FIR's own Glenn Andreiev asked me what lost movies or near-lost need to be recovered and found specifically from a special effects point of view. This short article is my opinion and my answer.
For those of us who write, produce and direct having started careers in animation and special effects - there are more of us than you might think - the list of lost movies crying to be found and restored is almost endless, their collective silent voice pleading to be rescued from the darkness of time is nearly painful to contemplate - and why I am such a fan of Glenn's efforts to document and make more popular the need for restoration..
To the special effects fanboy in me - that 10-year-old that refuses to vanish from my character despite every attempt I could think of to dispel that rascal - like so many others, including many noted film historians, the Holy Grail of lost footage is, of course, the Spider Pit sequence in the original King Kong (1933).
For those not familiar, the sailors on the expedition, hot on the trail of Kong to rescue Ann Darrow (Faye Wray) get more than they bargained for when, halfway over crossing a fallen log that bridges a very wide and extremely deep chasm, they're met by the towering objective they chase - Kong, himself- minus the girl they are trying to rescue. Kong grabs one side of the log and in perhaps the most technically polished moment in a movie that changed the course of cinema forever, lifts and rocks the massive dead tropical tree trunk side-to-side, sending hapless seaman after seaman supposedly to his death because when they seemingly hit the miniature set-piece below (convincingly done as is most of Kong) we assume that's the end of those guys each and all. But as the censored footage otherwise informs us, they are still alive, but perhaps better off dead from the fall, because massive insects, four-to-ten feet long, emerge from the dank, moss-draped shadows of the pit to plunder the scattered screaming feast that has landed in their midst. Be it because the scene was too intense for the era (extremely possible and my own guess), awkward (unlikely, the rest of Kong is breathtaking in its cinematic skill for the time), or just "slowed the pace of the movie" - the quite possible official reason but perhaps also tied to reason number one - too horrific - Gone it was. Personally, I really believe the horrific quality might have been too much. because Kong has the soft, shadowy and extremely convincing deep tropic visual aesthetic to truly horrify if men being devoured by hideous insects was realized with the same aplomb as the rest of the film. For whatever reason, out it went, and thus a legendary mystery was born.
Author Ray Bradbury claimed to remember having seen it, though this is unlikely. For three decades the scene remained a rumor until sci-fi wunder-middle-aged-kind Forrest Ackerman (who invented the term sci-fi) published stills from the scene in his seminal magazine, Famous Monsters Of Filmland. So there it was for monster-kids of the time and astonished film historians alike, proof the spider pit scene with all its horrific shadowy denizens existed at one time. And thus, instead of setting the matter to rest, for Kong aficionados that range from the industry's top directors, special effects men and film historians, a seeming cheat was created, a tease of unbearable proportions for kids and adult fans alike of the age:; you can see the still pictures but are not allowed to view the actual scene! Impossible! Unfair!
Personally, I don't obsess over lost films because down that road lies certain unhappiness unless you are in a place to be the Sherlock Holmes of movie history, as is Glenn. But it has obsessed others. When top-flight director Peter Jackson created his, in my opinion, totally overblown and frankly rather stupid, unnecessary remake of King Kong (he now owns most of the props for the original movie) and it was time for the DVD release, he hypothesized an "accurate" recreation of the Spider Pit to, I assume, purge his own need to see it. For my money, it only makes the mystery worse, because it fails completely while making an admirable attempt - a perfect illustration of why this lost scene is totally unique.
The photography in Jackson's re-imagining is too sharp and not soft and gauzy like the 1933 original, Jackson's direction style is unfit for the task, as is the cutting, and for me, personally, from a special effects artist's point of view, the approach is arrogant: it attempts to imitate a "primitive special effects scene" and winds up just looking stupid; it has no sense of what makes the special effects in Kong even today a masterpiece which feels like an Old Master's painting; the original Kong animators and other technicians and artists were not trying to look primitive; instead they were working tirelessly to create something of breathtaking impact, and therefore all the scenes are imbued with the instinctive artistic sincerity of brilliant artists struggling against the technical limitations of their age. In my opinion, it is impossible to recreate such a moment in time - there is no point in trying.
Fans have sleuthed film history, finding bits and ultimately meaningless clues: RKO movies of the 40's, mostly light comedies, have in "scientific institutions" relics from Kong on the "science shelves", including some denizens of the pit. In the late 1950's it is likely that a few of the stop motion cave creatures in the low-budget sci-fi effort "The Black Scorpion" are 25-year-old models from Kong as they match the stills that Ackerman uncovered and the special effects genius was the same man in both: Willis O'Brien, who was "Chief Technician" on King Kong.
EDIT: King Kong super-sleuth and Films In Review reader Mark Milano commented to me on Facebook that he had created a compilation video of many of the instances in which the 1933 King Kong models - and the spider pit ones, specifically -- were used in RKO productions. If you are intrigued by the idea that the models made it into so many other movies as background props, you'll love Mark's video. Thank you, Mark!
The official story about how the spider pit scene went missing is that producer/co-director Cooper had the film of the pit scene burned. While it is possible he gave the order to burn it, it seems impossible to believe that that order was fully carried out. If it slowed the film, then that means it would have been cut into the film for screenings, and if the scene was that far along as part of the process, it is doubtful that it was burned and instead someone quietly took it home. I have been part of too many movies back in the 35mm-only film days in which crew members ensconced with mementos of the project lifted the editors' scrap bins to think that that a scene of such probable power was just destroyed. After all, previously unknown stills existed, surfacing after over 30 years.
So many supposedly lost films have been found and restored, things assumed lost for over 100 years. Is the "Spider Pit" out there, somewhere; crumbling, with the fading words, "RKO, Cheesman, 'SPIDERS'" written on a slip of paper affixed to a smallish, rusting can, in an attic, a basement or a shelf in some cabinet of curiosities? If we can never find it, the next best thing we can do to honor the achievement of those brilliant and amazingly dedicated artists is to never lose sight of the lesson they taught us as they created a lasting monument to imagination with equipment that is now literally antique: "art overshadows technology".
To help fund Glenn Andreiev's latest extremely worthwhile motion picture restoration documentary, please give generously at
https://www.gofundme.com/f/fun-documentary-about-film-restoration?fbclid=IwAR0bzPutSh5BSl4LxclVSRvwJlJutBYTc_ncgUd_JrWb3CKeyPtVXEQi6AE EDITOR: Additionally, you can also help the studio of our own David Rosler, the author of this article. The studio is doing amazing work but needs your help right now. Please at least see the link https://www.givesendgo.com/helpdrosler