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King Kong Turns 80

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On March 2, 1933, a beast proudly dubbed “the eighth wonder of the world” made his grand debut at Manhattan’s Radio City Music Hall and its sister theater across the street. Though ticket prices ranged from 35 to 75 cents, King Kong went on to gross a then-whopping $89,931 over the next four days in New York City alone. Not bad for a movie released at the rock-bottom of the Great Depression! Since then, the simian celebrity has (among other things) starred in two remakes, battled Godzilla, and even worked as a “spokes-primate” for Volkswagen.

But it’s the original picture that’s left the biggest influence on the motion picture industry, a movie that opened the door for every special-effects film from The Wizard of Oz to The Lord of the Rings. In honor of the 80th anniversary of its release, here’s a look back at the movie’s historic production, groundbreaking effects, and far-reaching legacy.

1. Fay Wray's tall, dark, and handsome co-star wasn't who she expected.

When producer/director Merian C. Cooper boasted to lead actress Fay Wray that she “was going to have the tallest, darkest leading man in Hollywood,” Wray assumed he was talking about Cary Grant. After Wray’s death in 2004, the Empire State Building memorialized the actress by briefly dimming its lights in honor of her legendary climb with Kong. She can be seen here at the 70th Academy Awards opposite comedian Billy Crystal.

2. Cooper originally planned to include live Komodo dragons in the film to stand in for dinosaurs.

According to some reports, Cooper even considered recruiting a few of the lizards to fight an actual gorilla over a miniature set before eventually resorting to stop-motion animals (partially due to safety concerns). A pair of these magnificent reptiles had previously been brought to New York before quickly perishing, a tragic tale which inspired much of Kong’s emotional pathos. 

3. King Kong was the first movie ever to be re-released.

Opting to capitalize on the film’s astounding success, RKO studios re-released it in 1938, 1942, and 1952. The scene of Kong’s partial disrobement of Ann Darrow (played by Fay Wray) was cut from the 1938 run, while the ’52 version came with added footage of the Empire State Building.

4. Kong’s chief special effects artist, Willis O’Brien, had previously worked for Thomas Edison.

Having seen some of his earliest work, Edison commissioned O’Brien to produce a series of stop-motion films beginning in 1916. You can see highlights from one of their more lighthearted collaborations below.

5. King Kong was Among the first movies to Have a Completely Original Musical Score.

Hailed as “the father of film composing,” Austrian-born Max Steiner, who had previously worked on Broadway musicals, was permitted by Cooper to compose a full-length musical score (at the director’s personal expense). Prior to Kong, cinematic musicians generally borrowed tracks from earlier recordings. Steiner’s soundtrack includes character motifs and accompaniment designed to precisely mirror on-screen movement. Listen to the main title theme below.

6. The scene of Kong attacking a train was added to prevent the film from taking up 13 reels.

The superstitious Cooper, hearing this unlucky number, exclaimed, “No picture of mine is going out in thirteen reels! I’ll shoot an extra sequence and bring it up to fourteen if I have to!” Ultimately, the final version was whittled down to eleven reels, but the added footage quickly became some of the picture’s most memorable.

7. Kong’s apparent size was deliberately increased for the New York scenes.

According to film historian Rich Correll, “When they started doing the New York scenes, Cooper said ‘Because New York is so big, the ape should be bigger.’” So while Kong was depicted as being 18 feet tall on Skull Island during the movie’s first half, his “height” was scaled up to 24 feet during its urban climax.

8. Kong’s distinctive roar was created by editing Lion and Tiger growls.

After recording an array of animal noises which he slowed to half-speed, sound effects artist Murray Spivak “played a tiger roar backwards against a lion roar forward,” which produced “a sort of uncanny” howl. Spivak himself provided the “love grunts” Kong used while trying to win over Ann.

9. A former boxer, Willis O’Brien gave Kong a few wrestling moves he’d previously learned during his classic fight with an irate Tyrannosaurus.

See if you can spot the influence in this clip:

10. Cooper and his partner Ernest B. Schoedsack cast themselves as the pilots who gunned down Kong in the film’s climax.

“We might as well kill the son of a bitch ourselves,” said Cooper, who had flown in World War I. Inspired by this, Peter Jackson (a huge King Kong fan) climbed into a plane to take down the eighth wonder of the world for the 2005 remake.

Look for Jackson at the 0:36 second mark (he’s sitting in the co-pilot’s chair):

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This Just In
A Connecticut Farm Purchased by Mark Twain for His Daughter, Jean Clemens, Is Up for Sale
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Mark Twain—whose wit was matched only by his wanderlust—had many homes throughout his life: a small frame house in Hannibal, Missouri; a Victorian mansion in Hartford, Connecticut; and "Stormfield," a country estate in Redding, Connecticut, just to name a few. Now, the Connecticut Post reports that a farm adjacent to Stormfield, purchased in 1909 by Twain for his daughter, Jean Clemens, is up for sale.

“Jean’s Farm,” as Twain nicknamed the home, is priced at $1,850,000. In addition to a storied literary legacy, the refurbished five-bedroom estate has a saltwater swimming pool, a movie theater, and a children’s play area. It sits on nearly 19 acres of land, making the property “well-sized for a gentleman's farm, for horses, or as a hobby farm,” according to its real estate listing. There’s also a fish pond and a 19th-century barn with an extra apartment.

While scenic, Jean’s Farm has a bittersweet backstory: Jean Clemens, who had epilepsy, enjoyed the pastoral property for only a short time before passing away at the age of 29. She lived in a sanitarium before moving to Stormfield in April 1909, where she served as her father's secretary and housekeeper and made daily trips to her farm. On December 24, 1909, Jean died at Stormfield after suffering a seizure in a bathtub. Twain, himself, would die several months later, on April 21, 1910, at the age of 74.

