Willis O’Brien’s dream deferred: King Kong vs. Prometheus (Early 1960s)


With the character of King Kong firmly planted in the cultural zeitgeist, it would seem reasonable that the next official installment in the franchise would follow shortly after Son of Kong–but as of the early 1960s, RKO Studios still only had two Kong films in its library.


Background

Willis O’Brien, stop-motion genius and Kong’s original puppeteer, missed practicing his craft. Though he had worked on about one film every other year throughout the 1950s and into 1960, he often found himself in advisory roles, acting as technical supervisor on films that gave him little to do. A prime example of this would be 1960’s The Lost World, where O’Brien was hired and credited as “effects technician” but provided no actual animation of his own because the producer decided to use live lizards instead of stop-motion dinosaurs.


Concept sketches of Frankenstein’s monster.

Perhaps sensing the rigors of age creep up on him, O’Brien became desperate to fully re-engage the art form he loved so much at least one more time. O’Brien had always loved Mary Shelly’s novel Frankenstein, and he often thought about engaging that material either as a stop-motion short or in some other capacity during his career–but at this juncture, he wanted to do more than merely adapt the novel.

O’Brien wanted to create a larger spectacle, not unlike the 1933 King Kong. And that’s when inspiration struck:

He would pitch a story where Kong and Frankenstein’s monster meet.

Willis O’Brien quickly went to work on a story treatment and drew up some concept art for his idea, and the result was bizarrely intriguing.

Concept

Young Dr. Frankenstein–great-grandson of Victor (or Henry, if you’re a Universal fan)–is the next in line to try his hand at the family business. The Frankenstein family isn’t exactly the most popular, thanks to Great-Grandpa Frankenstein’s attempt to bring new, more perfect life to dead flesh, only to result in the creation of a rampaging monster. But the new Dr. Frankenstein has learned his lesson from his family’s tarnished history: Not only is he staying in Africa and is thus far away from any European peasants carrying torches and pitchforks, but he seeks only to create a giant, lumbering, mostly brainless servant from the body parts of large animals.


Prometheus, Frankenstein’s giant monster.

As fate would have it, Carl Denham Jr. happens to be traveling through the continent at that same time and stumbles upon Frankenstein and his behemoth. Denham is likewise interested in continuing his father’s legacy, and convinces Frankenstein to show the creature as a carnival attraction in the United States. But Denham doesn’t intend for the giant Prometheus to be the sole attraction. Apparently, Kong survived his fall from the Empire State Building and was returned to Skull Island, where he has been recuperating ever since. Why settle for one giant monster when you can feature two?

After Kong is recaptured, Frankenstein and Denham show the monsters to the public throughout the United States. The act, which consists of both giant creatures performing various feats of strength or doing assorted such tricks, proves to be wildly successful and draws much acclaim. By the time the show reaches San Francisco, it seems that the tarnished legacies of both the Denham and Frankenstein families have been forgotten.

The good luck can’t last forever and, predictably, something goes wrong. During the act, Prometheus kills Frankenstein and begins his rampage through the streets of San Francisco. In an attempt to mitigate the collateral damage, Denham releases Kong so that Kong might stop the lumbering giant. This of course has the opposite effect; while the two do indeed fight, the collateral damage is made worse by their brawl. Eventually, the fight leads the two monsters to the Golden Gate Bridge, where the two grapple and fall into the bay, never to be seen again.

A Dream Deferred

Though the concept was absolutely bonkers, president of RKO Pictures Daniel O’Shea loved the treatment and the illustrations–but at this time, RKO was no longer making major motion pictures, so there wasn’t much in the way of help he could offer O’Brien. Instead, O’Shea introduced O’Brien to film producer John Beck, and Beck promised O’Brien with a handshake that he would shop the treatment around to as many studios as he could, and that O’Brien would be part of the project once the filming was underway.

After commissioning a script from George Worthing Yates, Beck did indeed shop the concept around–but no American studio would purchase it. Instead, Beck found a buyer in the Japanese Toho Studios of Godzilla fame. Toho had been interested in making a Kong film for awhile, and loved the script and premise with two exceptions:

  1. They would be using their trademark rubber suits instead of stop-motion puppetry.
  2. Frankenstein, Prometheus, and everything related would be replaced with Godzilla.

Beck saw no issue with this and sold them the concept as though it were his own, even going so far as brokering a deal between Toho and Universal for North American distribution of the resulting film. Not coincidentally, it was around this time that Beck stopped returning O’Brien’s calls.

When King Kong vs. Godzilla was released in 1962, O’Brien was both heartbroken and angry. He wanted to persue legal action, but by this time, didn’t have the funds necessary for a protracted legal battle. Betrayed and dejected, Willis O’Brien, the man who was arguably the heart of Kong, died of a heart attack on November 10, 1962.

Aftermath

Willis O’Brien wasn’t the only one angry when this happened; Merian C. Cooper was said to be unbelievably livid when he found out about Beck’s betrayal of O’Brien, and actually attempted to block distribution of the film by claiming that he, not RKO, was the legal rights holder.

But, really, this story is about Willis O’Brien and John Beck.

It’s no coincidence that one of the themes of O’Brien’s original treatment was that of “legacy.” It’s clear that O’Brien saw this project as his opportunity to reclaim a bit of what he felt made him great in his youth, and to leave the next generation with a one last work by the master himself. This perception of what could have been O’Brien’s swansong makes it all the more tempting to paint Beck as a soulless sleaze who stole O’Brien’s concepts and left him a broken man–and make no mistake, that view of Beck is accurate. Many Willis O’Brien fans (myself included) will always vilify and revile him for his treachery. But time adds perspective, and for better or worse, we might never have seen Kong and Godzilla fight on the big screen without Beck’s duplicity–and we might not be on the verge of seeing them fight again, thanks to Warner Bros. and Legendary pictures.


NEXT: King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962)

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