‘King Kong’ (1933): The Monster that ‘Aped’ New York

Bright lights on Broadway: King Kong on stage (1933(

The lights burned bright on Broadway: ‘King Kong’ (1933)

A giant killer gorilla escapes its confines to wreak havoc on the streets of 1930s New York. What a premise for a story about a down-and-out film producer pining for his next big hit! Known as the picture that saved a movie studio — RKO Radio Pictures studio, to be exact — King Kong is the granddaddy of all those big-bad-stomping, monster-on-the-loose chomping horror-fantasy epics. And it is every bit the classic it’s cranked up to be.

Labeled box-office poison by the press and hounded by insurance investigators and fire marshals alike, restless movie mogul Carl Denham (an overly enthusiastic Robert Armstrong) searches for the perfect angle for his upcoming motion-picture project. Upon a chance meeting with the impoverished Ann Darrow (vulnerable Fay Wray, who bleached her dark hair blonde for the shoot), Denham impulsively decides to star her in his yet-to-be-announced adventure flick.

Cryptic and secretive to a fault, the wily producer-director nonetheless convinces Ann to trust him enough (“I’m on the level. No funny business!”) to accompany Denham and his shoestring crew as the only female member on board a ship “with the toughest looking mugs” anyone has had the misfortune to be associated with.

In the blink of an eye, they’re whisked away on a long sea voyage to …  who knows where? Darrow and Denham are accompanied on their journey by salty seaman Captain Engelhorn and his lantern-jawed first mate, Jack Driscoll. Once our adventure seekers arrive on Skull Island, however, all hell breaks loose — quite literally. After unknowingly interrupting a native ceremony whereby a young girl undergoes elaborate preparation as the newly christened bride of “Kong,” Denham and his crew come face-to-face with the titular deity: an enormous anthropoid dubbed by Denham “The Eighth Wonder of the World.”

Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) conferring with Captain Engelhorn (Frank Reicher) in King Kong

Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) confers with Captain Engelhorn (Frank Reicher) on Skull Island

Amid the ceaseless pounding of native drums, Kong takes off into the jungle with Ann clutched safely in his palm. It’s love at first fright. But, as Denham prophetically observes, the danger lies if the beast allows himself to turn soft where the girl is concerned. In fulfillment of the prophecy, Kong comes to his bride’s defense by fighting off various prehistoric creatures, including incredibly thrilling battles with a vicious T-Rex (or Allosaurus, according to some sources), a slithering salamander, and a flying Pterodactyl. He also disposes of most of the crew members, leaving only a band of gutsy sailors guarding the gate, with Denham and Driscoll at opposite ends of a huge precipice.

Denham finds his way back to the native village, while Driscoll follows Kong’s trail in order to rescue Ann, the thirties embodiment of a damsel in distress. With Kong distracted by the local fauna, Ann and Driscoll brusquely make their escape by plunging down into the river bed below Kong’s lair. They manage to flee for their lives into the thick underbrush, with the raging Kong in hot pursuit.

After the giant beast has terrorized the village by munching and crunching the native population, he is knocked senseless by one of Denham’s gas bombs. But instead of coming to his senses, the publicity-minded producer can only see the biggest get-rich-quick scheme in the history of Broadway theater. He decides to ship Kong’s massage body back to Manhattan, where the monkey makes an unscheduled debut on the city’s streets — and atop its tallest building.

Top of the world: Kong meets his match

Top of the world: Kong meets his aerial match

One of the greatest special effects extravaganzas of this or anyone’s time, King Kong did for the Big Apple what Godzilla would later do for Tokyo: that is, it immortalized a city, as well as almost single-handedly destroyed it — in cinematic terms, of course. It also lifted Depression Era audiences to ecstatic heights of visionary fancy, breaking attendance records at every showing.

This box-office champion of champions, then, was the brainchild of two men: veteran movie-maker Merian C. Cooper and his partner Ernest B. Schoedsack, both of who directed and produced the feature, based on an idea conceived by Cooper and an original story by Cooper and Edgar Wallace. David O. Selznick was the executive producer. For the stop-motion wizardry, Cooper turned to FX expert Willis O’Brien (The Lost World), who in turn looked to model maker Marcel Delgado for the gorilla and dinosaur miniatures that figured so prominently throughout the picture.

Back and front projection along with traveling matte shots were extensively employed, in addition to grisly close-ups of Kong’s denture work. His full-sized bust took some 40-odd bearskins to cover! Not all of the effects shots were filmed perfectly to scale, mind you, nor did they blend seamlessly into the frame. With that said, this picture was destined to become a landmark in the annals of horror-fantasy films. It remains the lone monster flick from which all others need be measured.

King Kong: Ready for his closeup

King Kong: Ready for his close-up

The sturdy cast is headed by the rambunctious Robert Armstrong, who makes mincemeat out of his character’s over-ambition and drive. He’s both FDR and Horatio Alger in one shot: crippled by his inability to have audiences take him seriously (“Because the public, bless ’em, must have a pretty face to look at”), Denham’s ego refuses to admit defeat; indeed, this is one overwhelmingly optimistic venture capitalist. His is the unquenchable spark (and, by design, that of the film’s real-life producer-directors) that ignites the audience’s interest and imagination, particularly in the way he sums up the misadventure to its final, philosophical conclusion:

Police lieutenant: “Well, Denham, the planes got him.”

