According to some lists, it’s ranked as the greatest horror movie of all time. It opened in 1933 to rave reviews. It was selected for preservation by the National Film Registry in 1991. It has been remade twice, in 1976 and 2005.
It is the pre-Code monster film King Kong.
King Kong was not the first “giant monster” movie. Long before, there had already been established a tradition of jungle movies, both fact and fiction, that followed a narrative pattern of explorer / scientist looking to test a theory, only to discover some monster that turned science on its end. Dinosaurs, for example, have always been a crowd-pleaser. This twist proved to be immensely popular and successful as people have a tendency to fear the unknown, and few things keep movie audiences coming back quite like fear. Hence the appeal of monster movies as a whole.
Before I really get going on this entry, I need to apologize for something stupid. I previous declared in one of my entries that I didn’t understand why Universal never owned up to King Kong, why it never listed it as one of its core Universal Monsters despite the obvious success. I knew better than this when I typed it, but apparently my brain wasn’t screwed on that day or something. Suffice it to say, King Kong isn’t a Universal film. It belongs to one of its rivals, the now defunct RKO Radio Pictures, which famously also produced Citizen Kane. A brief history of what happened to the studio is in order. RKO was acquired by Howard Hughes in 1948, and after years of decline under his control, it was bought out by General Tire and Rubber in 1955. It ceased production in 1957 and was dissolved two years later. In 1981, RKO General (the corporate heir of the original) revived it as a production subsidiary, RKO Pictures, Inc. In 1989, the business and its assets (trademarks and remake rights) were sold to the small independent company RKO Pictures LLC. The RKO Library has been in trust over the years by MGM/UA, Turner Broadcasting System, and eventually Time Warner. In the UK, many of the theatrical rights are held by Universal Studios. As of 2009, all RKO films are in the public domain in Japan, save for two of Howard Hughes’ films, which are owned by Universal.
In short, King Kong is not a Universal Monster, and I’m not sure why said so previously. Let’s talk about the movie now, shall we? After all, this project isn’t just about Universal.
In the early 20th century, there were few primates of any kind on exhibit in zoos, so film fed a popular demand. In the silent era, films like 1918’s Tarzan of the Apes and 1925’s The Lost World would fuel audience imagination. In 1930, Congo Pictures released a hoax documentary called Ingagi, an early black exploitation film that immediately ran counter to the Hollywood code of ethics before the official Code was established. It was advertised as “an authentic incontestable celluloid document showing the sacrifice of a living woman to mammoth gorillas.” The imagery that idea contests is more than enough in the context of something like King Kong today, but this film went much farther. It showed black women having sex with gorillas and baby offspring that were more ape than human. As you might expect, it was one of the highest grossing movies of the 1930s.
I tell you this not to disgust you, though you should rightfully be disgusted. My intent is merely to put King Kong into proper perspective. Ingagi was never listed among the influences for this film, but it’s often believed that RKO greenlit Kong because of the profit margin example. “Gorillas plus sexy women in peril equals enormous profits.” Just goes to show that flowers grow well in shit, and art can find inspiration anywhere, especially where you least expect it. It also displays the greed and corruption long associated with Hollywood executives. Let’s face it, it’s always been there, and in the era of the Great Depression, they were looking to cash in fast. If it means shocking an audience to do it, so be it.
The plot of King Kong is infamous. Maverick filmmaker Carl Denham, famous for wildlife films in exotic locations, charters the ship Venture for his newest project, but he is unable to secure an actress that he has been pressured to add to the script by investors. Combing the streets in the hours before the ship is set to sail, he meets Ann Darrow, penniless and desperate. He convinces her to join “the adventure of a lifetime,” and she agrees, ready to turn her fortunes around. The first mate, Jack Driscoll, gradually falls in love with Ann on the six week voyage. After weeks of secrecy, Denham finally tells Captain Englehorn and Driscoll their destination: Skull Island. Their objective is to film in the uncharted land shown on Denham’s map and to discover the secret to a monstrous creature known only as Kong.
Upon landing, they encounter the natives and interrupt a ceremony where a young woman is being sacrificed as the “bride of Kong.” When the native chief sees Ann, he offers a trade of six of his women for the “golden woman.” When the crew refuses, the natives lurk aboard ship that night and kidnap her. Tied to an altar, Ann is sacrificed to Kong in all of his stop-motion glory. Kong carries her off into the jungle, protecting her from the prehistoric beasts that reside there, pursued by Driscoll and his men. Evading all manner of danger and losing all of his men in the process, Driscoll rescues Ann and returns her to gates with Kong on his heels. Denham gases the beast and has the remaining crew prepare Kong for transport where he’s to be displayed to the public as “The Eighth Wonder of the World.” Naturally, Kong escapes that too and, having reacquired Ann Darrow, he wreaks havoc through New York City before climbing to the pinnacle of the Empire State Building for the climactic showdown with the biplanes.
Right from the beginning, King Kong is billed to the audience on both sides of the fourth wall as a beauty and the beast story, and Denham famously declares in the film’s final line: “Oh no, it wasn’t the airplanes. It was Beauty killed the Beast.”
Fay Wray was only recently a leading lady when she was cast for the film. She previously worked with Kong co-directors Cooper and Schoedsack, and Cooper decided a blonde would provide contrast to the dark pelt of a gorilla on screen. Dorothy Jordan, Jean Harlow, and Ginger Rogers were all considered, but Wray got the role due to Cooper’s enthusiasm… and a blonde wig. Cooper sold her on the role by telling her she would star opposite “the tallest, darkest leading man in Hollywood.” She assumed Clark Gable until she saw a picture of Kong climbing the Empire State Building.
