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From Moby Dick to King Kong

13 January, 2015

On High Seas


The Magazine Antiques just published (January/February 2015) a short article I wrote about Jack London’s voyages in the South Pacific. It comes out of research I’ve been doing about photographers, artists, writers and filmmakers who travelled in the late 1800s / early 1900s and is the focus of a project I’m currently working on about Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa.

The article was cut down slightly to make word length, which often happens with newspapers and magazines. But in this case they cut one of the parts I thought was the most interesting, which is the connection between King Kong and Moby Dick.

Herman Melville, the writer of Moby Dick, came to fame for his South Seas island adventures: Typee and Omoo. Melville inspired many adventurers to travel to the Marquesas Islands (where Melville was once imprisoned), including Stevenson and later Jack London. Jack London traveled all over Polynesia and to parts of Melanesia in 1907 on a boat of his own design, the Snark. The cook on the Snark voyage was a young volunteer from Kansas called Martin Johnson. Martin became good friends with the Londons and was a key part of the crew. When Johnson returned from the voyage with London he launched a Vaudeville-style show about the voyage featuring some of the objects (spears, tikis etc) that he and London collected on the voyage. Back in Kansas, he met a woman called Osa Leighty—the two fell in love and married. Together, emboldened by the Snark voyage and encouraged by the response to the show, Martin and Osa decided to continue to travel and make movies about the experience. They became famous for sensational titles like Simba: King of the Beasts (1928), Congorilla (1932), and Baboona (1935). The idea of a pith-helmeted filmmaker accompanied by a beautiful woman as he tramped through the jungle in search of rare apes became lodged in the public imagination and was ripe for satire—hence the original King Kong film of 1933.

Martin died in a mysterious plane crash in California in 1937. Osa, who was onboard the same plane, was injured but survived. The duo continues to inspire: from 2006-10 American Eagle stores offered a range of Martin + Osa clothing (there were also M+O shops) and Disney opened a Martin and Osa Johnson inspired lodge at their Animal Kingdom resort in 2001.

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