The trees and plants in the background on the stop-motion animation sets were a combination of metal models and real plants. One day during filming, a flower on the miniature set bloomed without anyone noticing. The error in continuity was not noticed until the film was developed and shown. While Kong moved, a time-lapse effect showed the flower coming into full bloom, and an entire day of animation was lost.
At around eighty minutes into the film, a man (LeRoy Mason) standing in line to see Kong complains to his lady companion, "These tickets cost me twenty bucks." At presumably ten dollars per ticket, this would have been a tremendous cost in Depression-wracked 1933. By contrast, a ticket to see the 1933 New York Yankees, which featured Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, or to this movie itself, would have been about 35 cents.
Scenes cut over the years of release and re-release: Kong chewing on the natives of the island; two scenes with Kong squashing one native each with his giant foot; the brontosaurus biting and throwing the men in the water; Kong putting a New Yorker in his mouth then throwing him down to the ground; a scene where Kong climbs a building, pulls out a sleeping woman with his giant hand, examines her, and when he finds it's not Ann Darrow, tosses her down to the sidewalk below; and, of course, Fay Wray's clothing being peeled off. The censor committee once stated that this was at least six minutes of editing. These scenes were all restored to the actual film in 1971, although the famous, or infamous, spider pit sequence has yet to be found, although the King Kong (2005) gives an idea of what it was like. Also, the 2005 DVD release of the 1933 film has Peter Jackson's recreation of that scene.
This film was successfully re-issued worldwide numerous times. Some claim it was the first ever re-released film. In the 1938 re-issue, several scenes of excessive violence and sex were cut to comply with the Production Code enforced in 1934. Though many of the censored scenes were restored by Janus Films in 1971 (including the censored sequence in which Kong peels off Fay Wray's clothes), one deleted scene has never been found, shown publicly only once during a preview screening in San Bernardino, California in January 1933. It was a graphic scene following Kong shaking four sailors off the log bridge, causing them to fall into a ravine where they were eaten alive by giant spiders. At the preview screening, audience members screamed, and either left the theater or talked about the grisly sequence throughout the subsequent scenes, disrupting the film. Merian C. Cooper said, "It stopped the picture cold, so the next day back at the studio, I took it out myself."
When Fay Wray died on August 8, 2004, King Kong (1933) was playing on a television in the emergency room. It was only noticed after she actually died that Wray's most famous film was being shown on television.
The one flaw that remains in the animation is the way Kong's fur seems to be moving constantly, showing where the animators had to grab the figure to move it. Though the animators would brush the fur constantly to hide their work, it still shows up in the finished film. Many other filmmakers who have used the same technique actually admire this flaw, because it shows that the work was done by skilled artists using their hands.
The 2005 DVD restoration further details the risqué liberties of a 1933 pre-code film release in two scenes. The first is when Ann is on the ship's deck while Charlie is peeling potatoes, and the second is where Denham is shooting some test footage of Ann ("Scream for your life, Ann, Scream!"). The thin material used for Ann's dress and gown in both scenes, makes it obvious that Fay Wray is not wearing a bra; a wardrobe decision that may not have made it past the Breen Code the following year.
The 22 inch (56 centimeter) high model of King Kong, used in the film, sold at auction in 2009 for about 203 thousand dollars. It was originally covered in cotton, rubber, liquid latex, and rabbit fur, but most of the covering has decomposed over the decades. A similarly constructed model of a triceratops is owned by Peter Jackson, which he used in his own re-creation of the lost spider-pit sequence.
Sensing a huge hit from industry buzz, MGM offered to buy the film outright from R.K.O. for 1.072 million dollars (approximately four hundred thousand dollars over its negative cost), figuring the little studio was reeling from losing ten million dollars plus in 1932. R.K.O. was smart to decline the offer. The film smashed attendance records nationwide, and ended up grossing 1.761 million dollars during its initial release. R.K.O. would periodically, and extremely profitably, re-release the movie through the 1950s.
