Filmsite Movie Review 100 Greatest Films
King Kong (1933)
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Background

The greatest and most famous classic adventure-fantasy (and part-horror) film of all time is King Kong (1933). Co-producers and directors Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack (both real-life adventurers and film documentarians) conceived of the low-budget story of a beautiful, plucky blonde woman (Fay Wray) and a frightening, gigantic, 50 foot ape-monster as a metaphoric re-telling of the archetypal Beauty and the Beast fable. [Fay Wray mistakenly believed that her RKO film co-star, 'the tallest, darkest leading man in Hollywood,' would be Cary Grant rather than the beast. Later in her life, she titled her autobiography "On the Other Hand" in memory of her squirming in Kong's grip.]

The major themes of the film include the struggle for survival on the primitive, fog-enshrouded, tropical Skull Island between the ardent and energetic filmmakers (led by Robert Armstrong), the hero (Bruce Cabot in a part originally offered to Joel McCrea), the voodoo natives, and the forces of nature (the unique Beast creature); unrequited love and the frustration and repression of violent sexual desires. However, the primitive, giant ape must also struggle against the forces of urban civilization and technology when it is exploited for profit and returned for display in New York City during a time of economic oppression.

From the start of the picture, its clever screenplay by James Ashmore Creelman and Ruth Rose (based on a story by Merian C. Cooper and Edgar Wallace) suggested the coming terror. The film was shot during the spring and summer of 1932 in the confines of the studio. Due to their limited budget for sets, Cooper and Schoedsack used the jungle locale from the latter's previous film The Most Dangerous Game (1932) - an adventure film that also starred Fay Wray. When released, it broke all previous box-office records. Its massive, money-making success helped to save RKO Studios from bankruptcy.

The following scenes for the 1938 re-release (the film was re-released four times from 1933 to 1952 - in 1938, 1942 and 1946), that were excised by censors after the Production Code took effect in 1934, were restored in more recent editions of the film:

The giant spider-pit sequence was not restored, but lost (during the filming of Peter Jackson's 2005 remake, he recreated the sequence using remaining stills and animations from the original script).

This remarkable film received no Academy Awards nominations - it would have won in the Special Effects category if there had been such a category. The film contained many revolutionary technical innovations for its time (rear projection, miniature models about 18 inches in height, and trick photography, etc.), and some of the most phenomenal stop-motion animation sequences and special effects ever filmed (by chief technician Willis O'Brien, famed for his first feature film The Lost World (1925)).

A wildly dramatic musical score by Max Steiner enhanced the action of the story. It was the first feature-length musical score written specifically for a US 'talkie' film, and was the first major Hollywood film to have a thematic score rather than background music, recorded using a 46-piece orchestra. After the score was completed, all of the film's sounds were recorded onto three separate tracks, one each for sound effects, dialogue and music. For the first time in film history, RKO's sound department head Murray Spivak made a groundbreaking sound design decision - he pitched the effects to match the score, so they wouldn't be overwhelming and so they would complement each other.

The film has numerous memorable moments, including Kong's battle with a giant snake in a misty cavern, his struggle against a flying pterodactyl, the screaming beauty (Fay Wray, known as the "Queen of Scream") held captive in Kong's giant clenched palm, and the finale with the defiant Kong atop the Empire State Building while circling aircraft shoot him down. In director John Guillermin's inferior remake King Kong (1976), starring Jessica Lange, the great ape takes his last stand atop one of the towers of the World Trade Center.

Many earlier literary works echoed the giant ape or 'lost world' theme, as in Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World (1912) and Edgar Rice Burroughs' The Land That Time Forgot (1918). Beasts in the Jungle (1913) and Tarzan of the Apes (1918) with Elmo Lincoln as the title character undoubtedly served as further inspiration. The fake documentary film Ingagi (1930), a successful exploitation film set in the Congo jungle, also must have influenced King Kong's making with its giant gorillas and native women being sacrificied to an 'ape god'.

