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Welcome to Buried Credits, a column that deep dives into the IMDB pages of favorite actors, directors, and writers to find their lost, forgotten or unknown film and TV credits.
Iconic. That’s a perfect adjective for Skull Island’s resident royalty, Mr. King Kong. Whether depicted as a savage monster, a romantic antihero, a kid-friendly protector or a feminist spoof, King Kong has taken many iterations since Merian C. Cooper and Edgar Wallace set him loose on unsuspecting audiences in 1933, and throughout the years he’s been aped by exploitation filmmakers seeking to cash in on his fame. The image of the gorilla on top of the Empire State Building is instantly recognisable and immortally iconic and the film is often cited as the birth of the kaiju genre. Throughout the years, Konghad his imitators and made appearances in everything from Spiderman comics to episodes of The Simpson’s. When it comes to pop culture landmarks, Kong sits atop a throne unto himself, like the mountain in the exotic island he calls his home.
The history of Kong is a fascinating one, and with Skull Island so close you can smell the flames and bamboo shoots, we decided to celebrate our favourite primate’s legacy by taking a look at some of the overlooked gems featuring the King himself and his copycats.
Mighty Joe Young (1949) and Mighty Joe Young (1998)
By Rachel Bellwoar
They may share Mr. Joe Young as their headliner but how do the 1949 and 1998 Mighty Joe Young’s compare?
The Girl: Jill Young
Trading some coins, a flashlight, and her dead mother’s necklace for a gorilla (sentimentality’s dead), Lora Lee Michel is a quick study of the Shirley Temple mold of cuteness for Young Jill. Older Jill cries a lot. Talking about regrets but never being there for Joe when her needs her, there’s little physical affection between the pair and while Terry Moore does a fair job in the role, Jill is written poorly for a 2017 audience.
Charlize Theron does a fair job, again, but the changes to how Jill is written are leaps and bounds better than the original [Terry Moore makes a fun cameo and even the flashlight returns]. Joe and Jill became close after their mothers were killed by the same poacher (think Disney’s animated Tarzan). An unbending advocate for Joe’s best interests, Jill sits outside Joe’s cage when he’s on lockdown and doesn’t let condescending men break her resolve.
The Love Interest: Gregg
Using phrases like “reckon” and “yes, sir,” Ben Johnson’s Southern drawl could be a forerunner to Rock Hudson’s country boy act in Pillow Talk. A former cowboy in a wild west show who likes to think he’s a cowboy in real life, Mighty Joe manages to make Gregg’s lassoing relevant. When he’s not protecting or comforting Jill, he’s sitting in a corner knowing better than her but with his hands tied from preventing her mistakes.
A much more evolved and genuine performance, Bill Paxton is a doctor visiting Africa to collect blood samples from animals. The joy on his face when he first meets Joe is a kid in a candy shop, surrounded by petrified trackers. Mighty Joe Young may be a “family movie” but Paxton doesn’t act like it, providing gravitas and stealing scenes that carry him through every likable emotion.
The Greedy Guy: Max O’Hara/Harry Ruben
Max (Robert Armstrong) starts off as a similar character to King Kong’s Carl Denham (maybe because he’s played by the same actor). A rich Hollywood shyster with no scruples, it’s not that he’s a liar but that he realizes Jill can be bamboozled. Audiences at his nightclub will pay loads to laugh at Joe’s expense so Max provides, until he doesn’t. You won’t see his alliance coming but his gimmicks, when used for good, are entertaining.
Fearful and erratic, Harry (David Paymer) is a leader at the reserve Jill takes Joe to, and is always the first to panic when Joe gets upset. His refusal to give Jill clearance until superiors order him defies scientific reason, but he does come through, to the bare minimum, in the end.
The Monkey: Joe Young
There’s comedy in 1998’s Mighty Joe, but nothing quite beats 1949’s Joe attempting to rescue a lion and having the ungrateful cat swipe his paw. 1998 includes a similar rescue, but without the swipe and Joe throwing rocks at the big cat after freeing him. Then there’s the escape truck, where Joe keeps blowing his cover and peeking behind the curtain to taunt their pursuers. Arguably the more aggressive of the two gorillas, it’s notable that when Joe lashes out his main targets are the nightclub sets where he’s being forced to perform.
