#288) King Kong (1933)
OR “Ape Fear”
Directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack
Written by James Creelman and Ruth Rose. Based on an idea by Cooper and Edgar Wallace.
Class of 1991
No original trailer, but here’s one from a 1938 re-release!
The Plot: Adventurous filmmaker Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) casts young Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) to star in his next picture. They board a ship bound for the mysterious Skull Island, and Ann falls for the ship’s first mate Jack (Bruce Cabot). Once they arrive on the island, the natives choose Ann as a sacrifice to “Kong”, a giant ape that rules the island. Kong appears to take a liking to Ann and protects her throughout a series of attacks from the island’s prehistoric creatures. Denham makes a plan to capture Kong and showcase him on Broadway, but Kong won’t go without a fight, or at the very least scaling the Empire State Building with Ann in tow while fighting off airplanes.
Why It Matters: The NFR calls it “an audience favorite” and praises “Willis O’Brien’s spectacular stop-motion effects”. There’s also an essay by Kong expert Michael Price.
But Does It Really?: I will not argue the legacy of “King Kong” or its status as a classic, but I will argue that it has not aged as well as you’d hope. The dialogue and characterizations are dated, which makes for a slow first half, but once Kong shows up, you’re in for a very fun ride. The special effects are the main highlight here, and are still exciting to watch 85 years later. It’s not one of the untouchables on this list, but “King Kong” is a bona-fide classic.
Everybody Gets One: Robert Armstrong had worked with Cooper and Schoedsack on their previous RKO picture, “The Most Dangerous Game”, and was an early favorite for the role of Carl Denham. Armstrong is one of the few actors to reprise his role in hastily produced sequel “Son of Kong”, which he actually preferred over the original.
Wow, That’s Dated: Soooooo much sexism and racism in this one. In terms of dialogue, the pièce de résistance is Denham’s declaration that there’s “something on that island no white man has ever seen.” More non-verbal stop-motion, please!
Seriously, Oscars?: “Kong” executive producer David O. Selznick unsuccessfully lobbied to get the movie a special Oscar for its visual effects (that category didn’t exist until 1939). The Academy did, however, give out a technical award to Sidney Saunders and Fred Jackman for their development of rear screen projections for several films, including “Kong”.
- There is a lot of material out there about the creation of “King Kong”. A good place to start is the film’s original laserdisc commentary by film historian Ronald Haver, notable for being the very first audio commentary.
- Right from the start, this movie hits you over the head with the “beauty and the beast” motif. Fun Fact: The “Old Arabian Proverb” at the beginning is made up.
- Fay Wray kinda looks like if Meryl Streep played Brie Larson. Along the same lines, Bruce Cabot seems like a proto-Charlton Heston we tried out in the ‘30s.
- It takes so long for this movie to get to the island. How much more sexism and coolies do I have to sit through?
- Kong lives at the entrance of Jurassic Park? Hold on to your butts.
- Thank god Kong finally shows up. At this point the only thing that could possibly save this movie is a stop-motion ape.
- The fight sequences can get pretty gruesome in a few spots, and many of these scenes were deleted from subsequent re-releases. That being said, it really isn’t too far-fetched to imagine Kong fighting Godzilla.
- All the men in this movie scream like Slim Pickins in “Dr. Strangelove”.
- Okay, the effects in this movie are awesome. The scene of Kong shaking the men off of the fallen tree is still really impressive to watch. Can we get Willis O’Brien a retroactive Oscar?
- Most historians ignore the movie’s most influential dialogue exchange: “Roar!” “Ahhhhh!”
- And then this movie slips into the moral gray area of Kong removing Ann’s clothing. Naiveté or harassment? You make the call.
- Every time Kong defends Ann from one of the monsters I want him to yell, “That’s my wife, you bastard!”
- I call shenanigans on Jack and Ann surviving a fall that high.
- Why do they keep toting Kong as “the eighth wonder of the world”? The other seven are all man-made, where does a giant ape fit into this?
- Cooper and Schoedsack always denied that the film had any metaphorical implications, but I must say the film historians who make the slavery argument have a solid case.
- One patron complains that tickets to see Kong are $20, roughly $388 today. By comparison, mezzanine tickets for “Hamilton” currently start at $330.
- How many times do I have to tell you people: you get better pictures by turning the flash off!
- The Empire State Building was less than two years old when Kong scaled it. The equivalent today would be if he came to San Francisco and climbed our god-ugly Salesforce Tower.
- “It wasn’t the airplanes. It was Beauty killed the Beast.” No, it was definitely the airplanes.
- “Kong” was a runaway hit when released in March 1933. It was so popular that work immediately began on a sequel. “Son of Kong” was rushed to theaters only nine months after the original.
- The character of Kong has been the subject of a few copyright claims over the years, and his current ownership is split between a few companies. The trouble started in 1962 when Merian C. Cooper learned that RKO was licensing Kong to the Japanese studio Toho for “King Kong vs. Godzilla”. Cooper filed suit in a case presumably called “Cooper v. ‘King Kong vs. Godzilla’”.
- The original “King Kong” has been remade twice (so far): The 1976 Dino De Laurentiis version gave us newcomer Jessica Lange, and the 2005 Peter Jackson version proved there was life after “Lord of the Rings” (sort of).
- Kong’s current film incarnation is as part of Legendary Entertainment’s “MonsterVerse”. 2017’s “Kong: Skull Island” was the launching pad for Kong’s rematch with Godzilla in 2020.
- And all of the above are just the official entries. There are countless rip-offs and Kong-esque gorillas throughout film history. Plus a Japanese cartoon show!
- “King Kong Encounter” was a part of the Universal Studios Hollywood tour until a fire destroyed it in 2008. An updated “King Kong: 360 3-D” segment is now in its place.
- At long last, Kong has made it to Broadway. From what I can tell, their opening night went better than Denham’s.
- The pop-culture references to “King Kong” are so numerous they have their own Wikipedia page. So I will leave you, as I often do, with a “Simpsons” reference.
- No wait, “Donkey Kong”. Let’s end with “Donkey Kong”.
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