King Kong (1933) ****
It is not true, despite what you may have heard, that RKO’s legendary King Kong was the first of the giant rubber monster movies-- I know of at least one earlier film in the genre, the 1925 silent version of The Lost World (adapted from Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel of the same name, not Michael Crighton’s!). But let me ask you something; have you seen The Lost World? No, I didn’t think so. You’ve seen King Kong, though, haven’t you? Goddamned right. This movie may not be the first, but it is surely the most important, its influence outweighing even that of Godzilla: King of the Monsters/Gojira, a film which it did much to inspire.
The most important thing to keep in mind about King Kong is what a revolutionary movie it was. In 1933, the cinema industry as we know it was only about 15 years old, and the great innovation of sound in the movies had been made only six years before. So try to imagine how King Kong must have looked to its first-run audiences-- the monster movie genre as a whole was still playing catch-up to this flick almost 20 years later. Willis O’Brien’s pioneering stop-motion animation effects, while admittedly uneven, are comparable overall to the work Ray Harryhausen was doing in the mid-50’s, and the movie’s best process shots rival even the 80’s-vintage output of Industrial Light and Magic. The sets are equally remarkable, especially the gate in the wall separating the peninsula inhabited by human beings from the rest of Skull Island. Even the matte paintings-- usually the most laughably conspicuous element of any special effects-driven movie-- are impressive. I think the best way to get an appreciation of how good this movie is from a technical standpoint (and, for that matter, from an artistic one) is to watch both it and Dino De Laurentiis’s 1976 remake within a few days of each other. Even with the benefit of 43 years’ worth of advances in the technique and technology of filmmaking, even with the advantage of a budget that would have put the biggest Hollywood studio down for the count in 1933, De Laurentiis still couldn’t match the original. And while I’m sure that says at least as much about Dino De Laurentiis as it does about the older film, I’m equally sure you see my point.
I think the thing that impresses me most about King Kong, though, is the fact that it works so well even despite the patent absurdity of its story. One day, in the depths of the Great Depression, a director of wildlife documentaries named Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong, who went on to appear in The Mad Ghoul and Mighty Joe Young, along with seemingly thousands of war and action movies) is about to embark on an expedition to... well, somewhere. Denham has been keeping his destination a complete secret, even from Captain Englehorn, the master of the ship taking him there (played by Frank Reicher, later of Dr. Cyclops and The Mummy’s Ghost), and Englehorn’s first mate, Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot, who like so many actors would find himself working for Italians when his career began to wind down-- look for him in Goliath and the Barbarians/Il Terrore dei Barbari). Denham, of course, means to make a movie wherever it is he’s going, and before he can ship out, he needs to get his hands on one more thing-- a female lead. The problem is that Denham has a reputation for recklessness; none of the agents in New York are willing to risk the lives of their actresses by sending them off to who knows where with the man, and ultimately, Denham is reduced to prowling the streets looking for a good-looking but down-and-out girl who’s willing to do just about anything to survive.
He finds just such a girl in Anne Darrow (Fay Wray, whose appearance here transformed her into the original scream queen, leading to roles in movies like Black Moon and The Vampire Bat). She and Denham meet when the director saves her from being arrested for attempted shoplifting. He takes Anne out for coffee and some food, and takes the opportunity to deliver his pitch. Denham promises Anne fame and adventure, the likes of which she had never dreamed possible. Not only that, he doesn’t even want her to sleep with him (gotta love the way the dialogue dances around this topic)-- all she has to do is get on the ship and trust him. Anne doesn’t need to think about it very long. She follows the director back to Englehorn’s ship, which sets sail the next morning.
Only when the vessel is thousands of miles from anywhere, in the middle of the South Pacific, does Denham reveal his plans. Only a few more days’ sailing to the south is an uncharted island, the existence of which Denham learned of from a Norwegian sea captain who once picked up a canoe-wrecked native from that island. Before the stranded islander died, he was able to describe to the Norwegian the approximate location and appearance of his home, and the Norwegian drew up a revised chart of the area incorporating the information. Denham was able to get a copy of the Norwegian’s map, which he produces to set Englhorn’s and Driscoll’s minds at ease. As for what Denham wants with this mysterious island, the description he got from the Norwegian included the fascinating tidbit that the natives’ settlement is confined to a tiny fraction of the island’s area, and that the rest of the island, separated from the inhabited peninsula by a gigantic wall, is the domain of something called “Kong.” Denham has no idea what Kong is, but he’ll be damned if he goes back to New York without some film footage of it. Denham wants Anne in the film to give it a sort of “Beauty and the Beast” angle, which he thinks will drastically enhance its box office grosses. Englehorn and Driscoll, the latter man especially, think Denham’s idea is crazy, particularly the part about Anne. The two men already think that a trans-oceanic freighter is no place for a woman, and if that’s so, then an uncharted island inhabited by a mythical monster is surely an even less appropriate place to take a lady.