Two days after Wray’s death in 2004, the Empire State Building dimmed its lights for 15 minutes in her memory.
The romantic angle was played up after animal films fared poorly at the box office in early 1933. Promotional material shows Wray swooning in the arms of Robert Armstrong’s Denham with the caption “Their Hearts Stood Still… For There Stood Kong! A Love Story of Today That Spans the Ages!” It makes no sense when you know Bruce Cabot played the love interest Driscoll, but Denham was the more established leading man at this point, and Cabot was an unknown. Cabot described his participation in the film as “standing in the right place, doing what he was told, and collecting a paycheck.”
In terms of story and character, I will say this much. There are some stereotypes in play. The black natives of Skull Island are all pretty much what you’d expect from a film of the era, and there is a Chinese cook aboard the ship who talks in broken English. It’s easy to point fingers, and some should probably be pointed. It’s 1933… too late to change it now. What most impresses me is that there’s not a single stupid character in this film, aside from perhaps Denham’s “Let’s take Kong to New York and make some money” scheme or the sailor who conveniently falls asleep at his post when Ann gets kidnapped. These things are perspective, and probably stupid because we know the conceit of the plot rather than points of characterization. Pretty much everyone from the leads, to the extras, to Kong himself are all played to the hilt as intelligent people with real and identifiable emotions.
King Kong is most known for its groundbreaking special effects. Using stop-motion animation, matte painting, rear projection, and miniatures, the prehistoric world of Skull Island came to life in a series of painstaking effects shots that set the standard for decades to come. The masters behind this were Willis O’Brien and his assistant, Buzz Dixon.
O’Brien’s protégé Ray Harryhausen would go on to become one of the most prominent stop-motion animators in Hollywood history. I could write an entire book on the effects wizardry in this movie, but for the sake of sanity in a single blog entry, I’ll have to simply express my wonderment. Like Star Wars, this is one of those films that defined the industry, and it’s one I picked apart growing up for just that reason. The intention was there to have King Kong nominated for visual effects, but the film received no Academy Award nominations. The category for effects did not exist then, and would not until 1938. It’s been awarded many times for significant industry awards ever since. I’m not the only one who’s picked it apart. Peter Jackson was inspired to become a filmmaker at the age of 9 because of this movie’s visual storytelling achievements.
Just to put this into perspective, the fight between Kong and the Tyrannosaurus took seven weeks to animate by itself.
King Kong was re-released in 1938, 1942, 1952, and 1956, all to great box office success, and all with further censorship due to greater decency rules put in place by Hollywood. After 1956, the film was sold to TV. The cut scenes were restored in 1969 when a 16mm print was found that included the censored footage. Over the next two decades, Universal Studios carried out further photochemical restorations to reduce projection scratches A fully digital 4K resolution scanning was completed by Warner Bros. in 2005, a restoration that included the orignial 4-minute overture, bringing the run time to 104 minutes. This is the version I watch today. I will not ever watch the late 80s colorized version.
Speaking of overtures, let’s talk some about the other groundbreaking achievement that gets virtually no discussion because people take it for granted. In the era of silent film, musical accompaniment was provided either by a full orchestra, a single guy at a piano or organ, or a recording, depending on what each movie theater had available. The more expensive the movie house, the more lavish the sound. With the advent of the “talkie” in the late 20s, sound was incorporated primarily for the purpose of character speech, with music serving only for intro and outro credits and sometimes for musical numbers where the actors would sing and dance. Every now and again, a musical idea would slip between the cracks, but it wasn’t something explored much before this point except in cartoon shorts, a process championed by the likes of Walt Disney. King Kong boasted cinema’s first fully-realized musical score for a feature film. Composed by Max Steiner, the score does more than just Mickey Mouse the actions of the great ape. The music gives the character of Kong genuine emotion above and beyond what the animators cold provide. Tension is added in the fight scenes. Romance is prevalent. All of the things we take for granted today in a motion picture soundscape, these are the ideas that King Kong brought to us. Given how films were developed then, and how quickly, anything could have been first. It just happened that King Kong got there first, prompting the inspiration for Walt Disney to go forward with feature length animation on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which briefly assumed the record of highest grossing sound film at the time of its release in 1937. As the story goes, after King Kong, cinema sound would never be the same. The floodgates were opened for the Golden Age of Hollywood Film Scores, and Steiner would go on to score many of the truly classic soundtracks of the era, from Gone With The Wind to Casablanca and beyond.
As big a fan as I am of film scores, I’ve only recently acquired this one. It’s playing now as I write, in fact.
King Kong‘s presence looms over Hollywood history. It’s sequel Son of Kong was released mere months later, which proved only to remind people how incredible the first one was. In addition to the aforementioned remakes, Kong would appear in animation (including a new series on Netflix where he fights eco-terrorism) and in other feature films, including 1962’s King Kong vs. Godzilla. He would go on to inspire characters in comic books (such as Titano in Superman and Action Comics). He would inspire further jungle films, such as Johnny Weissmuller’s Tarzan films. And, of course, the sci-fi fans will always have the Planet of the Apes series, which continues to thrive. But as they say, there can only be one original. Kong may not be as prolific as Dracula or as creepy as Frankenstein, but he made an impact for all the right reasons.