Archive for Son of Kong

Son of Kane

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on September 21, 2011 by dcairns

Let’s lay to rest the persistent rumour that CITIZEN KANE re-uses footage from SON OF KONG. (We won’t even bother with Charles Higham’s claim that it re-uses SETS.)

I was hoping to do what I did with Steve the News on the March octopus and locate the actual source for the footage, but after much consideration I’m finally decided that there’s no mystery to solve and the scene in question is all original footage — I’m not 100% sure, but let me talk you through my thinking and we’ll see who agrees.

The topic was first discussed on this site here, with Dan North intrepidly searching for the mythic stock shot after I mentioned it, not at that point questioning its veracity.

The scene, as you may remember, is Kane’s everglades “picnic” for his “singer” wife Susan Alexander. Shot opens on a real singer, who drifts from close-up away into the scene, revealed as an elaborate camp-site in the glades — the first of a brace of dismal swampy picnics in Welles’ work: see LADY FROM SHANGHAI for No. 2 (“It was no more a picnic than he was a man.”)

Flapping creature just above the centre of the frame…

We pick up sinister manservant Paul Stewart as he drifts past through the well-lubricated revelers — several black shapes flit past in the murk of night — we move in on the Kane tent, and dissolve to a blazing row between the Charles Foster Kanes.

As far as I can see, the allegation that this sequence incorporates SON OF KONG footage is entirely down to the black flying things. They’re clearly not real — what they are is cel animation, “on twos” — photographed two frames at a time, which makes them seem rather jerky compared to the live action foreground: like stretching out 12 frames per second to 24. I’m indebted to William Randall William Cook, for the technical analysis throughout this piece. Randy is no stranger to animation… or confusion.

Blow-Up: a KANE bird (centre) photographed off the new BluRay in close-up.

Now, SON OF KONG famously relies on stop motion miniatures rather than cel animation, but at the top of this post you can see some black silhouette birds which do appear in it. They appear to be rotoscoped — matte outlines taken from real birds in real footage. Whoever inserted them into the film (I guess optical wiz Linwood Dunn) apparently couldn’t be bothered pasting in the bird footage, and just left the dark shapes — maybe because the effect was more atmospheric. Skull Island, home of the black gulls.

So there’s a stylistic connection between KONG and KANE, but bear in mind these birds are NOT produced by the exact same technique. The KONG birds are “on ones” and they’re rotoscoped off of real gulls, whereas the KANE birds are simply animated, and using half as many images per second.

Also, the glass-painted jungles of both films are by Mario Larrinaga, so a the style is understandably similar. But SON OF KONG contains no nocturnal jungle scenes, and we can’t suppose there were deleted scenes that KANE might have pilfered, because SON OF was a very quickly-produced rip-off sequel. If there was anything left on the cutting room floor, it wouldn’t be expensively produced special effects shots, it’d be Robert Armstrong yackin’.

The low-flying beasties are the only example of cel animation discernible in KANE, so the assumptions have been (1) they’re not specially shot, they must be from elsewhere (2) they’re kind of distracting, they must be something Welles was forced to accept for budgetary reasons (3) they’re pterodactyls from SON OF KONG. I suspect SON gets nominated rather than the better-known KING because it’s easier to imagine some bit of unfamiliar footage existing in that comparatively little-seen film.

Randy is convinced that the animated flappers are storks, or similar exotic birds and therefore an intended addition to the scene. I wondered if the birds had been added in order to transform an African backdrop into a Floridian one. But lets look at — and think about — that background.

Or indeed, those backgrounds. Randy points out that what we’re seeing is specially-shot KANE foreground action (that’s Paul Stewart, after all) in front of TWO rear-projection screens, separated by a big tent. The second screen is really big, probably the one Fay Wray cowered in front of in KING KONG, so the screen may be from the 1933 ape epic even if the images projected on it aren’t.

Now, we can clearly see that the projected images are matte paintings, except for the animated birds and the rippling water. What we can also see is that they contain tents — decorative tents matching the ones in the live-action foreground, and certainly suggestive of a party rather than a jungle expedition. So dismiss any idea that this is material patched in from a TARZAN movie. Wrong studio, anyway.

Randy is certain the paintings are the work of Mario Larrinaga, employed elsewhere on KANE’s numerous mattes, and also responsible for most of Skull Island’s rotting foliage. So the feeling that the backgrounds are reminiscent of KONG is grounded in truth — like most myths.

