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Giving Thanks for King Kong vs. Godzilla (You’re Welcome)

For me, Thanksgiving and Godzilla go hand in hand as much as turkey and stuffing do. Back when I was a small child, Superstation WTBS consistently aired Godzilla movies—sometimes in double features or marathons—on Thanksgiving Day. I have very vivid memories of seeing King Kong vs. Godzilla for the first time on Thanksgiving, at my grandparents’ house in Charlotte.

I’ve heard that there is a reboot/remake/revisit of King Kong vs. Godzilla in the works, from the team behind Gareth Edwards’ 2014 Godzilla. I’m not quite sure what to make of that—cautious optimism, I suppose? As I’ve written about before, as good as Edwards’ version was, it was not silly. And the thing that made the 1962 King Kong vs. Godzilla such a groundbreaking blockbuster iconic hit was its steadfast refusal to take itself, or anything else, seriously. And for all y’all who like your Godzilla dark and brooding and grim, just bear in mind that the somber version of Godzilla isn’t what launched the franchise. We have Godzilla movies today for one reason only: because there was King Kong vs. Godzilla, and it was bonkers.

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When King Kong vs. Godzilla was made, there was no reason to suspect that the Godzilla character would appear in decades more films—the King of the Monsters had been dormant for seven years and looked basically retired. Looking at the first decade of Toho’s special effects films, it was simply a question of Toho’s executives discovering that their people were quite gifted at making a peculiar kind of movie that happened to sell well. But within those parameters it was not yet the case that anyone had decided to prioritize Godzilla features over other kinds of special effects showcases—which included space epics, alien invasion films, gloomy sci-fi head-scratchers, action thrillers, and various other giant monsters.

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But then in 1962, the team of Tomoyuki Tanaka, Ishiro Honda, Eiji Tsuburaya, Shinihi Sekizawa, and Akira Ifukube lent their considerable talents to a movie that broke all box office records and remains to this day the most commercially successful in the franchise—more than fifty years afterwards, it continues to serve as the benchmark by which all subsequent films in the genre are judged. Yet whereas Toho’s preceding sci-fi flicks had been fairly uniformly serious in tone, King Kong vs. Godzilla revels in its silliness and makes no excuses about being a comedy. The experiment succeeded; King Kong vs. Godzilla thrilled 12.6 million Japanese viewers. Before 1962, Godzilla was a sporadic enterprise with an uncertain future, and after 1962 was a veritable pop cultural juggernaut.

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King Kong vs. Godzilla so far outstripped the other productions in terms of popularity, it forced the studio to streamline and retool the formula: drop the dour, brooding stuff that tended not to make as much money and instead focus on big all-star monster smash-ups.

Conventional wisdom has it that dwindling audiences forced the studio to slash its budgets, which in turn compromised the quality of the product, which in turn cost the films more viewers, in a self-feeding cycle of decline. Frankly this is a misreading.

That audience figures for the successive Godzilla sequels dropped steadily, and that the budgets for Toho’s monster movies also retreated are facts that, if taken out of context, can be quite misleading. Case in point: Three years after King Kong vs. Godzilla beat out 101 Dalmations and El Cidto place as the fourth highest grossing film in Japan, Invasion of Astro-Monster (fans of my generation know it better as Monster Zero) finished as the ninth top-grossing Japanese-made film in Japan for 1965. Heavy competition from American imports meant that the top-earning films increasingly were Hollywood ones.

Mothra and King Kong vs. Godzilla were more than just unique twists on the genre unlike anything seen before—they were unique films in the marketplace unchallenged by anything else at the time. Mothra was the only science fiction film released by Toho in all of 1961; the only thing remotely similar to it on Toho’s roster that year was The Last War, a speculative drama about a nuclear war which featured Tsuburaya’s effects but no real science fiction or fantasy component. King Kong vs. Godzilla was one of just two science fiction films from Toho the following year, competing only against Gorath, a space epic about a runaway star on a collision course with Earth. The box office records set by these two films established a sort of baseline of the total audience available for a Toho SF epic—we can think of that audience as a pie.

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King Kong vs. Godzilla had that pie all to itself, and gorged on nearly 13 million viewers. It would be hard to top that achievement. By comparison, in 1966, Toho released two major monster movies: Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster and The War of the Gargantuas. These had to share the nation’s screens with Gamera, Gamera vs. Barugon, Daimajin, Wrath of Daimajin, Return of Daimajin, Yokai Monsters: Along with Ghosts, Yokai Monsters: 100 Monsters, The Magic Serpent, and Terror Beneath the Sea—all the while, Ultraman battled giant monsters on weekly television. Add to that the eight major Japanese giant monster films theatrically released by various studios in the four years between 1962 and 1966. This level of aggressive competition only increased. The pie was now being split among many hungry rivals.