Playing hide and seek, Joe’s innocence shines through in this version and his calm gait never comes off as threatening. Injuries at the benefit dinner were an accident. He’s a bull in a china shop.
Reason to Come to America
Immediately after pronouncing her love for Africa, and being in charge of the family land, Jill gets starstruck by Max’s offer of Hollywood fame and fortune. Finding no insult in being spoken down to like a frivolous child, she signs his contract and changes her tune about travel.
Poachers are starting to pay attention to rumors of a 2,000 pound gorilla living in the mountains. Jill needs to find a safer place for Joe to live. While reluctant to come to America, Gregg offers a spot for Joe at the reservation where he works and options are limited. Jill doesn’t rush to make a decision, but takes her time before agreeing to the move.
Venture to Hightail It Home
Mid-escape Jill, Gregg, and Joe run across a children’s home that’s on fire. After believing all of the children are out, a little girl appears and Jill instructs Joe to save her.
When Joe is separated from Jill and Gregg, he makes course for the lights of a carnival. The ferris wheel ends up on fire and an evacuation missed the boy stuck in the top car. On his own, Joe climbs up to rescue him and, unlike the completely random encounter with the children’s home, the little boy is Jason, who waved at Joe earlier on the road.
1949: The integration of stop motion is really top notch and, however implausible at times, the campy plot never slows down. – Buried Treasure
1998: I wish revisiting Mighty Joe Young hadn’t been prompted by Bill Paxton’s passing but the film lives up to all my fond memories of seeing it in theaters growing up. – Buried Treasure
King Kong Escapes (1967)
By Lucas Wagner
Alright, let’s get this out of the way first: I have very little knowledge of the character of King Kong and his films. I saw the Peter Jackson remake when it first came out, but mainly my knowledge comes from the double feature pack I picked up when I was a kid with King Kong Escapes and King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962) from Ishiro Honda. Made seven years before Godzilla got his famous mechanical counterpart in Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla (1974), King Kong Escapes follows two major kaiju, King Kong and Mechani-Kong, a man-made robot version of the great ape. While I don’t have a ton of knowledge of the classic King Kong movies as of now, I do know a lot of the tropes and character archetypes from Jackson’s film, as well as the story just being so iconic. In my opinion not only does King Kong Escapes work as a wonderful kaiju flick, but it also works really well as a fresh, yet typical, King Kong iteration.
The plot is laid out very early on and is quite simple: a mysterious woman, Madame Piranha (Mie Hama), enlists a group of men to unearth the mysterious and powerful Element X rooted deep within the earth in a snowy wasteland. At first the plan is to use a giant mechanical beast, Mechani-Kong, created by the evil Dr. Who (Eisei Amamoto) based on the very real monster King Kong, to dig through the earl and get Element X for them. Before long, however, Mechani-Kong proves to be poor at its job; nothing can replace the real King Kong. At around the exact same time, three military people, Commander Carl Nelson (Rhodes Reason), Lt. Commander Jiro Nomura (Akira Takarada), and Lt. Susan Watson (Linda Miller) are taking a trip to Mondo Island to look for the fabled beast who is said to dwell there.
As a King Kong movie it pretty much has it all: the beautiful woman Kong falls for, the mysterious island with prehistoric monsters, and a ploy to uproot King Kong from his home and use him for selfish purposes. As a kaiju film it also has what you want: multiple monster fights, great suits, wonderful action and music and even a nice campy tone. One of the most important scenes in the movie is when the military group gets to Mondo Island and Susan is threatened by Gororsaurus, a tyrannosaurus rex like kaiju. It establishes King Kong’s need to rescue the beautiful woman as he comes to Susan’s aid, it shows the kind of creatures that live on Mondo Island giving it a rich story and purpose in the world, and shows that as tender as King Kong can be with Susan he also has a ferocity to be reckoned with as he absolutely destroys Gorosaurus. It also gives us just a taste of what kind of kaiju fun we will have with King Kong once he inevitably comes across Mechani-Kong.
