The King of Kong: The Work and Legacy of Willis H. O’Brien

Rafael A. Sarmiento
Sep 22, 2020 · 12 min read
King Kong: The movie that got me into movies.

When discussing film, the historical context of the film — and the events of the culture and world surrounding it — must be noted. The life of the filmmakers behind a movie is equally important, as their background and very soul pours into their work. In the case of the pioneer of stop motion, Willis H. O’Brien, the world was between the two most devastating conflicts in human history — the world wars — but there was a great deal of discovery in this time. In an age where the missing pieces in the world map where being filled in, it seemed only more questions rose up with more knowledge. Everything seemed possible, with discoveries ranging from radio to jazz to…fascism.

Howard Carter discovered the tomb of King Tut in 1922, Edward Hubble discovered the universe was much larger than initially thought in 1924, George Mallory disappeared attempting to climb Mt. Everest in 1924, Charles Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic in 1927, with Amelia Earhart following the year after, and many more marvels and mysteries would continue to crop up in the years to follow.

Willis O’Brien expanded on such an age of wonder and awe. He himself was a master of translating his personal passion for the things he found astounding and sharing them to the world, through his creativity and imagination, as seen in his special effects, leaving a legacy that would impact all future films following his work.

O’Brien was born in perhaps one of the least wondrous places to be born, in Oakland, California, in 1886.[1] This was on the heels of another age of awe and inspiration, following the “greatest showman” that was P.T. Barnum, the dinosaur dig craze, the age of Edison and Tesla, the writings of Jules Verne, and so on. O’Brien left home when he was only 11 and decided to find his own footing in the world. Fortunately for O’Brien, he was rather lucky and found a great variety of jobs, as a farmhand, a boxer, a bartender, and many more. But most importantly, he had three crucial jobs that would determine his main pursuits as an artist: a cartoonist, a sculptor, and a paleontology assistant.[2]

In 1913, his sculptures were featured at the San Francisco World Fair, and it was around this time that O’Brien realized the potential in mastering his arts.[3] He began to make moveable joints in his sculptures for movement, and quickly became interested in stop motion photography. Although the technique had been around for years, O’Brien would become the “popularizing” father rather than the founder. He would be like Sergei Eisenstein with montage in that sense; not the founder, but the film school go-to name for the technique and person to study to best understand it.

Willis O’Brien’s first few experiments were simple, showing shades of inspirations from his odd jobs-a few clay boxers fighting, and then a caveman and dinosaur interacting. A producer from the Edison took notice of the prehistoric footage and was impressed, commissioning O’Brien $5,000 to expand on it and lengthen it to 5 minutes.[4] Thus, O’Brien’s first officially produced motion picture was born, named The Dinosaur and the Missing Link: A Prehistoric Tragedy, made in 1914, and officially released later.

It is a rather simple little short, but it shows great shades of what was to come; namely, use of a large gorilla-like creature fighting a dinosaur. For only being 5 minutes, it manages to tell a neat little tale of a caveman trying to impress a girl, and adjacently shows the missing link creature (nicknamed “Wild Willie”) fighting a dinosaur and losing to it. The caveman stumbles across Willie and takes credit for killing him to impress his love, and presumably wins her over.

Wild Willie, not to be confused with Groundskeeper Willie.

The Dinosaur and the Missing Link was made purely with puppets and stop motion, with no mixture of live action or other effects to go along with it. The background “set” is very simple, using clay and wood, and seems rather childish in hindsight, but remains incredibly charming. O’Brien would go on to become the master of blending several techniques at once and famously keeping them secret, especially during his masterpiece, King Kong. In this short, however, they are very simple and do not rely on much. Despite knowing the short is completely fake, it is very encapsulating and entertaining, drawing in the audience. The cleverness and heart put into the stop motion would be the key to success for O’Brien’s career. He would go on to make several more of these for the Edison Company, all prehistoric based comedy shorts, but all have since completely disappeared, lost to the ages, even most of their titles and plots.[5]

After this period in his career, O’Brien went on to make The Ghost of Slumber Mountain. This film was a massive success, scoring a gross of $100,000 on a roughly $3,000 budget, but more importantly, it is the first film that features actors and stop-motion creatures together on screen.[6] There was meant to be much more footage in the film, making it around 45 minutes, but O’Brien and his funder bickered frequently and the film ended up being only 18 minutes.

His funder would ultimately take credit for the film’s techniques and use them in his own future films, also taking the majority of the profit from Slumber Mountain. However, a certain individual named Harry Hoyt, a screenwriter and director, took notice of O’Brien’s work on the film and got in contact with him. With this connection, the 1925 film The Lost World, based on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel of the same name, began production.[7]

The already well-known Sir Doyle (best known for writing Sherlock Holmes) would promote the film as actual footage, and loved it, showing it at private screenings, increasing its credibility. The story was also a fairly exciting one, featuring an expedition crew discovering a lost plateau in Venezuela (think Pixar’s Up) filled with prehistoric creatures, and bringing a Brontosaurus (now known as Apatosaurus) back to London, where it would go on a rampage. In the age of discovery and popular exploration, there was no question that it was the right time to make this film. In a nutshell, it was destined to be a smash hit.