Denham: “Oh, no, it wasn’t the airplanes. It was beauty killed the beast.”

Fay Wray is the all-time champion hog caller (or, in this case, “scream queen”), but don’t let that fool you: she’s as full of pluck and spunk as they come. The softness and beguiling femininity she brings to the story’s ebb and flow make Ann Darrow an appealing contrast to the unbelievable horrors she’s forced to confront. Wray never had a better part,  even though she appeared in the equally shocking The Most Dangerous Game (1932) and The Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933). Her peak period of popularity spanned the 1930s to the mid-1940s.

Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) in Kong's clutches

Love at first fright: Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) in Kong’s clutches

Lankily-built Bruce Cabot is crusty sailor Jack Driscoll, the human “beast” who falls in love with Ann upon snatching her from Kong’s humongous clutches. On the “strength” of his acting, though, he’s no match for the King. Frank Reicher is the stern Captain Engelhorn, Sam Hardy the wisecracking theatrical agent Weston, and James Flavin the second mate, with Victor Wong as Charley the stereotypical Chinese cook, Noble Johnson as the Native Chief, Steve Clemento as the Witch Doctor, Roscoe Ates as a press photographer, and Lesley Mason as a theater patron.

Look for cameos of Cooper and Schoedsack, who pilot the airplane that eventually brings the big guy down. Cooper was a World War I aviator who put his knowledge of flight to good use. He was also a pioneer in the three-strip Technicolor process.

Film historian Rudy Behlmer interviewed Cooper back in 1964. During that interview, Cooper denied there were any “symbolic” or “phallic” overtones in the movie’s depiction of the Kong-Darrow relationship. According to Cooper, there were no “hidden meanings, psychological or cultural implications, profound parallels or anything resembling intellectual ‘significance’ in the film. King Kong was escapist entertainment pure and simple,” Cooper insisted. “A more illogical picture could never have been made” (The Girl in the Hairy Paw, 1976, foreword by Rudy Behlmer, p.13).

That may well be, in Cooper’s mind. But for years, the film was shorn of many of its most (ahem) “revealing” sequences, the prime example of which finds Kong delicately peeling away most of Ann’s dress, leaving only her dainty negligee. An obvious vestige of the pre-Code period, this and other “politically incorrect” snippets (i.e., Kong tossing a woman he mistakenly takes for Ann out of her apartment window; scenes of Kong’s rampage at the native village; the odious connection of the wild and crazy natives with their skin color) were, for die-hard fans of the film, questionable inserts from the mid-1970s. For better or worse, most movie prints include these once-severed sequences.

Even more insidious is the unstated theme of the picture: the excitable Kong, a subliminal representation of black male sexuality, is thwarted in his attempts to have his way with a white woman. This harkens back to similar episodes in D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, the pathbreaking film that set race relations in this country back by several generations.

Kong strips away Ann’s outer garments

In Kenneth Bernard’s essay “King Kong: A Meditation,” found in the documentary study The Girl in the Hairy Paw: King Kong as Myth, Movie, and Monster (edited by Ronald Gottesman and Harry Geduld) and first printed in American Review #14 (1972), the “impossible union between Fay and Kong is symbolic of mankind’s fatal impasse, the dream of paradise lost irrevocably. However, this particular symbolic inference is complicated by several factors, notably the idea that Kong is the black man violating American womanhood and the idea that Kong is the emerging (and rampant) Third World nations. With the first we suffer from colossal penis envy and ego collapse, for we sense Fay’s attraction in spite of herself. In the latter, we have violated Kong’s sanctuary and brought him back [to civilization] for profit and display, and now he threatens (literally) to screw us. Kong is the classic myth of racist and imperialist repression and anxiety … Our destruction of him is confession of our limited imagination. His death will weigh on us more heavily than his life, and it is part of his power that he will be continuously resurrected (by us, in fact)” (The Girl in the Hairy Paw, p. 129).

We feel sorry for Kong’s fate and mourn his passing. Denham’s last words on the subject (cited above) reflect a growth in his humanity, one that in the quickie sequel Son of Kong (also released in 1933) capitalized on his newly acquired empathy for the big ape’s offspring. His realization that he, Carl Denham, bigshot movie producer that he was and the person most responsible for all the destruction and mayhem, not to mention Kong’s death, must return to Skull Island to make amends for his mistakes.

It would be a shame not to mention the powerful and highly influential movie score by Max Steiner, one of Hollywood’s Golden Age best. Although dimly recorded, the picture would never have achieved the worldwide notoriety and success it deservedly merited without Steiner’s magnificent music. One of the most typical elements of which involved the split-second timing of the score with the action on the screen. This was known in the industry as “mickey-mousing,” in the way that music for animated cartoons always seemed to follow and mimic the characters’ movements.

None of the other remakes, including Peter Jackson’s three-hour 2005 effort (blown up to preposterous proportions), has come close to toppling RKO’s original from its throne. And no home theater should be without at least a DVD/Blu-ray disc copy of this superb flick.

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes

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