A Confusing Second Volume

By Paige Francis Posted Monday Feb 26, 2024

Filed under: Epilogue, Paige Writes 9 comments

Unless you are a particular fan of the minutiae of “the Golden Era” of giant monster movies, Toho’s production of King Kong vs. Godzilla from 1962 can be a confusing watch. In many ways, it fails, despite its accomplishments, in exactly the same way Legendary’s 2021 release of Godzilla vs. Kong fails. That is, whatever your doubts about the previous movies were, the combination of big-name monsters and a decade of FX improvements would SURELY produce *something* of worth. And I mean, it DOES…just generally not in a way people expected or wanted. At least, looking back we see that. But at the time, and here’s the other truly ASTOUNDING fact that causes so much modern consternation: King Kong vs. Godzilla is the most successful Godzilla movie ever in Japan, even today. Of course, that’s only from a certain point-of-view; this placement is based solely on theater attendance. Theater attendance fell steadily throughout the 1960’s and 1970’s, but the numbers still roughly correlate to both profit and general popularity with the Japanese public. KKvG is followed by the original Gojira and the sequel, Godzilla Raids Again; and the mid-60’s movies that quickly followed King Kong vs. Godzilla. The only later movies to intrude on the upper echelons are 2016’s Shin Godzilla and 2023’s Godzilla Minus One. But as usual, we need to look at the factors that led to one of the most popular Godzilla movies ever.

One thing that should be moved to the side quickly is the use of color film. THEM! was intended to be filmed in color, AND in 3D; both technologies were abandoned following screen tests of the movie’s giant, mechanical ant puppets. In the U.S., “color” would continue to be a hallmark of a higher budget while black and white would be relegated to “low budget” films…especially quick-buck-filmed-in-a-week drive in movies. Not so much because the film stock was more expensive (although it was) but because renting or borrowing older technology cameras was cheaper and easier. Not that there weren’t exceptions: classic American sci-fi/horror monster movie The Blob was filmed in color. The color film was necessary for the shocking special effect of the titular monster changing color as it consumed its victims. It should be noted that color would continue to be used as a “gimmick” in lower-budget movies in the U.S. In Japan, however, Toho produced the previously-mentioned giant monster movie Rodan on color film in 1956, the year following Godzilla Raids Again. Toho’s giant monster movies would remain in full color until the 2024 “Minus Color” release of 2023’s Godzilla Minus One. So by the time King Kong vs. Godzilla began preproduction in 1961, there was no doubt the movie would be produced in color.

So let’s get back to the white chimera in the corner. What does Frankenstein have to do with Godzilla? Hehhehhehhehhehheh…sigh. Buckle up. Some time in early 1961 Toho Studios bought a script and assorted production notes and sketches from American Producer John Beck. Beck had been part of the merger of International Pictures and Universal Pictures and had produced several notable films for Universal, most notably for our recent explorations being Harvey. By the late 1950’s he was mostly getting work through United Artists. The script/screenplay (I’ve read it reported both ways) John Beck sold to Toho was called King Kong vs. Prometheus. Beck had contracted author and screenwriter George Worthing Yates to write the script in 1960. Beck had shopped this screenplay around Hollywood for much of 1960, even reporting he had Nathan Juran attached to the project to direct. However, as the FX were intended to be stop-motion, studios rejected the idea as too-costly in an era when MOST giant monster movies were smash-and-grab pocket-money budget movies. Those of you familiar with King Kong, and I know some of you are, have spotted the use of the word “Prometheus.” You are correct, but we’re not at the beginning of the story yet.

Yates’ screenplay was based on a story treatment and sketches provided by John Beck. The story treatment was called King Kong vs. The Ginko. This is the title Beck had used when originally trying to sell the idea, as many people believed that Universal Pictures owned a copyright on Frankenstein (an idea they didn’t bother to clarify, understandably.) However, the treatment had been handed to him early in 1960 as King Kong Meets Frankenstein. The treatment and sketches had been created by stop-motion master Willis O’Brien, the creator of the original 1933 King Kong FX. O’Brien had taken the idea to RKO Pictures, but RKO was in the middle of restructuring under new owner General Tire and Rubber Company (aka Continental). RKO may or may not have hooked O’Brien up with John Beck…this part of the story is unclear.