It has been said that this was the first Hollywood film to use a fully symphonic musical score. As memorable and effective as the musical score was, some have made the same claim about R.K.O.'s Bird of Paradise (1932), released earlier. Regardless, Max Steiner, Composer for both films (and many later classics, including Gone with the Wind (1939) and Casablanca (1942)) was a visionary, forward-thinking man. One of the legends surrounding this film, is that Director Merian C. Cooper paid Steiner from his own pocket after R.K.O. bosses expressed concern over mounting production costs.
As a child, Merian C. Cooper lived close to an elevated train which kept him awake at night when it clattered across the tracks. This was the inspiration for the scene where Kong destroys an elevated train.
This is the only film to debut at the two largest theaters in New York City, the Roxy and Radio City Music Hall, simultaneously. The total seating capacity was about ten thousand, and it sold out every performance (ten a day) at both theaters.
According to Orville Goldner in "The Making of King Kong", the film came in at thirteen reels. Merian C. Cooper feigned horror at the number thirteen, and insisted another scene be shot, to bring the film to fourteen reels. The new scene was the elevated train sequence, which Cooper had wanted all along.
Executive Producer David O. Selznick left R.K.O. midway through production of this film. Selznick's last act of business at R.K.O., and probably his biggest contribution to the film, was to write a memo changing the name of the production from "Kong" to "King Kong".
Authors Daniel Loxton and Donald Prothero, in their 2013 book "Abominable Science", argue that the UK release of "King Kong" in the spring of 1933 led directly to the supposed sightings of a sea monster in Loch Ness, Scotland. The first sightings of the supposed Loch Ness Monster occurred within six months of the film's release. The descriptions and blurry photos of "Nessie" that emerged from 1933 on seemed likely inspired by the scene in "King Kong" in which a prehistoric water beast, a Diplodocus, attacks the searchers on a raft.
For the scenes of Ann in Kong's hand, the hand was attached to a crane and raised ten feet. First a technician put her in the hand and closed the fingers around her. Then the hand was lifted for filming. She would later say her terror in those scenes was real. The more she struggled, the looser the hand's grip grew. When she thought she was about to fall, she had to signal Merian C. Cooper to stop filming.
There was more than one model of Kong used in the film. There are considerable differences between the Kong on the island, and the Kong in New York City. For instance, the Skull Island Kong has a longer face, which the filmmakers thought made the ape look "too human".
Although many film historians insist that a spider pit scene was never shot, much less previewed, at least three production stills do exist showing the miniature ravine complete, with at least one spider and a crab creature, both of which are menacing miniature sailors. There was one person who claimed to have seen the first preview screening who said that the spider pit scene was in it, and the audience laughed at large bug-eyes on a spider model. He felt that this unintended laugh was the reason the scene stopped the film, and was cut.
The animated models had to be shot one frame at a time, with minute adjustments between each shot. It often took an entire afternoon to get the 24 exposures needed to fill one second of screen time. The battle between King Kong and the pterodactyl took seven weeks to film. This method of stop-motion photography proved to be a time-honored method of visual effects, and was used for many decades by other effects artists like Ray Harryhausen and Phil Tippett.
The two-legged lizard that creeps up out of the canyon toward Jack Driscoll, was actually meant to be an aetosaur, a reptile from the Triassic Period. However, because of the high price of armatures (the metal skeletons for the puppets), R.K.O. cut costs by not having hind legs made for it. As a result, the aetosaur has two forearms, no hind legs, and a more snake-like appearance.
Most sequences had to be shot non-stop, often requiring twenty-hour workdays. Sometimes the shrubs used to dress the miniature sets actually wilted during filming. At one point, one of the plants on the set flowered. Before a scene could be started, all the lights on the soundstage had to be replaced with new ones, to make sure they wouldn't flicker during the scene. The stage had to be sealed, and nobody could leave or enter, to prevent any wind from moving the foliage.