The debate is largely pointless, though, because the ship reaches the island the next day. They know they have the right place because-- true to the Norwegian’s report-- the island’s silhouette is dominated by a large, steep mountain that bears an uncanny resemblance to a human skull. Denham, Anne, Englehorn, Driscoll, and twelve other men from the ship’s crew go ashore to make contact with the islanders, and what they find takes them completely by surprise. The whole village is empty, its inhabitants gathered at the foot of the great wall for a celebration of some kind. The ceremony involves lots of drumming, lots of chanting, and about ten guys dressed like apes dancing around in a pair of circles to either side of a seated girl. Denham starts filming, but before he can get very far, the tribe’s headman (Noble Johnson, from The Most Dangerous Game and The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu) notices the interlopers and interrupts the ceremony. Luckily for Denham and company, the islanders speak a language closely related to one that Englehorn knows, and the captain and the chief are able to communicate. Apparently, the film crew has stumbled upon a wedding of sorts-- the lei-bedecked girl sitting between the two circles of ape-dancers is the bride of Kong. And wouldn’t you know it, the local shaman is of the opinion that the outsiders’ intrusion has spoiled the ceremony, and that it will have to be begun anew after they leave. More importantly, from the perspective of our heroes, the chief thinks it likely that Kong would prefer Anne to the native girl already selected for him as a bride. In fact, the chief is so impressed with Anne that he offers to buy her at the price of six of his own tribe’s women. Obviously, no one but the chief is comfortable with the idea of a trade, and Englehorn turns down the offer and leads his people back to the ship, mentioning as he does so that they will return to talk things over the next day.
But the chief doesn’t want to wait that long. Instead, he sends a raiding party out shortly after sunset to abduct Anne from the ship. The raiders arrive soon after what may be the most clumsily executed declaration of love ever committed to film (almost as clumsy, in fact, as the real thing), when Driscoll struggles against his stereotyped 30’s hard-boiledness to confess his feelings for Anne. So Driscoll is naturally a little upset when he realizes that Anne is missing at about the same time that Englehorn points out the heightened activity over on the beach. It doesn’t take long for these men to put two and two together, and Englehorn, Driscoll, and Denham waste little time in going ashore with about 30 members of the crew. They arrive on the scene just in time to see Anne being carried off into the island’s interior by a 50-foot gorilla. I wish I had the powers of empathy necessary to put myself in the mindset of the people who saw this scene for the first time back in 1933, to experience their awe in the face of something the likes of which the great majority of them had never seen before. Almost 70 years later, everyone knows not only what Kong is, but also exactly what he’s going to do, and how it’s all going to turn out in the end. Is it possible, even in today’s world with its infinitely splintered popular culture, that anyone could be unfamiliar with what we’re about to see here? I strongly doubt it, but this scene still has a little bit of bite left in it, and that is what makes me wish I could get inside the heads of the 1933 audiences.