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Even discounting the competition from enemy studios, Toho’s own staff had good reason to compete against themselves. Investing all of their efforts in a single lavish production, a la King Kong vs. Godzilla, might position the film to reap all of the potential rewards of success, but also risked catastrophic losses if something went wrong. Distributing the risk across a number of smaller monster movies meant no single film was likely to be a huge blockbuster, but at the same time there was a better chance that some of them would be modest successes. King Kong vs. Godzilla had been a one-of-a-kind moment, a lavish production celebrating the studio’s thirtieth anniversary, which enjoyed little competition and some unique marketing advantages. Its successors would be instead an array of diversified product lines of reduced expectations but greater volume. Monsters had become big business.

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So much treasure had already been extracted from the gold mine that was King Kong vs. Godzilla, but one conspicuous element had been left unexploited: Kong himself. But Toho’s hands were tied, so long as the rights to the ever-popular monster were not their own.

Those rights belonged to RKO, and in 1966 RKO licensed the character to cartoon producers Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass for a television series. The King Kong Show has the curious distinction of being the first American cartoon series animated in Japan. Rankin/Bass subcontracted the animating to Toei Studios for the cycle of 26 episodes, which aired on Saturday mornings between 1966 and 1969.

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As written by Lew Lewis, Bernard Cowan, and Ron Levy, The King Kong Show revolved around the adventures of explorers Professor Bond, his daughter Susan, and son Bobby on a tropical island home to a giant ape. Their lives are imperiled by various threats, from dinosaurs to the villainous Dr. Who (clearly modeled after James Bond’s Dr. No)—but always rescued by their friend King Kong. The premise of a group of scientists befriended by a giant monster would resurface in the following decade in Hanna-Barbera’s cartoon Godzilla.

Rankin/Bass’ license included the option to make a theatrical feature adapted from the TV cartoon, and for that the company approached Toho. Delighted to have a second crack at a King Kong movie, Tomoyuki Tanaka asked Shinichi Sekizawa to develop a scenario. Sekizawa returned with a script for King Kong vs. Ebirah: Operation Robinson Crusoe. Arthur Rankin Jr. didn’t think Sekizawa’s idea captured the essence of his show, and rejected it—never one to let anything go to waste, the economical Tanaka had Sekizawa cross out the name “King Kong” on the script, change it to “Godzilla,” and hand it over to director Jun Fukuda more or less as is to turn into Godzilla vs. The Sea Monster.

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Takeshi Kimura took over the King Kong gig. His script borrowed heavily from the existing cartoon scripts, even down to Dr. Who’s giant robot duplicate of Kong, Mechani-Kong—an idea that would later become a staple of the Japanese monster genre, but born in the minds of American cartoon producers.

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King Kong Escapes was six ways from crazy, and probably the most childish of all Toho’s output to that point. American critics gasped in horror (and willfully ignored the fact that this supposed Japanese abomination was really nothing more than an American abomination that had been outsourced).

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As the decade grew closer to its end, Toho had valiantly tried to duplicate the magic of Godzilla, but without lasting success. No other monster caught on as tenaciously with audiences, no other franchise got started. There was something special about Godzilla, regardless of who was at the helm.

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11 Responses Giving Thanks for King Kong vs. Godzilla (You’re Welcome)
Posted By tolly devlin : November 28, 2015 6:10 am

I was ten years old when King Kong Versus Godzilla came out. Using logic I tried to figure out how Kong, who stood about 50 ft. could stand against the mighty Godzilla. Needless to say I was deeply disappointed when I went to the theater (the RKO Keith in Flushing N.Y.)& saw this with my friends. I felt cheated & misled. This was not Kong nor was it the Godzilla I had seen in the movie Godzilla, King of Monsters. This was a real stinker.

Posted By Dusty Ayres : November 28, 2015 7:10 am

@tolly: You’ve got it-this movie is a big stinker from all angles and from every direction. Ii’d rather people see the new (2014) Godzilla and hoe the the sequel doesn’t become as full of silly fights like this-this is just as pointless as Jason Vs. Freddy.

