During the 1930s escapism from the realities of The Depression made movie going more important than ever, and in 1933 Merian C. Cooper gave the world King Kong, the Eighth Wonder of the World, a film that defined the term escapist entertainment. Prior to Kong Merian C. Cooper was known for his independently produced nature films, he and camera man Ernest B. Schoedsack would travel to far off lands and then bring back footage that would amaze American audiences. When Cooper asked RKO to financially back a trip to Africa to make a film about a killer gorilla he was given the greenlight to make the movie, but was also told that Pasadena, California looks enough like Africa, so no going on location. Who knows what the King Kong would have been like if Cooper had been allowed to film in Africa. Would he have used actual footage of real gorillas? Would we have got a giant gorilla rampaging through New York City, or would it have been more of a Gorilla at Large mini-rampage? Regardless of what King Kong could have been, better or worse we will never know, but the film we did get is still one of the greatest action adventure films ever made.
The movie begins with film producer Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) trying to locate an actress that will join his film expedition to parts unknown. He’s having a tough time as most theatrical agents are a tad reticent about sending a woman off on a long sea voyage to places not currently on a map. The character of Carl Denham is an analog of producer Merian C. Cooper; they were both larger than life characters and Armstrong even looks a bit like Cooper. The screenplay for King Kong was written by Ruth Rose, wife of director Ernest B. Schoedsack, a person who clearly knew Cooper well, and who went onto write Mighty Joe Young (1949) where we once again got Robert Armstrong doing a Merian C. Cooper impression.
When Denham rescues Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) from being arrested for stealing an apple, he discovers that she is near starvation, has no family, and does have some acting experience. If not for the charismatic portrayal by Robert Armstrong the character of Denham could easily have come off as the film’s villain. Later he even thinks of using Ann for bait to catch Kong, not something a “good guy” would come up with, but somehow Armstrong keeps Denham likable. Fay Wray brings a wonderfully sense of naiveté and sweetness to the role of Ann Darrow, and when she is in danger we truly feel her terror. She is mostly remembered for her screams, but even though her part isn’t as showy as Armstrong’s she really anchors the film.
On board The Venture we meet Captain Englehorn (Frank Reicher) and Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot) the surly first mate. In most movies Driscoll’s character would be the film’s lead; the hero and chief love interest to the leading lady, and he does rescue Anne from Kong and we assume he eventually marries her, but Armstrong is really the film’s lead as Cabot’s character is just your basic square-jawed hero and nowhere as entertaining as Armstrong is. I’m not saying that Cabot is terrible in this film, but some of his line deliveries are so flat you’d think a giant ape stepped on them. Though to be fair some of his dialog was a bit clunky to begin with.
Of course neither Robert Armstrong nor Bruce Cabot are truly the film’s lead as that honor falls to Kong himself. Brought to life by special effects wizard Willis O’Brien the creation of Kong had inspired hundreds of movie effects artists for decades to come. Kong is not just a raging monster; he has as much character, if not more, than his co-stars. Because he has no dialog we have to guess at his motivations; why does he spend so much effort to keep Ann alive? The natives of Skull Island clearly sacrifice women to Kong on some kind of routine basis, but for what reason? If they don’t will he kick down that wall and wreak havoc on their village? Could the reason for the sacrifice been lost to time, and that the natives and Kong now act out this ritual from pure force of habit? Does Ann’s blonde hair change his attitude? We never learn what Kong did to the previous native sacrifices; did he eat them or eventually just toss them aside?
What we do see of Kong relationship to Ann is something I find akin to a young boy with a new toy. He is very possessive, and will not let anyone else play with it (or eat it). Whenever he puts his toy down some other denizen of Skull Island will try and take it, most of these times Kong wasn’t even around when they spotted this new chew toy, but when one of them so much as lays a finger ( or claw) on Kong’s property a major beat down is in the offing.