All in all, King Kong Escapes is an incredibly solid movie. It works as both a refreshing and interesting take on the classic King Kong storyline as well as a wonderful kaiju romp. It’s got very clear ties to what is necessary in a King Kong film while also branching out to give us a wonderful man in suits flick. Every time King Kong is on screen it’s an absolute blast and the acting by everyone is ridiculously fun. It may not be the best King Kong adaptation, but I dare you to say you don’t end up happy while watching this.
VERDICT: Buried Treasure
Yeti: Giant of the 20th Century (1977)
By Bill Van Ryn
The 1976 Dino De Laurentis-produced King Kong may not have been a critical success, but its prosperous box office numbers were definitely inspired by a marketing blitz that plastered Kong’s image everywhere for months prior to the film’s release. There were t-shirts, posters, a board game, jigsaw puzzles, a fast food glassware collection, lunchboxes, and tremendous TV promotion. King Kong was going to make money no matter what the movie itself was like, and by aiming much of the merchandising at children, the filmmakers made sure that a significant number of kids were going to beg their parents to take them to see it.
Never known for allowing a profitable cinematic trend to go unexploited, the Italian film market responded with the cinematic oddity known as Yeti – Il gigante del 20° secolo, English translation Yeti: Giant of the 20th Century. After its debut in Italy in late 1977, Yeti was released in several European countries, Turkey, and Australia through 1979. Never released theatrically in America, it finally appeared on US TV in the 1980s (IMDB says it was 1984, but I seem to recall seeing it on TV a little earlier than that).
Yeti tells the tale of a monster found frozen in the ice in Northern Canada. Business mogul Morgan Hunnicut (Edoardo Faieta) enlists scientist Henry Wasserman (John Stacy) to join a Canadian expedition that discovers the creature frozen in a giant block of ice broken off from a glacier. Hunnicut’s grandchildren are already conveniently on site, preteen Herbie (Jim Sullivan) and potential Yeti love interest Jane (Antonella Interlenghi). The professor concludes that the creature is a yeti (pronounced by everyone in the film as YAY-tee), and that this giant’s footprints are five times the size of any that have come before. In the grand tradition of roughly conceived giant monster movies, Yeti changes size so many times in the film we’re never really quite sure just how giant he is, but perhaps this is simply the filmmakers way of suggesting that Yeti is all things to all men.
Wasserman manages to bring Yeti back to life through some miracle of modern science, creating a giant resurrection phone booth and dictating that the procedure must be carried out while Yeti dangles high in the air underneath a helicopter. After he regains consciousness, Yeti’s arrival back on the ground is complicated when photographers shine bright lights on him (despite the fact that it’s broad daylight with a cloudless sky), causing him to go into a rage. Since this is a King Kong riff, after all, Yeti immediately zeroes in on the beautiful Jane and makes off with her and her brother, mistaking them for his own long lost family. How a giant being like Yeti could have ever mated with a human being Jane’s size is something that’s not for us to question, and Yeti takes Jane and Herbie further into the wilderness, where he catches fish for them to eat. Wasserman and several of Hunnicut’s henchmen catch up with them later and are stunned to find Yeti now docile and cooperative, combing Jane’s long hair with the skeleton of a giant fish.
Immediately following this episode, we are shown the results of Hunnicut’s business model: hundreds of consumers now have Yeti fever, lured in by slogans such as this ad displayed at a Texaco station: “Pump it in and let your motor absorb it, with Yeti in your tank, you’ll go into orbit!” A similar ad in a grocery store announces “Mothers! There’s Yeti strength in Hunnicut foods!” But Hunnicut’s best idea may be the t-shirts that a group of trendy young ladies are seen wearing:
One can’t help but wonder if the “Yetimania” media blitz was written into the script because of the very real market saturation that occurred a year earlier related to King Kong, which would make this a very meta moment, but I doubt there were any shirts made that depicted Kong cupping a woman’s boobs from behind.
