parts over
which O’Brien and Peterson exerted control—look impressive and stir the imagination. In the scorpions’ first appearance, as they kill three telephone linemen, we discover the threat posed by their massive size, their rapid movements, and the lethal sting in their raised tails. They also demonstrate the agility and strength of their front claws, plucking a man from his pole and hurling a truck into the distance. In one especially intimidating shot, a scorpion runs toward and over the camera. This builds into an attack on the ranch, then on the nearby town.
During the film’s centerpiece sequence, the geologists played by Denning and
Rivas (along with the boy, a stowaway) explore the cavern, eluding numerous scorpions and other, even more exotic, denizens of the shadowy depths. One scorpion kills an equally large worm-like creature, then an even bigger scorpion kills the first and devours the worm. Later, a trapdoor spider chases the boy, until killed by the men’s gunfire. This thirteen-minute adventure in an alien world offers viewers an exciting range of horrifying encounters and bizarre images.
Before the film’s climax, O’Brien and Peterson provide another striking scene as a
railroad train crashes into a scorpion that straddles the tracks. Even though this event derives from one in King Kong, the turmoil that ensues has its own grotesque power: Scorpions swarm over the wrecked cars, grasping people in their claws and fighting among themselves. Finally, the remaining creature is lured into the stadium, where it uses its powerful claws to destroy several helicopters and tanks before being electrocuted.
Despite the film’s low budget and the less-than-ideal working conditions, O’Brien
and Peterson provided first-rate animation, but other factors sometimes undermine their efforts. The cavern sequence contains far too little interaction between the humans and the models, with the men reduced to watching events from the sidelines and taking pictures. Elsewhere, interaction usually occurs only in long shots that can include animated models of people. One shot of scorpions moving past the camera is used several times in the cavern to suggest a large mass of creatures, and the same shot turns up again during the train scene. Simple cost-cutting is probably to blame for these lapses.
In other scenes, the action feels incomplete or unresolved. The scorpions’ attack on the town, for example, just fades out during the panic, and we never learn how the creatures were repelled. During the cavern sequence, whenever the men are threatened, the danger passes abruptly, and the attack on the train doesn’t build to its climax, forcing the newscaster to fill in the gaps. In some shots that combine a scorpion with live action, the creature is seen as a giant silhouette, which suggests that the process work that would have matted the model into that space was never completed. These weaknesses give credence to a report that the film’s producers ran out of funds and left the effects unfinished. Another weakness is the frequent use of a mechanical, constantly drooling, and totally unconvincing scorpion face.
O’Brien worked again with Eugene Lourie on a low-budget British film released
in 1959, Behemoth the Sea Monster (U.S.: The Giant Behemoth). Producer David Diamond assigned the effects to a company headed by Jack Rabin and Louis DeWitt, who had contributed to The Brave One and The Beast of Hollow Mountain. They, in turn, subcontracted the animation to O’Brien and Peterson, who this time had even less money to work with and only about six weeks to do the animation.
Lourie modeled his screenplay for Behemoth on The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. In both, a dinosaur emerges from the sea and terrorizes a major city; explosives cannot be used on the creatures for fear of contaminating the city (with germs in Beast and radioactivity here). Because the behemoth is already dying from its radioactive charge, scientists suggest hastening the process with a dose of radium. In the climax, a specially prepared torpedo is fired into the menace from a submarine, a situation taken from another of Ray Harryhausen’s films, It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955). Also from The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms comes an eccentric, enthusiastic paleontologist (with lean Jack MacGowran replacing the avuncular Cecil Kellaway). Discarded, however, is the earlier film’s attempt to explain the origin of its creature, which here simply exists.
Making Behemoth in England seems to have released Lourie’s creativity as both
director and screenwriter, for his noncreature scenes reveal a satisfying use of British style documentary realism, with much on-location filming. At the same time, his visual style makes consistent use of tightly framed compositions and expressive camera angles, such as a high-angle shot with a woman in the foreground on the left, her fisherman father on the shore below in the center, and, on the right, his boat and a rock that counterbalances the woman’s form.
