Kong’s Ancestors

Over the years, there has been much discussion of King Kong‘s descendants — including in an article of my own. Analysis of the 1933 film’s ancestors, however, has usually been confined to accounts of Kong co-directors Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s real-life adventures and the degree to which they inform the character of the film’s directorial adventurer / entrepreneur, Carl Denham, as well as to wider cinematic influences such as generic similarities between the plot of King Kong and that of the early The Lost World (1925) — which, of course, featured stop-motion animation (of assorted dinosaurs) by Willis O’Brien, Kong‘s visual effects creator.

But what of pre-Kong giant apes? Generally it is said that King Kong was the first and the greatest of the giant ape films. There’s no real argument to be made against the second part of that statement, but what of the first?

A while back some excitement was generated over the existence of giant ape footage ostensibly from the film The Gorilla, a comedy-thriller made in 1930 by Bryan Foy, now classified as lost. Films that included gorillas were not uncommon at all in the decade leading up to Kong, but a giant ape is another matter. Whether or not he was the first to notice, Mark Cofell on his Gorilla Men website tells how he had stumbled upon some footage of a giant gorilla walking through a cityscape in a stock film-clip catalogue owned by Getty Images. He says that he recognised the man-in-a-suit style ape as the work of Charles Gemora, “one of the great gorilla suit performers who worked in the movie industry from the 20’s until his death in the 50’s”, but was baffled as to where it might have originated. He says:

The suit was used in the late 20’s and early 30’s though was out of use after KING KONG’s release. The film appeared to predate KONG – I and a few of my fellow film fanatics wondered if it was test footage for Kong or, just as fascinating, another giant ape project never realized?!

It was Bob Burns — “World renown archivist and historian of props, costumes, and other screen used paraphernalia from some of the greatest (and not so great) science fiction, fantasy, and horror motion pictures” (IMDb) — who clarified the mystery:

Some months after I came across the footage [Cofell continues], I was introduced to Bob Burns by artist George Chastain who informed me it was trailer material from 1930’s THE GORILLA, a film about a murderous (and relatively short) ape. The city footage was illustrating the grip of terror the beast had on the urban populace. Oddly enough I came across a notation about the film on the IMDB as I was waiting for Bob’s reply; the film is considered lost and the shots I viewed are all that remain of it.

This held up the exciting possibility that a giant ape existed on film pre-Kong.

The Gorilla 1

The Gorilla 2

You can view the clips on the Getty Images site here and here.

That the footage was never part of the film itself but was used in advertising for the film to suggest the power of The Gorilla to terrify the populace is generally accepted now — but the afterburn of fannish possibility is nevertheless exciting.

But there appears to be another possible branch to the Kong family tree, albeit one just as inconclusive. A potential King Kong ancestor (or at least antecedent) is the 1929 film Stark Mad, a US jungle-adventure directed by Lloyd Bacon. It, too, is currently considered a lost film, but the AFI describes the plot thus:

James Rutherford has organized an expedition to the jungles of Central America to find his missing son, Bob, and his guide, Simpson. Professor Dangerfield intercepts the party, bringing with him Simpson, whose jungle experience has made him a raving maniac. They go ashore and decide to spend a night at a Mayan temple. After Irene, Bob’s fiancée, disappears, they come across a gigantic ape chained to the floor, and Captain Rhodes, commander of the yacht, is abducted by a strange monster with great hairy talons. Messages are found warning the party to leave. Sewald, an explorer, is mysteriously killed by an arrow. Simpson’s reason returns, and he saves the party, revealing that the demented hermit, whom he has just killed, and who formerly occupied the ruins, murdered Bob two months before.

Intriguing…. Has anyone out there seen it?

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6 Responses to Kong’s Ancestors

  1. Avery says:

    It’s definitely a fascinating history to the King Kong story.There’s also the two Japanese versions of Kong.The second of which was later divided into two separate films,making three Kong versions from Japan.Sadly,as with “Stark Mad” and “The Gorilla”,they are all considered ‘lost’ .Hopefully,we’ll eventually find “Stark Mad” and “The Gorilla” as well as all of the early Japanese versions.By the way Rob,there’s another early dinosaur flick that has a Big Ape in it too.However it did come a little later than these previous efforts.It’s called “Unknown Island”[1948]that can be seen here: http://www.animalattack.info/PmWiki/UnknownIsland and here: http://www.badmovies.org/movies/unknownisle/ luckily for us it’s not a ‘lost’ film and is readily available on dvd.

  2. Backbrain says:

    Those are definitely interesting ones, Avery, but descendants rather than ancestors. I was looking at giant apes that come before “King Kong” (1933). However, I don’t recall your “Unknown Island” suggestion to have appeared in any of the histories of giant ape films that followed “Kong”. Worth looking into.

  3. Avery says:

    Oh of course Rob, I was just rambling on there.Those films did come after Kong.”Unknown Island”[1948] has an over-sized ape vs. a dinosaur in it.It was most likely some sort of inspiration for “King Kong vs. Godzilla” which ,again, came much later.However that scene was surely inspired itself by the Kong and t-rex battle of the original.

  4. Backbrain says:

    You do know the original “King Kong”‘s connection to “King Kong vs Godzilla”, don’t you? In brief, here it is:


  5. D Cairns says:

    This is fascinating. I’ve been looking for both early Gorillas for a while without realizing they were lost. The big implication is that Merian C Cooper saw the trailer for The Gorilla in 1930, then saw the movie and thought “Why doesn’t somebody make a film where a giant gorilla really DOES attack New York?” Which is the kind of idea a producer WOULD have.

    It’s fascinating to think that Kong has his origins in a metaphorical image like this.

  6. Pingback: Gorilla Gorilla « shadowplay

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