What follows, the main body of the film in fact, concerns the efforts of Denham, Driscoll, and half of Englehorn’s landing party to rescue Anne from Kong, while the giant ape also tries to save her from a cavalcade of prehistoric reptiles. It’s this phase of the film that made it my favorite movie on Earth when I was six years old. I can still remember summer afternoons spent sitting in the sandbox in my backyard, using my collection of plastic dinosaurs and toy soldiers to re-enact the major set-pieces: the fight between the ship’s crew and the Stegosaurus; the Brontosaurus attack that ensues when one of the sailors panics and starts shooting at the animal when it rears its head out of the lake that the crew must cross to follow Kong; Kong’s duels with the Pteranodon, the giant primitive snake (notice that the snake has four tiny legs), and of course the Tyrannosaurus rex. The latter is still one of the best monster fights in movie history, a triumph not only of special effects, but of pacing and fight choreography as well. But today, I think the scene that most impresses itself on my adult sensibilities is the one in which Kong himself attacks his human pursuers as they try to follow him across a huge fallen tree that serves as a natural bridge over a craggy ravine. As the sailors scramble back the way they came, Kong lifts his end of the tree trunk and begins to shake it from side to side, pitching the hapless humans into the ravine. This is one of those matte shots I mentioned earlier, and the sheer ambition that it reflects astounds me. Not only does Kong (an eighteen-inch model covered with rabbit fur) have to interact with the dozen or so actors on the log, Jack Driscoll is plainly visible taking shelter in a crevice about twelve feet down the cliff-face on Kong’s side of the ravine, watching helplessly as his comrades fall to their deaths. Think about it-- this sequence is composed of three separate elements, all of which had to be filmed separately and then fused together into a unified whole. Special effects artists have a hard time getting this right even today, and Willis O’Brien managed to pull it off almost without a flaw nearly 70 years ago!
Of course, Driscoll (who, together with Denham, was the only survivor of Kong’s attack) eventually catches up with Kong and sneaks off with Anne (while the ape’s attention is focused on the Pteranodon that tried to make off with the girl a few minutes before), ultimately reaching relative safety on the other side of the natives’ wall. The reason that safety is only relative is that Kong has come in pursuit, and there’s just one minor flaw in the construction of the wall-- its main gate is fully large enough to allow Kong through, provided he can break the wooden bar that holds it shut. Said bar is no trouble for a creature strong enough to disarticulate the mandible of a Tyrannosaurus rex with one hand while crushing the bones of its upper jaw with the other, and it isn’t long before the big ape is flattening the islanders’ village, smashing their huts and grinding their warriors into the mud with his heels. Only Denham has a weapon that can stop Kong-- the sleeping-gas bombs he brought with him for that very purpose. The bombs do their job well, giving Denham an idea for the ultimate get-rich-quick scheme. Rather than film Kong, why not restrain him in the ship’s hold and take him back to New York alive?
Because it’s fucking dumb, that’s why not! Had Denham seen The Lost World, he would have known what a bad idea this is. But apparently he did not, so he could not profit from the cautionary example of a mad Brontosaurus running loose in London. Kong breaks his chains and bursts out of the theater in which Denham had tried to exhibit him when he mistakes the flashbulbs of the press photographers for some kind of attack on Anne. The ape very swiftly locates his “bride” and absconds with her, ultimately seeking refuge at the top of the then-new Empire State Building, the tallest man-made structure in the world in 1933. But even there, he is not invulnerable. He can still be attacked by another comparatively recent invention, the military aircraft. At the suggestion of Jack Driscoll, the policeman in charge of the Kong situation places a call to the nearest Army Air Corps base, and four biplanes (I still haven’t figured out what kind, though my best guess is the Curtiss O-19C or D) take off to strafe Kong to death with their machine guns. The funny thing about this scene is that, despite the portrayal of Kong as, first and foremost, a menace to society, I have yet to meet a single person who can watch it without rooting for the monster. When I was a little kid, I would practically cheer at the moment when one of the biplanes flies too close to Kong, allowing him to snatch it from the air and dash it to pieces against the side of the building. As little respect as I have for the man, I must admit that Dino De Laurentiis had it right when he said, “When monkey die, everybody cry. Nobody cry when Jaws die.” (Although the no-talent egomaniac was, of course, talking about his King Kong when he said that.) I wonder if it’s just the effect of the cultural changes that swept over America during the last 70 years that made Kong the hero of his final scene, or if 1930’s audiences also found themselves wishing, in spite of everything, for a victory for the ape. And if contemporary audiences saw this scene in the same terms as we do today, was that the intention of King Kong’s creators, or was Willis O’Brien so successful in giving his monster life and-- for lack of a better word-- a soul that the intended effect of Kong’s death-struggle against the airplanes was subverted?
Which leads me to another oft-observed point about King Kong-- this is a movie in which an eighteen-inch model of an ape acts rings around its human costars. There are two sides to this phenomenon. On the one hand, massive credit must be given to Willis O’Brien for doing what so many people in his trade consistently failed to do, and consistently fail to do even today. On the other hand, the actors must be faulted for their awesomely stilted performances. For Fay Wray’s part, she can be forgiven to some extent because of how little the script gives her to do; you could probably count her lines on your digits and end up wearing at least one shoe when you were finished. Richard Armstrong and Bruce Cabot have no such excuse. Armstrong’s performance is passable, but it never seems to have occurred to him to try to elevate his role above its stereotypes. Cabot, on the other hand, is solid mahogany, and I have no trouble imagining him ending his career playing opposite Italian musclemen. The overall effect is to make O’Brien seem even more brilliant-- his special effects and the character of Kong (not quite the same thing) are forced to carry pretty much the entire movie, and they succeed!
