Written By: Lily Rothman, Liz Ronk
When King Kong was introduced the world in 1933, TIME described the creature as a “gigantic whatnot resembling an ape, 50 feet tall, equipped with large teeth and a thunderous snarl.” (His fur, the story noted, was made of 30 bearskins.) The whole concept of the film could have produced something entirely ridiculous, the magazine observed back then as well as in future stories about the franchise, but somehow it worked thanks to some Hollywood alchemy that filmmakers are hoping to recapture once again.
That means there have been plenty of chances for audiences to be reintroduced to Kong.
Case in point: In 1952, LIFE dispatched Alfred Eisenstaedt to photograph a screening of that original 1933 film, images from which can be seen here. The story did not run in the magazine at the time—in fact, no record could be found of why the magazine sent the photographer to that particular event or what editors intended to do with the images. It seems likely, however, that what Eisenstaedt was capturing was a screening from the theatrical reissue of the film that year, which was a prime example of the character’s proven staying power in action.
It was, as TIME described, a hit:
Hollywood, frantically casting about for a movie formula which will bring customers back into the theaters, last week agreed that one studio at least had struck pay dirt. After thriftily digging into its storehouse of possible reissues, RKO dusted off the 19-year-old King Kong, the adventures of a snarling, 50-ft. prehistoric monster who saved RKO from bankruptcy in the thirties and seems destined to gross at least $2,500,000 for his masters in 1952.
As most of Hollywood’s producers watched with envious amazement, crowds in Pittsburgh, Detroit, Cleveland, Cincinnati and Indianapolis flocked to see Kong brought back alive from a Pacific island to Manhattan, where he climbs the Empire State Building clutching the beauteous and screaming Fay Wray (now fortyish and retired). There, raging defiantly at his puny pursuers, the monster finally gets shot down by a squadron of ancient biplanes.
That 1952 take was significant (about $22.9 million in 2017 dollars), so it was perhaps no wonder that when the concept got yet another go in 1976, the images Eisenstaedt created in 1952, of a 1933 movie, were used to illustrate TIME’s cover story about the movie.
“[The original] achieved the legendary status of classic kitsch, the charm of which remained undimmed by innumerable el cheapo rip-offs and overexposure on TV. The great monkey has become a pop culture staple in everything from cartoons to ad campaigns,” the story observed.
As that place in pop culture endures, LIFE presents this look back at the staying power of the King Kong iteration that remains the monster’s milestone achievement.