March 2, 2022

The World Premiere of King Kong

The World Premiere of King Kong

March 2, 1933. The landmark monster movie King Kong has its world premiere.


Cold Open

It’s September 26th, 1918 in the skies above Northern France, and World War One is almost over.

In the front of a two-seater biplane, American pilot Merian C. Cooper grips the controls tight. He and his co-pilot Leonard have completed their mission dropping bombs behind enemy lines. But now, they’re in the middle of a dogfight.

A squadron of German fighters circles him, riddling his plane with bullets from their machine guns.

One of the bullets strikes the engine, causing it to catch fire. Smoke blows from the engine and into Cooper’s face, choking him. Cooper turns his head to check on his co-pilot. And he’s shocked to see that Leonard is slumped back in his seat, blood pumping out of his neck. Cooper knows that if he doesn’t do something fast, he’ll meet the same fate. So he decides to jump.

Cooper guides the plane down to a lower altitude. He climbs out on the edge of the plane ready to make the leap. With no parachute, he is risking serious injury, or more likely, death. But he feels he has no choice. But seconds before he jumps… he turns and sees Leonard’s eyes flicker open. Cooper can’t jump now; not without abandoning his co-pilot to die. So he climbs back into his seat and tries to take control of the plane. But his hands are badly burnt from the flames, so he uses his elbows and knees to steady the aircraft.

At any moment, the plane is likely to go up in flames. So Cooper comes up with a solution to extinguish the engine fire. He decides to climb to a great height and do a spinning dive to suck out the flames.

Cooper winces in pain as he pulls back on the control stick and sends the plane soaring upward before he points the nose downward to start his spiraling descent.

And after his daredevil maneuver, Cooper manages to land the bomber safely, saving himself and his co-pilot. But as he pulls Leonard from the biplane, German soldiers swarm the area and take them both as prisoners of war. But Cooper’s adventure is just beginning. After the war, he will be released and eventually return home to the United States. There, his unquenchable thirst for more adventure will lead him to become a successful film director. Along with his filmmaking partner Ernest B. Schoesdack, Cooper will go on to create one of the most famous movies in Hollywood history; a brilliantly structured adventure tale called King Kong that will receive its world premiere on March 2nd, 1933.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world. 

Today is March 2nd, 1933. The World Premiere of King Kong.

Act One: The Directors

It’s September 27th, 1918. At a German POW Camp in Northern France, fifteen years before the premiere of King Kong.

Merian Cooper groans in agony as the severe burns on his hands are treated by a doctor. Cooper is a prisoner, but he receives excellent medical care by his German captors. He’s relieved to be alive and to learn that the German doctors were able to save his co-pilot’s life. But both Cooper and Leonard will see out the rest of the war in this camp. It’s far from the adventure Cooper was hoping for.

Ever since he was a young boy growing up in Jacksonville, Florida, Cooper yearned to see the world. As a child, he was given a book called Adventures in Equatorial Africawhich sparked a lifelong fascination with exploration. The book was about an intrepid explorer who ventured into exotic locations getting in and out of dangerous situations. It contained lurid scenes of wild tigers attacking villages, native tribes performing sacrificial rituals, and huge apes carrying women off into the night. The book was more fantasy than fact, but it captured the imagination of the young boy who wished nothing more than to live a life of adventure. But now, at the age of 25, stuck in a POW camp with bandaged hands, he worries his adventures are already over.

But Cooper’s wings are not clipped for long. Just weeks later, the war comes to an end, and both he and his co-pilot are released. But Cooper isn’t ready to return home just yet. He continues to serve as part of the US Food and Relief Administration set up by future president Herbert Hoover. As a pilot, Cooper’s job is to provide aid for the people of Poland who are starving in the wake of World War One. It’s important work, but not very adventurous. 

Until 1920, when communist Russia invades Poland. Eager to help defend Poland from the threat of communism, Cooper forms the Kosciuszko Squadron. This volunteer squad of American aviators share Cooper’s passion for Polish freedom and his disdain for the advancing Red Army. Cooper flies in over 70 combat missions, dropping bombs and machine-gunning Russian troops.

But on July 13th, 1920, his plane is shot down over Russian territory. For the second time, Cooper is taken as prisoner of war, but he finds the Soviets to be far more brutal than his German captors. Narrowly avoiding execution, he is instead given hard labor and forced to break ice alongside a freezing railroad. Nearly every night, prisoners die in the harsh, cold conditions but they are denied burial. Their bodies simply lie out on the ice as the survivors continue to toil. Realizing that he must escape or die, Cooper and two other prisoners break out of the camp. They cross miles of rough terrain before making it to Polish territory. And there, Cooper is honored by the Polish government with their highest military decoration.

