By Maureen Lee Lenker
March 26, 2021 at 08:30 AM EDT

King Kong seems as much a part of the fabric of Hollywood as the Walk of Fame or studio lots.

First coming to the movies in 1933, the massive ape has been seen on the big screen a dozen times, as well as on television and even as the star of a Broadway musical. He's returning to cinemas (and our living rooms) on March 31 with Godzilla vs. Kong. But though there have been many iterations of Kong, none can ape the impact of the original.

When the original King Kong premiered in the midst of the Great Depression, the studio behind the film, RKO Pictures, was on the brink of bankruptcy. "This was a very dark time for RKO," says USC emeritus cinema professor Richard B. Jewell, author of RKO Radio Pictures: A Titan Is Born. "They had been in business for about three years, and then the Depression socked them harder than just about any of the other companies. They needed something to help them because most of their movies up to that point had not been successful. Even the ones that had been successful had not been big hits, certainly not blockbusters."

He adds, "King Kong along with Little Women, which came out after King Kong, enabled RKO to survive long enough for Fred [Astaire] and Ginger [Rogers] to come along and help the studio through the rest of the '30s."

Theater attendance was down due to the Depression, and studios knew they needed something special to draw audiences out. Kong fit the bill, partly because RKO didn't monkey around.

"The word around Hollywood was that RKO was making something that was like nothing anyone had ever seen before," Jewell says. "That it was going to be a particularly spectacular movie. MGM was so enthralled by what they heard about it that they tried to buy it from RKO [for] $400,000 more than the movie cost [to make]."

RKO chief David O. Selznick recognized the film's potential, pushing the release by several months to buy more time and funding for the groundbreaking special effects, and declining the generous offer from MGM.

The result of that extra time and money? Box office receipts that jolted RKO off life support. "People had never seen anything that approached it in terms of cinematic spectacle," Jewell says. "King Kong was almost a new genre unto itself."

Credit: Everett Collection

Beyond the spectacle, the type of adventure King Kong offered connected with contemporary interests in scientific discovery. "It's the Beauty and the Beast story reimagined from the point of view of a world that was beginning to be interested in the whole idea of evolution," Jewell says. "It holds up as one of the great cinematic adventures of all time. That to me is why [Hollywood] keeps coming back to it over and over again. It's very rare when the monster in a movie turns out to be the individual that you feel for the most in the story."

The resurgence of King Kong in this moment seems almost poetic. Once again Hollywood is wrestling with unprecedented economic challenges, audiences with divided attention, and a threat to the very model of moviegoing. And waiting in the wings, ready to climb the Empire State Building once more (after he battles a pesky lizard), is the "eighth wonder of the world" and the erstwhile studio's former savior.

Godzilla vs. Kong will premiere concurrently in theaters and on the streaming platform HBO Max, as part of Warner Bros.' yearlong response plan to the COVID-19 pandemic. It's a move that has raised eyebrows and led many to question whether it will help hasten the death of movie theaters by shortening VOD windows permanently. Some might even wonder if, where a King Kong movie proved a savior in 1933, a new one could have exactly the opposite effect in 2021 as part of a larger trend away from theatrical distribution models.

But Jewell says the crisis theaters and studios face today isn't comparable to the impact of the Great Depression. "It's no picnic today, that's for sure," he says. "The entire entertainment industry, and particularly the movie theater industry, is in a real pickle at the moment. But the whole economic equation of the United States had been turned on its head in 1933. It was the absolute bottom of the Depression, with 25 to 30 percent unemployment. So I think it was much worse then."

For better or worse, Godzilla vs. Kong isn't poised to come anywhere near the impact the original film had 88 years ago. Nowadays audiences are inundated with spectacle and special effects, and have seen King Kong on their screens countless times. And one movie alone won't change the game for streaming versus theatrical releases.

But even though Kong isn't quite the juggernaut he once was and RKO is long gone, nothing will ever topple their legacy.

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