I once wrote a paper about why Allosaurus was the best dinosaur. I should scrounge that up.

To really sell this feature-length film he was finally able make at last, O’Brien put everything he had into it. The models he used were upgraded from clay to rubber, so they wouldn’t melt with camera lights focused on them. The creatures actually breathed with miniature air pumps hidden in them. Before Hitchcock did it, O’Brien used chocolate as a convincing blood effect. Small drips of varnish and polish would be put on a hungry Allosaurus’ mouth to make it drool when seeing its prey.

Small wires let Pteranodons and birds fly around to terrorize the expedition.[8] The movie was a box office bonanza, grossing a few million, and sealing O’Brien as a name to look out for. And although the film was produced by First National, much of it was filmed on an RKO set, where his magnum opus would be produced-King Kong.[9]

On set, O’Brien began to make connections and work with many people from RKO, eventually leading him to meet Merian C. Cooper. Willis O’Brien must have been kissed by lady luck, because Cooper was probably the most perfect man to pair up with O’Brien at that time and place in history. Cooper had just been exploring Africa and grew obsessed with gorillas, worked as a major documentary maker, and would be one of the top producers at RKO.[10]

He enjoyed O’Brien’s work very much and attempted to make a film known as Creation, which was to show the evolution of life on Earth (hot off the tail of the Scopes Trial), but the film was scrapped. Some of the creatures originally meant for this movie would be saved for King Kong. Along with this, Cooper was good friends with another big name at RKO, Ernest B. Schoedsack, a fellow adventurer who also previously produced a few jungle films.[11] Along with this, the sound era was beginning, and all three men wanted to do something big, loud, profitable, and memorable.

THE EIGHTH WONDER OF THE WORLD: KONG! (Eighth wonder? I hardly know her!)

1933’s King Kong is among the most important films ever made in human history. Its story remains well-known to this day, and nearly all blockbusters owe tribute or draw inspiration from it. It is an exciting fantasy story, with an easy plot to follow. In a matter similar to The Lost World, a crew goes to a mysterious jungle location, they find prehistoric creatures, they take one home (Kong, the 25-foot gorilla in this case, and New York rather than London), and an inevitable rampage follows. It culminates in the famous Kong vs. airplanes fight on the newly constructed Empire State Building, where Kong loses, all over the kidnapping of his hostage, Ann Darrow.

The major difference between the two films, however, is that Kong has something the creatures from The Lost World lacked; character and appeal. He has curiosity after playfully snapping a Tyrannosaurus Rex’s jaw, or ripping off Ann Darrow’s clothes and sniffing them. He shows anger and pain when stabbed with knives and spears or shot with bullets. He shows fear when Ann is in danger and when he is grievously injured and dying. As Cooper joked, he was the “tallest leading man in Hollywood” and absolutely stole the show from everyone with his massive presence.[12]

King Kong’s success owes credit to many people, like Cooper and Schoedsack, for eagerly directing and producing, and promoting it passionately. Schoedsack’s wife, Ruth Rose, polished the original script by James Creelman. The composer, Max Steiner, who wrote an excellent score with music that matched the action, known as “Mickey Mousing”, a new technique that caught on after Steamboat Willie had paralleled music to movement.

The passionate cast, featuring hammy but memorable performances by Robert Armstrong as the ever-ambitious and greedy Carl Denham, Bruce Cabot as everyman hunk Jack Driscoll, and most famously, the Iron (Lung) Lady, Fay Wray as the damsel in distress, who made sure everyone knew she was in distress with her constant ear drum-shattering screams. But in reality, the majority of the credit for the film’s success is owed to Willis H. O’Brien, the master of the special effects, which was the talk of the world at the time.

It was O’Brien’s beloved Kong who made the movie what it is to this day. That characterization would not have been possible had O’Brien not given him a soul and credibility by adjusting his raising eyebrows, hand movements, eye directions, and made sure it all ran smoothly. He also made sure to make Kong’s home of Skull Island feel like a real, tangible location with depth and an aura of mystery. He whipped out every trick in the book, stating with matte paintings, layers of glass paintings (sometimes with bits of plants stuck on), and optical printing to make a deep, detailed jungle. He liked shooting with rear projection because it allowed the actors to have genuine reactions to what was on screen.

Along with that, he made sure that there were usually actors in most shots to give a sense of scale and tension to each action shot in the film. A massive bust of Kong was made so close up shots of his handsome face could be utilized and actors could be caught inside his jaws to horrify the audience. O’Brien may have made stop motion his calling card, but his blend of techniques is the real secret to his success. By doing so, so many things were going on at once that the audience could not easily single out one effect and instead focused on the story and action rather than be distracted.