Soon afterward, Cooper reconnects with another American pilot who he originally met in Vienna in 1918. At 6 foot 5, Ernest Schoedsack towers over the short and stocky Cooper but, aside from the height difference, the two flyboys have a lot in common. For one thing, Schoedsack shares Cooper’s passion for exploration. He also grew up reading adventure stories set in exotic parts of the globe. And together, they develop a plan to continue exploring the world as documentary filmmakers.

Before the war, Schoedsack was a Hollywood cameraman. And over time, he teaches Cooper everything he knows about the art of filmmaking. Soon, they both get hired at the New York Timesas reporters. Their job is to travel the world and capture events on camera. The two men are sent on a sea voyage to Abyssinia, otherwise known as the Ethiopian Empire. There, they encounter the Emperor Haile Selassie who is more than happy to let them capture footage of his army of 50,000 men charging into a staged battle. It’s quite a scoop for the pair of former airmen and the footage enhances their reputations as aspiring filmmakers.

They travel to visually dynamic parts of the world like Persia, Northern Thailand and film the people and wildlife there. But the ever-ambitious Cooper finds the documentary style too restrictive. He tells Schoedsack that they should make their own stories. Cooper wants to concoct fictional plots to weave into real footage of tribesmen or stampeding elephants. In this way, Cooper explains, they can make the ultimate adventure movie. His partner loves the idea and they quickly hammer out storylines.

Cooper’s principal inspiration comes from filming animals in a way that makes them look gigantic on screen. Cooper tells Schoedsack he wants it to appear as if a giant gorilla is fighting a recently discovered primeval lizard: a massive Komodo Dragon. Schoesdack likes the idea, but he doesn’t really understand how Cooper intends to pull it off… and he suspects Cooper doesn’t really know either.

However, these early ideas will give rise to one of Hollywood’s most immortal stories. But before they can call actionon the film that will eventually become King Kong,the two directors must first find the perfect leading lady.

Act Two: The Star

It’s early in 1932, in the building of RKO film Studios in New York. One year before the premiere of King Kong.

Fay Wray, a young, talented movie star in her mid-twenties, steps into the high-rise office of film director Merian C. Cooper. Wray finds Cooper staring out over the New York City skyline from his large office window, transfixed. After standing in the doorway for a moment, she gives a subtle cough. Cooper turns, notices her and lights up. He immediately bounds over to her side of the room, telling her how lovely it is to see her again. Then, he excitedly ushers her over to the window to show her what he was looking at.

Wray worked with Cooper and his directing partner Ernest Schoedsack in 1929 on a picture called The Four Feathers.She enjoyed the experience very much. And not only does she think it was one of her better movies so far, she was impressed by Cooper’s infectious enthusiasm for filmmaking. Since then, Cooper has become an executive assistant at RKO. And today, Cooper excitedly points out the Empire State Building which he claims will play an important role in his next movie.

Wray is pleased to see Cooper hasn’t lost any of his boyish exuberance. Hoping to hear more about this exciting but mysterious project, Wray asks what it’s about. Before answering, Cooper crosses to his desk and reaches for a rolled-up poster. He gestures for her to sit.

As Wray takes her seat, Cooper tells her: “Fay, I want you to star opposite the tallest, darkest leading man in Hollywood.”

Wray smiles. She hopes he’s talking about Clark Gable or perhaps Cary Grant. Then Cooper unrolls the film poster to reveal an image she could never have anticipated: a drawing of a gigantic, roaring ape climbing the Empire State Building as a swarm of airplanes attack. Wray’s eyes glance up at the title of the film at the top of the poster: “The Eighth Wonder.” Noting her dumbfounded expression, Cooper explains, “There are Seven Wonders of the World, right? This guy is the eighth.”

Wray is still confused, she asks Cooper how he expects to make a movie about a massive monkey. She remembers that on their previous project, he and Schoedsack spoke of ambitions to make animals appear bigger than they are on screen. So she wonders if he intends to create a small-scale version of the skyscraper and have a gorilla climb it.

Rolling up the poster again, Cooper tells her that the studio won’t pay for their initial idea of traveling to Africa, capturing a real gorilla, and then taking it to Komodo where the story would have taken place. Instead, the studio wanted him to use a man dressed as a gorilla. But Cooper has no intention of doing that.