The film takes the time to show its hero, Steve Karnes (Gene Evans), using a photographic process to test some specimens of fish for radioactive contamination. This activity is interesting to watch and provides the kind of dramatized discovery of information that Vie Black Scorpion had avoided. Also noteworthy is the concise depiction of a ferry’s departure, which cuts together a series of well-chosen details that summarize the action and identify the passengers. This sequence could stand alone as an effective documentary, but here it takes on a poignant overtone because the viewer assumes—rightly—that the behemoth will soon disrupt this familiar, orderly activity.
Lourie gives his characters personality, while avoiding exaggeration. For example,
he contrasts the American scientist’s impulsive impatience with the discreet diplomacy and quiet seriousness of his British counterpart (Andre Morell), but does so without making them opposites or putting them in conflict. As written and acted, the film’s humans are often distinctive and always natural. In keeping with this approach, Lourie avoids involving his main characters in a romance.
One rather original plot point is the fact that this creature carries a charge of electricity, which projects its radioactivity outward, burning anyone nearby. This characteristic allows the behemoth to kill people without making physical contact with them, which in turn permits Lourie to involve the beast throughout the story— despite the very limited effects budget—by focusing solely on the victims’ reactions. Of course, it would be more interesting and dramatic if the creature were shown at these times, but the compromise serves its desired purpose and is preferable to avoiding such scenes entirely.
Later, when we do see the animated creature roaming London, its radioactive aura remains the main danger, so Lourie can intercut animated shots with live action and avoid the added expense of shots that involve both. The radiation is not projected continuously, however, and on one occasion the animal’s neck pushes against the top of a building, followed by a live-action shot of a wall landing on some people. Only once does the behemoth attack anyone directly, but because it picks up an occupied automobile in its mouth, then tosses it into the river, a model vehicle is used in a totally animated long shot. The few images that combine the creature with live action are unimpressive, with the creature placed in the background, behind a building.
Overall, the alternation between dramatic angles of frightened citizens and close
shots of the beasts head or side give the sequence energy and create a limited sense of involvement. The animal model itself appears to have less flexibility than it should, or else O’Brien and Peterson lacked the time to provide fluid movement. Nevertheless, the animation is always at least competent and makes the best of the limited activity granted the creature, which mostly just strides and roars.
While guiding the giant behemoth around London, and especially when the creature’s weight shatters a bridge and plunges it into the Thames, O’Brien must have recalled 77ie Lost World and the very similar climax he had animated more than thirty years before. Once the originator, O’Brien was now—in his seventies—reduced to cutting corners on a deliberate copy of a film made by his own protégé. Under the circumstances, he surely felt elated when producer-director Irwin Allen revealed his plans for a major remake of The Lost World and hired O’Brien as technical adviser. The two had previously collaborated on The Animal World, so Allen knew the virtues of animation and understood what was involved. At last, after a decade in the wilderness of low-budget productions, O’Brien could envision his career coming full circle with one last elaborate feature. Perhaps his patience would finally be rewarded.
Allen’s production was backed by 20th Century-Fox, which in 1959 released the
popular Journey to the Center of the Earth. The studio’s executives no doubt saw their new film as a follow-up to that success, and they wanted to have it in theaters the following summer. That meant that Allen had to work fast, faster than O’Brien’s time consuming techniques would allow. Journey to the Center of the Earth had used live lizards instead of animated models, and that hadn’t hurt its box-office reception, so why not—for the sake of efficiency—adopt that method? At some point, Allen became convinced and would not be dissuaded, although O’Brien prepared drawings and paintings in an attempt to convince the producer of his error. Shortly after the film’s release, O’Brien told an interviewer, in his typically reserved way, “They claim that the live technique looks smoother, that animation is jerky. I don’t think so.
