Volumes have been written about the making of the 1933 masterpiece of stop-motion animation King Kong and the extraordinary technical achievements this film embodied. It seems ironic that RKO's most successful film came about as a consequence of the company's dire financial situation two years earlier in 1931. It was this that led the studio's new head of production, David O' Selznick to bring in business man, adventurer and documentary maker, Merian C. Cooper to help him evaluate the merits of studio projects and to bring them in line with a cost-cutting regime he was implementing.
It was at this point that Cooper came into contact with RKO's chief special effects technician, Willis O'Brien, the genius exponent of stop-motion animation. [The process by which 3-D models are brought to life by filming them one frame at a time and making fractional adjustments to their position between each frame]. O'Brien and his team, were at this time embroiled with a hugely laborious and costly animation project Creation which Cooper assessed as being commercially unviable. Despite his verdict on the project, Cooper was extremely impressed by O'Brien's formidable technical skills and had his own plans for putting the work that had been done on the now cancelled reation project to better use. Since 1930 Cooper had harboured an idea for a thrilling adventure story involving a giant gorilla, and, having seen the tremendous achievements O'Brien had made with his miniature sets and models of pre-historic creatures in Creation Cooper enlisted his help with this giant ape project.
Cooper with colleague and director Ernst B. Shoedsack, wrote the basic story, and armed with the O'Brien team's preliminary drawings [See accompanying photographic copies of two concept drawings] and the test reel for Creation persuaded David O' Selznick and the RKO Board of directors to let them make a test reel for this risky and expensive project which was referred to as Production 601.
The plot of King Kong is legendary. A daring and reckless film producer Carl Denham (based on Merian C. Cooper himself) takes a large expedition via ship to a mysterious uncharted island to shoot a film that he plans to base on a Beauty and the Beast theme about the island's natives and their mythical lord Kong - unimaginable terrors unfold including prehistoric monsters, primeval swamps and the giant ape himself. Denham, realizing that Kong is worth more than all the motion pictures in the world captures him and puts him on display in a Manhattan theatre. Kong, who (somewhat improbably!) fell for Denham's leading lady, Ann Darrow, on the island, manages to break free, re-captures Ann and goes on a city-wide rampage culminating in a climb to its highest point, the Empire State Building where he is shot down by aeroplanes.
Having received the go-ahead to make the test, the first step Cooper took was to commission the construction of a model for the giant gorilla. Willis O'Brien devised the highly detailed technical drawing for the model's armature/skeleton *[See Hilchey's copy of O'Brien's original blueprint drawing included in the lot ]. The armature was then built to his specifications in the Miniature Department Workshops *[See six previously unpublished photographs of RKO Miniature Department Workshops taken in circa 1932 (printed recently) and recent copies of Miniature Department inventories from circa 1930-32 included in the lot ].
Once the metal armature had been built to O'Brien's highly detailed design, it was the work of his assistant, sculptor Marcel Delgado, to construct the body. This he did by his own unique 'build-up method' as described by Ray Harryhausen: He 'stuffed' and padded out the armature with sponge and cotton, which gave him the rough shape of the model required. He would then add rubber 'muscles' which would move with the articulated legs and head, giving the model's movements an even greater degree of realism. He then applied a 'skin' of liquid latex rubber, which he sculpted into details such as wrinkles and folds of skin.
Delgado paid particular attention to the life-like quality of the model. He based the shape of the body on a streamlined version of a real gorilla in response to Cooper's demands for terrifying realism. Orville Goldner [ who was on the film's technical team] and George E. Turner in their study on the making of King Kong quote Cooper as saying "I want to put a pure gorilla on that screen!...I want Kong to be the fiercest, most brutal, monstrous damned thing that has ever been seen.
The aluminium skull was moulded from a wooden carving and attached to the armature via a jointed neck. According to Ray Morton, in order to give Kong's face expression holes were drilled into the aluminium skull and threaded with thin bendable wires. Lips, eyebrows, and a nose made from rubber were then attached to these wires. When the features were moved into different positions, the wires would hold them in placeEyeballs made of glass were set into sockets in the skull. Liquid latex was then painted over the skull and features to create Kong's face, which was then detailed with bits of cotton which were similarly painted with liquid latex.
Finally, Delgado glued strips of pruned rabbit fur to Kong's body to create his pelt, which was then smoothed down with glycerine Apparently, Delgado was reluctant to use rabbit fur as he feared that it would retain the impression of the animators' fingerprints when they moved the model. Unfortunately, the screening of the first rushes showed that his fears were well founded : the animators' fingerprints could be seen rippling across Kong's pelt. Shoedsack was reported as saying that when he saw this, he thought the whole project was sunk. But then, the oft-repeated story goes, an RKO executive watching the test approvingly cried out: "Look! Kong is angry - his fur is bristling!" a minus had been turned into a plus and the day was saved..