Following King Kong, O’Brien and the rest of the crew quickly tried to capitalize on its success and cranked out Son of Kong, made less than 9 months later, released in December of the same year.[13] Long story short, it fell on its face, but considering how quickly it was made, it is still worth a watch.

This is probably the exact face made to the executives when the filmmakers debuted

Throughout the rest of the 1930’s, O’Brien failed to meet King Kong with a worthy successor, making a simple disaster film The Last Days of Pompeii, and planning The War Eagle, but as O’Brien must have been used to by this point, the film was scrapped because Cooper, the proposed producer, joined the army in 1939.[14] O’Brien had yet another film scrapped, known as Gwangi, about cowboys finding dinosaurs in Texas, before at long last meeting up with the old King Kong crew in 1949 and making Mighty Joe Young, which featured (spoiler warning: O’Brien never got over the dinosaur/ape obsession)…a giant gorilla. But in this case, Joe Young was only 12 feet. And yes, Robert Armstrong was reused as an actor.

This image of Joe is very meme-worthy.

Mighty Joe Young is a brief, fun stop motion spectacle flick, but it is more important than people realize: it is the film where the next legend in stop motion, Ray Harryhausen, got his start. Harryhausen actually did most of the animation work in the film under O’Brien’s supervision, and would go on to work on iconic films for decades following, such as The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, Jason and the Argonauts, and Clash of the Titans.[15] Sadly, O’Brien passed away before doing any other major film, right before he could do a short segment for 1962’s It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. He had written a script for The Beast of Hollow Mountain, which concerned cowboys discovering (you guessed it) stop motion dinosaurs.

This scene from J is actually one of the best put to screen. If you know it, you know it.

In the end, there are several things to take from O’Brien’s story. The first being that although directors, producers, and actors often are the most acknowledged people on the surface of a film, the people doing the hard work behind the scenes deserve credit as well — whatever their part. The second is that O’Brien was a pristine example of the power of imagination, patience, dedication, and success. The man was constantly stepped on and let down, and dealt with one of the most time-consuming and oldest techniques in cinema: stop motion.

Yet he brought his creatures to life alongside humans and fully distracted audiences for 2 hours with King Kong from the daily woes wrought on by The Great Depression; to make an audience absorb themselves into a film and just have fun, and to also inspire generations of artists and critics for years to follow takes not only talent, but hard work. Lastly, by creating several good quality, memorable films, Willis H. O’Brien ensured he would live on generation after generation though the legacy of his work, whether or not people knew his name or contribution to history. Even if someone has never seen an O’Brien film, they have him to thank in some capacity for most every other blockbuster they have seen.

Living the dream life: Playing with dinosaurs and making movies with them. Thank you.

WORKS CITED:

[1] Brosnan, John. Movie Magic; the Story of Special Effects in the Cinema. New York, St. Martin’s Press, 1974, pg. 151.

[2] T. (n.d.). Biography of Willis O’ Brien. Retrieved from https://thebiography.us/en/o-brien-willis

[3] O’Brien, Daniel. “Willis H. O’Brien.” Film Reference, Advameg, www.filmreference.com/Writers-and-Production-Artists-Ni-Po/O-Brien-Willis-H.html.

[4] Brosnan, John. pg. 151.

[5] Brosnan, John. pg. 152.

[6] Switek, Brian. “The Ghost of Slumber Mountain.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 18 Aug. 2011

[7] Guidry, Phil. “Animation and Adventure: How the Works of Willis O’Brien Defined the Great Age of Exploration.” Animatrix: A Journal of the UCLA Animation Workshop, no. 16, Jan. 2008, pg. 22.

[8] Brosnan, John. pg. 153.

[9] Guidry, Phil. pg. 22.

[10] Brosnan, John. pg. 153.

[11] Barson, Michael. “Ernest B. Schoedsack.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 4 June 2018.

[12] Brosnan, John. pg. 156.

[13] Brosnan, John. pg. 159.

[14] Brosnan, John. pg. 159.

[15] Brosnan, John. pg. 161.

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Rafael A. Sarmiento

Written by

Spanish/Venezuelan ‘Murican. I’ve got a degree in film and in history, and a bad appetite for puns. Follow me so that I can survive in this world. RIP Harambe.

MediaMastery

Our writers cover a wide array of different topics relating to all sorts of different media, including movies, television, music, video games, books, and more!

Rafael A. Sarmiento

Written by

Spanish/Venezuelan ‘Murican. I’ve got a degree in film and in history, and a bad appetite for puns. Follow me so that I can survive in this world. RIP Harambe.

MediaMastery

Our writers cover a wide array of different topics relating to all sorts of different media, including movies, television, music, video games, books, and more!

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