The Eighth Wonder Turns 85: King Kong Exhibit at the Park Ridge Public Library

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This February, the Park Ridge Public Library honors the 85th anniversary of King Kong (1933) with a special exhibit spotlighting the film’s legacy and the forces behind its creation. Of particular interest are items from the estate of director Ernest Schoedsack and his screenwriter wife, Ruth Rose. These are extremely rare items that I’ve salvaged and collected over the years. NOTE: This collection is on public display for the first time.

Since its premiere in March, 1933, the original King Kong has gone on to become a cinematic legend. It’s both a landmark film in the field of special effects and a classic American fairy tale of “Beauty and the Beast.” Often cited as the greatest creature feature of all time, the film currently ranks #43 on the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 Greatest Films.

King Kong was the brainchild of producer/director Merian C. Cooper. Prior to his achievements in Hollywood, Cooper had honorably served in the military as an aviator. He later became an explorer and documentary filmmaker. It is with his partner, Ernest B. Schoedsack, that the two made some of the most stunning films of the silent era, including Grass (1925)—the story of a Persian tribe’s yearly migration in search of grass—and the docu-drama Chang (1927), which told the story of a family surviving numerous threats in a Siamese jungle. Both these films, as well as the feature length The Four Feathers (1929), ultimately led Cooper and Schoedsack to the gates of RKO, the studio that would produce King Kong in the midst of the Great Depression.

King Kong was one of the biggest hits in the history of the studio, but the film’s success was not dependent on any one man. Merian Cooper’s vision of a giant ape climbing the Empire State Building was ultimately created through the special effects work of a team of craftsmen headed by stop-motion animation pioneer Willis O’Brien. The secret of Kong’s great size was that he was played by an 18-inch armature made of metal, rubber, and rabbit fur. We will have a full-scale replica of the famous Kong armature on display for our March 15 screening of King Kong at the Pickwick Theatre.

Special thanks to local artist Paul Pandocchi (for contributing the Willis O’Brien model), Kong historian/collector Jack Polito, and Maxine L. (former caretaker for the Schoedsacks who was a part of the family). Sadly, Maxine passed away in 2016 at the age of 96. In 2015, I had travelled to Nebraska to  interview her about her experiences with Ernest & Ruth Rose Schoedsack and Merian C. Cooper.

~MCH

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The actual plaque presented to Merian C. Cooper & Ernest B. Schoedsack for Chang (1927). Chang was nominated for the Academy Award for Unique and Artistic Production at the first Academy Awards in 1929–the only year when this award was presented.
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For more about the makers of King Kong, here is a video I made from some rare audio recordings.