Merian C. Cooper, 1933
Starring: Fay Wray, Bruce Cabot, Robert Armstrong
“It was Beauty killed the Beast.”
Filmmaker Carl Denham (based somewhat on director and writer Merian C. Cooper) has hired a ship to travel to an island near Indonesia to make a film. He is having trouble casting his lead actress, because of the unpredictable, potentially dangerous nature of the shoot. He finds an unemployed young woman, Ann Darrow, who eventually agrees to take the job. It takes them weeks to travel to the island and in the mean time, a romance begins to develop between Ann and Jack Driscoll, the ship’s first mate. Denham reveals that they are looking for a secret, uncharted island with rumors of a mysterious being known as Kong. They arrive at the island and are greeted by natives. The chief promptly tries to purchase (or trade for) Ann, but Denham evades him.
Later, Ann is kidnapped by the natives and prepared as a sacrificed to Kong, where she is left tied to stone columns. He arrives and carries her off. Some of the crew attempts to rescue her, but discover the giant gorilla, as well as dinosaurs and a number of other terrifying beasties. Most of the crew are killed off, except for Driscoll and Denham. Meanwhile, Kong protects Ann from a dinosaur and Denham plots to rescue Ann and kidnap Kong. Driscoll manages to rescue Ann and they return to the village. Kong pursues, but is knocked out by Denham, who reveals his plan: to capture Kong and force him back to Manhattan, where he will be presented as the Eight Wonder of the World.
In Manhattan, things predictably become a disaster. Kong is presented in an elaborate show. He mistakenly thinks Ann is being harmed and breaks free, in a rage, and rampages through the city, desperate to find her. He causes major catastrophe and the police and military planes are called in. He eventually finds Ann and flees with her to their final tragic meeting place at the top of the Empire State Building.
There is not a whole lot to say about King Kong that hasn’t already been said. It is one of the finest fantasy-horror-adventure films and was one of my early favorites (and the first film that I can remember that made me cry). Though King Kong has not aged particularly well, it has a certain special magic that no film before and certainly few films after have been able to match. At the time, William O’Brien’s special effects were incredibly innovative and certainly helped to change the face of what was possible with effects in cinema. Using a combination of stop-motion animation, miniatures, mattes, projections, and glass shots to achieve the almost non-stop effects, King Kong may look aged, but in my opinion it beats the hell out of anything I’ve seen accomplished recently with CGI. In addition to the effects, Max Steiner’s impressive score, the editing, sound effects, and direction are all impacting and impressive.
An incredible work of fantasy, King Kong ranges from drama to action to fantasy with the inclusion of Skull Island, the natives, and the numerous other creatures on the island aside from Kong, including dinosaurs and a giant snake. There are also many moments of horror, such as a disturbing scene when Kong snatches a woman in a building several stories off the ground from her bed and simply tosses her aside to her death when he realizes she isn’t Ann. There is also a certain wonderful surrealism about the scenes of a giant gorilla wreaking havoc on downtown Manhattan. The romance in the film is equally disorienting, as Cooper seems to care very little about the human romance and puts the majority of the focus on Kong’s passion for Ann.
Though a blonde was required for the role and brunette Fay Wray had to wear a wig, she made her career with this film. Though her screams are truly iconic, she hated being known as a screen queen. She appeared (and screamed frequently) in two other horror films during this time, Doctor X and Mystery of the Wax Museum, and Cooper’s other horror-flavored classic, The Most Dangerous Game. Though the rest of the cast is serviceable, none of them are particularly memorable beside King Kong, who is the absolute star here. This is a major achievement considering that he is not played by an actor in a suit, he is simply a conflagration of fur, metal, rubber, etc. He is a sympathetic and tragic character, a monster, and an innocent. There hasn’t been a giant movie monster to match Kong with the possible exception of Godzilla, who is beloved despite the fact that he isn’t very sympathetic.
Famed British mystery and fantasy novelist Edgar Wallace was hired by Cooper to write the script with the hope that his name would bring the project some recognition. The original story was based on an idea by Cooper, stemmed by a childhood interest in gorillas, particularly gorillas battling Komodo dragons. While this is far from the first adventure film set in the jungle, it has remained far more enduring than most of those films from that period, such as Tarzan of the Apes or The Lost World.
The film opened in two of New York’s largest theaters, Radio City Music Hall and the RKO Roxy, with screenings regularly selling out. It received generally high praise, though did not receive any Academy Award nominations, partly because no special effects section existed at the time. Hilariously it was banned in Nazi Germany because of the threat to Aryan women. King Kong was remade twice, recently by Peter Jackson, and was followed by a sequel, The Son of Kong (1933).
The special edition, two-disc King Kong DVD release from 2005 is one of the most memorable special editions and includes a mind boggling amount of features. There are commentary tracks from special effects master Ray Harryhausen and Ken Ralston, a number of featurettes, a seven part documentary called The Making of Kong, Eighth Wonder of the World, and so much more. It is also out on Blu-ray, but I would be hard pressed to part with the special edition DVD.