Originally created 12/16/05

David O. Selznick, godfather of 'King Kong'

LOS ANGLES - If Peter Jackson has any one human to thank for the inspiration behind his remake of "King Kong," it would have to be the same man who gave the world "Gone with the Wind."

Despite monstrous pressure from his parent company to kill the project, Selznick green-lit and oversaw the original "King Kong" in 1933. He even dreamed up the name, thinking it's bold brevity and alluring alliteration would look good on theater marquees.

The son of a movie pioneer, Selznick was a rising producer at Paramount when he took the job as production chief at RKO in 1931 at age 29.

He quickly maneuvered to bolster the lagging studio, hiring a gangly actress from Broadway by the name of Katharine Hepburn; he also signed a dancer - Fred Astaire. And he put a series of distinguished films into production, although none became a box-office hit.

RKO's parent company, the radio and theater empire Radio-Keith-Orpheum, was headed for a Depression-caused bankruptcy, and its bosses hounded Selznick to slash expenses. They were appalled when he announced plans to make a costly movie about a lovesick ape that climbs to the top of the Empire State Building.

Selznick had brought Merian C. Cooper, who had been his executive assistant at Paramount, to RKO. Cooper was a fascinating figure who fought Pancho Villa and was shot down and badly burned in World War I, becoming a prisoner of war.

He also worked as a reporter in New York, and adventured through the Middle East with cameraman Ernest Schoedsack, with whom he produced 1927's "Chang: A Drama of the Wilderness" - with a climax of stampeding elephants.

When Selznick made "Four Feathers" at Paramount, he hired the pair to film locations in Sudan and Tanganyika.

Cooper and Schoedsack proposed the ape movie to Selznick, and he responded enthusiastically. He asked Cooper to confer with Willis O'Brien, a wizard at combining animation with miniatures. He became the ideal counterpart to Cooper and Schoedsack, who served as producers and directors. Selznick was listed as executive producer, a category he had invented at Paramount.

Selznick found a way to keep his New York bosses at bay. "One of the biggest gambles I took at RKO," he commented in later years, "was to squeeze money out of the budgets of other pictures for this venture."

He also kept talent fees down. In her wryly titled 1989 memoir, "On the Other Hand," the object of Kong's affection, Fay Wray, reported that she had been paid a total of $10,000 for 10 weeks' work. "That was for 10 weeks' actual working days, which stretched out over a period of 10 months," she remembered.

"King Kong" cost $680,000 to make, and brought back $5 million to RKO.


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