Posted By Craig J. Clark : November 28, 2015 3:19 pm

I’ve only come to Toho’s Kong diptych within the past couple years — and saw them out of order because I was shown King Kong Escapes during a bad-movie marathon before I decided to go back and tackle King Kong vs. Godzilla.

It takes a certain kind of chutzpah to open a film with a quote from Shakespeare (Hamlet’s line to Horatio about there being “more things in heaven and earth [...] than are dreamt of in your philosophy”) and later include a character saying, with a completely straight face, “King Kong can’t make a monkey out of us.” In 1962, the film with that chutzpah was King Kong vs. Godzilla, and as a 40-something kaiju fan, I enjoyed the heck out of it.

Posted By George : November 29, 2015 12:05 am

KING KONG ESCAPES is a stinker to end all stinkers. I’m ashamed to admit how excited I was to see it as a kid. I’ve heard that 1986′s KING KONG LIVES may be worse, but I’ve never seen it.

As for Godzilla movies … I can’t forget seeing GODZILLA VS. MEGALON and INFRA-MAN on a drive-in double bill. Don’t think I’ve ever laughed to hard in my life.

Posted By EGM3 : November 29, 2015 10:33 pm

Well, I guess someone has to say it. KKvsG is a great movie! The original is best, but the English version works well also. The satire on the advertising industry is spot on. You need a sense of humor to watch these things, and apparently the posters above do not.

Posted By Mike : November 30, 2015 4:39 am

I grew up on Godzilla (the first one being Godzilla vs. The Smog Monster which I saw 3-4 times in theaters growing up in California) and King Kong was always in the running for my favorite monster (metaphorically fighting the Big G all the time). So KKVG was so exciting for me to see as a kid and watch my two heroes go at it. Today the film does not hold up as well (hardly any of them do in all honesty) but I love them all the same (Showa series are in my mind the ONLY Godzilla films).

But I think we become apologists for the series when we try and explain this as a comedy. I don’t think for a minute they thought they were making one. They added humor of course as that is common with many Japanese dramas and action films of the period. This was meant to be a monster film through and through, even if Toho chose to lighten the darkened mood of the prior two. But where the film fails in its “goofiness” I don’t think we can justify by calling it a comedy.

Posted By Gamera2000 : November 30, 2015 4:45 am

I came to King Kong vs Godzilla, having seen most of the other Godzilla films from the 60′s before it, a bit later.
Also, having finally seen the Japanese version with Akira Ifukube
score, rather than the dreadful american canned score, the movie looks better. It is best enjoyed as a satire of advertising and the mass media. And yes, they never really solved the kong/godzilla size different. Kong seems to vary by the scene.

King Kong Escapes is a childhood favorite that is still a guilty pleasure. I saw it with my mom at the theatre near my house, which had kids matinees on Saturday. It is a ridculous but wonderfully guilty pleasure.

And yes King Kong Lives is much worst. I can only think of one other giant ape movie, THE MIGHTY GORGA, that is worse, and it had no budget.

Posted By George : November 30, 2015 4:56 am

“I can only think of one other giant ape movie, THE MIGHTY GORGA, that is worse, and it had no budget.”

Worse than MIGHTY PEKING MAN? Wow!

Posted By George : November 30, 2015 5:06 am

Yes, it is worse than MIGHTY PEKING MAN (and KING KONG ESCAPES), if this trailer is any indication. I’m sure Harryhausen was envious.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dk3jUxjfKKg

Posted By Jonathan Barnett : December 4, 2015 4:59 pm

I prefer the “silly” stuff over the “serious” minded tone that rampant nowadays. Perhaps its the atmospherics or nostalgia or hand crafted aspect of old fashion monster movies. I took this stuff seriously as a kid; “Bat-Man” with Adam West GODZILLA VS KING KONG, KING KONG 1976, also MOONRAKER and OCYOPUSSY. Its served straight up and neat as is Neat-O! Wow did you see that? That’s awesome! I think Godzilla punched King Kong out of the water. He swam away because he was scarred by Godzilla under the water.

Posted By swac44 : December 5, 2015 4:13 pm

I remember first seeing KKvsG on Bangor’s Great Money Movie in the early ’80s, probably during the same “Monster Week” where I got my first dose of Gamera as well (“He is a friend to all children!”), and I remember the dubbing on this particular version being so bad it made my eyes water. Not sure if there were variant English-language versions of it along the way, but I enjoy the film more now for all its sheer goofiness.

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