Kong vs. Kong in Hollywood

By David Konow

How Paramount and Universal competed to produce a King Kong remake in 1976, and why the campier movie prevailed.

We've seen happen in Hollywood again and again: the simultaneous production of two movies about the same subject. Whether it's asteroid movies, werewolf movies, or even two different takes on the Snow White story. Once an idea is in the zeitgeist, studios start a mad dash to see who gets a movie made about it first. And back in the mid-seventies, this happened with the first remake of King Kong.

In 1976, producer Dino De Laurentiis got his version to the big screen, starring Jeff Bridges, Jessica Lange, Charles Grodin, and Rick Baker playing the big ape in a gorilla suit he created.But some fanboys who weren’t happy with the remake have often lamented about what could have been with the other planned remake of Kong, which Universal had been planning for ’76 as well.

Titled The Legend of King Kong, Universal's flick was going to be more faithful to the original, staying in the ‘30’s, while the De Laurentiis version was updated to modern times. While the ’76 remake had plenty of drawbacks, there were certainly no guarantees the Universal movie would have been any better or worse. Yet looking back on it today, we get the impression it certainly had a good shot.

With incredible stop-motion animation from Willis O’Brien, the original King Kong was the state of the art effects movie of its time. In fact, it was the film that inspired Ray Harryhausen to launch his own career in stop motion effects, and it also inspired Peter Jackson to become a filmmaker as well. (Jackson’s 2005 remake of Kong was not only his way of paying tribute to the film that enchanted him as a kid, but it was his way of trying to make up for the ’76 version as well.)

While many modern remakes have basically done what’s called “movie karaokie,” redoing a movie practically verbatim from the original, in the ‘70’s remakes tried to bring old stories up to date. The ’76 Kong took place in modern day, with the added twist of Kong’s exploitation mirroring the then energy crisis. Here Kong is captured and exploited by an evil oil company, similar to Exxon, who first go to Skull Island looking for crude, then discovering the giant gorilla instead.

The remake of Kong was written by Lorenzo Semple Jr., who also wrote for the Batman TV show. Like Batman, the Kong remake was derided by fans for being campy, but Semple eventually realized that however the remake was approached, many would blast him for desecrating a classic no matter what.

“It shows that remaking a classic movie is ultimately doomed,” Semple told us. But at the same time, he didn’t feel the ’76 Kong deserved the critical and fan lashing it received. “It’s not a great movie but it’s by no means a bad movie. It’s an enjoyable adventure. It’s the only thing I had ever done that was unfairly treated. There was an issue of Cinefantastique magazine that had Lorenzo Semple’s hate-mail! I was considered a trasher of great American themes. I wish I still had the issue!”

In addition to modernizing the story, Dino De Laurentiis wanted Kong to climb the World Trade Center instead of the Empire State Building because it was a taller building. The producer, who was one of Hollywood’s last great showmen, presented everything as bigger than life, and subtlety was certainly not in his vocabulary. Semple told me Dino even lied about Kong’s budget, telling the press it cost more than it actually did, because he felt it would make the movie look bigger. (It wasn’t long before there was a backlash in the press against movies going over-budget, and Kong, which Dino claimed cost $24 million, was one of many films that was often called to task for excessive spending.)

How two proposed remakes of Kong ended up fighting each other came down to confusion over the rights. As Ray Morton reports in his book, King Kong: the History of a Movie Icon, RKO had a written rights agreement with Dino De Laurentiis to remake Kong at Paramount, but Universal alleged they had a previous oral agreement for the rights. RKO denied this, and everybody ended up suing each other. To make a long story short, Paramount and Universal settled, with Universal getting the rights to make other Kong movies in the future. This of course eventually paved the way for the Peter Jackson remake, as well as the Kong ride at Universal Studios.

Before the suits were settled, Universal and Paramount played a game of chicken, trying to get the other side to back out first. Universal announced their Kong would start shooting on January 5, 1976, then Dino put a cast together as quickly as he could, and started shooting on January 15, 1976. Paramount's Kong would be a big production, and the sets and special effects wouldn’t be ready by January, but De Laurentiis decided to get three weeks of footage in the can, then shut the film down until everything else could get up to speed. Ultimately, the Kong remake would suffer from racing against Universal, with many of the FX looking rushed and shoddy. (Rick Baker always lamented not having enough time to build the ultimate ape suit.)