So, given that the foreground is pure KANE-Welles-Toland footage, and the tents match, and the whole scene strongly suggests a very specific milieu, a rich man’s party in the Everglades, and even the animated birds fit that hypothesis, the only way to incorporate SON OF KONG material into this scene would be to propose that matte paintings of jungle scenes from a KONG picture had been overpainted with tents in order to compliment this sequence. So there’s no possible question of KANE recycling stock footage from KONG, at most we’re talking about the partial re-use of overpainted mattes… and that doesn’t strike me as any more plausible than the suggestion that they’re original mattes, unless somebody can identify the shots in KONG JNR that those trees are in, which so far nobody has.

All this examination seems triggered by the weirdness of the animated birds (the sole remaining mystery: who actually animated them? remember, they’re cel animation and not Willis H. O’Brien’s beloved stop-motion miniatures) and fueled by the suspicion that this scene is somehow too elaborate, that it must contain a shortcut somewhere…

This shot is a cutaway interpolated into the tent argument.

But the following scene with the Kanes in a tent is so simple and cramped, the sprawling exterior footage is quite necessary to make the sequence feel like it’s a real outing (albeit a 1941 studio picture’s version of an outing). And as every magician knows, one way to fool the audience is to put so much work into a trick that the audience dismisses the most obvious explanation (“Well, he can’t have memorized the position of every card in the deck!”). And Welles was a magician.

That’s what it comes down to, all this painstaking rumination and nerdiness — a single critical insight, that Welles was quite capable of staging an elaborate master shot involving a crowd of extras, two rear-projected matte paintings, one incorporating live action water and the other with animated birds — just as scene-setting.

Ceiling Hero

Posted in FILM, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 23, 2010 by dcairns

CITIZEN KANE images via Checking on My Sausages.

In between saying inspiring things like, “Remake ORDINARY PEOPLE. Do it in your apartment. Play all the roles. Make it in a day,” my host in NYC, the esteemed Comrade K, projection into our sphere of a numinous, n-dimensional shepherd-warrior from a land before history, got me started on the following set of thoughts by an offhand remark, which went something like, “People were amazed by the ceilings in CITIZEN KANE. Nobody had ever seen a ceiling before. People couldn’t look up before Orson Welles showed them how.”

He’s right! Welles made the breakthrough by practicing a unique form of yogic meditation taught him by Rudy Vallee. This resulted in the opening of Welles’s “third eye,” which coincided with him lying on his back, causing him to discover the ceiling of his living room. It has been argued that people intuitively knew of the existence of ceilings before this, since logically every floor must have an underside. Some feminist writers have suggested that the ceiling’s true discoverer was a woman, arguing that the prevalence of the missionary position in pre-war life made such an awareness inescapable for the fair sex. But this strikes me as akin to arguing that people “had dreams” before Freud taught them how in his hit book, Close Your Eyes and Move Them Rapidly About.

Some point to the glass ceiling shot in Hitchcock’s THE LODGER as a pre-Wellesian ceiling, but in fact this is nothing more than a glass floor, above which Hitchcock suspended his camera while two burly stagehands held Ivor Novello upside down so he could place his feet on the translucent surface and mimic the actions of a right-side-up walker.  So in fact the shot actually depicts a floor, with Novello on the other side of it. Incidentally, Novello enjoyed the experience so much that he spent a month traveling this way, and had it specified in future contracts that all his films must include upside down walks. Novello later composed “Rose of England” in an entirely inverted position, complete with upside-down grand piano strapped to the backs of a half-dozen burros.

In explaining his concept to art director Van Nest Polglase, Welles was faced with the difficulty of introducing the concept of the ceiling to a man who, like everyone else in 1940s America, had never seen one. Resistant to yogic disciplines, Polglase finally had to be shoved onto his back and held down by Joseph Cotten, while Welles peeled back the eminent designer’s eyelids and forced him to look. Concerted to the cause, “Poley” later became a great proselytizer for the ceiling, even having a house constructed in Beverly Hills composed entirely of ceilings, top, bottom and sides, inside and out. The famous Polglase House was later purchased by James Mason, who had a notorious phobia of doors*. Living in a home whose rooms could be accessed only by skylights appealed greatly to the Huddersfield-born actor.

