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King Kong in Print (part 1)

This article, including the bibliography, was published in the British magazine Book and Magazine Collector in 2003 and proved to be the best received freelance work that I have ever done. It was even singled out for praise in The Times Literary Supplement! Naturally this guide to Kong-related books does not cover the many official and unofficial tie-ins to the 2005 film (see below). Readers should also note that the quoted values - which are only loose estimates - may have changed since this was first published.

Continue to part two of this article or go to the bibliography. (More than 30 new Kong books were published in 2005 to tie in with Peter Jackson's remake. These are listed in a separate bibliography.)

The absolute greatest movie ever made was first shown in cinemas 70 years ago. Citizen Kane? Star Wars? Mere pretenders to the crown. The king of them all is King Kong. And over the ensuing seven decades, a wide range of Kong-related literature has been published, some of which now commands extraordinarily high prices which accurately reflect the passion still felt by movie fans and collectors for this masterpiece.

The men behind King Kong were Ernest B Schoedsack and Merian C Cooper, a movie cameraman and a military pilot who met in occupied Vienna in 1919 after both had experienced more than their fair share of wartime adventures. Between 1925 and 1931 they made four films, travelling the world to secure exciting, genuine location footage of wild beasts and native peoples.

The story of King Kong developed out of an idea that Cooper had in 1931 for a movie (working title The Beast) about a giant gorilla, tamed by man and brought back to civilisation. At the same time, special effects genius Willis O’Brien (known to all as ‘Obie’) was working on his meisterwerk, Creation. Obie had been making stop-motion films since 1914, mostly involving dinosaurs and other prehistoric beasts, and had achieved massive success with the 1925 version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World. But costs on his latest dinosaur epic were spiralling out of control and the new Head of RKO, David O Selznick, wanted to know whether the project was viable. Selznick called in his friend Merian C Cooper to assess Creation, who thought that the film was uncommercial, but that Obie’s superlative effects were exactly what was needed to film his giant gorilla movie.

On 5th December 1931, thriller writer Edgar Wallace arrived in Hollywood, having signed a lucrative scriptwriting deal with RKO, and the first project he was assigned to was The Beast (now retitled Kong). Wallace visited Obie’s workshop and discussed the project with Cooper. “Truly it is much more [Cooper’s] story than mine,” he wrote in his diary. “I shall get much more credit out of the picture than I deserve if it is a success, but as I shall be blamed by the public if it’s a failure, that seems fair.”

Nobody could foresee how true this would be. Wallace put off starting work on the screenplay to finish his story ‘Death Watch’ (aka ‘Before Dawn’). In early 1932, both he and Cooper contracted pneumonia; Cooper recovered, but Wallace (his condition complicated by his diabetes) died on 10th February aged 56. The eventual writing credit for King Kong was: ‘screenplay by James A Creelman and Ruth Rose, idea conceived by Merian C Cooper and Edgar Wallace.’ “Edgar Wallace didn’t write any of Kong, not one bloody word,” said Cooper later. “I’d promised him credit and so I gave it to him.”

James Ashmore Creelman was a scriptwriter who had been working on Creation and also adapted the The Most Dangerous Game from a short story by Richard Connell. That film went into production after Kong, but was released beforehand; the two productions shared many cast, crew, sets, costumes and effects, thereby reducing Kong’s hefty budget. Creelman wrote many screenplays from 1922 to 1935, but then the work dried up and he committed suicide in 1941, aged 40, by jumping from a high roof.

His co-writer Ruth Rose was Mrs Ernest B Schoedsack, who had accompanied her future husband on some of his earlier expeditions as a researcher. A former actress, her father was the playwrite Edward E Rose (who wrote the stage version of The Prisoner of Zenda) and her mentor was the great Sherlock Holmes actor William Gillette. Also contributing to the Kong script, though uncredited, was Horace McCoy, later to write the novel They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?

The earliest King Kong book actually appeared before the film, a novelisation of the story by Delos W Lovelace, serialised in 1932 in Mystery Magazine and published later that year by Grosset and Dunlap. This was not the first ever film novelisation - Thea von Harbou had written novels based on her husband Fritz Lang’s films Metropolis and Woman in the Moon - but it seems to have been the first to emanate from Hollywood. [I am indebted to Alan Jaffe for the following correction: "The King Kong serialisation that appeared in the February and March 1933 issues of Mystery Magazine was written by Walter F Ripperger. The narrative was completely different from the Lovelace novelisation, omitting Kong's fights with other monsters including the T rex. The Lovelace novelisation was much better." In addition, since this article was first published I have discovered a few earlier Hollywood novelisations, including the 1927 picture Wings - MJS]

The dust jacket has a terrific painting of Kong, the background mixing the New York setting with the dinosaurs of Skull Island, and carries the convoluted credit: ‘King Kong, conceived by Edgar Wallace and Merian C Cooper, screen play by James A Creelman and Ruth Rose, novelized from the Radio Picture by Delos W Lovelace.’ Inside are photographs from the film. Copies of this book do surface from time to time, but its rarity means that you should expect to pay a few hundred pounds even for a well worn copy with no dustjacket and several thousand for a good, complete copy.

Many people have pondered Lovelace’s identity, some even speculating that he may be a pseudonym. In fact Delos Wheeler Lovelace (1894-1967) was very real, though he is largely remembered today not for his work, but for his wife. Maud Hart Lovelace (1892-1980) wrote the ‘Betsy-Tacy’ novels, published from 1940, which are regarded as children’s classics in America, where there are societies dedicated to the author and her work.

