Citizen Kong — an appeal

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!

16 Responses to “Citizen Kong — an appeal”

  1. Actually it could be all three — including bits that were shot but never used in thse films. Linwood Dunn would have known where they were and obviously knew what to do with them. They certainly weren’t specially shot for Welles.

  2. Well one possibility is that footage from a Kong film is used as part of the News on the March newsreel, or elsewhere, and that this fact has gotten confused with the animated flying critter shot, which may have come from elsewhere. But animated sequences are pretty rare in Hollywood movies — so if that wasn’t created for Kane (and I don’t think it was) then I would think it’d have to come from some kind of monster/horror/fantasy movie.

    But the tents seem to me to conclusively rule out King Kong as a source for this material, as there’s definitely no setting of that kind in the film, and no room for there to be one in any probably deleted scene (we pretty much know the pit scene is the only deleted bit).

    New fact: if you watch the Kane sequence frame by frame, you can see that the “bats” move at 12fps — they maintain each pose for 2 frames. Whereas the Kong ‘dactyl moves at 24fps.

    In shape and movement, the “bats” do resemble the Kong pterodactyl, when it flaps past in the background before attacking Fay Wray. Dunn COULD have matted the silhouette of the Kong beastie into the Kane rear projection footage, double-printing each alternate frame — but it seems unlikely that he would WANT to do so!

  3. I disagree. The sheer weirdness of the “picnic” is ideally underlined by these bats/ peterodactyls/ whatevers.

  4. I like “peterodactyls” — sounds like an Irish flying reptile.

    Agree that the weirdness is welcome, it just doesn’t feel to me like the sort of weirdness anyone would spend hours of work to attain — the explanation that it’s a kind of accident that Welles was happy to take advantage of makes more sense to me.

  5. Well I don’t think he worked that hard to obtain it. I imagine Dunn coming across outtakes and test footage from say King Kong, showing it to Welles, and Welles bursting into laughter while exclaiming “Oh we’ve got to use this for the picnic scene!”

  6. Remember too that Citizen Kane is loaded with trick shots of all sorts — like the famous scene where Susan Alexander nearly kills herself as Welles bursts through her bedroom door. It looks like a really ambitious deep focus shot but is actually a composit.

  7. Yes, I can believe that it’s stock footage left over from another film far more easily than I can believe it’s animation specially executed for CK. I’m just curious as to which film. I don’t believe in the existence of deleted tent scene from Kong, so I want to solve the mystery of where it comes from.

    There are indeed countless trick shots — the crane shot up from Susan singing at the opera wipes invisibly to a miniature shot before wiping back to live action as we rach the workmen on the scaffold, the statue in the Thatcher Memorial is a miniature, connected to the live shot by a fake tilt produced by the optical printer…

    I just learned that the snow falling OUTSIDE the snowglobe in Kane’s death scene was initially a mistake, but Welles liked it and urged Dunn to use it.

  8. The use of the optical printer and process shots in CITIZEN KANE is both intense and the effect it had on creating the film’s power was incalculable. It’s perhaps the quintessential RKO film in that respects. The culmination of that most interesting of major studios creative direction in the 30s. But then the aesthetic of CITIZEN KANE was put everything in. Horror film check, musical number, check, newspaper comedy, check, political satire, why not? oh and put in a newsreel for good measure and also intense realism like the household of Charlie Kane’s parents, the makeup on Dorothy Comingore after her suicide attempt and so on.

    Jean-Pierre Melville incidentally talked about that scene of Susan’s suicide attack and well before research into the film’s production confirmed it figured out that it was a composite shot.

    Another famous bit of deep focus cherished is of course little Kane playing in the snow in the distance of the window while his parents and Thatcher decide his future. That kid in the window is rear-projection. So slightly cheating but then nothing cheating about the three dimensional space in the room itself.

  9. The snow outside the globe baffled me too but it works poetically. Like we’re going inside Charlie Kane’s final thoughts as he leaves the earth, so go into the snowglobe and then it smashes after the first line of dialogue is uttered.

    The extensive use of trick shots and process work alongside the use of deep-focus created a totally different kind of realism. And also prepared Welles thoroughly on the different aspects of production which make a film. This prepared him for his later stunts like shooting ”The Tragedy of Othello” in 4 countries and yet giving the impression that it takes place in Venice, using doubles for actors when they miss their dates and most spectacular of all – dubbing his own voice for that of his cast and getting away with it!!! He became a one-man optical printer.

  10. All the European films use these incredible tricks. In a way we could say Welles is recreating the artifice he learned in the studio system, only on location.

    A favourite of mine is the battle in Chimes at Midnight: one army, charging in one direction, filmed from one side, then Welles flips half the shots around in the optical printer and it becomes two armies charging at each other.

  11. Randall William Cook Says:

    The RKO picture for which the jungle and birds were originally created was Welles’ aborted HEART OF DARKNESS.

    No, that’s not true, I’m just causing a little trouble and trying to get your attention.

    I see no reason to believe that this stuff wasn’t done for KANE. Count the matte paintings in the opening “approach to Xanadu” montage. The film’s full of them, whether in the film’s newsreel (Xanadu being built, complete with stop motion truck) to the film proper (everything from numerous Xanadu interiors to “extending” a shot where little Charie is sledding in the snow). I don’t think the jungle painting was more demanding than most of the many others prepared for the show & I can’t see how, in light of the dozens of paintings which WERE “certainly specially shot for Welles”, this particular painting would’ve been the straw that broke the camel’s back. I just find that inference bizarre.

