After Hours

Geek Trivia: The once and future King

What happened to the original jungle fortress gate sets for the 1933 movie version of <i>King Kong</i>?

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Break out the monkey suits and head for the tallest building you can find, boys and girls, because the first, best, and undisputed champion of primate protagonists turns 72 on March 2. On this day in 1933, the original King Kong made its theatrical debut, introducing the world to a giant ape that has since captured untold millions of imaginations, not to mention an equal or greater measure of merchandising dollars.

That original King Kong film—which has spawned six major studio sequels or remakes (including two Japanese kaiju films, one of which saw Kong spar with Godzilla), as well as an animated cartoon series in the late 1960s and loads of indirect imitators—holds a legendary place in Hollywood lore, largely on the strength of its groundbreaking stop-motion special effects.

Pioneered by Willis "Obie" O'Brien (mentor to the great monster-movie special effects king, Ray Harryhausen), the King Kong special effects largely consisted of two 18-inch-tall metal armature skeletons covered in rubber muscles and fur. Ironically, O'Brien created much of the model development work—including the various dinosaur-like creatures that battled with the giant ape—for another picture entirely: the unmade film Creation, which never saw production due to the financial uncertainties of the Great Depression.

Despite the fact that much of the materials for the special effects were second-hand, the "realism" of the giant ape floored audiences nonetheless. So much so, in fact, that many observers insisted the sequences were filmed using an actor in an ape suit, with the images later superimposed onto the film.

This myth became so prevalent following King Kong's original release that one individual actually gained a modicum of publicity by claiming to be the "actor." Though easily discredited, these claims and their surrounding publicity made King Kong sets and props prize possessions among movie memorabilia collectors.

Unfortunately, the studio chiefs that underwrote King Kong either didn't know or didn't care about this craze, as they bequeathed a rather infamous fate on a key set piece from King Kong—the giant jungle fortress gate that kept the giant ape at bay.


What fate befell one of the most famous movie set pieces in Hollywood history, the jungle fortress gate that kept a certain giant ape at bay in the original 1933 cinema classic, King Kong?

To answer this question, one need only view another iconic film from Tinseltown's storied past: Gone with the Wind. In that film, producers used the original King Kong gate sets as fodder to simulate the burning of Atlanta. The director filmed this sequence before production on Gone with the Wind even began, and the actors shown aren't Vivien Leigh or Clark Gable, but stand-ins.

But don't think producers singled out the King Kong sets; they torched several old MGM back-lot sets in the process of filming the famous fire scene, both as a cost-saving measure (why build fresh sets just to burn them?) and a means to clear space for the elaborate sets that the remainder of the film would require.

But while King Kong never saw the commercial success of Gone with the Wind, Scarlett O'Hara's personal melodrama isn't undergoing an update from ubergeek director Peter Jackson (he of Lord of the Rings fame) either. Jackson, who ostensibly wanted to begin his King Kong project in 1996, couldn't get the funding and signed on to do the LOTR trilogy instead. Suffice it to say, he now has the clout to make any film he wants, and Jackson's King Kong will purportedly pay loving tribute to the 1933 original.

For starters, the new King Kong will take place in 1933, the year of the great original's release. Naomi Watts, who will assume the damsel-in-distress role originated by screen legend Fay Wray, will take some wardrobe cues from Wray's original couture. Finally, Jackson is modeling the giant dinosauroids that will clash with nouveau Kong on those stop-motion vanguards bested by the original Kong.

This time, however, an actual "actor" will be behind the modern ape's performance. Andy Serkis, who contributed voice and motion-capture modeling for the computer-animated Gollum character in Jackson's LOTR films, will serve as the "basis" for the new CGI King Kong. While that may mean a few less prop-based memorabilia for collectors to fawn over, it does make for some great Geek Trivia.

The Quibble of the Week

If you uncover a questionable fact or debatable aspect of this week's Geek Trivia, just post it in the discussion area of the article. Every week, yours truly will choose the best post from the assembled masses and discuss it in the next edition of Geek Trivia.

While this week's quibble comes from the Feb. 16 edition of Geek Trivia, "Board to tears," I think you'll recognize it as a repeat performer. Our long-running, multi-issue debate about the meaning of the word decimate has reared its ugly head again, thanks to TechRepublic member Andrew Herdman.

"The use of the word to mean a great reduction in number especially that of a population and a reduction of 10 percent are both correct. I believe that this section was appropriately named 'Quibble of the Week,' as this is truly quibbling. In this case, both are correct: Look it up."

For more, check out the Geek Trivia Archive.

The Trivia Geek, also known as Jay Garmon, is a former advertising copywriter and Web developer who's duped TechRepublic into underwriting his affinity for movies, sci-fi, comic books, technology, and all things geekish or subcultural.

About Jay Garmon

Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger — amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can a...

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