Then with a gleam in his eye, Cooper asks Wray if she’s seen The Lost World,a film about a dinosaur that goes on a rampage in London. Cooper says that the dinosaur was brought to life with groundbreaking special effects by an animation pioneer named Willis O’Brian. Cooper goes on and says they’ve already hired O’Brian to create the monster ape that Cooper calls “Kong”.

Still confused, Wray asks what role he wants her to play. Cooper points to the tiny screaming figure of a blonde woman gripped inside the ape’s hand. Over the next hour, Cooper explains every beat of the story. He tells her that the blonde woman is an impoverished actress named Ann Darrow who gets hired by a reckless film director to travel with him to a remote location called Skull Island. There, they encounter several prehistoric creatures as well as the legendary “Kong” who is worshiped by the natives of the island. Ann will be captured by these natives and sacrificed to the great ape. But, instead of eating her, Kong will become her protector.

As she listens, Wray can't help but think this all sounds a little silly. She giggles when Cooper explains that at one point Kong will get into a fight with a Tyrannosaurus Rex who is trying to eat her. Wray realizes that the reckless film director in the story is obviously based on Cooper himself. She also recognizes that Ann’s love interest, the strong, silent figure of Jack Driscoll, is likely modeled after Ernie Schoedsack.

But Cooper’s pitch is persuasive, and once again, Wray is won over by his passion for storytelling. She says “yes.”

But Wray points out one minor problem: the woman in the poster is blonde. Wray is a brunette. Cooper explains that the hair color is not negotiable. If Ann has dark hair, the audience won’t be able to see her from afar when she’s held like a doll in Kong’s giant black hand. Wray says she’ll start looking for wigs immediately.

Over the next year, Wray will go on an unforgettable filmmaking journey with Cooper and Schoesdack starring in a film that will forever immortalize her in the hearts of movie lovers. But there is a lot of work to do before King Kongcan hit the silver screen. In particular, the groundbreaking special effects that the filmmakers are relying on to bring Kong and the dinosaurs to life. These will prove to be so challenging that there is a chance they won’t be ready in time for the world premiere.

Act Three: The Animator

It’s late 1932, at RKO Studios, just a few months before the film’s release, and Cooper and Schoesdack’s film is still in production.

Willis O’Brian, known to his friends as Obie, has been slowly and painstakingly working on the effects for Kongfor almost a year now. But the directors, Cooper and Schoesdack, make the most of the delay. They managed to shoot another film on the same jungle set with Fay Wray and other members of the cast. It’s called The Most Dangerous Gameand it was a simpler production with few special effects. But today, as Obie takes a break from his work wiping sweat from his brow, he is confident his creation will be worth the wait.

On the miniature jungle set in front of him, stands an 18-inch-high model of Kong made out of a moveable metal skeleton, foam rubber, and rabbit fur. The Kong model is locked in a struggle with another model of a Tyrannosaurus Rex. To make this fight sequence come to life, O’Brian is employing an old camera technique called stop-motion animation, where the illusion of movement is captured one frame at a time.

But O’Brian’s not just using old tricks. In addition to stop-motion, the directors have encouraged him to employ other groundbreaking effects to bring the story to life. These include matte paintings and rear projections, techniques which allow live footage of human actors to interact on screen with the dinosaurs and Kong.

O'Brian is especially pleased with Kong. Before production started, he spent days in zoos studying the movements of gorillas. But what he really wanted to achieve was for Kong to exhibit human characteristics, facial expressions that the audience will empathize with like he's a human character. And now that the film is nearing the end of production, O’Brian is confident Kong will be the true star of the picture.

Months later, as he sits inside Radio City Music Hall beside the rest of the cast and crew, O’Brian watches the finished movie, now called King Kong.He is delighted with results. His ape creation looks fantastic as he hangs onto the Empire State Building swatting away fighter planes like hornets. O’Brian smiles when he sees a close-up of the two pilots, played by the directors, Cooper and Schoedsack. But his favorite part of the screening is when Kong falls to his death from the top of the skyscraper. People in the cinema weep for the monster that only a short time ago they were terrified of.

In the coming weeks, King Kongwill break box office records. But that's just the beginning of its impact. The pure escapism of the movie will inspire generations of filmmakers to create their own magic, including notable directors and Kongfans like Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, and Peter Jackson. Today, the movie continues to entertain audiences worldwide, scaring, thrilling, and ultimately breaking hearts, just like it did 90 years ago at its world premiere on March 2nd, 1933.


Next on History Daily. March 3rd, 1934, The notorious American bank robber John Dillinger breaks out of an “escape-proof” jail in Crown Point, Indiana with the help of a wooden gun.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing by Mollie Baack.

Music and sound design by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by James Benmore.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.