    Mario Larrinaga was an RKO matte painter and worked on both KANE and KONG. His hand is certainly evident in the everglades painting. If it’s from SON OF KONG or KING KONG it’s something waaaaaaay in the background, having been reworked for KANE by the addition of painted tents and cartoon (you are right there) storks.

    But I think the painting’s original with KANE. The only thing that argues against this being original with KANE is the choice of storks over the rather more on-the-money flamingoes as an “instant symbol” of the everglades. And that’s a weak argument.

    I don’t think O’bie was involved with the picture but am not sure.

    THE INVISIBLE ART by Craig Barron is a fine book on matte painting which is worth a look. RKO’s work is subjected to particular scrutiny.

    However, they DID do a lot of TESTING on HEART OF DARKNESS….

  12. Great stuff. You’re right that there’s no reason why the tents couldn’t be an original matte painting, just like all those views of Xanadu, the outside of the newspaper offices, etc. But the animated storks do push it into a slightly different realm, although again they certainly COULD be rendered specially. In which case, who is responsible for the Kong legend, and can we lay it to rest definitively?

    I didn’t mean to imply that Obie had any direct involvement in Kane — he would only be connected if some of his animation had been lifted as stock footage, which is far from certain.

    The idea that a Kong backdrop got repainted as everglades material is an alluring one, but certainly wouldn’t justify a claim that CK used “stock footage from Kong“.

    I love the idea that the image derives from Heart of Darkness test material! We’d better watch out, or that’ll acquire currency and people will start to state it as fact…

  13. Randall William Cook Says:

    Well, I don’t even think animated storks push it into that different a realm. A prosaic explanation may apply: maybe there was an effects animator on the payroll who needed busywork. Maybe everyone was excited about the project and wanted to get into the act. Maybe RKO farmed out a couple of stork cycles to Disney’s FX dept, since this film was a big deal. I DON’T CLAIM TO KNOW.

    Prom a director’s point of view, it may well have been decided that the static painting looked dead, and that the animation element was just a logical (if not successful) way to give it life. More conjecture, of course, but without the bird life the painting would look pretty static.

    Whatever it was, it took the careful planning as the back projection element had to be finished in advance of the actual live action shoot. And the fact that it’s a rather long take argues against a stock shot from elsewhere…it was almost certainly produced as a back projection plate.

    The only thing similar in SON OF KONG (to my eyes, anyway) is a jungle establisher, sans people, which contains birds (animated). The prominent trees in that shot are miniature, though, and of a different type than those painted, I believe.

    Where’d the legend start? Don’t know; some of the Welles biographers have been pretty sloppy, substituting conjecture for research (I always loved Higham’s misquote from SHANGHAI’s “feeding frenzy” speech where Michael’s description of the ocean being made of sharks, “and no water at all” becomes “AND THE WATER TALL”, which sort of misses the point). I’d assume (conjecture here, no hard evidence) that someone detected a stylistic kinship between the everglades and Skull Island and jumped to a self-satisfied and inaccurate conclusion.

    Might be something in the archives indicating the shot’s origin. Again, Craig Barron might have the answer, having interviewed a number of matte painters. Peter Bogdonovich would be a likely authority, as well. Larrinaga’s dead, as is most everyone directly involved, probably.

    I will ask a few matte painting buddies and see if they have any information.

  14. Good man!

    Higham makes numerous howlers, including that line about the Lady from Shanghai mirror sequence containing numerous shots, “some only a few seconds long” — sheesh.

    Your theory that the Kong connection comes about purely from sloppy conjecture is all too plausible, and I’d love to confirm that if it’s true — and we seem quite close to being able to do so.

    I’m not sure that back projection footage (agreed — it must have been prepared AS back projection material) would have looked static, since Welles uses a moving camera, and the shot contains rippling live-action water as part of the bg. The second shot, untercut with the scene in the tent, IS static, but features no storks.

  15. Randall William Cook Says:

    Right you are about the water.

    By static, I just meant that, from the shoreline up, it just sits there. No gentle zephyr rustles the leaves, or vines, or whatever. That’s why I am GUESSING that the birds were a solution to the painting’s rather embalmed quality.

    And you’re right about the camera move, which Probably indicates TWO RP images, seperated by the foreground tent setpiece.

    The tantalizing question we haven’t broached is HOW the RP images were produced. Matte paintings were usually done on vertical glass (many exceptions, of course). If the birds weren’t added in Dunn’s printer (they may have been, but I wouldn’t swear to it), the whole deal might have been a down-shooter affair, like the Disney multi plane work. Again, I’m spitballing, but getting the footage to the Rear Projection stage was apparently a pretty big deal. I will see if anyone knows anything solid.

    BTW, did you ever pick up Rudy Vallee’s book? As I mentioned to you many moons ago, it was a Welles favorite.

  16. They could have filmed the glass painting from above, and then matted in the water (a bit of stock footage?) Maybe it’s even the same water we see in a Xanadu shot at the start, which would convince me the artwork was specially prepared for Kane. Must check.

    You’re right about there being two RPs, although they look so similar they might actually be two prints of the same material. You only glimpse a small portion of the first bit.

    I’m not sure if Dunn or Larrinaga had any animation experience, so if the birds are made-to-order, I still wonder who made them.

    Yes, I got the Vallee book, have been meaning to write something about it. I particularly like the peculiar bouts of score-settling or personal attacks on people like Milton Berle, whom Vallee admits had been nothing but kind to him! Truly bizarre. And the recurring, mantra-like phrase “which was the place to go in those days.”

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