Ultimately, O’Brien had no influence on the film’s special effects, the absurdity of
which is heightened by the fact that lizards with appendages attached are explicitly identified as dinosaurs. In addition, the characters are unconvincing and the film itself condescends to its subject. Allen, probably hoping to make a sequel, even omits the original’s climax, ending the film before Professor Challenger (Claude Rains) returns to London with a baby tyrannosaurus. “The story is completely changed,” O’Brien told an interviewer. “You wouldn’t recognize it.”61 All in all, the fact that O’Brien’s name appeared in the credits of The Lost World (1960) simply aggravated his by-now substantial wounds.
But instead of nursing those wounds, Willis O’Brien—as he had so many rimes
before—set to work and wrote a new story that he could animate, one that incorporated some of his rejected ideas for Mighty Joe Young: King Kong vs. Frankenstein. This contrived plot has two sets of showmen separately discover Kong and the fifty-foot Frankenstein Monster and bring them to San Francisco, where the creatures break loose and fight on top of a cable car. Producer John Beck purchased the story, then drifted out of contact.
Meanwhile, Linwood Dunn, who had contributed to the optical effects of King
Kong, hired O’Brien to work on It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963). For this long and rather ponderous comedy, director Stanley Kramer planned to use animation during an elaborate climax in which the characters dangle from a loose fire escape. At about this time, O’Brien learned that King Kong vs. Frankenstein had found its way to Japan and been filmed as King Kong vs. Godzilla, with the monsters played by men in clumsy, unconvincing suits. An English-dubbed version, with numerous scenes added by John Beck, was released in 1963.
These two events marked the end of O’Brien’s life and career. On 8 November
1962, he suffered a heart attack and died. In familiar fashion, he had placed his confidence in someone who had let him down. In equally familiar fashion, he was depending on that person to put together a production that would give him work and a creative outlet. He was still the dependent independent, the vulnerable youth who decades before had lost his horses and his furs to some acquaintances. At the same time, at the age of seventy-six, he was still adapting, still optimistic, still nurturing his imagination. He never retired and was just starting to work on It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World when the end came.
Reporters rarely interviewed the taciturn Willis O’Brien. However, during the
1950s he sketched out numerous ideas for films, ranging from mere fragments to
more fully developed plots, and in some of those which have been published62 he
unconsciously reveals himself far more clearly than any interview would have done. First, though, one must pare away the borrowings from films made and unmade: the entrepreneurs who hunt for animals to exhibit and the cowboys who rope elephants in Burma, the Yeti who saves a human friend by holding him above water, the bearlike creature that shakes a cable car until its occupants fall to their deaths, and the captured dinosaur that is pulled in a portable trap on wheels. These situations reveal O’Brien casting about for a new success by placing modified fragments of his cinematic past in fresh contexts.
At times, however, O’Brien breaks away from the formula that he helped define,
and when that happens the inner man shines through. Children appear several times as key figures in the imaginings of this man in his seventies, and here O’Brien forgets about dinosaurs, concentrating instead on the boys themselves. Nothing about these sketches suggests that O’Brien was dwelling on his own lost sons; rather, he seems to be casting back to his own youth, while embodying in these figures an idealized image of his adult nature.
In “Bounty,” two paragraphs of semiautobiographical musings, a lonely, indepen
dent twelve-year-old who had been a farmhand finds himself on the San Francisco waterfront. He “thought that he might like to work on one of the ships and travel to far-off lands, but his stomach told him he was hungry.” In this one line, O’Brien concisely reveals his life-long attraction to the adventurous fantasies that real life with held, and the continually conflicting pull of mundane needs.
Another such character, a Mexican boy obviously inspired by the one in Emilio and Guloso, possesses a “persistent optimism” much like O’Brien’s own. Despite poverty and numerous tribulations, Pepe’s “heart was pure,” and therefore things always seemed “to work out miraculously” for him, if not for the man who created him. A different story contains one of the more distinctive figures that O’Brien had hoped to animate: the gentle, childlike Umbah, a fifteen-foot giant with a “simple heart.” Also surprisingly childlike is the Yeti encountered in still another tale. This quality of simplicity and purity extends to O’Brien’s more sympathetic adult males and their relationships with animals. One man keeps a giant eagle as a pet and another has his face licked by a brontosaurus (as the farce of O’Brien’s early short films evolves into a kind of sentimentality).These docile creatures offer no threat to their sensitive friends.