King Kong launched the "giant beast" or "giant monster" (known as kaiju in Japan) subgenre of science-fiction, inspiring the 1950's atomic mutant creature features and the Japanese giant movie monsters like Godzilla, Gamera, Rodan, etc. Godzilla and King Kong actually faced off in the Japanese film King Kong Vs. Godzilla (1962, Jp.) (aka Godzilla vs. King Kong in Japan). Various other Kong-related films are summarized in the following list:

[Oscar-winning The Lord of the Rings trilogy director Peter Jackson shot a remake of the classic 1933 film as King Kong (2005), with Jack Black (as Carl Denham), Adrien Brody (as Jack Driscoll), Naomi Watts (as Fay Wray), and Andy Serkis (and CGI) employed for the 25-foot tall monstrous ape.]

The Story

The film begins with the title card from an Old Arabian Proverb:

And the Prophet said, 'And lo, the beast looked upon the face of beauty. And it stayed its hand from killing. And from that day, it was as one dead.'

The scene is 1932 at the Hoboken docks in New Jersey during a Depression-era winter. A dock night watchman is approached and asked about the nearby moored steamer: "Say, is this the moving picture ship?" The watchman confirms that the ship is going on a "crazy" voyage, and knows of the brash reputation of Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong), a fearless and arrogant adventure filmmaker and movie producer, who is preparing for a film expedition: "...that crazy fella that's a runnin' it....They say he ain't scared of nothing. If he wants a picture of a lion, he just goes up to him and tells him to look pleasant." Everybody around the dock is talking about the unusually large cargo and number of crew members - "three times more than the ship needs." The well-dressed man, Charles Weston (Sam Hardy), a theatrical agent, is invited on board the vessel by First Mate Jack (John) Driscoll (Bruce Cabot) and is told: "Come on board. Denham's gettin' wild. I hope you got some good news for him."

In the captain's cabin, trusted skipper-Captain Englehorn (Frank Reicher) confers with Denham and suggests that he sail immediately by the next day's light, before the fire marshal can discover his illegal cargo of ammunition, explosives and gas bombs, one of which is strong enough "to knock out an elephant." They must also get to their destination to finish filming before the monsoon season starts. Weston and Driscoll enter and Denham demands to know if the agent has located an actress to star in his top-secret film: "Somebody's interfered with every girl I've tried to hire. And now all the agents in town have shut down on me. All but you, you know I'm square." Weston believes Denham has a "reputation for recklessness that can't be glossed over." Weston also objects to Denham's secretiveness - not even the skipper and first mate know where they are going. The agent hasn't found a girl because his conscience won't let him ask a young girl to take on such an unknown project:

I can't send a young pretty girl such as you ask on a job like this without telling her what to expect...To go off on a trip for no one knows how long, to some spot you don't even hint at, the only woman on the ship with the toughest mugs I ever looked at.

No ingenue actress will commit to a long sea voyage to an unknown destination, with an all-male crew. Denham argues that there's more danger in New York for most women: "Listen, there are dozens of girls in this town tonight that are in more danger than they'll ever see with me." "Yeah, but they know that kind of danger," thick-headed Jack pipes up. Denham complains that he needs to have a heroine in his picture to provide romance and a love interest:

Holy Mackerel. Do you think I want to haul a woman around?...Because the Public, bless 'em, must have a pretty face to look at...Well, isn't there any romance or adventure in the world without having a flapper in it?...Makes me sore. I go out and sweat blood to make a swell picture and then the critics and the exhibitors all say, 'If this picture had love interest it would gross twice as much.' All right. The Public Wants a Girl, and this time, I'm gonna give 'em what they want.

Undaunted but frustrated, the entrepreneurial, jungle filmmaker promises them he will make the "greatest picture in the world, something that nobody's ever seen or heard of. They'll have to think up a lot of new adjectives when I come back." He leaves to find a girl for his picture by himself, vowing: "even if I have to marry one." A cab drops him off outside the Woman's Home Mission where women are in a breadline, but he doesn't see any potential prospects. Nearby, he notices a hungry, out-of-work, and broke girl reaching for an apple from a fruit market on the streets of New York. The street vendor catches the girl and threatens to call the police. After paying off the irate proprietor with a buck to rescue her, she swoons into his arms. When he takes a good look at her, he impulsively decides that she has the kind of beauty that he is looking for - perfect for the starring role in his documentary movie.

