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Show Business: Monkey Business

4 minute read

Directors wearing puttees and waving bullhorns decorate Hollywood back-lots. The air reeks of bathtub gin. Model Ts cause traffic jams. At first it was simple evocations of the ’20s (The Great Gatsby) and ’30s (Chinatown). Now the trend is narcissistic.

Gable and Lombard, a steamy account of the King’s stormy third marriage, will open early this year. So will W.C. Fields and Me, starring Rod Steiger. Mel Brooks is making a silent comedy, while Peter Bogdanovich is about to start work on a talkie set in the silent era called Nickelodeon. Ken Russell, fresh from destroying Liszt, will now have a goat Valentino, casting Rudolf Nureyev as the screen’s greatest lover. Recently, Elia Kazan started to film F. Scott Fitzgerald’s own Hollywood novel, The Last Tycoon. Even now, a large German shepherd called Gus is barking his way across the country on a promotion campaign for Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved Hollywood.

Anthropologists say that primitive people often eat the gods they worship. The cannibals in question are the new generation of studio heads, many of whom are ex-agents. They are light-years away from the megalomaniac visionaries of yesteryear like Samuel Goldwyn and Irving Thalberg. The current studio bosses’ philosophy seems to be: if it sold 30 years ago, it must sell now. Even the greatest of Hollywood’s camp creations is not to be spared. For the past two months, ads have been splashed throughout the press proclaiming that King Kong will love and die again—not once but twice. In early January both Universal and Paramount will start production on $12 million remakes of the 1933 classic. Universal believes that the film will gross somewhere between Jaws and Earthquake. Paramount’s director Dino de Laurentiis declaims boldly that King Kong “is still the most exciting original motion picture event of all time.”

It is 42 years since Fay Wray was strung up in a delightfully sadistic way as bait for the huge ape, only to conquer his marshmallow heart. Universal will follow the original faithfully. Wray’s part has not yet been cast, but Fay herself, now 68, will have a cameo role.

Winsome Blonde. Kong, it will be remembered, is a big happy monkey in the jungle. He is a little greedy, always popping people into his mouth like uppers and downers but, in a curious way, human. He falls for a winsome blonde, saves her from a Tyrannosaurus and is brought to the U.S. in pain and chains. Army planes finally cut him down as he makes a last brave stand atop Manhattan’s Empire State Building.

Universal is constructing several mechanical Kongs ranging from 18 in. to 6 ft. tall. The movie will be in color and Sensurround, the vibration that made Earthquake so unpleasant. But that is one of the few contemporary touches; Universal’s Kong will be attacked by rickety looking biplanes, presumably flown by mustachioed pilots with flowing white scarves.

Over at Paramount, De Laurentiis is brooding about Kong in a different way. He is building a miniature Manhattan to be crushed by Kong’s vast paws. Paramount’s Kong is to be destroyed ’70s-style with nuclear-tipped rockets, no doubt as he chews on the antenna atop the World Trade Center.

Originally, De Laurentiis planned to use a man in an ape suit for the close-ups of Kong. A few months ago, Dino’s son and executive producer, Frederico de Laurentiis, 24, caused an uproar by placing an ad in trade papers asking for “tall, well-built black men.” Now De Laurentiis will use a $2 million, 40-ft. mechanical ape—throughout.

Universal is having its own offscreen troubles with the ape epic. The studio has slapped a $25 million breach-of-contract suit on Kong’s original studio, RKO, which sold its screen rights to De Laurentiis. RKO reneged on an agreement to sell the rights to Universal, claims the studio. De Laurentiis has filed a $90 million countersuit to try to stop the Universal Kong. This does not portend well for either flick. The last time two studios made the same movie was in 1965, when Paramount and Magna both produced a biography of Jean Harlow. The movies were released more or less at the same time, although with different stars—Carol Lynley and Carroll Baker—and both lost millions.

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