People, however, are a different matter. Interaction with humans works out well in the idealized life of little Pepe, but O’Brien’s adult males—like the boy on the water front—seek escape from the real world, from responsibility and other people. They look for refuge in their own imaginations, in the secure affection of animals, and in nature and solitude. “It seemed like a man ought to be able to do about what he wanted, away off in the country,” thinks a character named Andy, “but he guessed people made everybody’s business their own in this day and age.” So he mounts his giant eagle and flies on its back to the mountains. “This was a new experience for Andy, and he enjoyed every minute of it,” writes O’Brien, enviously.
Such adventurousness, however, represents only one aspect of O’Brien, an aspect
that resided more in his mind than in his deeds. The man’s internal conflict emerges clearly in the contrasting main characters of “Matilda.” Elmos is “shy” and a “dreamer,” a man who “didn’t want his dreaming disturbed by conversation” and has a “penchant for making pets of animals.”The essentially passive Elmos is paired with his friend Horace, a promoter who has “a flair for fantastic ideas,” but whenever Elmos tries one of Horace’s plans, it fails. During their main adventure, the two find themselves stranded on an island and Horace, “ever the optimist,” looks forward to the unknown, while Elmos misses “his quiet life at home.”
In reality, O’Brien endured the vicissitudes of life and work with patience and
humor, immediately rebuilding his web each time it was destroyed, adapting and
accepting rather than setting forth aggressively. Yet he was neither impossibly virtuous nor naively blind. Frustration was not foreign to him, and he clearly felt the ironies and inequities of his career. At times, he even let it show, as when a model-maker asked him if the miniature cranes he had built for Behemoth were good enough and O’Brien replied, “They’re too goddamned good.”6-1
Responding to publicity gimmicks, such as the “Regiscope” animation process
used by the Nassours on The Beast of Hollow Mountain, O’Brien wrote in a foreword to his Yeti story, “If my third-dimension animation requires a name, it could be ‘Origination,’ since I was the first in this field.” In this story, O’Brien states that “greed continues to be a constant companion” of the explorers, and the showmen who embody that quality are suitably punished. An even more explicit revelation of anger and wish-fulfillment appears in “The Last of the Oso Si-Papu,” in which the villain is a producer of low-budget monster movies who wants to film a real creature to save the cost of special effects. This man hijacks the animal from the scientists who captured it and in the climax is killed, as it were, by his own cost-cutting greed.
Willis O’Brien couldn’t help but see himself as a lonely dreamer buffeted by the
selfish materialism of Hollywood’s film industry, but bitterness never controlled
him. The fact that O’Brien’s career had peaked in 1933 was not for him the tragedy it might have been for many others, because he lived life in his own way and seems to have placed limited demands on existence. If good things and bad things are equally arbitrary, one simply takes what comes and carries on, without overreacting to either the good or the bad. If this means not savoring the heights of elation, it also means not suffering the depths of depression. What O’Brien had, instead, was satisfaction in the moment. His glass, more often than not, was half full, not half empty. “He was,” recalled his widow twenty years after his death, “very young for his age, and childlike, enjoyed playing and having fun, and I did, too. I can’t find anyone else like him.”64
He may not have amassed a fortune, but Willis O’Brien left much behind at his
passing. He created one motion picture destined to endure as an unmatched master piece, and others that still offer distinctive rewards. In the process, he originated and perfected a new type of adventure film, one that continues to fill viewers with excitement and awe. He also left an indelible imprint on the memories of those who knew him, including Ray HarryHausen, who carried on O’Brien’s legacy: his techniques, his vision of fantasy, and his personal good humor.