Denham takes the starving young girl by taxi to a Bowery restaurant, buys her a meal, and over a cup of coffee asks her about herself. She is orphaned with no family, although she says: "I'm supposed to have an uncle someplace." She also worked as a film extra at a studio on Long Island before it closed. She identifies herself as Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) and he enthusiastically offers the down-and-out, destitute woman a job: "I've got a job for you. Costumes on the ship won't fit you. Broadway shops are still open. I can get some clothes for you there." To encourage the beautiful girl to go along, he entices her with a promise of lifting her out of obscurity:

It's money and adventure and fame. It's the thrill of a lifetime and a long sea voyage that starts at six o'clock tomorrow morning.

Ann hesitates with fear in her voice, fearing that she will be made Denham's mistress: "No wait. I - I don't understand. You must tell me. I do want the job so, but I can't..." Denham chivalrously reassures her by explaining his position: "Oh, I see. No, you've got me wrong. This is strictly business....Listen, I'm Carl Denham. Ever hear of me?" His fearless, courageous, daredevil reputation is even known by Ann: "Yes. Yes! You make moving pictures in jungles and places." Ann is told that she has been picked to be the leading lady in his new film, and their voyage leaves at 6 am to a place "a long way off." Ann agrees to the voyage, after Denham offers final assurances that sex isn't involved: "I'm on the level. No funny business...Just trust me and keep your chin up." They shake on it.

The next day, the all-male crew sets sail on a long six-week journey on the S. S. Venture bound for the South Pacific. The good-looking and brawny, but disgruntled First Mate Driscoll meets Ann on deck and unpleasantly marks her as "that girl Denham picked up last night." The males on board are angry and distrustful at the prospect of having such a tempting, attractive, and charming woman along on such a dangerous voyage: "I've never been on one with a woman before." Women are a "nuisance" on board ships, according to him.

During the voyage, Ann prepares to practice and rehearse a scene for the film director on the deck, "to see which side of my face looks best and all that." Driscoll really believes her life is in jeopardy and is feeling protective of her safety: "This is no place for a girl," he tells her. The First Mate is chauvinistic, but apologetic: "You're all right, but, but, but women, women just can't help being a bother. Made that way, I guess."

Denham strolls into their company, and sees Ann fondly petting the ship's pet monkey - a miniature foreshadowing of the regal Beast in the film. He comments, sardonically: "Beauty and the Beast, eh?" Ann excuses herself to put on one of her costumes for the film test to be directed by Denham. While waiting for Ann to reappear, Driscoll confronts Denham and asks what lies ahead: "When do we find out where we're going?...And you going to tell us what happens when we get there?"

Possibly feeling threatened by Driscoll's growing crush on his actress-heroine, Denham suspects that the crew member has been emasculated and gone "soft" and "sappy" over Ann's Beauty. Denham equates the first mate to the Beast in his Hollywood script - already robbed of his virile masculinity due to his concern for Ann's vulnerable presence:

Denham: Oh, you have gone soft on her, eh? I've got enough troubles without a love affair to complicate things. Better cut it out, Jack.
Driscoll: Love affair! You think I'm gonna fall for any dame?
Denham: I've never known it to fail: some big, hard-boiled egg gets a look at a pretty face and bang, he cracks up and goes sappy.
Driscoll: Now who's goin' sappy? Listen, I haven't run out on ya, have I?
Denham: No, you're a pretty tough guy, but if Beauty gets you, ya...(He breaks his train of thought and turns away with a self-deprecating smile.) Huh, I'm going right into a theme song here.
Driscoll: Say, what are you talkin' about?
Denham: It's the idea of my picture. The Beast was a tough guy too. He could lick the world. But when he saw Beauty, she got him. He went soft. He forgot his wisdom and the little fellas licked him. Think it over, Jack.


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