By Enrique Castillo
Before Rick Baker (Planet of the Apes, Gorillas In The Mist) before Stan Winston (The Terminator, Jurassic Park) before CGI, there was Marcel Delgado. It isn’t everyone that can claim to have created the eighth wonder of the world. In fact, Marcel Delgado created six of them, all standing eighteen inches tall. Marcel Delgado and those eighteen inch models of King Kong in the 1933 blockbuster film still stand as giants of inspiration for today’s special effects wizards.
Born January 16, 1901 in the bucolic village of La Parrita in the state of Coahuila, Mexico, Marcel was the middle child among seven siblings. Drawing his inspiration from a local saint sculptor Marcel drew clay from a nearby river and using anything from empty cans to empty spools of thread he began fashioning toys for himself at the age of six. The family moved to Saticoy, California during Mexico’s 1910 revolution, where Marcel worked as a farm laborer. He began school there, but was forced to leave at the age of ten when his father passed away.
His creative talent would later draw the attention of special effects genius Willis O’Brien (The Lost World, King Kong) when O’Brien visited Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles where Marcel was studying to be an artist. Recognizing Marcel’s special talents O’Brien set up the twenty-one year old with his own studio. The two years Marcel spent building more than forty miniature dinosaurs for The Lost World at seventy-five dollars a week, would become the foundation for a monumental career in special effects spanning over forty years. Marcel’s meteoric rise was by no means painless. His Mexicano background and limited English proficiency made him a target of ridicule and he was also snubbed by his non-ethnic co-workers. In spite of the prejudice he persevered and eventually gained the respect of both his peers and his employers.
Marcel’s highly respected work was so realistic it was used by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the ultra-rational detective Sherlock Holmes, to play a trick on his friend the legendary illusionist Harry Houdini. Fearing he would be ridiculed for his spiritualistic beliefs at a magicians’ society meeting Doyle showed footage of Marcel’s dinosaurs causing everyone to believe that Doyle might have actually communicated with things that were long-since dead. A reporter for the New York Times wrote of the realism of the images saying that, “if fakes they were masterpieces.”
But it was Marcel’s work on Merian C. Cooper’s original King Kong that cemented his legacy as one of Hollywood’s special effects titans. Ever the stickler for detail Marcel was dissatisfied with the rabbit fur material he was given to layer the Kong miniatures because finger prints appeared each time the model was repositioned causing the fur to bristle. The effect was later explained as Kong’s massive muscles bulging under the fur. Marcel also made everything inside the massive head including the plastic eyes and balsa wood teeth. He also redesigned Kong’s huge hand because he didn’t believe it was anatomically correct. It was that hand that eventually swept Fay Wray off her feet and into Hollywood film lore. Marcel also built the Pteradon that tried to wisk away Wray from Kong’s lair on Skull Mountain. Marcel, his brother Victor and fellow Mexicano Mario Larrinaga also built the numerous dinosaurs that inhabited the island including many that wound up on the proverbial cutting-room floor.
Marcel’s genius was to be demonstrated time and time again on subsequent films like Son of Kong, Mighty Joe Young, War of The Worlds, The Last Days of Pompeii and 1954’s 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea where he won an Oscar for Visual Effects. Although he would later say that his miniature of Mighty Joe Young was his favorite ape it is his genius on the Empire State Building-climber Kong that continues to reign supreme. Marcel Delgado died on November 26, 1976, but he not only left us with a body of work in films that we continue to enjoy, he also left future special effects artists with some King Kong shoes to fill.
Enrique Castillo is an Actor/Writer/Producer who has a passion for history and in particular the history of American Latinos and their contributions to all walks of life in the U.S. He is currently in development of Yo Solo/I Alone a historical drama about the life of General Bernardo de Galvez, who help fight the American Revolution and served a Governor of Louisiana. He is also re-staging his stage production Veteranos: A Legacy of Valor about the lives of four American Latino Congressional Medal of Honor recipients.