Now here’s the thing…while O’Brien had given King Kong Meets Frankenstein to John Beck to shop around and get produced, he would subsequently claim he should have been, but was NOT, included in changes made to his idea and the sale to Toho Studios. No written contract was ever presented, or even claimed that I can tell. Willis O’Brien did want to sue Beck and made some preliminary efforts to do so, but simply lacked the funds to initiate the lawsuit. Merian C. Cooper, the producer of King Kong, would also later sue Beck, Toho, and Universal Pictures to block distribution of the film. The lawsuit was thrown out when Universal demonstrated that Cooper was not the sole-owner of the King Kong copyright as he had claimed (i.e. he had no standing to bring the suit.)

Toho Studios, obviously, replaced Frankenstein with Godzilla and planned the release for their Thirty Year anniversary; now titled Godzilla vs. King Kong. And also, obviously, using suitmation. The American motion picture industry was so appalled by the use of suitmation, this was cited as the explicit outrage resented by Cooper above all; Ray Harryhausen was used as a source to decry the technique for decades (previously discussed and partially debunked), and Willis O’Brien’s widow alleged his disgust at the suitmation caused the stress that drove him to his grave in 1962. While the problems of this type of effect is on display in the movie, especially in color and brightly-lit, I think they might be exaggerating a bit.

Erm…let’s ignore the giant ape suit. Close-ups on the head do in fact make the point that Toho’s King Kong suit looks awful in some respects. The trade-off was gaining smooth motion. This works in distance shots…sometimes. There are three notable failures even here: In order to make the ape’s proportions more realistic, the arms are extended. In most full-body shots, the suit actor’s hands are placed mid-forearm. So they at least gave him some kind of mechanic grip armature to operate the hands, right? Some accounts say such a thing existed but didn’t work right; some sources claim this was a feature dropped because it was either too expensive or viewed as unnecessary. Unfortunately, you do in fact notice that Kong doesn’t ever flex his wrists or fingers. They even have him performing movements that would highlight the hands and fingers, so the fact that they don’t move at all is front-and-center. Second problem: doing rear-projection forced perspective IN COLOR. Chroma-key didn’t exist yet; the only technique for matte-blending was trimming, blurring, and tone and color matching. See the screen-cap below. But I guess you can see a theme with both of these problems: Toho cut budgets wherever they could. Despite King Kong vs. Godzilla being planned as part of a celebration, Toho couldn’t get past the fact that monster movies such as Rodan and other FX movies they had produced over the past five years weren’t consistently doubling their budget in box office returns. Essentially Toho could not forecast the movie as a hit. As it stood they were already committing to a production cost equal to Rodan‘s entire Japanese gross. Studio execs were hoping the return of Godzilla and introduction of King Kong would at least lead to a profit. What it led to was poorly-done rear-projection worse than the cheap drive-in movie FX in America:

Try not to vomit. No screencap for now, but I would like to point out that the new Godzilla suit is actually quite good. If you will recall, the original suit used for the first two movies was shipped to the U.S. to film additional scenes for the U.S. release of Godzilla Raids Again. When that production fell apart, the eventual movie released, Gigantis the Fire Monster, was made entirely through editing-in shots and scenes from other movies. There are a handful of anecdotal stories claiming appearances of the two costumes in the 60’s, and the most common story is likely true, as the contents of the discovered crate was a deteriorated pile of rubber, mesh, foam, and plaster. Regardless, the original Godzilla suit was lost and Toho had to create a new one. It should be acknowledged that even if Toho for whatever reason DID still have the original suit, it would likely have been completely useless and highly deteriorated even then.

So now, that’s the UGLY. The GOOD and the BAD kind of share the same space, depending on what you think of the entire CONCEPT of the movie, and how much BAD you assign to go along the UGLY FX. The cast and performances are excellent. Akihiko Hirata, who portrayed Doctor Serizawa in Gojira, returns as Defense Minister Shigezawa. He carries the role with well-earned gravitas, although his dialogue comes off as largely inconsequential in English. Mie Hama takes the most prominent female role as the sister of one main character and girlfriend of a supporting character who is introduced then ignored for most of the movie. Hama remained a prominent Japanese actress until 1989, although American audiences will know her from her performance of Kissy Suzuki in the James Bond film You Only Live Twice and Kokusai himitsu kaisatsu: kagi no kagi; later edited by Woody Allen and released in America as What’s Up, Tigerlilly? Hama was originally cast in You Only Live Twice as Aki, the more prominent “Bond Girl” role. Hama had trouble with the English dialogue; however, and swapped roles with co-star Akiko Wakabayashi. The two had initially worked together on King Kong vs. Godzilla, with Wakabayashi cast as Hama’s best friend.