This film, along with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) and Laurel & Hardy movies, were thought to be Adolf Hitler's favorites. In his 2013 book, "The Collaboration: Hollywood's Pact With Hitler", Harvard scholar Ben Urwand documents how Georg Gyssling, the Nazi Party's special consul, assigned to monitor Hollywood films, thought this scary monster ape movie might possibly be "an attack on the nerves of the German people", but there are other examples (M (1931) being a notable one) where Nazi leaders privately liked and consumed works of art they condemned and censored in public.
Art drawn for the press book for the original release of the film was contributed by Keye Luke, who was a highly regarded illustrator before he became an actor and whose works have appeared in films themselves, such as The Shanghai Gesture (1941).
Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack had been wrestlers, and they acted out the fighting moves for the battle between the T-Rex and King Kong in the effects studio, before the animators shot the scene.
While no known theatrical trailers from the original 1933 release are known to exist, there is a seven-minute audio teaser extant bearing the title "KONG Is Coming!". Whether it was intended as a radio spot or lobby attraction is uncertain. The audio is drawn from a disc source, and presents several minutes of sound effects, music, and dialogue from the original audio tracks--though not exactly as heard in the film--and described by a very dramatic narrator. The teaser appears to use an alternate take of the dialogue, as the adventurers walk around the dead stegosaurus, and several alternately mixed takes of Kong's roaring. The teaser is available to listen to on YouTube under the title "Kong is Coming!".
According to Film Editor Archie Marshek, who was a Production Associate on this film, the elevated train sequence was a last-minute addition by Merian C. Cooper, because the first cut of the film was thirteen reels, and the producer was superstitious.
The eighteen-inch models of Kong, built by Willis H. O'Brien's assistant, Marcel Delgado, were the first animation models with metal skeletons and joints. Instead of the jerky movement of models built on wood, Kong moved much more smoothly, creating a greater illusion of life. Delgado covered the skeleton with rubber muscles, that actually expanded and contracted as they were moved. The creature was then covered with rubber and latex skin, and rabbit fur.
Close-up footage of The Empire State Building was added to the film, when it was re-issued in 1952, for the scene where Kong grabs the first plane and tosses it off the side of the building. We see a pristine picture of the Empire State Building as it existed in the 1950s, with its television antenna. In the other scenes, the landmark building was part of "Hollywood Set", with archival aerial footage of the New York City skyline added. Consequently, the only actual on-location filming was done 19 years after the film's first release. Film processing improved by that time, and the difference in clarity between the 1933 footage and the added 1952 shot is quite evident.
According to the book "David O. Selznick's Hollywood" by Ron Haver, Costume Designer Walter Plunkett (later noteworthy for Gone with the Wind (1939)), worked uncredited on this film. Specifically, he designed the "Beauty and the Beast" costume that Ann Darrow wears while Carl Denham is filming her screentest.
Merian C. Cooper had originally planned for Kong to be exhibited in Yankee Stadium, but later decided on a mid-town theater. Special Effects Chief Willis H. O'Brien drew a sketch of Kong breaking loose in the Stadium.
The project went through numerous title changes during production, including "The Beast" (original title of the draft by Edgar Wallace in the R.K.O. files), "The Eighth Wonder", "The Ape", "King Ape", and "Kong".
Willis H. O'Brien, who earlier used stop-motion animation of dinosaur models in The Lost World (1925), had created several dinosaur models for his unfinished production, Creation (1931). Merian C. Cooper sold the idea for this film to R.K.O. executives in New York City, by showing them a test sequence using O'Brien's models. The executives were stunned, never having seen anything like it, and green-lit production. O'Brien also used many of his "Creation" models in this film, including the T-Rex and the pteranodon.
Merian C. Cooper filmed the actors and actresses, then Willis H. O'Brien projected the image one frame at a time on a screen behind the models. That's how they filmed Kong's removal of Ann's clothing. Originally, Cooper had wires attached to her clothes to pull them off her body. The model's movements were then matched to hers. Unfortunately, O'Brien and Cooper forgot to patent their approach, thereby losing a fortune.
Merian C. Cooper was partially inspired by W. Douglas Burden, who brought the world's first captive Komodo dragons to the Bronx Zoo in 1926. Cooper was intrigued how the once mythic, massive predators quickly perished once caged and displayed for the public.