Since Yeti is going to need to rampage through a city in order to match Kong, the script contrives to fly him to Toronto, in a newly-refurbished phone booth dangling once more under a helicopter. For some reason, Hunnicut decided that Yeti’s first contact with mass civilization should occur on top of a Toronto skyscraper, and nobody even seems fazed by the fact that they’re about to come face to face with a giant monster. Unfortunately, Yeti’s arch enemies, photographers, attack him with flash bulbs the minute he steps out of his flying glass phone booth. Yeti freaks out, madness ensues, and Jane is endangered when Yeti shatters a glass elevator shaft and starts yanking the car up and down like a yo-yo while trying to reach her. In what is the film’s most memorable sequence, Yeti climbs down the side of the building, kicking in picture windows with each step, and extends his hand in the nick of time to catch Jane before she plummets to her death. It seems to me that even if she landed on Yeti’s hand, a 15 story free fall is still a 15 story free fall, but Yeti is a hero and Jane must have bones made of titanium. After the chaos dies down, Yeti then takes a sudden left turn and becomes an espionage story about a rival of Hunnicut’s attempting to take over his profitable company by any means necessary, including the elimination of Jane and Herbie–but Yeti isn’t about to let that happen, and when you’ve got a pissed off giant monster on your side, your enemies don’t stand a chance.
The lack of a proper US release shouldn’t surprise anybody who has actually seen Yeti. Even though it clearly isn’t a serious film, it’s difficult to accept Yeti as anything other than pure camp. I think it’s somewhat unfair to hold dubbed actors accountable for bad acting, but the fact remains a lot of the dialog is ludicrous, and so is the delivery. Antonella Interlenghi (billed here as Phoenix Grant) is a beautiful lead, but she plays her biggest scenes opposite giant prop body parts like a yeti hand, yeti legs, and in one unforgettable scene, a yeti nipple. The film is similar to the story of King Kong only in very general terms, so it’s unlikely that potential distributors were afraid of a lawsuit. Yeti seems to want to be a family-oriented adventure, but includes some mean-spirited violence, like scenes where Jane gets slapped around by the bad guy. Even worse, the villain stabs Herbie’s dog, although it makes a miraculous recovery at the end and goes running towards Herbie in a slow-motion scene worthy of Michael Bay. I should also mention the astonishing soundtrack music created for Yeti by Sante Maria Romitelli (who also did the soundtrack for Mario Bava’s Hatchet For The Honeymoon). From orchestral swells that seem to suggest elements of “O Fortuna” to a disco track with lyrics such as “He is so big, the man of snow, and he won’t harm you — the yeti!”, it suits this loony movie to a tee.
The Mighty Peking Man (1977)
By Kieran Fisher
Goliathon (aka The Mighty Peking Man) is so damn entertaining that I might even prefer it to the original King Kong – and that’s one of my all-time favourite movies. It’s certainly the best of the Kong knock-off flicks, of which there are a handful I’d consider masterpieces of motion pictures (by my standards anyway). This is as good as aping the iconic giant ape gets.
Produced by the legendary genre film studio Shaw Brothers Studios and directed by Ho Meng Hua, the film wastes no time with story building and unnecessary components like that. We’re here for a giant monkey, dammit! Give us the monkey. So, they gave us the monkey. Right away we’re thrust into the jungle as a posse of poachers seek the mighty ape who inhabits it with his scantily-clad bestie and jungle gal played by Swiss model Evelyne Kraft. Unlike Kong, this monkey isn’t a kidnapper; but he is a caring, loving soul and if you mess with his bestie then… just you wait and see.
The Mighty Peking Man is every bit as enjoyable as the original King Kong, embracing the camp lunacy Cooper’s classic could have been if helmed by an exploitation filmmaker. Roger Ebert (April 30th, 1999) praised the film for its “general goofiness’’ and “insane genius,’’ which is really the only summation you need to describe this beautiful madness. Released during the boom period of Hong Kong genre cinema, The Mighty Peking Man is arguably the finest giant monster movie to emerge from Asia outside of the Toho Godzilla films. Don’t tell The Host (2006) or the Gamera series that I said that though.
So, before you take another trip to Skull Island to pay tribute to the King this month, why not get acquainted with one of his finest jesters? I promise you that you won’t be disappointed. The Mighty Peking Man isn’t the enthralling expedition that is Cooper’s classic, but it’s certainly the most entertaining.