July 8, 2011
I have always loved monster movies, especially old ones. Big apes, giant dinosaurs, ants, I love them all. It is in my blood and if you check this site on Monday you’ll see what I mean.
King Kong and Godzilla are the top of my monster movie list. You’ll find Frankenstein and Dracula there as well, but it is the men in rubber suits, the Japanese Kaiju (“monster” or “strange beast”), as well as their cousins the giant apes, that I hold dear.
I’ve seen every one of those films a few times, most more than a few. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen King Kong to the point that I won’t even estimate. Even the worst Godzilla film (Godzilla’s Revenge) I know backwards and forwards. There isn’t a Reptilicus or Konga that I don’t know.
So it came as a bit of a shock to me when I discovered that there were two King Kong films that I never even heard of, let alone saw. I can be forgiven for not seeing them because they are lost films, likely destroyed in the bombing of Japan during World War II, but how could I have never even heard of a pair of Japanese King Kong films that predate Godzilla by over a decade and a half?
Not much is known about King Kong Appears in Edo, from 1938. This was an unauthorized Kong film in which the giant ape attacks medieval Tokyo (Edo.) Little is known about the film other than what can be gleaned from the movie poster above. It apparently featured the monster fighting samurai. (WHY is this film lost?!) We do know that the man who created the original Godzilla suit (Fuminori Ohashi) worked on the King Kong suit and he claims that many special effects that later became standard in Kaiju films were created for this film. By “special effects” I am sure he means “rubber suits and cardboard cities.”
As amazing as I found all of that, I was more amazed to find that there was an even earlier Japanese King Kong film, Wasei Kingu Kongu. (That translates as Japanese King Kong. Seriously.) This one was a 1933 silent film. It must have been rushed because it was put out the same year as the original. All that seems to remain is a single still. It was released by the same company that distributed the original King Kong in Japan, but it was made without RKO’s permission.
This was only the beginning. Late night research about these movies led to the solution of another King Kong mystery, one that had always bothered me.
King Kong Escapes (1967) is a strange movie. Although like the lost Kong films it is Japanese, this one was authorized. It plays nothing like the American King Kong and Son of Kong, but very much like the Japanese Godzilla movies. However, it has nothing to do with the Japanese King Kong vs. Godzilla of 1962. Confused? This next bit won’t help.
The plot revolves around bad guy Doctor Who, who has nothing to do with the BBC time traveler. However, when you consider the close physical resemblance between this film’s Doctor Who and William Hartnell as Doctor Who, there has to be more to it than mere coincidence.
Plot-wise, Doctor Who is using a robot King Kong (Mechani-Kong) to mine “Element X” but the robot proves unable to function due to the element’s extreme radioactivity. At the same time, a submarine crew finds the real King Kong on an island fighting various rubbery monsters. Doctor Who hypnotizes Kong to work for him mining Element X, Kong gets free, battles Mechani-Kong, and (of course) climbs a tall tower and falls for a girl. If you guessed that Kong wins and goes back to his island, join the crowd.
I have always wondered why this film was so unlike every other Kong film I ever saw, even King Kong vs. Godzilla. After all, they were both made by Toho. I was extremely curious about the blatant William Hartnell rip-off. Well, as I looked into the lost films, I found out that this film was based on the American Rankin/Bass King Kong cartoon, The King Kong Show. As the clip below shows, this was a very strange version of King Kong (but not too far off from the 1978 Hanna-Barbera Godzilla cartoon, strangely enough.) Doctor Who was the bad guy on the show. This cartoon only produced 25 episodes, too short for syndication, so that explains why I never saw it. It finished airing a year before I was born. As you’ll see at the end of this post, the cartoon Doctor Who looked nothing at all like the movie version, strongly implying that the resemblance to the BBC character was intentional. There were two big screen versions of Doctor Who featuring Peter Cushing in 1965 and 1966, so if in 1967 it looked like there was another big screen Doctor Who adventure, would the producers of King Kong Escapes be upset if a few extra people bought tickets thinking they were going to see the TARDIS and Daleks? I doubt it.
So my research solved a King Kong mystery, but brought up even more King Kong/Godzilla connections that I never knew.
Before King Kong Escapes, there was supposed to have been yet another King Kong Toho movie. However, because Godzilla was hugely popular, the world never saw King Kong vs. Ebirah but instead watched Godzilla vs. The Sea Monster. Basically, that title tells you all you need to know about the film. (Eibrah is a giant lobster.) If you saw the film you may have noticed that Godzilla acts out of character. He shows interest in a woman, throws boulders instead of using his fiery breath, and draws strength from electricity. Out of character for Godzilla, those traits were all established for King Kong in King Kong vs. Godzilla. They did almost nothing to alter the script but change the names. (King Kong gaining strength from lightening was added to make him more of a match for Godzilla, who spent much of the film roasting Kong with his breath until Kong amped up.)
Godzilla has a history of pinch-hitting. I also found out that the monster was never meant to be in Godzilla vs. Megalon. That film devotes a lot of screen time to Jet Jaguar, a fairly typical Japanese robot. It was the winning creation of a fan contest and was going to be the star of Jet Jaguar vs. Megalon. However, it was felt, and probably correctly, that the film needed a little more star power so Godzilla was added, and with a second hero (Godzilla was a good guy around this time) came a second villain, Gigan. By the way, if you have never seen the Mystery Science Theater 3000 version of that film, I urge you to finish this blog and then look it up on YouTube. It is that good. In fact, do yourself and the economy a favor and buy the DVD. You’ll thank me.
If you are wondering where the King Kong connection is, check out the movie poster for the American release:
Could they be any more blatantly misleading?
So there you have it. A chance peek at a list of lost films at 4am led to a sleepless morning of looking up monster movie trivia. Par for the course, really. One last thing I discovered is that what went on behind the scenes of a Godzilla movie was often more interesting than what went on the screen, especially if you are watching Son of Godzilla or the mind-numbing Godzilla’s Revenge.
Before you go, here is a fantastic 1967 Japanese magazine illustration dealing with the King Kong cartoon and relating to King Kong Escapes. The bald guy is Doctor Who.