According to Merian C. Cooper, although Writer Edgar Wallace received screen credit, he "didn't write any of 'Kong'--not one bloody word!" However, his idea to give the giant ape human characteristics was incorporated.
It took a year after the actors and actresses were finished, for Willis H. O'Brien to finish the effects work, and Merian C. Cooper to get the film put together. Between her work on this picture and its release, Fay Wray made four other films.
The remakes - King Kong (1976) and King Kong (2005) - show Kong with the same temperament as in the original film. In the less popular sequel, The Son of Kong (1933) and the successful "distant cousin" Mighty Joe Young (1949), the Production Code of 1934 was a strong influence on the script for the central characters, as they were friendlier, and less destructive.
In addition to the models of Kong, Willis H. O'Brien had a twenty foot high head constructed. Three men sat inside it operating various levers to change the facial expression. Other body parts used in the film, were a giant foot, to show Kong trampling people, and a giant hand for close-ups of Ann struggling in his grasp.
In the emergency room as the medical staff were attending the dying Fay Wray, the television that was there was ironically playing the very film that propelled her into the stratosphere of the pop-culture icon. One of the staff noticed that the old lady that was dying on the table, was the very lady screaming for her life in the giant ape's paw. It seems fitting that "King Kong" just happened to be playing on a television in the same room where she lay dying.
The models of Kong built for the island scenes were only eighteen inches high. When Merian C. Cooper decided Kong needed to look bigger while in New York City, a new twenty-four inch armature was constructed, thus changing Kong's film height from eighteen feet on the island, to twenty-four feet while in New York City. While it's true Kong was made to look larger in the New York City scenes, there is no reason to believe one inch corresponded to a foot in the scale of the models. It's clear when looking at Kong on Skull Island, that he's more than three human's tall, which is roughly how big he'd be if he were eighteen feet. A specific height was never given.
Despite the logic of the name, and the title of the movie released in 2017, the island where most of the action takes place is never referred to as "Skull Island" in this film. Denham and Ann each mention "Skull Mountain", but the island itself is never named.
Most of the dialogue between Captain Englehorn and the Native Chief appears to be gibberish. But when the Chief offers to buy Ann Darrow, Englehorn is clearly heard saying, "Tidak, tidak," which is Malay for "No, no." This makes sense since the island is described as being off the coast of Sumatra.
The village scenes have drawn fire from modern critics for their purportedly demeaning depiction of "African natives" wearing outlandish costumes, but the film is not set in Africa. Kong's island is described as being near Sumatra. The African American actors are portraying a Melanesian-based race, such as the Semang people of Malaysia, the Andaman Islanders, or the Papuans of New Guinea, similar in appearance to Africans but genetically and culturally distinct. Their costumes are no more fanciful than the ceremonial garb worn at a traditional New Guinea "sing sing".
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
Originally, there was supposed to be an overhead shot of Kong falling from the Empire State Building. This was accomplished by adding Kong in post-production, falling towards the ground. Real footage of the building was used, but when the producers watched the scene they realized that viewers could see through Kong, especially as he passed the darker ledges, so it was cut. This clip has made its way into documentaries on the film but, more commonly, can be found in stills of the scene.
Close-ups of the pilots and gunners of the planes that attack Kong were shot in the studio with mock-up planes. The flight commander is Merian C. Cooper, and his observer is Ernest B. Schoedsack. They decided to play the parts, after Cooper said that "we should kill the son-of-a-bitch ourselves".
Merian C. Cooper had been a wrestler as a youth, and Willis H. O'Brien had had several amateur boxing matches. This experience is evident in Kong's fight with the allosaur. Kong puts his left paw up to guard his face, as a boxer would do, as he hits the allosaur with a right cross. Kong also uses the well-known wrestling moves "trip-out" and "snap mare" during the fight. Kong finally wins by climbing on the allosaur's shoulders and pulling its jaws apart. This move would later be popularized as the "Rocca Ride" by professional wrestler Angelino Rocca in the 1940s.