Saturday, August 27, 2016

The above illustration is a clipping from an article in the film industry trade magazine BOXOFFICE,   circa 1963, picturing the marquee of the Twin Drive-In Theater when it hosted the local premiere of KING KONG VS GODZILLA. It opened with its co-feature THE TROJAN HORSE (starring Steve Reeves) on Wednesday, July 17 1963. And this was the marquee I passed under when I saw this Toho classic for the first time - I was there.

Cincinnati Enquirer, July 14 1963.
It was only a few years before this that producer Joseph E. Levine had innovated what became known as a television saturation campaign, where programming geared to kids became dumping grounds for TV spot trailers, exciting the small fry about what would be opening at hard tops and drive-in theaters that coming weekend. It actually began with a Steve Reeves picture: HERCULES UNCHAINED in 1958. I was witness to many such campaigns in my early years, and I remember having a good sense of what KING KONG VS GODZILLA would be well before it opened, though I had never seen a King Kong movie before and had never before heard of Godzilla. (Hard to imagine, but if I had seen a Godzilla movie before, it was called GIGANTIS THE FIRE MONSTER back then.) But I enjoyed the film enormously and it certainly fueled my young imagination. I remember drawing both King Kong and Godzilla a lot over the course of the following week.

I certainly knew of KING KONG at the time, thanks to articles and photos in FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND, so I'm not sure why I wasn't able to catch up with it till October 1970. Looking back through the CINCINNATI ENQUIRER archives, I see it played often enough on local commercial television stations - and I was particularly fascinated to discover that the 1933 KING KONG even played at some local indoor theaters in 1960 and was revived once again in October 1962 for some drive-in triple bills pairing it with GODZILLA - KING OF THE MONSTERS! (1954) and MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (1948)! That's right, King Kong and Godzilla first "met" in this country in their original versions, long before anyone in America saw the Toho wrestling match. Of course, the Toho film had already been produced by this time and it's possible that the pairing of "the screen's mightiest monsters" was being road-tested to gauge audience interest before Universal Pictures acquired the new film for US distribution.

Original opening weekend ad.
A decade later - still playing.
Needless to say, KING KONG VS GODZILLA proved to be an enormous hit in North America, spurring the immediate distribution of its sequel, GODZILLA VS. MOTHRA - retitled GODZILLA VS. THE THING by American International Pictures, perhaps to avoid a copyright conflict with MOTHRA's domestic distributor Columbia Pictures. One of the most uncanny facts about KING KONG VS. GODZILLA is that it was literally never out of theatrical circulation for the next ten years. There are indoor matinee playdates on record in 1967 and 1969, and then - on August 8, 1973, more than a full decade after its premiere at the Twin Drive-In - it burst back upon the same outdoor screen as part of "Battle of the Monsters," an AIP package of their past Toho acquisitions.

It's now 2016 and, back in its homeland, KING KONG VS. GODZILLA - known in Japan as Kingo Kongu tai Gojira - has recently been completely restored (complete with original stereophonic soundtrack, never heard in the US) and treated to a 4K restoration with new theatrical screenings and deluxe home video releases planned. There is a new Japanese Godzilla film, Shin Gojira (GODZILLA RESURGENCE), that has opened so well that there is already talk of a sequel: GODZILLA VS. KONG, set for release in 2020.

Some battles never get tired, and it would appear that Kong and Godzilla - Monsterdom's great avatars of hot- and cold-blooded strength - will continue to argue their superiority in the popular consciousness for a long time to come.

PS In case you're wondering about that "Facts of Life" banner in the topmost photo, it was a herald promoting the next feature at the Twin Drive-In, THE WRONG RUT (pictured at left). I didn't get to see that one... but the good news is, it's available on DVD from Something Weird Video!


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