Monday, March 31, 2014

Monster Team-up Reflection #12: The Ghosts of O'Brien's King Kong vs Frankenstein (King Kong vs Godzilla...and beyond!!!)

A number of folks have requested that I fashion an overview of "King Kong vs Godzilla" (or at least a sampling of some influential Toho pictures), and I probably should have plunged into such after composing my "Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman Influence" post: a prelude, for all intents and purposes, to my "Monster Team-up Reflections" series. Well, sorry it's taken me longer than expected, but at long last I've whipped up something in the spirit of my earlier post, catering to a particular faction of the giant-monster/Kaiju scene.

Anyway, as most of you know, Toho Studios, along with innovative director, Ishiro (Inoshiro) Honda, patterned its team-ups after Universal's, but the way such propserously emerged actually came via a "rip off" of a Willis O'Brien vision. Without such, the enduring success of Toho's monster franchise, particularly the ongoing Godzilla ventures, may not have become what history has otherwise dictated...

The genesis of all this is legendary: stop-motion-animation genius, Willis O'Brien, planned a sequel to "King Kong", beyond "Son of Kong", with the favored concept being "King Kong vs Frankenstein" (sometimes referenced as "King Kong vs Prometheus" or "King Kong vs the Ginko"). In essence, the story would have commenced with the discovery of a new Kong, while in the heart of Africa, a great grandson of Victor Frankenstein was constructing his own giant, simian-like specimen, made from various animal parts. Both creatures were to end up on display and promoted in the style of the original Kong, but ultimately would break loose and brawl in San Francisco. (O'Brien's striking illustrations give one a strong impression of how the Frankenstein counterpart would have appeared and how the battle would have unfolded.)

Evidently, O'Brien failed to attain Hollywood backing for his wondrous idea, and so producer, John Beck (who allegedly also helped flesh out the "Kong vs Frank" storyline), trekked to Japan on behalf of O'Brien to see if Toho might be interested in financing it. From there, something shady occurred. The "Kong vs Frank" proposal was suspiciously swept under the rug, only to resurface shortly thereafter in Honda's monster-costumed "King Kong vs Godzilla" ("Kingu Kongu tai Gojira"). Supposedly, O'Brien and Toho settled out of court on the matter, though no distinct details can be readily found regarding the resolution, with the film being released after O'Brien's death.

Though it's disheartening that O'Brien's concept never graced celluloid, thanks to Toho it clearly didn't die on the vein, as "King Kong vs Godzilla" proved to be the studio's most successful picture (and still stands as such to this day based on ticket sales alone). The film also resurrected the latter monster's city-stomping career prospects, for "Godzilla Raids Again" ("Godzilla's Counterattack", "Gigantis, the Fire Monster") proved a tad lackluster at Japanese theaters, even though it's truly a well constructed sequel (and, in fact, officially launched Toho's monster-vs-monster formula).

Toho temporarily toyed with the notion of immediately sequelizing its mega hit, under the title "Continuation: King Kong vs Godzilla", but the revamped O'Brien idea instead morphed into other similar formats, with a long-running Godzilla series following, and Kong ultimately entering "King Kong Escapes" (aka, "King Kong's Counterattack"): a spy-styled, action yarn, based on the popular RB cartoon show, which pits the titanic ape against a robot version of himself (a formidable adversary who was clearly the blueprint for Godzilla's later, mirroring foe). Nevertheless, that Kong faces a man-made adversary similar to himself  (whether in this case by accident or plan) thematically connects yet again to O'Brien's design.

Meanwhile, the idea of a super-sized Frankenstein continued to manifest through Toho, with the creature initially being considered as a Godzilla opponent (though Toho opted instead for the first Godzilla/Mothra entry). What arose was Honda's highly successful "Frankenstein Conquers the World" ("Frankenstein vs Subterranean Monster Baragon"), where the preserved, radioactive heart of the Monster grows into a colossus, just as a giant, four-legged reptile, Baragon, coincidentally awakens, leading to an inevitable battle of the behemoths.

In the story, the jumbo Frankenstein faces a left-fielded demise (whether in the U.S. or Japanese editions, where some differences otherwise distinguish the endings). This led to two mammoth monsters spawning from the remnants of the original's flesh, in Honda's "War of the Gargantuas" ("Frankenstein's Monsters: Sanda vs Gaira").

Dubbing obscures the first entry's link in the U.S. cut, but the Japanese version clearly embraces (albeit subtly) the prior chapter: one Frankenstein offspring (Sanda, the brown) being good, the other (Gaira, the green) being bad, and as was the intended case of "Kong vs Frank", the apish Kane and Abel eventually battle, though as much due to philosophical dispositions as instinctual ones. (Allegedly, Toho fleetingly considered pitting Godzilla against one of the Gargantuas in '78: a throwback to Toho's original intent of having Godzilla battle a Frankenstein.)

After the success of Peter Jackson's Kong remake, website sources reported that a writer named Rock Baker was pitching a variation on O'Brien's concept to Universal, but such was promptly rejected: the angle, in this instance, making the Monster a mutated man who grows, in the "War of the Colossal Beast"/"Conquers the World" vein, to towering, violent heights, only then to confront a new Kong. (Oh, how I'd love to read the script for this one, let alone feast my eyes on an extensive O'Brien outline, if such ever even existed, which alas, seems unlikely.)

I must confess, more than a "Kong vs Godzilla" remake (which Toho fleetingly considered in the '90s) or even the long-awaited "Godzilla vs Gamera" movie (which sooner or later must be made), a variation on O'Brien's vision would be a treat-and-a-half to behold, but hey, one can't blame one for dreaming. The best and most one can hope for is now relegated to the imagination, but mark my words: O'Brien's concept will some day become reality, and when that day comes, it's bound to send ripples of jubilation through every giant-monster aficionado's heart!

In any event, it's indisputable that O'Brien's dream has already blossomed in ways he could have never imagined. Without its genesis, one can only speculate how prolific and profitable Toho would have become and how many terrific men-in-monster-suit ventures may have otherwise passed us by.

1 comment:

  1. Here as some interesting "after thought" tidbits regarding the above. Thought you might find them of interest:

    1) Between "Lost World" and "King Kong", O'Brien tinkered with the notion of doing his own film version of "Frankenstein", where the Monster would have been stop-motion animated.

    2) Prior to "Kong Escapes", Toho scripted Kong into "Operation Robinson Crusoe: King Kong vs Ebirah", but Rankin Bass did not consider the script close enough to its Kong cartoon show, which was at the time very popular in both the U.S. and Japan. As such, Godzilla was inserted into the script in lieu of Kong, in what became "Godzilla vs the Sea Monster" ("Godzilla, Ebirah, Mothra: Big Duel in South Seas", "Godzilla vs Ebirah"). If the original script had remained for Kong, the mighty ape would have had a historic encounter with Mothra!

    3) Mecha-Kong appeared on the Kong cartoon series, as did Dr. Who (no relation to the legendary Time Lord). The evil doctor was Kong's primary adversary throughout the animated series.

    4) Linda Miller, leading lady of "Kong Escapes", is Jackie Gleason's daughter.

    Rhodes Reason, leading man of "Kong Escapes" is the brother of Rex Reason, who is best known for portraying Dr. Meacham in "This Island Earth". Though not twins, Rex and Rhodes share a striking resemblance and similar vocalizations; when I was a kid, I actually thought they were one and the same: that Rex had simply changed his name for some odd reason by the time "Kong Escapes" rolled around!