FX artist Jim Danforth (The Outer Limits, Neverending Story) went to Universal volunteering his services for the Legend of King Kong, but the studio felt that a stop motion ape would be too expensive, and were planning on having an actor in a monkey suit, much like the ’76 Kong did with Baker. (In addition to the screenplay, you can also find Danforth art and storyboards for Legend online.)

In addition, both studios created ads for their respective Kongs, announcing to the world their impending arrival. Universal’s ad was in black and white, with a gigantic gorilla shadow hovering over a thirties-era New York. Dino took out an ad in the New York Times on November 30, 1975, with a rough illustration by famed sci-fi artist John Berkey. “There is still only one King Kong,” the ad promised. “One year from today, Paramount Pictures and Dino De Laurentiis will bring you the most exciting, original motion picture event of all time.”

Even many years after the fact, Semple was unaware that there were real plans for Universal to make their own big monkey movie. He believed it was a bluff to get Paramount to back away from their own remake plans, but there is indeed a screenplay for The Legend of King Kong, and it’s quite good. The fact that the Universal Kong had a terrific script shouldn’t be a surprise. It was written by Bo Goldman, who won the Academy Award for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. (Goldman, who is considered one of the best screenwriters in the business, also wrote Melvin and Howard and Scent of a Woman.)

John Berkey's promotional art for Paramount's Kong.

While Semple didn’t have Goldman’s rep as a screenwriter, both Kong remakes had director issues. John Guillermin, who directed the ’76 Kong, also helmed one of the greatest disaster films of all time, The Towering Inferno, but many considered De Laurentiis to be the real driving force on Kong, just as many believed Irwin Allen was the power behind the throne on Inferno.

Universal had Joseph Sargent lined up to direct Legend. While neither Guillermin or Sargent were auteurs, Sargent was a good journeyman director who made one of the most under-rated sci-fi films of all time, Colossus: The Forbin Project, about artificial intelligence taking over the world. (Many feel it was the inspiration for The Terminator’s Skynet.) Sargent also directed one of the best action films of all time, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. (Like any journeyman director, Sargent also churned out some clinkers, including Jaws: The Revenge.)

As for why two studios decided to remake Kong at the same time, Dino would claim he got the idea from seeing a Kong poster on the wall of his daughter’s bedroom. Reports claim that Paramount was interested in making a monster movie of some kind in the mid seventies, and the incredible success of Jaws was also a strong impetus as well. While Jaws was too scary for young children, Dino felt Kong would appeal more to kids, and potentially bring in even more money at the box office.

In remaking Kong, Guillermin, Dino and Semple wanted to veer away from the original so it would avoid comparisons to the ‘33 version, which Lorzeno later admitted was a naïve strategy. The film also had quite a bit of humor in it, which the critics and fans didn’t like, but Semple fel it was important for the new version. A woman and an ape falling in love with each other is a pretty crazy premise, and it could have been disastrous if you tried to make an audience take it too seriously.

In addition, Dino and Semple wanted to play up the love story of Kong, and tug the audience’s heartstrings at the end. De Laurentiis was famous for announcing on the Tom Snyder show that when Jaws died, nobody cried, but when his big monkey died, everyone was gonna cry.

Well, it quite didn’t work out that way, and Kong certainly didn’t come close to Jaws at the box office either, but it definitely made some dough despite scathing reviews, and some fans still recall it very fondly. Slash, the former guitarist of Guns N Roses, is a fan, and in Fangoria magazine Matthew Kiernan wrote that the Kong remake was “the first genre film to have a major hold on my imagination.”

And finally in 2005, Peter Jackson gave us a new model Kong that was much closer to the version Universal planned back in ’76. The success of the Lord of the Rings series gave Jackson the power and clout to make Kong any way he pleased. While Jackson’s Kong had great FX with the Andy Serkis motion capture performance, and remarkable CGI dinosaurs, it definitely had its excesses and bloat as well, especially considering it didn’t need to be three hours long.

It’s still fascinating to think what Universal’s Kong could have been like, especially through the prism of the ‘70’s. Who knows if Universal’s Kong could have been any better or worse than the Paramount version, but over eighty years after its release, the original will always be the best. Even though special effects have come a long way since the ‘30’s, the stop-motion Kong still looks great, and the dramatic foundations of the story--a great adventure that is also a tragic love story–will always guarantee Kong’s iconic status in cinema history.