Twain sold Jean’s Farm after his daughter’s death, and used the proceeds to fund a library in Redding, today called the Mark Twain Library. But despite losing a child, Twain’s years at Stormfield—his very last home—weren’t entirely colored by tragedy. “Although Twain only spent two years here [from 1908 to 1910], it was an important time in the writer’s life,” historian Brent Colely told The Wall Street Journal. “Twain was always having guests over, including his close friend Helen Keller, hosting almost 181 people for visits in the first six months alone, according to guestbooks and notations.”

Check out some photos of Jean’s Farm below, courtesy of

Jean’s Farm, a property in Redding, Connecticut that author Mark Twain purchased for his daughter, Jean Clemens, in 1909.

 Jean’s Farm, a property in Redding, Connecticut that author Mark Twain purchased for his daughter, Jean Clemens, in 1909.

Jean’s Farm, a property in Redding, Connecticut that author Mark Twain purchased for his daughter, Jean Clemens, in 1909.

Jean’s Farm, a property in Redding, Connecticut that author Mark Twain purchased for his daughter, Jean Clemens, in 1909.

[h/t Connecticut Post]

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The Dangerous History Behind the Word 'Deadline'
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Nowadays, the word deadline is used all but exclusively to refer to a date or time by which something must be accomplished. But over the centuries, the term has been used in a number of different contexts: Among early 20th-century printers, for instance, a deadline was a line marked on a cylindrical press outside of which text would be illegible, while the Oxford English Dictionary has unearthed a reference to an angler’s “dead-line” dating from the mid-1800s referring to a weighted fishing line that does not move in the water.

The modern sense of deadline, however, may be influenced by a much more dangerous meaning. It originated during the Civil War, and came to prominence during the much-hyped trial of an infamous Swiss-born Confederate leader named Henry Wirz.

Wirz was born Heinrich Hartmann Wirz in Zürich in 1823. In his early twenties, a court forced him to leave Zürich for 12 years after he failed to repay borrowed money, and in 1848 he left first for Russia before eventually settling in America. After working a string of jobs at several spots around the country, Wirz married a woman named Elizabeth Wolf in 1854 and moved to Louisiana. After the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, he enlisted as a private in the Fourth Louisiana Infantry.

One of Wirz’s first engagements in the war was the Battle of Seven Pines on May 31, 1862. He was badly wounded in the fighting, losing the use of his right arm, and when he returned to his unit a few weeks later he was promoted to the rank of captain in recognition of his bravery and service. From there, Wirz rose through the ranks to become an adjutant to John H. Winder, an experienced and high-ranking general overseeing the treatment of Confederate deserters and Union prisoners. In 1864, Wirz was put in control of Camp Sumter, a newly-established internment camp for Union soldiers located near Andersonville in rural Georgia.

Over the remaining 14 months of the war, Camp Sumter grew to become one of the largest prisoner of war camps in the entire Confederacy. At its peak, it held more than 30,000 Union prisoners, all of whom shared an enormous 16.5-acre open-air paddock—conditions inside of which were notoriously grim. Disease and malnutrition were rife, and a lack of clean water, warm clothing, and adequate sanitation led to the deaths of many of the camp’s prisoners. Of the 45,000 Union prisoners held in the Camp at one time or another, it is estimated that almost a third succumbed to Sumter’s squalid and inhumane conditions.

In his defense, Wirz later claimed to have had little real control over the conditions in the camp, and it is certainly true that the day-to-day running of Camp Sumter was a disorganized affair divided among numerous different parties. Incompetence, rather than malice, may have been the cause of many of the camp's horrors.

Execution of Captain Henry Wirtz (i.e. Wirz), C.S.A, adjusting the rope
Execution of Captain Henry Wirz in 1865

In 1865, the war came to an end and Wirz was arrested in Andersonville. He was eventually sent to Washington, and held in the Old Capitol Prison to await trial before a military commission. That fall, more than 150 witnesses—including one of Wirz’s own prison staff and several former prisoners—took to the stand and gave testimony. Many provided damning evidence of Wirz’s harsh treatment of the prisoners (although historians now think some of these testimonies were exaggerated). As accounts of him withholding food and other supplies from prisoners found to have committed even minor offenses were relayed in the press—and as the full extent of the terrible conditions inside Camp Sumter became public—Wirz emerged as a much-vilified symbol of the camp’s inhumane treatment of its Union prisoners.

One of most damning examples of his inhumanity was his implementation of what became known as the Camp’s dead line:

Wirz, still wickedly pursuing his evil purpose, did establish and cause to be designated within the prison enclosure … a “dead line,” being a line around the inner face of the stockade or wall enclosing said prison, and about twenty feet distant and within said stockade; and so established said dead line, which was in many places an imaginary line, in many other places marked by insecure and shifting strips of [boards nailed] upon the tops of small and insecure stakes or posts, he … instructed the prison guard stationed around the top of said stockade to fire upon and kill any of the prisoners aforesaid who might touch, fall upon, pass over or under or across the said “dead line” ...

—Report of the Secretary of War, October 1865

In other words, this deadliest of all deadlines was a line Wirz implemented just inside the inner wall of Camp Sumter. Any prisoner wandering beyond the line would immediately be killed.

Stories like this were all the evidence the court needed: Wirz was found guilty of violating the rights of wartime prisoners, and was hanged on the morning of November 10, 1865.

Widespread press reports of Wirz’s trial and the horrors of Camp Sumter soon led to the word deadline being popularized, and eventually it passed into everyday use—thankfully in a less severe sense.

By the early 20th century, the word’s military connotations had all but disappeared and the familiar meaning of the deadlines we meet—or miss—today emerged by the early 1920s.


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