The English Farm, the French Army, and Succotash
By C.G. Wolfe
For anyone who has seen the original 1933, RKO version of King Kong the final scenes are unforgettable… (Spoiler alert!) As King Kong, clutching Ann (Fay Wray) in one hand, reaches the domed top of the Empire State Building, a squadron of biplanes with machine guns mounted fore and aft approach with the rising sun. Kong places Ann on a ledge and roars in defiance at the attacking planes. He swats at the fighters like mosquitoes and one pilot is sent to a fiery death but the aerial attack is relentless. Almost as if in disbelief, Kong examines the blood on his fingers from one of the wounds on his chest. He then wipes his brow with the back of his hand and, knowing that he is doomed, he gently picks Ann up for one last loving gaze. Returning her to the ledge he strokes her affectionately one more time before being riddled by another volley from the swooping biplanes. Weakened, Kong sways atop the towering edifice, loses his grip and plunges to his death on the street below.
The epic scene was shot using real planes, miniatures, and a full-scale mock up, which was employed for the close-up shots of the pilots, who weren’t really pilots at all but cameo appearances by the film’s directors and producers, Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack. The pilots who did the real flying were actually three Marines from Floyd Bennet Field, including the late Major General John Lloyd Winston, a decorated WWII aviator, and former director of Brooks Brothers, who grew up on his family’s “Mount Paul Farm,” in Gladstone, New Jersey.
According to a 1976 interview for an article in Islander magazine, in the spring of 1932, Major General Winston, then just a young lieutenant, was ordered along with two other pilots from his Marine Corps Reserve Squadron, to take a three-plane section on a special assignment to “jazz the Empire State Building.”
“Man that was a dream order to the ears of a trio of hot young Marine pilots,” Winston told Islander magazine. “Can you imagine being told to fly hell out of Manhattan – with legal sanctions? We pasted it up pretty good.”
The pilots were told that “some jokers” were making a movie, and they were ordered to simulate an attack on the spire of the Empire State Building.
“At the time we didn’t even know where the cameramen were, much less the fact that there was an ape involved,” Winston said in the interview with Islander.
So that morning the pilots climbed into their yellow, swept wing, Curtis O2C -1 “Helldivers” and flew off in formation for the Manhattan skyline. A few minutes later they spotted their target and swooped in for the attack and made three or four passes at the top of the epic skyscraper.
“You couldn’t miss the Empire State Building” Winston joked, “and we barely did!”
For the use of the planes and pilots, Schoedsack donated $100 dollars to the officers mess fund at Floyd Bennet Field and slipped each of the pilots, who probably would have done it for free, $10.00.
So, contrary to the final line of the movie, which has become a classic in filmdom history, it wasn’t “beauty killed the beast” – it was a few good Marines..
General John Lloyd Winston
(Photo taken when he was a Lt. Col.)
A Curtis O2C -1 Helldiver from the 1930s
( U.S. Navy National Museum of Naval Aviation )
The English Farm in Liberty Corner, NJ
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