Finally, I’d like to talk a bit about missing footage. When King Kong was re-released, first in 1938, then again in 1947 and 1952, the artistic climate in the nation was much more censorious than it had been in 1933, and quite a bit was cut from the movie. Most of the excisions were relatively minor, and involved Kong or one of the other monsters chewing or stomping on extras. One cut, however, removed a rather large amount of footage at a stretch, and had a minor but noticeable effect on the film’s continuity. Shortly before the Pteranodon tries to eat Anne, Kong sits down with her on the top of a mountain and takes a moment to look over his new toy in some depth. What made this scene unacceptable to the censors of later years is the fact that Kong tears off-- and sniffs-- most of Anne’s clothing in the process of poking at her and fiddling with her to see how she works. (Am I the only one who used to wonder what happened to Anne’s dress between the time Kong climbs up the mountain and the time Driscoll comes to her rescue?) I can no longer remember where, but I know I’ve read articles in which some left-leaning film critic or other attempts to explain this scene in terms of racial allegory-- Anne as the flower of white womanhood menaced by a giant gorilla (that favorite stand-in for the black man in the writings of American racists) with an inordinate and inexplicable sexual interest in her. And who knows? Maybe that is how the censors of 1938 and on looked at this scene, at least subconsciously, and maybe that had something to do with their discomfort with it. Personally, I think it’s unnecessary to dig that deep to find something that would have offended their sensibilities, though. To wit: a giant monkey is tearing off a girl’s clothes and fucking sniffing them!!!! Even without looking for some kind of racist or Freudian subtext, that’s pretty fucked up! It wasn’t until the mid-1980’s that the deleted footage went back into wide circulation, in a restored version of King Kong financed by Ted Turner. (Praise be to Allah that he had the class not to colorize the movie while he was at it!)
Turner’s version does not, however, contain two more much-discussed scenes that were filmed, but cut out before the movie’s initial release. According to the original script, Denham and Driscoll’s search party was to have been attacked by a Triceratops, or maybe several such animals, during their pursuit of Kong. Later, during the scene in which Kong kills most of his human pursuers by dumping them into the ravine, there is a reaction shot of Driscoll recoiling in horror at something he sees at the bottom of the chasm. What Driscoll is supposed to be looking at is a herd of giant spiders and man-sized lizard things devouring the bodies of his fallen comrades; the creature that later climbs up the vine to get at Driscoll was meant to be one of these beasts. Both of these scenes, it is often said, were judged to be too graphically violent to be shown in theaters, leading to their removal. The spider scene certainly was shot and edited out-- Stephen Jones’ The Essential Monster Movie Guide features a still from it, and Forrest J. Ackerman claims that it was included in prints of King Kong that were exported to the Philippines during the movie’s first run. (Of course, since Ackerman is also the original source for the erroneous story of an alternate ending to King Kong vs. Godzilla in which the reptile wins, we should probably take anything he says about the Asian editions of old monster movies with a grain of salt.) However, in a 1966 interview, producer Merian C. Cooper reported that overly graphic violence was not at issue in the deletion of the carnage on the ravine floor. Rather, it was removed for the sake of pacing before King Kong was ever screened for the Hays Office. The story of the Triceratops attack is more complicated. Descriptions I’ve read make it sound a lot like the one scene that was actually shot for a stillborn RKO Willis O’Brien vehicle called Creation; that footage was recycled into a test reel for King Kong in 1931, but appears never to have been included in the finished film. In any case, it’s been a long time since any sign has been seen of either sequence. As I said, the extra monster footage does not appear in Turner’s restored version, nor does it appear in an even more comprehensive restoration that made the rounds of American theaters in 1990. Periodically, rumors of foreign prints containing the missing scenes will surface, but if you can’t detect the smell of bullshit wafting from them, you need to go see your allergist. If you want my opinion, I think the 1990 restoration is the most complete version of this landmark film that we’ll ever see.