Kongfrontation: The Unexpected Legacy of a Forgotten King

There are few purer forms of entertainment than monkeys, wanton destruction, and comically oversized objects. So when a team of visionary filmmakers led by Merian C. Cooper decided to combine the three in 1933, the cinematic world was never the same. Besides casually revolutionizing special effects, King Kong would spawn six sequels, remakes and remake sequels, with Kong: Skull Island making seven. But that’s not counting all the cartoons, musicals, knock-offs, and spiritual successors, some of which even have remakes of their own.

Put plainly, the ape’s got legs. 

One of which nearly killed Charles Grodin.

Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake, a kitchen sink spectacle that pushed the boundaries of CGI, doubled the original’s runtime, and held the title of the most expensive movie ever made, was in many ways a definitive version of the King Kong story. More characterization, more build-up, more dinosaurs, more biplanes with machine guns.

The 2005 King Kong was such a momentous release and devoted love letter to the original that it all but shoved aside the awkward middle child — the 1976 King Kong.

Without the trailblazing mystique of Kong ’33 or the technical marvel of Kong ’05, Kong ’76 has stalked off to a quiet, peaceful existence on basic cable, emerging only between airings of Beyond the Poseidon Adventure and whichever Airport movie has Dean Martin in it.

Masterminded by infamous producer and more infamous man Dino De Laurentiis, the 1976 King Kong was an enormously expensive attempt to beat the previous year’s Jaws at its own monster game.

The budget for the monkey was triple that of the shark. 

The movie didn’t make a fifth as much.

Kong ’76 is a grandiose adventure shot through the grimy lens of its disaster movie contemporaries. The expedition to Skull Island is no longer to capture the unknown but to plunder it.  The exploitation of Kong turns into a staggeringly obvious metaphor for the environment (for his public display, he’s first hidden under an enormous gas pump). Charles Grodin plays the villainous oil executive behind the expedition and Jeff Bridges is the hippie-with-a-heart-of-gold who has to stop him and his capitalist ways. In her feature debut, Jessica Lange plays the actress who falls for the ape.

But it’s all just a few inches off the mark. Grodin strides and sneers his way through the movie like the bad guy in an unreasonably long Muppet Show sketch. Lange’s actress is named Dwan because she thought it’d be more interesting than Dawn and it’s heavily implied she would’ve been a porn star had the director’s boat not sunk. Jeff Bridges cheers for Kong as the big guy murders three soldiers by hurling a massive gas tank at them and screams at the flames.

About the only character who doesn’t grate or falter is the King himself.

Well. Depends on how hard you’re watching.

De Laurentiis wanted to best Jaws in every way, especially where it counted: the shark. That, after all, was what kept audiences out of the water. The animatronic Great White. But De Laurentiis had something bigger in mind.

Carlo Rambaldi, the special effects wizard who would later make E.T., was commissioned to build a full-size, 40-foot tall, free-standing animatronic King Kong. In 1976.

He pulled it off. For around $2 million. 

And if you’re quick with a pause button, you might be able to catch it during the 10 seconds it actually appears in the movie.

RoboKong sprang a hydraulic leak the first time it went before cameras.  The back-up plan — special effects pioneer Rick Baker and a monkey suit — became the only plan. Rambaldi also constructed full-sized animatronic hands and feet for Kong.

First the production built two right hands on accident, then corrected the problem and jokingly flipped off De Laurentiis when he came to watch a test. He laughed. Then the hand got stuck that way. He stopped laughing.

The legs were much more manageable; it was human error that made them dangerous. The director told Charles Grodin the several-ton foot would miss him by feet when it went to squish him. 

It wasn’t going to miss at all until Grodin got the hell out of there.

De Laurentiis did manage to beat Jaws at its own game — he built an even less reliable star.

It’s only fitting that the movie’s most entertaining scenes with Kong come courtesy of Rick Baker’s sympathetic but brutal performance as the great ape. When he rampages around an immaculate miniature of New York City, tearing subway trains off their tracks, it’s what movies are all about.

Which wasn’t lost on the creative team at Universal Studios in 1982, as they dreamed up a new studio, a new theme park to be located in Orlando, Florida.

Kong would be one of the headlining attractions.

Until a certain Mouse scared him back to California. 

So while Florida was put on ice indefinitely, King Kong was added to the world-famous Universal Studios Hollywood Tram Tour.  In one of the backlot soundstages, designers painstakingly recreated a New York City street at bridge-level, circa 1976.  Even the graffiti was authentic. But no amount of fake news reports or pyrotechnics would make it work without the star.

The King Kong animatronic stood 30 feet tall, weighed in at a spritely seven tons, and came equipped with a well-publicized case of banana breath. Without overestimation, the figure was the most technically advanced of its kind ever constructed, and unlike its cinematic forebear, it ably performed hundreds of times a day for 22 years.

Its most important performance, however, came before it even debuted.

Steven Spielberg, director of Jaws and some other movies that aren’t as well known, was roaming the lot when he came to the New York set. All he needed to see was a rehearsal — a blink, a shove, a roar — to know.

By the next day, the Florida project was back on. The jewel in the crown would be the King.

Kongfrontation took the tram experience and ran with it.  A New York street turned into a New York block. Trams were suspended from the ceiling. Kong grew from 30 feet to almost 40. 

Most ambitiously of all, there wouldn’t just be one gorilla, but two. Full-size and fully animated.

Aside from some technical hiccups in the early days, the twin Kongs terrorized guests daily for 14 years. Technological marvels still on the day it closed.

The queue, a stunning recreation of a New York subway station down to the trampled gum stains, snaked back and forth under TV monitors playing harried broadcasts from reporters on the trail of Kong.

Intercut with the news? Rick Baker in a monkey suit, tearing subway cars off their tracks.

A King Kong movie made to filet Jaws, without a working animatronic to its name, ended up inspiring the creation of three revolutionary mechanical monkeys and the very existence of Universal Studios Florida, built because of Kong and spearheaded by the director of Jaws.

It’s no overstatement to say those apes ushered in a new era of theme park entertainment.

Not a bad footnote for a franchise about the tragic love between an actress and an ape.

Jeremy Herbert wreaks havoc in Cleveland.