The two male leads are pictured here with the two highest-listed female performers. From left-to-right: Tadao Takashima, Wakabayashi, Hama, and Yu Fujiki. Takashima was a well-known actor and jazz musician; his introduction to the film features him playing a drum kit for a commercial. He and Fujiki kick off the story, which is just a re-imagining of the 1933 Kong movie. Takashima and Fujiki are employees of the Pacific Pharmaceuticals Company, in the advertising division. They work in support of the production of the World News Series, a science television show produced by Pacific. Unfortunately, World News Series is performing poorly, and the director of the advertising department wants to find a new sponsorship deal. This is a purely comic role, performed by one of Japan’s biggest comic actors, Ichiro Arashima. He comes off as “the fool who believes he’s the straight man,” kind of a mix of Chaplin and Moe Howard. For reasons that were cut from the film (although they can be figured out later), the three Pacific Pharmaceuticals employees take a meeting with a biologist who brings them news of a rumored giant monster living on the rarely-visited Skull Island Pharoh Island. Takashima and Fujiki are sent to Pharoh Island to ascertain the truth, and if possible, arrange the capture and return of the giant monster.

Interspersed throughout this first fifteen minutes of the movie are scenes, nominally tied to the previously-named World News Series TV show, of an American submarine doing science stuff in the Arctic. This segment of the film by itself could command an entire essay, between the use of a primarily-American, English-speaking, partially-post-dubbed, cast; the presence of suited and name-tagged scientists and politicians on the bridge, and the surprise appearance of a giant window right at the end of the submarine’s importance. But, TLDR; the submarine approaches a radioactive iceberg, runs into it it for completely unfathomable reasons, and frees Godzilla. (Godzilla was “beaten” in Godzilla Raids Again by driving him into the arctic then dumping tons of ice on him, btw.) Apparently the ice he was frozen in calved into an iceberg, and now you have surprise Godzilla, and one less American submarine.

Back on Pharoh island we’re treated to some absolutely amazing music and a stunning dance performance.

This is Akemi Negishi, a prolific actress who worked roles throughout Japanese cinema, including several Akira Kurosawa films. As you can see in the picture (and from a screen-grab from the same scene I posted weeks ago,) black-face makeup was used on the Japanese actors. The women generally had less makeup as well as less clothing, but the the male aborigines and the “translator” brought on the expedition look ridiculous. Truly the only thing that keeps the scene from being used as a prime example of the insult of black-face performance is the utter absurdity of the make-up. The Pharoh Islanders receive protection from King Kong, and control him by making his favorite post-fight drink from native berries (the berries that are mentioned in the Pacific Pharmaceuticals meeting earlier in the film.) These berries are powerful somnolents, and only a few dozen gallons of berry juice can put Kong into a deep sleep for days. Almost obligatorily, a super-duper-giant-squid shows up and threatens the aboriginal village, which spurs King Kong to show up and fight it off. He takes his sleeping meds, the villagers sing him to sleep, and Pacific Pharmaceuticals has their new “spokesman.”

Upon reaching Japan, King Kong immediately rampages ambles across the countryside. This is really the final problem with the FX: the King Kong suit actor tried very hard to emulate, I *think* gorilla movement…and, fair enough, you know. Kong running looks good enough, but when he walks…look, there’s just no other way to put it. He looks a buzzed dudebro trying to hold in a fart he doesn’t trust on the way to the bathroom. You know the look; shoulders hunched up and flexing both because he’s straining with effort and because his brain is telling him to act big and untouchable for defense. Buttocks clenched and tucked so tightly he might turn inside-out. A rocking, rolling gate coming from tiny steps from the knees down, because moving his hips too much might cause the dam to crumble. And the bad face mask actually adds to this, because Kong can only look straight ahead with a literally-empty-eyed stare and frozen expression.

I laugh every time I see this. But it’s mostly a comedy, so…once again, fair enough.

King Kong throws some rocks at Godzilla, Godzilla sets Kong on fire with his atomic breath. And Kong…just leaves. He scratches his head (or, you know, rubs his head with the ends of his fingers in an awkward pose, because the hands can’t move), turns around and walks off. And Godzilla heads back to wrecking the countryside.

