KING KONG (1933)
The original giant monster blockbuster. A movie crew led by the ambitious Carl Denham sails to the mysterious Skull Island where they encounter chanting natives, living prehistoric dinosaurs and Kong, a twenty four foot tall gorilla who immediately takes possession of the crew's blonde leading lady. While the men follow to rescue the captive actress, Kong breaks the jaw of a tyrannasauraus rex and takes down a pterodactyl . Eventually Kong is subdued and taken back to New York to be exhibited. Breaking free he goes on a rampage, derails a subway train and recaptures his blonde hostage. Kong's showdown finale atop the Empire State Building against a squadron of airplanes is as thrilling and heartbreaking as ever ( Director Merian C. Cooper and producer Ernest B. Schoedsack appear in fighter planes attacking Kong).
SON OF KONG (1933)
Following the incredible success of King Kong, director Merian C. Cooper and producer Ernest B. Schoedsack reunited the same year (although they swapped jobs) for Son Of Kong. Robert Armstrong also returns as Carl Denham heading back to Skull Island where he finds a twelve foot white gorilla who apparently is Kong's offspring (the heroic mother is never mentioned). This sequel is a lot lighter in tone than it's predecessor and even has elements of outright humour.
Willis O'Brien again handles the impressive stop motion special effects while Max Steiner returns to provide the musical score.
For such a light hearted film, the ending is pretty downbeat.
MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (1949)
Cooper and Schoedsack are back (with Schoedsack directing as he did on Son Of Kong ) with another giant ape tale. A business man (Robert Armstrong again but not as the Carl Denham character) finds another unusually large gorilla named Joe and his human female companion Jill. He brings Joe back to America to be featured entertainment in his new nightclub. Like Kong, this transplanted simian doesn't adapt too well to his new exploitative surroundings and responds by running amok and destroying the club around him.
The terrific stop motion animation is handled by Willis O'Brien and his young protege Ray Harryhausen who of course went on to do the landmark effects for The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms ('53) The 7th Voyage Of Sinbad ('58) and Valley Of Gwangi ('69).
A controversial scientist returns to London England after being lost in the jungle for a year. He brings back a baby chimpanzee named Konga and secrets learned from African witchdoctors. A serum developed from rare exotic plants is used on Konga to stimulate rapid growth turning the young chimp quickly into one the size of an adult gorilla (a guy in an ape suit that is). The increasingly paranoid doctor uses Konga to dispose of his detractors and competitors.
When Konga gets an extra does of the growth serum from the doctor's spurned ex-girlfriend he grows suddenly to monstrous size and terrorizes a miniature set of London. From there on it's clearly a King Kong knockoff although instead of scaling the iconic Big Ben tower in place of the Empire State Building, he just stands next to it.
KING KONG VS GODZILLA (1962)
Japan's Toho Studios released this entry in the series, Kong's first in full colour and Godzilla's third film appearance overall. After fighting a mostly back projection giant octopus, Kong is drugged and brought to Japan where he faces off against Godzilla who has attacked the mainland. The two oversized creatures (actually just stuntmen in rubber suits) wrestle for awhile and throw fake boulders at each other. The film strangely introduces the concept that Kong gathers strength from electricity somehow.
The North American edit changes the majority of the score, some dialogue and adds scenes of American reporters explaining what's happening. Rumours aside, the same creature is victorious in both edits. The original Japanese version remains unavailable outside of that country.
KING KONG ESCAPES (1967)
An evil scientist named Dr. Who (!) builds a robotic King Kong to retrieve radioactive material meanwhile on a remote island the real Kong (a guy in a gorilla suit) snaps the jaws of a dinosaur then battles a sea serpent. Eventually Kong and his mechanical counterpart face off in downtown Tokyo causing the expected destruction.
Another Japanese effort that has more in common with Godzilla movies than the previous Kong films.
THE KING KONG SHOW (1966)
A Japanese cartoon series produced for North American TV. Here Kong is relatively friendly living on the remote Mondo Island (which sure looks a lot like Skull Island) with a human family. They face various threats (African bees, aliens, a villain named Dr Who etc) during the mini-episodes which always seem to end with everyone happy again.
Re-titled King Kong The Animated Series for the 2005 DVD release.
None of this would mean much though without special effects genius Willis O'Brien's influential stop motion animation technique. Expanding on his revolutionary work seen in 1925's The Lost World, O'Brien's Kong is a fully mobile, three dimensional character with a range of emotions (curiosity, playfulness, anger) making for a believable and in fact sympathetic creature. Composer Max Steiner's full orchestral score (a first in motion pictures) adds greatly to the audiences' empathy for Kong's plight.
The 2005 two disc collector's edition DVD has, among other special features, a fascinating seven part documentary on all aspects of the making of the film including Peter Jackson's incredibly ambitious recreation of the long lost "spider pit" sequence.