What, No Jimmy Durante?
In Hirschfeld’s account book, there is an entry for a drawing in the Herald Tribune on March 5, 1933, titled “Jimmy Durante”. Searching through the section, there is no sign of Jimmy Durante, but there is a familiar large ape terrorizing the streets of New York City. Upon closer look, it was obvious that Hirschfeld had drawn the legendary King Kong, a brand new discovery.
By 1933, Al Hirschfeld was supplying a number of movie studios with drawings for films. In that year alone he would do the poster art for Buster Keaton and Jimmy Durante’s What No Beer? and Laurel and Hardy films, along with his face masks of the duo. Meet the Baron, again with Jimmy Durante, was also given the Hirschfeld treatment, and a copy of its poster will be included in the Hirschfeld Century exhibition and companion book published by Alfred A. Knopf. Bombshell with Lee Tracy and Jean Harlow would lead to Harlow’s nickname of Blonde Bombshell. Movie royalty all came together to make Night Flight. Other films of that year include M with Peter Lorre, and Joan Crawford and Clark Gable in the MGM musical comedy Dancing Lady.
King Kong premiered just two days before Hirschfeld’s drawing ran in the paper. It was shown simultaneously at the RKO Roxy and Radio City Musical Hall across the street. RKO was the film’s production company, but it seems more likely that Hirschfeld was assigned this drawing by the Tribune, to cover the action of the wildly successful opening. For the first four days after the film’s premiere, there were 10 showings a day; every single showing was sold out. These numbers were ballyhooed as a record at the time for largest attendance at any indoor event. Despite all its success, Kong failed to get any Academy Award nominations, though David O. Selznick, the film’s producer, pushed the Academy to give a special award to the crew for visual effects. Ironically, the visual effects category would later be added in 1938, with Selznick’s Gone with the Wind as its first winner. The Library of Congress deemed King Kong so "culturally, historically and aesthetically significant" to be added to the National Film Registry, a selection of films that are preserved for future generations.
Hirschfeld had drawn The Hairy Ape, the star-studded Monkey, and even a log-rolling chimp , and even monstrosities such as the Phantom of the Opera, the Elephant Man and actors such as Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, but this early drawing of the larger the life ape remains one of only a handful of monsters in the artist’s portfolio.