The couple met in 1917 when Maud took over Delos’ job in a publicity office, after he had left to join the army (before this, Lovelace had been courting Wanda Gag, later the author of Millions of Cats). They married later that year and moved to New York in 1921, Delos landing a job as a Daily News reporter on his first day in the city (he later worked for the New York Sun). A daughter, Merian, was born in 1931, named after Merian C Cooper. It’s not clear how Cooper knew Lovelace, but the most likely explanation is that they had met in the army.

Before adapting King Kong, Lovelace had written a biography of football coach Knute Rockne, Rockne of Notre Dame (1931). He subsequently wrote about two dozen books, of which the best known are the three co-authored with his wife: One Stayed at Welcome (novel, 1934), Gentlemen from England (historical novel, 1937), and The Golden Wedge: Indian Legends of South America (children’s fiction, 1942). Other titles include General ‘Ike’ Eisenhower (biography, 1944, later republished as ‘Ike’ Eisenhower: Statesman and Soldier of Peace), Journey to Bethlehem (Biblical novel, 1953) and That Dodger Horse (novel, 1956); in 1946 he even wrote a short-lived newspaper comic strip, Duke of Manhattan. Most of these books sell for $20-$30 in their first editions, although the Rockne biography can fetch up to $120 from sports collectors.

The Lovelace family moved to Claremont, California in 1953 where they founded the area’s first episcopal church and spent the rest of their lives. A slim paperback about their early life together is Between Deep Valley and the Great World: Maud Hart Lovelace in Minneapolis by Amy Dolnick (published by the Maud Hart Lovelace Society, 1993).

When King Kong was released in 1933 it was a massive hit. Paper collectibles relating to the original release are fantastically rare and commensurably expensive, with an original poster having sold at auction for more than $50,000. Cinema programmes, fliers and magazine adverts are sometimes offered for sale at anything from 50-300, depending on their attractiveness and relevance. At the top of the scale would be programmes from the film’s first week of release (2nd March 1933) at Radio City Music Hall in New York, or pre-release trade ads. The gala Hollywood premiere was on 24th March at Graumann’s Chinese Theatre, for which a lavish 28-page brochure was produced in collaboration with the Hollywood Reporter. This incredible item was printed in four colours on heavy stock with parchment end papers and a cover made from sheet copper! Were a copy to come up for auction today, it would be unlikely to fetch less than 1,000 - but don’t hold your breath.

The film opened nationally on 10th April, and it seems that every film magazine in existence at the time carried articles about King Kong, often including detailed explanations of how the incredible effects were achieved. Particularly notable - because they are particularly wrong - were the 13th March 1933 Time, which claimed that Kong was actually a fifty-foot-tall robotic device controlled from within by six technicians(!), and the April 1933 Modern Mechanix and Inventions which confidently told its readers that Kong was an actor in an ape costume. There were also four selections from Max Steiner’s superb score published by the Sam Fox Music Company: ‘The Forgotten Island,’ ‘A Boat in the Fog,’ ‘Aboriginal Sacrifice Dance’ and ‘King Kong March.’

Though King Kong remained a hugely popular movie, with frequent re-releases, it wasn’t until 1965 that someone thought to reprint the 1932 novelisation. This first paperback edition was published by Bantam in the USA, and by Corgi (its first British edition) the following year. The credits continued to be confusing. The front cover and title page read ‘by Edgar Wallace and Merian C Cooper, novelisation by Delos W Lovelace’ but only Cooper and Wallace were credited on the spine. Conversely, a 1976 paperback edition from Tempo restored the ‘conceived by’ credit to Wallace and Cooper, but credited only Lovelace on the spine!

A 1977 British paperback from Futura simply didn’t credit anyone on the front cover or spine, though the ‘conceived by... novel by...’ credit appeared on the back cover and title page. There was also a 1976 paperback edition from Ace with a terrific cover painting by noted fantasy artist Frank Frazetta. The cover artists on the other editions aren’t credited, although the Tempo edition trumpets its ‘16 pages of splendid new art!’

The first British hardback edition appeared in 1977 from Arthur Barker, with illustrations by Grant Bradford. This is almost as rare as the 1932 American first, though obviously considerably less valuable. Nevertheless, expect to pay a three figure sum for a copy with its stunning dustjacket in good condition. Grosset and Dunlap published two new editions in the USA in 1976, both extensively illustrated by Richard Powers: The Illustrated King Kong was the standard Lovelace text in oversize hardback, while King Kong to Read Aloud (Wonder Books) was a simplified children’s softback edition.

The reason for this flurry of interest in the mid-1970s was of course the appearance of a remake which, after some legal wrangling between Universal and RKO, was eventually made for the latter by Dino De Laurentiis. This was in fact Kong’s sixth appearance. A rarely seen sequel, Son of Kong, about a return to Skull Island and the discovery of an albino offspring was released by RKO in late 1933. Willis O’Brien then spent many years trying to interest people in a treatment for King Kong vs Frankenstein, in which the giant ape would battle a similarly sized artificial being created by a mad scientist. Though this was never made, the rights were eventually aquired by the Japanese studio Toho who filmed it as King Kong vs Godzilla in 1962 (an unjustly maligned movie - when the US distributors dubbed it into English they failed to spot that it was meant to be a comedy!).

A King Kong cartoon series was broadcast in America in 1966, produced by animation studio Rankin-Bass, who subsequently teamed up with Toho for the live action film King Kong Escapes (in which Kong battles a giant robotic version of himself). In adddition, Kong remained a staple of popular culture, constantly appearing (usually unnamed for copyright reasons) in adverts, cartoons, etc. To King Kong’s true fans, all these versions (except Son of Kong) were of course anathema.

Continue to part two of this article or go to the bibliography.