Allen Varney, writer and game designer


A "Blast From the Past" column from Tuff Stuff Collect! magazine:


by Allen Varney

[Published in Tuff Stuff Collect! magazine, January 1997.]

What history first plays as tragedy, it inevitably replays as comedy. I find this sad, especially when trading cards play their part in demeaning that tragedy.

The masterpiece I have in mind originated with Merian Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack, two footloose and fearless filmmakers. In the 1920s they lived the life of Indiana Jones, travelling to remote locales (Indonesia, Turkey, Africa) and making amazing silent documentaries. Their first big hit, Grass (1925), tracked the harrowing semi-annual migration of the Bakhtiari nomads of northern Iran. Chang (1927), shot in the Laotian jungle, features a stampede of 300 elephants, filmed by Schoedsack from a shallow pit directly in their path. For another scene, Schoedsack climbed a tree, annoyed a passing tiger with a Bronx cheer, and coolly filmed the tiger as it leapt 11 feet straight up at him. In the finished film, the cat's face fills the screen.

Grass and Chang both made money. But they would have grossed twice as much, said theatrical exhibitors, if they had had a love story. So for the duo's first talking movie, Cooper and several screenwriters devised the story of Carl Denham, a footloose, fearless filmmaker who plans to make a silent film in a remote locale -- and if the exhibitors want a girl, says Denham, he'll give them a girl. The "girl" in question was Fay Wray, the movie King Kong (1933).

Today we've forgotten Kong's tremendous impact on cinema and on America. To bring its island of dinosaurs to the screen, technical genius Willis O'Brien made major breakthroughs in matte and masking effects. He perfected stop-motion animation to create Kong, the giant ape who dies for love of Wray. The film's spectacular success rescued RKO Studios from bankruptcy, and it enjoyed several lucrative re-releases. King Kong was the Jurassic Park of its day.

Still, all that special-effects wizardry served a very moving story, honestly and convincingly told. Kong's death reduced early audiences to tears, as it does today. Scholars have analyzed the film in Freudian, racial, and feminist terms. Somehow it speaks to us all.

Unfortunately, history wasted no time in giving this fine tragedy several inglorious run-throughs. RKO's Son of Kong (1934), a low-budget quickie, is negligible. In the late '50s and '60s, Japan's Toho Studios pitted Kong against Godzilla, then introduced a robotic Kong in a dismal sequel. In the late '60s a British studio produced Queen Kong (don't ask). Rock-bottom came in 1976 with Italian producer Dino de Laurentiis's King Kong remake, a mammoth $15-million fiasco billed as "the most exciting original motion picture event of all time." De Laurentiis promised, "When monkey die, everybody cry," but in fact they felt relief that the thing was over.

Trading cards played their part in reducing Kong to comedy. In 1965 RKO General, successor to the now-defunct studio, licensed black-and-white 55-card Kong sets by both Topps and Donruss. Apparently Topps only test-marketed its set, an attractive and respectful summary of the story; today cards are scarce and run $30-35. Far more prevalent are the Donruss cards, which went for cheap laughs by laying silly word balloons ("Look, no cavities!") over RKO and Toho stills. These cards cost about $2-3 apiece; a set is $150-200. Kong made his last card appearance to date in a 1976 Topps color set (55 cards, 11 stickers) that enshrined the de Laurentiis remake. One card back prophetically announced, "Fans of monster movies will remember this screen terror for years to come!" These cards are cheap as dirt and twice as common; you can get a set for $20.

I suppose any story about a giant gorilla just asks to be trivialized. My lament may seem pitiable to those who like the Donruss set. But if they find the original Kong's affecting story laughable, I think they're the ones worthy of pity.