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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):

A Very Brief History of Chamber Pots

Some of the oldest chamber pots found by archeologists have been discovered in ancient Greece, but portable toilets have come a long way since then. Whether referred to as "the Jordan" (possibly a reference to the river), "Oliver's Skull" (maybe a nod to Oliver Cromwell's perambulating cranium), or "the Looking Glass" (because doctors would examine urine for diagnosis), they were an essential fact of life in houses and on the road for centuries. In this video from the Wellcome Collection, Visitor Experience Assistant Rob Bidder discusses two 19th century chamber pots in the museum while offering a brief survey of the use of chamber pots in Britain (including why they were particularly useful in wartime).

Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
Tomb Raider: The Story of Saint Nicholas's Stolen Bones
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock

Throughout history, corpses have been bought and sold, studied, collected, stolen, and dissected. In Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses, Mental Floss editor Bess Lovejoy looked into the afterlife of numerous famous corpses, including Saint Nicholas, one of the many canonized bodies whose parts were highly prized by churches, thieves, and the faithful.

Don't tell the kids, but Santa Claus has been dead for more than sixteen hundred years. No, his body is not at the North Pole, and he's not buried with Mrs. Claus. In fact, his remains are thousands of miles away, on Italy's sunny Adriatic coast. And while Santa might be enjoying his Mediterranean vacation, he's probably not too happy about what happened to his remains. They were stolen in the eleventh century, and people have been fighting over them ever since.

Of course, the Santa Claus of folklore doesn't have a skeleton. But his inspiration, Saint Nicholas, does. That's about all we can say for sure about Nicholas: he was a bishop who lived and died in what is now Turkey in the first half of the fourth century. Legend tells us that he was born into a rich family and delighted in giving gifts. Once, he threw three bags of gold into the window of a poor family's house, saving the three daughters who lived there from a life of prostitution. Another time, he raised three children from the dead after a butcher carved them up and stored them in a vat of brine. He also protected sailors, who were said to cry out his name in rough seas, then watch the waves mysteriously smooth.

The sailors spread Nicholas's cult around the world. Within a century of his death, the bishop was worshipped as a saint, lending his name to hundreds of ports, islands, and inlets, and thousands of baby boys. He became one of the best-loved saints in all of Christendom, adopted by both the Eastern and Western traditions. Christmas probably owes something to his December 6 feast day, while Santa Claus’s red outfit may come from his red bishop’s robes. "Santa Claus" is derived from "Sinterklaas," which was how Dutch immigrants to New Amsterdam pronounced his name.

As one of the most popular saints in the Christian world, Nicholas had a particularly powerful corpse. The bodies of saints and martyrs had been important to Christianity since its beginning: the earliest churches were built on the tombs of saints. It was thought that the bodily bits of saints functioned like spiritual walkie-talkies: you could communicate with higher powers through them, and they, in turn, could manifest holy forces on Earth. They could heal you, protect you, and even perform miracles.

Sometimes, the miracles concerned the saints' own bodies. Their corpses would refuse to decay, exude an inexplicable ooze, or start to drip blood that mysteriously solidified and then reliquefied. So it was with Nicholas: at some point after his death, his bones began to secrete a liquid called manna or myrrh, which was said to smell like roses and possess potent healing powers.

The appearance of the manna was taken as a sign that Nicholas’s corpse was especially holy, and pilgrims began flocking by the thousands to his tomb in the port city of Myra (now called Demre). By the eleventh century, other cities started getting jealous. At the time, cities and churches often competed for relics, which brought power and prestige to their hometowns the way a successful sports team might today. Originally, the relics trade had been nourished by the catacombs in Rome, but when demand outstripped supply, merchants—and even monks—weren't above sneaking down into the crypts of churches to steal some holy bones. Such thefts weren't seen as a sin; the sanctity of the remains trumped any ethical concerns. The relics were also thought to have their own personalities—if they didn't want to be stolen, they wouldn't allow it. Like King Arthur's sword in the stone, they could only be removed by the right person.

That was how Myra lost Saint Nicholas. The culprits were a group of merchants and sailors from the town of Bari, located on the heel of Italy's boot. Like other relic thefts, this one came at a time of crisis for the town where the thieves lived, which in this case had recently been invaded by a horde of rapacious Normans. The conquerors wanted to compete with the Venetians, their trading rivals to the north, who were known for stealing the bones of Saint Mark (disguised in a basket of pork) from Alexandria in 827. And when the Normans heard that Myra had recently fallen to the Turks, leaving Nicholas’s tomb vulnerable, they decided to try stealing a saint for themselves.

According to an account written shortly after the theft by a Barian clerk, three ships sailed from Bari into Myra's harbor in the spring of 1087. Forty-seven well armed Barians disembarked and strode into the church of Saint Nicholas, where they asked to see the saint’s tomb. The monks, who weren't idiots, got suspicious and asked why they wanted to know. The Barians then dropped any pretense of politeness, tied the monks up, and smashed their way into Nicholas's sarcophagus. They found his skeleton submerged in its manna and smelled a heavenly perfume wafting up from the bones, which "licked at the venerable priests as if in insatiable embrace."

And so Nicholas of Myra became Nicholas of Bari. The relics made the town, and the men who stole them. The thieves became famous in the area, and for centuries their descendants received a percentage of the offerings given on the saint’s feast day. The townspeople built a new basilica to hold the remains, which drew thousands of pilgrims throughout the Middle Ages. Even today, Bari remains a major pilgrimage site in southern Italy, visited by both Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians. Every May an elaborate festival, the Feast of the Translation, celebrates the arrival of Nicholas’s relics. As one of the highlights, the rector of the basilica bends over Nicholas’s sarcophagus and draws off some of the manna in a crystal vial. The fluid is mixed with holy water and poured into decorated bottles sold in Bari's shops; it is thought to be a curative drink.

But Bari is not the only place that boasts of the bones of Saint Nicholas. If you ask the Venetians, they will say their own sailors visited Myra during the First Crusade and stole Nicholas’s remains, which have been in Venice ever since. For centuries, both Bari and Venice have claimed the saint's skeleton.

In the twentieth century, scientists waded into the dispute. During renovations to the basilica of Bari in 1953, church officials allowed University of Bari anatomy professor Luigi Martino to examine the remains— the first time the tomb had been opened in more than eight hundred years. Martino found the bones wet, fragile, and fragmented, with many of them missing. He concluded that they had belonged to a man who died in his seventies, although because Martino was given only a short time with the bones, he could say little more.

Four decades later, Martino and other scientists also studied the Venetian bones. They concluded that those relics and the ones in Bari had come from the same skeleton, and theorized that the Venetian sailors had stolen what was left in Myra after the Barians had done all their smashing.

As for Demre, all they have is an empty tomb. And they want their bones back. In 2009, the Turkish government said it was considering a formal request to Rome for the return of Nicholas's remains. Though the bones have little religious significance in a nation that’s 99 percent Muslim, there’s still a sense in Turkey that the centuries-old theft was a cultural violation. Its restitution would certainly be an economic benefit: according to local officials, tourists in Demre frequently complain about the barren tomb, and they weren't satisfied by the giant plastic sculpture of Santa Claus that once stood outside Nicholas’s church. Even though Santa has become an international cultural icon, his myth is still rooted in a set of bones far from home.

From REST IN PIECES: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses by Bess Lovejoy. Copyright © 2013 by Bess Lovejoy. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.


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