Puppet Island

The original King Kong (1933) is a singular movie for all sorts of reasons, and it remains one of the best monster and adventure movies ever made. No small part of this can be laid at the feet of special effects pioneer Willis O’Brien, who did the stop-motion effects for Kong.

In fact, the effects were good enough – and novel enough – that plenty of people supposedly believed that the big ape was played by a guy in a suit, which was the standard way of making an ape movie by 1933. (Another rumor has it that the filmmakers had originally wanted Kong to be played by an actual ape, though that proved logistically unfeasible.)

The mark Kong left on movies was immediate. The sequel, Son of Kong, hit theaters later the same year as its predecessor – a quick turnaround, even for Golden Age Hollywood – and plenty of spoofs and imitators followed both immediately and for years to come. Kong would get remade a bunch of times (some of those remakes getting their own sequels), ripped-off by everyone from Britain to South Korea, and borrowed by Toho to go toe-to-toe with Godzilla (which he then did again here recently, only back in Hollywood this time).

One of the earliest of those spoofs, homages, and so on was an ultimately unfinished, one-reel musical called The Lost Island, which was slated for release in 1934, just a year after Kong had first hit the screen. What makes The Lost Island stand out among the litany of imitators and send-ups of King Kong – both made and otherwise – is that it basically flips the special effects formula of the original film on its head.

Here, Kong is, indeed, played by a guy in a suit – specifically, Charles Gemora, who had basically made a career out of playing apes in movies – and so are the dinosaurs that he skirmishes with. The humans, on the other hand, are puppets. That’s right, in this deliriously weird-sounding lost film, all the human characters of King Kong – Ann Darrow, Carl Denham, and the rest – would have been literal marionettes, doing song-and-dance numbers while a “giant” guy in a gorilla suit wrestled with a guy in a dinosaur costume in their midst.

Sadly, all that survives of the uncompleted picture are a handful of production stills, but they look every bit as surreal as you might expect from that description. It was also intended to be the first short film released in Technicolor.

All this doesn’t come up from nothing. I just watched a 35-minute short film from 2019 called Howl from Beyond the Fog. It’s a kaiju film unlike any other – set in 1909 and made entirely with puppets. It also hearkens back to the earliest origins of the kaiju film. Not King Kong, in this case, but Ray Bradbury’s 1951 short story “The Fog Horn,” which was adapted into the 1953 film The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, which is widely believed to have influenced the creation of Godzilla, which came out the following year. (Beast also had stop motion effects by Ray Harryhausen, probably history’s greatest practitioner of the form, who was himself inspired by seeing King Kong when he was younger.)

For those who have Amazon Prime, Howl from Beyond the Fog is on there for free right now, and I believe it’s also on Tubi. The runtime is a bit misleading, though. The short film is only 35 minutes long. The rest of the 70 minutes on Prime is behind-the-scenes features.

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