Happy end of Halloween Plan9Crunch readers. We have a November treat for you. I interviewed film scholar Frank Dello Stritto on his recently published book, "Carl Denham's Giant Monsters," Cult Movies Press, 2019. It's another of Frank's historical fiction novels in which he guides us through the 20th century, blending with dozens of films, to provide the until-now untold complete life history of Carl Denham, the man who brought King Kong to New York City. Our review is here. It's in the same spirit as Frank's "A Werewolf Remembers," also at Cult Movies Press) in which much more was revealed about Lawrence Talbot and those who passed through his times.
I really enjoyed speaking with Frank, and I appreciate him giving us the time. At the end, he reveals via our blog what his next literary topic will be. Cult Movies Press website is here. Other books by Frank from Cult Movies Press include a collection of essays, "A Quaint and Curious Volume of Forgotten Lore," his memoir, "I Saw What I Saw When I Saw It ...," and "Vampire Over London: Bela Lugosi in Britain," which he co-authored with Andi Brooks, who runs the valuable Bela Lugosi blog.
-- Doug Gibson
You obviously have great affection for the 1933 film, King Kong. How did that film impact your decision to write the book?
Dello Stritto: I first saw King Kong on television in March 1956. I was just short of my sixth birthday. My family (parents and my brother) and I sat around our little television (in 1956, all televisions were small), and watched it on Million Dollar Movie. A magical night that I still remember. Since then King Kong has ranked among my favorite movies.
In my fiction built around old horror and monster movies, I look for a central character who has appeared in more than one film. I can construct a saga around them, which becomes the focus of the book. For my first fiction book (A Werewolf Remembers), I chose Lawrence Talbot (i.e., The Wolf Man), who appears in five Universal movies.
Carl Denham only appeared in two movies (King Kong and Son of Kong), but those gave me plenty to work with.
Incidentally, I think of my two novels as historical fiction—completely consistent with the world in the movies and the real world we live in. Not easy to reconcile the two worlds, but I am able to pull that off well enough.
How did you go about selecting films, their characters, and news events that Carl Denham would play a role in the book?
Dello Stritto: The one-word answer is “Apes.” Of course, King Kong and Son of Kong had to be the core of the story since they are the only two films in which Carl Denham appears. Before and after Kong, I wanted him to meet every famous ape or ape man in the movies. So, I had to work into Denham’s adventures Tarzan (Denham meets Jane, but only sees Tarzan from a distance), Mighty Joe Young (1949, whose protagonist, Max O’Hara is a caricature of Denham), and Africa Screams, which could have been titled “Abbott & Costello Meet King Kong.” Konga (1961) also figures in the story, but Denham only hears about that when one of its characters visits him.
Denham, in the time frame of my book, is a grumpy old man, and having him tell of his adventure Abbott & Costello brings in a little comic relief. I hope that works.
I also wanted to have Denham involved in the Kong-inspired movies—quests to unknown places that uncover monsters. So, I managed to work him into The Lost World (1925, which inspired Kong), Unknown Island (1948), and Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). I have always been a big fan of Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas (1957), and I put Denham on that expedition.
I must point out, that except for Denham’s presence on these expeditions—and he is always somewhat in the background—the narrative of the book is completely consistent with the plots of the movies.
With all that, I had some gaps to fill in the narrative. So, Denham crosses paths with a procession of monster makers, from Dr. Moreau (from 1932’s Island of Lost Souls) to John Hammond (from Jurassic Park, 1993). One of the secret pleasures in my approach to my novels is that whenever I need characters, I don’t have to invent them. I pluck them from movies. For example, Denham is on a few different ships in my book, and I use sea captains in films.
As for the historical events, I was stuck with World War II, which could not be ignored. I don’t spend too many pages on that. Having Denham on Teddy Roosevelt’s 1914 expedition to the Amazon was a good entry to South America (which Denham visits later for his Lost World and Black Lagoon adventures). Of course, in America, dealing with apes and ape men sooner or later brings in the Scopes Monkey Trials. So, I sent Denham to Dayton, Tennessee for July 1925.
You are very familiar with the setting of the book, where Denham relates his life adventures. Is it as remote as it seems in the book? Would a man running away from the consequences of his past still find an escape hatch there?
Dello Stritto: The setting of the book is Indonesia in the early 1970s, when Carl Denham would have been about 80 years old. My wife and I lived in Jakarta for three years, 2007 to 2010. I do not know exactly how it was in the 1970s, but Indonesia is a great place to escape from the rest of the world. We saw plenty of westerners—Europeans and Americans—who had done just that. As far as I know, they were not escaping the law, like Denham (after Kong’s rampage through New York, Denham was buried in lawsuits and indictments, and that was the springboard for Son of Kong), but westerners who for whatever reason were far happier there than in their home countries.
Because we lived in Jakarta, I could put a lot of detail in the book about day-to-day life there. To get away from bustling Jakarta, we would go to a small island resort when we could. The bungalows there are pretty modest, and getting there was not easy. Depending on the traffic on a particular day, we had to take two or three water taxis to different islands, with waits in between, to reach it. Well, on the north end of the small island was a really fine, large house. I never found out who lived there. I thought it might be the type of place Denham would settle in after he escaped Skull Island (at the end of Son of Kong) with his pockets full of diamonds. So that’s where I put him in my book.