Driscoll eventually rescues Ann so we will never know what fate she would have had if she had remained with Kong. Would he eventually have gotten bored with her? Tossed aside like a broken toy that would then be quickly snapped up by one of Kong’s neighbors. In the Peter Jackson remake an emotional bond clearly develops between and Ann and this lonely giant, but that is certainly not the case in the 1933 version as Fay Wray obviously wants nothing more than to be free of the horrors of this place, giant monkeys included. Kong of the original movie is an animal with animal instincts and desires, sure he is more sympathetic than your average beast, and when he is shot down from atop the Empire State Building we feel sorry for him. None of this is his fault, if white man had just stayed the hell out of his jungle everyone would have been much better off…well maybe not the village women.
King Kong has a very economical script; from Denham finding Ann, introduction of a love interest, to the arrival on Skull Island and Kong, the story just rockets along. And when the action kicks in boy does it ever; our heroes are attacked by a rampaging stegosaurus, sunk and chewed on by an angry brontosaurus, then tossed to their deaths by Kong.
Kong does have to put up with a lot grief just for the sake of this new possession; not only does he have to deal with her stupid friends chasing after him but he has to fight a Tyrannosaurus Rex, in what is still one of the best titanic fights ever committed to film, later an Elasmosaurus tries to strangle the life out of him for trying to protect Ann, and then when his back is turned again a stupid Pteranodon tries to make off with his prize. When Denham takes him out with some tossed gas bombs it’s basically the end of a really shitty day.
This may be considered a Beauty and the Beast story but as I’ve mentioned earlier this version is a little one sided. Ann never come to “understand” the beast let alone come to love him, and despite fake Arabian proverbs I don’t think it was the look of Beauty that stayed Kong’s hand. Ann was simply an object that Kong desired for the simply for the sake of wanting. At most she was a cute pet that he kind of got attached to, and then the whole world went all nuts on him. Kong in New York is just an extension of his journey with Ann on Skull Island, only this time Kong is the sacrifice and no one rescues him.
When Kong meets his end atop the Empire State building we look back at what brought him here, a filmmaker wanting to make a ton of money. The only reason Ann was on this trip was because Denham was routinely told his pictures would gross twice much if it had a pretty face in it. So Carl isn’t so much brave explorer as he is a guy looking to make a buck. He also has some unfortunate words at the opening of his “The Eighth Wonder of the World” attraction that have some nasty racial overtones, “He was a king and a god in the world he knew, but now he comes to civilization merely a captive, a show to gratify your curiosity.” Yeah, as charismatic and charming as Armstrong’s Carl Denham is that is a pretty dick thing to say. And as to his famous last line, “Oh no, it wasn’t the airplanes. It was beauty killed the beast.” Sorry, I have to disagree with you there Carl, I’m pretty sure it was you taking a wild animal from its natural habitat, placing it on stage for the amusement of others, and then failing to have proper security measures in place. You can’t pin any of that on Ann, you bastard.
King Kong was a blockbuster long before the term was ever coined, and it holds up today as one of the best action adventure flicks ever put to film. This movie had a great story, an excellent cast, a beautiful score by the great composer Max Steiner, and fantastic special effects that stunned audiences back in the 30s but that are still impressive today.
• The Great Wall had such a big door because it was made for the film Cecil B. DeMille’s Biblical epic King of Kings.
• Carl thought to bring back Kong to exhibit but not any of the dinosaurs. Didn’t people give a shit about dinosaurs in the 30s?
• Tickets to Denham’s show went for $10 dollars apiece which equals about $137 in today dollars. That’s a lot for staring at a monkey no matter how large.
• One female patron seemed confused that this wasn’t going to be a movie but a live show. How was this thing advertised? Before dropping that kind of cash I’d want to know what I was seeing.
• Denham didn’t think to have those “ever so handy” gas bombs around during the show.
• A brunette looks out her window at the escaping Kong and screams, but moments later when Kong peaks in her room she is fast asleep. Who goes to sleep after seeing a giant ape rampaging outside?