The remarkable attention to detail and technical sophistication employed in the production of the Kong model meant that its life-like appearance on the screen was astounding for its time and far superior than anything that Obie and his team had produced before. Due to budget restraints, only one model for Kong could be constructed for use during filming of the test reel which meant that it required constant reworking as the rubber skin dried very quickly under the heat of the studio lights. This was filmed with several of the dinosaurs which had originally been built for Creation and a number of 6-inch. miniatures of sailors. However, once Production 601 was given the green light a second model was created for Kong.
There has been much speculation about the size and quantity of models used for the giant gorilla himself. In an interview quoted by Ronald Gottesman, Marcel Delgado recalled I made the two full body models used in 'King Kong'. Both models were 18" high The skeletons of the limbs were made in the studio shops and I covered them with muscles and fur. I was always busy trying to keep the models repaired as they would deteriorate or break. I had to tear them down and build them over again because the rubber and muscles deteriorated from the heat of the lights and the constant movement of the animation. It was a daily task for me to tighten the screws in the joints and groom the model for the rest day of shooting. If one model was being repaired, the other one had to be readyIt should be noted that here Delgado refers to the size of the finished models complete with padding, latex and fur being 18-inches high, rather than the size of the models' skeleton.
The constant rebuilding of the Kong models led to a number of inconsistencies in his appearance, for instance whenever Delgado had to replace the latex skin on the models' heads he had to completely redo the face which led to Kong's features subtly altering throughout the film.
The scale of Kong was another significant inconsistency in the film. In Ronald Haver's study of David O'Selznick's career, Cooper himself is quoted as saying: I was a great believer in constantly changing Kong's height to fit the settings and illusions. He is different in almost every shot: sometimes he is 18-feet tall and sometimes 60-feet high or larger. This broke every rule that O'Brien and his animators had ever worked with, but I felt confident that if the scenes moved with excitement and beauty, the audience would accept any height that fitted into the scene This inconsistency in Kong's height was reflected in material linked to the beginning of the film's production and the completed version. Edgar Wallace for instance in an early draft of the script circa January 1932 noted: Kong is a huge ape about 30 feet high.[See accompanying photograph of script page] And the film's publicity material in 1933 describes Kong as 50-feet tall.
The general consensus among film historians is that the two 18-inch Kong models were used for most of the animation in the film's jungle sets on Skull Island. The various dinosaurs used here also were built on the same scale i.e. 18-inches representing. one-inch to one foot thus making them all appear to be 18-foot high. However, when it came to the climatic scenes in New York, the film's producers felt that a larger Kong model was needed for greater dramatic effect when shooting against the backdrop of the Manhattan skyline. Cooper's preoccupation with increasing the size of Kong was apparently felt by all the crew who purportedly in 1932 made him a Christmas card which had a caricature of the director-producer on the front shouting "Make It Bigger, Make It Bigger" .
According to Harryhausen: for the New York Scenes Cooper ordered that Kong's size be increased hoping that the difference wouldn't be noticed. It wasn't. Schoedsack observed that, 'We realized we'd never get much drama out of a fly crawling up the tallest bulding in the world,' and so it was decided to increase Kong's stature to twenty-four feet. In fact, Kong's size fluctuates through the film to achieve the right proportional effect.
