KING KONG (1933)

  • Directors: Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack
  • Writers: Screenplay by James Creelman and Ruth Rose, Story by Edgar Wallace and Merian C. Cooper
  • Starring: Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong, Bruce Cabot, Frank Reicher, and Sam Hardy
  • Accolades: 2007 AFI Top 100 list (#41), 2008 Cahiers du Cinema Top 100 list (#55)
  • Where to Watch: Steam (with cable subscription) on TCM App, stream with subscription on HBO Max, buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

The original version of King Kong essentially invented a classic movie genre, a genre that doesn’t really have an equivalent in prior media, that of the giant monster showing up and destroying stuff. Today, this is sometimes referred to as the kaiju genre, given that it reached is zenith, at least in terms of volume, in mid-20th Century Japan with the Godzilla movies and all of their subsequent imitators. But before all of that came King Kong, the story of a giant gorilla who rules his remote island, but is brought low when he falls for a hot blonde in a strategically torn dress (Fay Wray). For me, the gorilla bits of this movie still work surprisingly well today, though they are sometimes overshadowed by how dated some other parts of the movie are. It’s easy to see how film studios and directors have been drawn to the basic, elemental adventure story here over and over. King Kong is the only movie I know of that has received not one, not two, but three separate big budget Hollywood remakes, not to mention numerous sequels. The most recent version of the character is set to return to screens this March in Godzilla vs. Kong (actually the second time the two most famous big monsters will fight each other in the movies).

Because its been told over and over, there aren’t many who aren’t familiar with the story’s basic outlines. A film crew led by brash adventurer Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) sails to a distant island with the intention of using it as a backdrop for his latest movie, with a girl (Wray) he literally spotted waiting in a breadline in tow as his “star” (this is the Depression). They arrive at the ominously named Skull Island to find an enormous compound of natives intent on sacrificing Wray’s character to Kong, who appears out of the jungle and decides he’d rather just hang out with her instead of… eat her? (I’ve never been clear on this) Anyway, he fights some dinosaurs while the crew of the ship struggles through the primeval jungle trying to get Wray back. Eventually they capture Kong and “save” the girl, but the greedy Denham decides to carry Kong back to New York and exhibit him in a Broadway theater as “the 8th Wonder of the World” (for much of this movie’s production, The Eighth Wonder was the working title). This does not go well, and the movie’s iconic climax involves Kong, Wray in hand, climbing to the top of the Empire State Building and fighting biplanes.

King Kong didn’t invent stop motion animation or the technique of “optical printing” to put separate shots together into single frames, but its use of these technologies to great effect represented something of a quantum leap in movie making. It also led to actors, most prominently Fay Wray, being asked to do things no actor had been asked to do before in terms of reacting to stuff that hadn’t been created yet, the scale of which they likely only had a vague sense at the time. Modern day actors who complain about occasionally have to act alone against tennis balls or in front of a blue screen in a studio have nothing on Wray, who at one point literally had to sit on a platform up in a tree for 22 straight hours while reacting to and occasionally screaming at Kong fighting a Tyrannosaurus Rex. Of course, the actual fight was filmed separately, so Wray was just sitting there for 22 hours being occasionally told to scream through a megaphone.

Much of the actual plot and characterization in King Kong has not aged well, and even at the time some reviewers commented on the generally wooden acting (though I think there were sometimes extenuating circumstances, as I just discussed). Today we have other problems, like Wray’s Ann Darrow as pretty much the quintessential Hollywood damsel in distress, given little agency of her own beyond all the screaming. Perhaps more obvious is the portrayal of the “savage” natives of Skull Island, who are basically a bunch of Black people wearing bones around their necks and performing human sacrifices. To add insult to injury, the most prominent couple “native” roles are actually played by white people in Blackface, as was common at the time (there were very few Black members of SAG in 1933, though that is sort of a chicken and the egg proposition when it comes to the prejudice of the era). Many scholars have, in fact, tried to portray the central, basic story of Kong, the “romance” between the blonde and the giant gorilla, as a veiled anti-miscegenation narrative, with a literal monkey in place of a caricature of a morally corrupt Black person. I mean, I’m not going to claim to know what was going on in the minds of the filmmakers, but sometimes a giant gorilla is just a giant gorilla. There’s certainly enough racism going on on the surface of this movie without having to work to come up with more.

Leaving that for now, there are other things here that seem weird to modern audiences but probably made perfect sense at the time. For example, the basic premise of the Carl Denham character, sort of a cross between a Victorian explorer and movie director, is not the sort of thing we’re used to today. But in fact, Merian C. Cooper, the co-director of this movie who is usually credited with having the original idea for Kong, basically was that guy. He had directed at least two movies before this where he trucked movie equipment to a far-off locale and then shot a fictional story mostly involving the locals. His movie Chang: A Drama of the Wilderness was shot with local actors in Thailand and ended up being nominated for “Most Unique and Artistic Picture” at the first Academy Awards.

The actual animation of Kong was supervised by the great Willis O’Brien, who reused many of his stop motion dinosaurs from the 1925 silent production of Jules Verne’s The Lost World. He is credited with inventing many of the stop motion techniques that have been used in a variety of movies ever since. He also eventually trained his successor Ray Harryhausen, whose special effects work inspired many of today’s innovators. There was no Special Effects Oscar in 1933, but O’Brien eventually did win that award in 1949 for the surprisingly similar oversized gorilla movie Mighty Joe Young, which was also directed by Cooper’s co-director and collaborator, Ernest B. Schoedsack.

There are a lot of these old movies we’ve featured here that I think completely still hold up from an enjoyment perspective. I’m not sure this is one of them. There are some parts of the original King Kong that I love, though. The final airplane fight on the Empire State Building is still great. That shot where Kong falls from the building is one of my favorites in any movie. Honestly, the fact that this movie became a massive hit and spawned an entire genre of movies is sort of a miracle. The one sentence description basically involves a romance between a giant gorilla and a blonde actress. It should be comical, but for the most part it actually works. That the stop motion Kong does the best acting in the movie and sells this facially ridiculous story 100% is both a comment on the low quality of most of the human actors and a comment on the quality of the special effects work.

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