It is here that an important piece of Godzilla lore is introduced (and technically, King Kong lore when he’s in this type of movie): Godzilla’s only real weakness IN A FIGHT is lightning damage. You can drive him off with enough electricity. His eventual most-powerful rival uses electricity as a primary attack. Japan’s first attempt at driving off Godzilla in many films is to hastily erect a trap of high-voltage power lines then drive him into it. King Kong SPECIFICALLY is super-charged by lightning. You even see this used as a plot point in Legendary’s King Kong, especially Godzilla vs. Kong. The Japanese Self-Defense Forces try this, it works, then Kong ruins everything by running through the power lines. Revived and powered-up by a lightning storm over Mount Fuji, Kong and Godzilla fight all the way down the mountain to the sea, where the two monsters fall into Sagami Bay. Kong resurfaces and begins swimming back to Pharoh Island. Godzilla is not seen, but the cast speculates he is likely still alive, since the water is his home element.

The new Godzilla suit is effective, and most scenes featuring ONLY Godzilla were shot well and performed well. This screengrab presents something that couldn’t be done previously. You will note extensive use of shadow and highlighting; I suspect the budget kept all but a few shots from being presented as well as this one. I chose this particular shot over the preceding action where Godzilla falls into a pit trap only because the editing is so tight, a freeze-frame of the debris-obscuring fall into the semi-lit pit would make little sense out of the context of its motion. But that scene would fit easily into a movie filmed two decades later without comment.

Frame speed is inconsistent, but never quite as bad as it was in Godzilla Raids Again. By contrast, the EDITING lets the movie down. In one shot, Godzilla will be menacingly lumbering, in the next, you would swear they used regularly-timed footage of the suit actor getting into position by mistake. A “Day-for-Night” scene has a full second or two of footage WITHOUT the color and brightness adjustments used to simulate a night setting. This had to be a product of pure laziness, as the sudden shift to daylight indicates the scene had been cut and the blue filter removed.

Sound and music, despite the stand-out island scenes, are inferior in King Kong vs. Godzilla. The famous roar introduced in Gojira is edited down, producing more of a scream. We see the beginnings of this “scream” becoming more akin to a vocalization…a dog barking at a perceived threat. Every scene change back to Godzilla is accompanied by the well-known first few notes of the “Godzilla appears” theme: Dummmmmmm………dum dum dummmm….dum. The problem being the frenetic, frequently nonsensical, often non-sequential cuts mean this happens dozens of times. Sometimes the cuts are only a minute apart, or less.

Watching 1962’s King Kong vs. Godzilla, a modern viewer unconcerned with the background or history of the film would likely come away thinking the movie fits in perfectly with later Godzilla efforts. Goofy, poorly-made, cheap. If I told you the series is mostly a downhill trend from here, you wouldn’t have much reason to doubt me. But honestly, just as with the downward trend of theater attendance, that’s not entirely accurate. There are better Godzilla movies to be found over the next twenty years…and worse, believe it or not. Toho would be prompted by the huge success of KKvG to produce a trilogy of Godzilla movies from 1963 to 1965 that were financially successful. Toho would also eventually produce two giant monster Frankenstein movies based somewhat on Willis O’Brien’s original King Kong Meets Frankenstein treatment in 1966. Some have said this was prompted by O’Brien’s anger and Cooper’s lawsuit, but I suspect the real reason is that Godzilla writer Shinichi Sekizawa had started complaining as early as 1963 that he couldn’t think of any new direction for giant monster movies to go. (He was placated by Toho executives telling him his stories didn’t have to be plausible or consistent even in the sci-fi fantasy world Toho was creating.) At the same time another Japanese studio would (successfully) try their hand at the giant monster genre, taking inspiration from KKvG that the giant monster didn’t necessarily have to be the “bad guy.”


Look, I have no idea how I managed to go over three thousand words on King Kong vs. Godzilla. That wasn’t the intent. But honestly, what bugs me MORE is how much I left out. There are a couple more essays about this movie alone…but I think I covered some of the really important parts. I’m friends with a handful of truly hardcore Godzilla fanatics and scholars who don’t agree with me on this movie, and some of the other Godzilla movies I assign to “good” or “bad” categories. But as you can see, even though I’m not the biggest fan of this Godzilla entry, it has GOOD THINGS in it. The island scenes, despite the black-face, are actually fun to watch. There is some good cinematography in this film…along with a lot of bad. The editing is bad, except for a couple of scenes are cut just right. But really, only watch it for those things that might interest you. Too much of this movie is just a mess.