Although Harryhausen and other film historians refer to the size of the larger miniature model as being 24-inches i.e. the equivalent of 24-feet on screen, the armature in this lot, which is believed to be the skeleton for it, is 22-inches. Obviously the size of the model complete with its padding, rubber muscles, fur etc. would be considerably more than its skeleton; whether it would increase its height by a full 2-inches seems likely, as the aim was for a much bigger overall effect. However it also seems likely that the '24-foot/inch' figure quoted in numerous studies of the film is a speculative one, as for the last 42 years, the proof of the argument - i.e. the armature itself, has been hidden from view. [See documents accompanying this lot including Eugene Hilchey's letter of provenance*]
This 22-inch King Kong Armature could be described as the best kept secret of the 1933 movie. It has survived until now due to the foresight and tenacity of cinema industry insider Eugene Hilchey. [See Eugene Hilchey's letter of provenance]. Hilchey's quest for King Kong artefacts began in 1949 when he first saw and photographed several miniatures from this film, including one for Kong himself and a dinosaur in the miniature department at RKO studios.[See copies of three previously unpublished photographs taken by Hilchey in 1949 (printed recently) and included in the lot* illustrate the clearest 2 in cat] Over the course of the next few years, Hilchey became chairman of a committee set up to collect motion picture artefacts for a 'Hollywood Museum' project. He met many industry giants including Cooper and O'Brien, and designed exhibits and installations for a special effects exhibition in Los Angeles in 1965 [See accompanying Century Archives photocopies]
Hilchey finally received custody of this 22-inch Armature in 1967 when the miniature department where it had been housed, was closed for demolition. Hilchey carefully preserved this remarkable piece and a fascinating archive of accompanying photographs from this time. [ Full list of accompanying photographs and documents and breakdown of provenance available on screen and on request]
This Armature is truly remarkable on several counts. The fact that it has survived until now, out of public view, preserved and cherished by a foresighted film enthusiast is almost as miraculous as the technical wizardry it represents. .Also that it is thought to be the only one made of this 22-inch size, and as such was specifically built for the film's dramatic climax on top of the Empire State building, cited by Ray Harryhausen and Tony Dalton in their recent authoritative work as: .one of the iconic moments in the history of model animation, if not in the history of cinema itself is astounding.
Full list of accompanying documents:
A typescript letter, signed from Eugene Hilchey giving full details of the provenance of this armature; and eight pages of photocopies from Century Archives - Eugene L Hilchey giving details of the Miniature & Special Effects committee proposed Hollywood Museum project and The Lytton Center of the Visual Arts "Movie Magic" Exhibit design and installation by Eugene Hilchey.
A black and white photocopy of Willis O'Brien's technical drawing of the King Kong armature [without the Skull] entitled SKELETON FULL SIZE - PLATE 5..., giving detailed front and side views of the leg, arm, torso, hand and feet, technical description of materials: All Parts Duralumin Except Hands, Feet and Ball-Joints and FOR SKULL SEE PLATE 6. [not present], Sight -- 23x24.5in. (58.5x62.3cm.); and two corresponding black and white photographic copies, both -- 8x10in. (20.3x25.4cm.).
Two monochrome photographic copies of a pen and ink concept drawing apparently drawn by Willis O'Brien in collaboration with Mario Larrinaga and Byron Crabbe, showing the final climatic scene of King Kong astride the Empire State building - the drawing apparently executed at Merian C. Cooper's request to convince David O. Selznick and the executives of RKO of the potential of his idea for the film, circa 1932 (printed recently), largest, Sight: 8x10in. (20.3x25.4cm.).
A black and white photographic copy of another concept sketch by the Willis O'Brien team showing the giant gorilla on Skull Island gently holding and undressing the semi-clad resisting heroine, circa 1932, (printed recently), Sight: 8x10in. (20.3x25.4cm.).
A black and white photographic copy of an RKO still showing the climatic scene of Kong battling airplanes while standing on top of the Empire State building in New York City, 1933, (printed recently), Sight: 8x10in. (20.3x25.4cm.).
A recent photograph of a page purportedly from the original King Kong script including Edgar Wallace's typescript amendment to Scene 81 EXT. Camp - Day...[Kong is a huge ape about 30 feet high] EW...
Three previously unpublished black and white photographs of a King Kong miniature model, thought to be this one, taken by Hilchey outside the RKO Studios miniature department in 1949 (printed recently), each showing the miniature model complete with fur, muscles and teeth, two showing Kong fighting with a miniature model of a dinosaur from the same film, each -- 8x10in. (20.3x25.4cm.).
A black and white photographic copy of a RKO studio still showing E.B. "Buzz" Gibson putting some finishing touches on one of the Kong models in the miniature shop, circa 1933, (printed recently), Sight: 6x9¼in. (15.2x23.5cm.).
A black and white photographic copy of a RKO studio still demonstrating how the Kong model was articulated so that it could climb, circa 1933, (printed recently Sight: 9¾x7½in. (24.8x19cm.)
Two previously unpublished black and white photographs of a King Kong miniature model standing on top of a miniature model of the Empire State building, taken at RKO Studios circa 1932 (printed recently), both -- 10x8in. (25.4x20.3cm.)
A series of six previously unpublished black and white photographs of the interiors of the RKO Studios Miniature Department workshops in the 1930s (printed recently) showing various workbenches, soldering and metal working tables, smelting and cutting machinery, one shot including airplane models suspended from the ceiling and train models on shelves, each Sight: 8x10in. (20.3x25.4cm.)