In addition to the heavily corniced plaster ceilings displayed in KANE, there were several “trick ceilings” — canvas ceilings through which sound could be recorded, and matte painting ceilings to fill in the top portions of large sets, where a real ceiling would be too costly or frightening. Welles also used his mastery of sleigh-of-hand to suggest ceilings that weren’t actually there, enlisting the audience’s imagination by saying things like “Look at that amazing CEILING!” while subtly pointing upwards, or hanging photographs and etchings of great ceilings from history around the walls of a ceiling-less set. In the New York Inquirer set, Welles experimented with rear projection, stretching a screen across the top of the set walls and projecting outtakes from SON OF KONG onto it, but test audiences found the stop motion pterodactyls distracting, and the notion was abandoned.

When KANE was released, the impact was extraordinary. Columbia boss Harry Cohn immediately called in architects to build a ceiling for his office, which until that point had opened on to the room above, forcing the accounts department to rappel from the ceiling to reach their work stations. Suddenly, it became possible to build structures higher than a couple of storeys, and miracle “skyscrapers” mushroomed up in America’s great cities. (Tall buildings seen in pre-1941 movies were always fantastical special effects.)

While Hollywood legend has it that Welles’s film was a flop, it has been suggested that audiences, alerted to these mysterious planes above their heads, became distracted from the cinema screen and spent the movie’s running time staring upwards past the projector beam. Not for the first time, Welles had been too innovative for his own good.

*In civilian life, Mason was only able to enter a room by the window, or while strapped to a hospital gurney, or sometimes both. Ironically, in the movies, he could “act” walking through a door with ease and even suavity, even picking up awards for his smooth entrances. Whereas Pat Boone, Mason’s co-star in JOURNEY TO THE CENTRE OF THE EARTH, could enter a room in a graceful, natural manner, but invariably either stumbled, fainted, or soiled himself when called upon to do so for the films.

Citizen Kong — an appeal

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on January 10, 2009 by dcairns

Shadowplayer Dan North got very excited just recently when I mentioned the oft-quoted fact that CITIZEN KANE uses stock footage culled from SON OF KONG (or KING KONG, according to some). He decided to pinpoint the exact shot that said footage originated from — but was unable to do so. And it’s not his fault, look –


Charles Foster Kane takes his wife on a little picnic.

The actual sky and landscape not meeting Welles’ requirements, special effects supremo Linwood Dunn has matted in a new sky and jungle scenery to this shot. Now we get to the “picnic” itself (as Welles’ narration notes in THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI, “It was no more a picnic than… he was a man.” Grotesquely overblown but unsatisfying picnics are a mini-motif in Welles.)


Here we see KANE star Paul Stewart glide about, all sepulchral-like, against a rear-projected background which features animated flying creatures, sometimes referred to by commentators as bats, sometimes pterodactyls. They also resemble storks (like the artificial ones seen in the magic carpet ride in Murnau’s FAUST). You can see them as angular black shapes in the upper middle of the frame. Now,  it seems incredible that anyone would take the trouble to add giant animated birds just to render the shot unconvincing, so it’s not specially created for KANE, we can assume (or can we? I would welcome any crackpot theories here). So, the argument that this material derives from one of the KONG films, also produced at RKO and featuring copious animation by Willis “Obie” O’Brien, makes sense. But is it actually true?

Note that the silhouetted bird-things appear to be 2D animation rather than animated puppets. Note also that they pass IN FRONT OF the tents — this means that the weird tents are part of the stock footage, whatever it is. Also, I think they’re actually a painting rather than real tents. The rippling water is, I think, part of the stock footage too, so it’s not all animated. There’s also a little curved Japanese-type bridge as part of that background.

It doesn’t look like Skull Island as I remember it.

So what is this? I don’t have a copy of SON OF KONG to check, but I’d be surprised if this scenery existed in it. It certainly doesn’t in the original KONG. Even THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME doesn’t seem likely. I looked around for other RKO films with a jungle theme, but didn’t find much. I looked at Obie’s other credits, and found THE DANCING PIRATE, which who knows, might feature some kind of encampment? It would be amusing if this were the film, since it features a very very young Rita Cansino, the future Rita Hayworth and future Mrs. Welles.

So, I’m appealing for help — an authoritative source explaining where the footage came from, or even better, a frame grab of the actual shot in the actual film that first featured those enigmatic flapping fellows. Let’s sort this out!


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