The parts of South American explorations, the plateau with lost creatures, make fascinating reading. Besides the 1925 and 1960 movies, there’s even a bad David Hewitt film from the 1960s, The Mighty Gorga, that explores it. Since Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote about it, so many films have been made about the topic. What is it about a plateau full of prehistoric creatures preserved today that captures imaginations of readers or viewers?
Dello Stritto: Think back on some of the stories that first fascinated you as a child. I would bet that a lot of them take you to mythical lands—Oz, Wonderland, Toyland, Krypton. Those places where “the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true” have a lasting allure. Their dark sides are places like Skull Island or the Lost Plateau—or Transylvania—where monsters rule. Add to that the lore of a hidden, foreboding past, and a quest of some kind, and the story is irresistible.
I mentioned how much my first viewing of King Kong meant to me. Of course, I remember from that night all the iconic scenes of Kong battling monsters, and rampaging through the village and then Manhattan. But one less-fantastic scene sticks with me. I still remember the chill that it sent through me. Early in the film is a foggy night as the S. S. Venture first nears Skull Island. Denham and company can’t see a thing. They only know that the water is becoming shallower. Then they hear waves breaking on a shore, and know that they must be near land. Suddenly, Driscoll (the first mate) says “Those aren’t breakers. They’re drums!”
Wow—it hit me that somewhere, in the middle of nowhere, was an unknown world. That’s when I first got hooked on the movie.
As a retired journalist, I particularly enjoy the portion about the Scopes Trial and the sections where persistent reporters stalk sources to get the stories they need, ethics be damned. Did you research journalism in the 1920s and 1930s, or did you rely a lot on film portrayals that included great actors such as Lee Tracy?
Dello Stritto: Well, I am flattered that you wonder if I did research on journalism. No—other than my high school newspaper, I have no experience in journalism. For my book, I didn’t need it. Plenty of newspapermen from old movies to import into my story. The two reporters who become Denham’s sidekicks at the Scopes Trial are characters played by Lee Tracy (in Dr.X, 1932), and Ted Healey (in Mad Love, 1935). All their antics in uncovering stories are adopted in my book, and even some of their dialogue. One of the delights of 1930s movies is the many portrayals of overbearing, ruthless reporters. And I didn’t forget the women reporters. Glenda Farrell played an aggressive reporter in Mystery of the Wax Museum, and then did a series of movies as brassy, sassy Torchy Blane, “the bloodhound with a nose for news.” After Kong’s night on the town, Denham is stormed by the press, and Glenda Farrell characters lead the charge.
What inspired you to create a bonding friendship between Denham and Steve Martin?
Dello Stritto: Who are the most famous giant monsters in the movies? King Kong and Godzilla. Steve Martin is as close as Godzilla comes to having a Denham. Plus, I really admire Raymond Burr’s portrayal. I think it is largely overlooked, and sometimes even criticized—because, supposedly, the Americanized Godzilla, King of the Monsters! corrupts the Japanese original, Gojira. That’s a discussion for another time (though I wrote an article on that for Monster Bash magazine).
So, I always intended to have Godzilla come into Denham’s story, but sending Denham to Tokyo to see the monster didn’t work. I am speaking here of the original Godzilla in the 1954 (Japan) and 1956 (Americanized) movies. I do not have much regard for the later ones.
And I needed an ending for my book. I won’t spoil it here, but Steve Martin figures in that, and I was glad to be able to use him. Like I said, I really admire Raymond Burr’s performance.
My favorite parts of this and A Werewolf Remembers are moving the plot through so many movies. My son and I tagged some of the films involved and watched them. It’s great to see a minor film such as Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla be included. Does your personal affection for actors, such as Lugosi, and say, Lou Costello, impact the films you choose?
Dello Stritto: Well, Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla is certainly a minor film, but Dr. Zabor (Lugosi) really fit what I needed well. But my personal affectation for Lugosi certainly came into play, and I probably would have brought him into it anyway. Not hard to do, since a few of Lugosi’s mad doctors dabble in changing apes to man and vice versa. George Zucco’s and John’s Carradine’s mad doctors do, too. They are in the story as well. Not so for Boris Karloff, but he did have an adventure on a remote Pacific Island (Voodoo Island), so I used him as well.
Lugosi and Lou Costello (for whom I also have great affection) had to be in A Werewolf Remembers since their characters not only meet Lawrence Talbot, but are key to his story. And Costello did meet a giant gorilla in Africa Screams, so he had to be in Carl Denham’s Giant Monsters.
Are you thinking of another book along these lines?
Dello Stritto: Yes, and I will “spill” it here. The book is tentatively titled The Passion of the Mummy, and that mummy is Kharis. He meets the criteria—he appears in four movies, and has a saga. I have mentioned it to a few people, and most assume that I am telling of his life in ancient Egypt. Not so. Ancient Egypt figures in the story, but it all takes place in the 20th Century. As you know, in some sense I am in my earlier novels. In A Werewolf Remembers, I find the lost diaries of Lawrence Talbot. In Carl Denham’s Giant Monsters, I stumble on an aged Denham on an Indonesia island. I will be in the mummy book, too, but in a different way. I hope my approach works well. I am targeting a premiere at the June 2021 Monster Bash.
Lugosi is already in the story. Will Lou Costello get in via Abbott & Costello Meet the Mummy? Too soon to tell.