A series of photocopied pages from RKO Studios office data referring the Miniature Department circa 1932, including a typescript description of the Miniature Department Functions and inventories of the metal and wood working rooms annotated in several places 601 the production number for King Kong.
A black and white photographic copy of the Plot Plan, RKO Radio Pictures Inc. 780 N. Gower Street, Hollywood, CA circa 1930s (printed recently), Sight: 6x10 3/8in. (17.5x26.5cm.)
Two black and white aerial shots of RKO Radio Pictures plot in the circa 1930s (printed recently), both, Sight: 8x10in. (20.3x25.4cm.)
Three black and white photographs of the Armature for the Kong miniature model, apparently taken by special photographic effects pioneer M. B. Paul in 1962 (printed recently) after cleaning following the removal of the model's foam padding, rubber muscles and fur, each Sight: 10.x8in. (25.4x20.4cm.)
A recent black and white photographic copy of an itemized Overage Report, dated Apr.20 1933, signed by Willis O'Brien and Cooper giving a breakdown of costs for ...Tearing down and Re-covering two F.S. Hands and two Small Apes... for Picture No. 668 [Son of Kong] suggesting that as early as 1933 the Kong armatures were intended for use in the sequel Son of Kong, Sight: 9x7¼in. (23x18cm.)
Provenance of Armature
1949 - First seen by film fan and miniature enthusiast, Eugene Hilchey when visiting the Miniature Department at RKO studios in the course of research he was doing into miniatures used by RKO Studios in some of their most notable films. Having obtained permission from Walter Daniels the head of RKO Productions at this time, Hilchey photographed miniature models of King Kong and of a dinosaur from the same film that he found within the Miniature Department. [Recent copies of these 3 previously unpublished photographs included in the lot]
1953 - Hilchey had the opportunity to salvage some film pieces from the RKO Ranch in Encino and began a collection of miniature models.
1957 - RKO Studios became the Desilu lot.
c.1962 - At around this time Hilchey revisited the Miniature Department at what had become the Desilu lot (formerly RKO Studios ). Here he found the 22-inch Kong armature of the Kong miniature model he had first set eyes on in 1949. It had been stripped of its latex and fur and was possibly to be used again for stop-motion photography. It was photographed by special photographic effects pioneer M.B.Paul. [Recent copies of Paul's 3 photographs of the 22-inch armature are included in the lot.]
c.1962 - 1965 - Hilchey was appointed Chairman of the Miniature and Special Effects Technical Committee which had as its purpose the collection of motion picture artefacts for a planned 'Hollywood Museum' project to be built across from the Hollywood Bowl. Hilchey was appointed chairman by Eugene Zukor, son of Adolph Zukor, chairman of the Board at Paramount Studios. [See accompanying 8 pages of photocopies headed Century Archives - Eugene L Hilchey which include photographs of Hilchey presenting a proposed King Kong Exhibit.] It was around this time that Hilchey met many film business 'legends' including Merian C. Cooper and Willis O'Brien. O'Brien gave Hilchey a copy of a blueprint drawing of the Kong Armature [A photocopy of the O'Brien's original blueprint drawing is included in the lot]. O'Brien also let Hilchey copy photographs from his personal photo album relating to his career.
1965 - The Lytton Center of the Visual Arts "Movie Magic" Exhibit design and installation by Eugene Hilchey, 1965 - See amongst Century Archives photocopies [listed above] photos of the King Kong Exhibit and other special effects and props including the miniature submarine from Atlantis etc.; copies of press cuttings about the exhibition; and a copy of an article Hilchey wrote for Special Visual Effects Outside the Camera in American Cinematographer, Magazine, November 1965 which includes Hilchey's photos of a Tyrannosaurus armature and a Brontosaurus miniature, both from King Kong 1933 . Lytton Savings where the exhibition took place belonged to Hollywood banker Bart Lytton.
1966 - The Hollywood Museum project was abandoned.
1967 - The Miniature department on the Desilu lot (formerly the RKO lot) was closed for demolition when Paramount took over the lot. It was agreed that workers on the lot could take things out of the buildings prior to the demolition as souvenirs of the old studio days. It was at this time that Eugene Hilchey took custody of the 22-inch. Armature. Hilchey preserved this Armature for decades and after several unsuccessful attempts at creating a museum of Hollywood artefacts he entrusted it to Bison Archives/Productions who have brought it to Christie's with a significant quantity of documentation supporting their meticulous research.
This provenance timeline has been compiled from the information within Eugene L. Hilchey's letter and a quantity of documents and photographs which accompany this lot.