I feel like I’m coming back around to some Star Wars: The Old Republic content before diving back into movies, but we’ll see. I’ve got to get a car in the shop this week, make arrangements for some home improvement and repairs I can’t do myself, and a few other things that could change my mind by the end of the week.


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9 thoughts on “A Confusing Second Volume

  1. Syal says:

    >But, TLDR; the submarine approaches a radioactive iceberg, runs into it it for completely unfathomable reasons, and frees Godzilla.

    Man, I can’t believe Aquaman 2 ripped off Godzilla vs. King Kong.

    1. I haven’t seen it, but I’ve *heard* the writing was particularly lazy. In one sense I guess it could be the product of simple deduction:
      “Why was this thing not a threat yesterday?”
      “Because it was…frozen in ICE!!!!”
      “So how do we get it out of the ice for this movie?”
      “Global warming?”
      “Ehhhh….everybody else is doing that.”
      “Godzilla shows up and shoots fire at it?”
      “Rights would be too expensive.”
      “Right. What else is in the water? OOOOH! A submarine! They even have nuclear fire stuff, I’ve heard!”
      “That’s it! A Nuclear submarine hits the ice!!!! You’re brilliant! Haven’t seen that done!”

      1. Syal says:

        …it actually IS Global Warming in Aquaman 2. The Little bad guy takes his sub down and deliberately breaks the villain out, thanks to the ice being thinner because of Global Warming. (And then Aquaman beats the Big bad guy and I’m like “we did it everyone, we killed Global Warming’s only threat.”)

        That movie was a hot mess and a lot of fun.

        1. AH. (I haven’t seen the movie, as I mentioned) But then it’s actually a bit like The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, in which the ONLY REAL THREAT from radiation is that might release a giant, predatory dinosaur frozen in the ice. Except we’ve replaced radiation with global warming. Which, honestly, tracks with news and public sentiment, and how American media reflects those views.

  2. Sartharina says:

    I find it amusing that you post this so close to the release of ERB’s Epic Rap Battle between King Kong and Godzilla., loaded with references to all the Godzilla and King Kong movies

    1. I didn’t know they had! I’ll have to go watch it; they’re usually pretty good on their references and understanding. The Henry Ford vs. Karl Marx battle only had a couple of weak or bad references, and that’s a loaded subject.

  3. Dreadjaws says:

    I watched this movie for the first time in anticipation of Godzilla vs Kong. I didn’t expect much and that’s precisely what I got. It had a few entertaining parts, but it was impossible to take seriously the fight between the titular monsters. Being honest, though, I didn’t really care that much for the new film either (which I very recently rewatched to see if my feelings about it had changed). I think I mentioned this before, but I like these “giant monsters fighting each other” more in concept than in execution. I didn’t dislike GvK, but it’s probably my least favorite of the American bunch, even though it’s the most popular one. I certainly like it better than KKvG, but maybe if the older film had nostalgia on its side I’d feel different.

    1. I suspect a lot of dedicated Godzilla fans give the movie points because of the number of firsts. Akiko Wakabayashi plays one of the most notable roles of all Godzilla films a few years later, which adds a layer of “aquired” nostalgia. The appearance of Hirata in a new role is the first of what would become a trend of returning actors; always in new roles. My final judgement has consistently been that it’s NOT a good movie, and not even the best of the “Second Volume” of this era of low-budget Godzilla films.

      Godzilla vs. Kong disappointed me in every way but one. I like Millie Bobby Brown and loved her character in King of the Monsters. In Godzilla vs. Kong she plays a part clearly written to NOT be the same character…but they could get her back cheap enough she was a big name, so…she got stuck in that role. The Mechagodzilla design was fabulous (despite the villain being a cardbord cutout with “villain” written on his forehead). Considering how contrived the entire “Kong fights Godzilla” idea is in the first place, I think they should have just gone straight for a Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla movie. And of course, that’s what they INTENDED to do at some point. But the Titanoverse wasn’t making the money they expected, so they put everything into what they hoped would be their last, best shot and got a confusing mess. With great FX. Boring.

  4. Shu says:

    These have been entertaining to read and bring back a lot of memories. My brother and I used to rent Godzilla-esque movies all the time from Metro Golden Memories (think Blockbuster, but for classic movies only). Somehow we never grabbed Them! though I remember seeing the giant ants on the cover. Hearing you talk (reading you talk?) about how these things were made has been very interesting.

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