Friday, May 10, 2019

King Kong (1933)

USA, 105 minutes
Directors: Merian C. Cooper, Ernest B. Schoedsack
Writers: James Ashmore Creelman, Ruth Rose, Merian C. Cooper, Edgar Wallace, Leon Gordon
Photography: Edward Linden, J.O. Taylor, Vernon L. Walker, Kenneth Peach
Music: Max Steiner
Editor: Ted Cheesman
Cast: Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong, Bruce Cabot, Frank Reicher, Sam Hardy, Noble Johnson, Steve Clemente, Merian C. Cooper, Ernest B. Schoedsack, Jim Thorpe

The original King Kong is a strange beast indeed. It's so old that, even though it's officially a talkie in all ways (including a five-minute orchestral overture) and even though plenty of silent pictures had already mounted impressive special effects bonanzas, it still feels like it has a foot in the invention of cinema. Codirectors Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack are less like film directors and more like the impresario figure they use as the hero of the picture, Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong), who is notably prone to making giant huckstering statements off the cuff. "It's money and adventure and fame," he tells Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) at a diner in the middle of the night, buying her a burger as he tries to cast the female lead in his picture at the last minute. "It's the thrill of a lifetime and a long sea voyage that starts at six o'clock tomorrow morning."

There's not even a formal director's credit for this picture. The movie titles bill it as a Cooper and Schoedsack production (after David O. Selznick takes an executive producer credit) and leave it at that. At the end of the movie, buzzing the big ape King Kong perched on the Empire State Building, that's Cooper shown flying a biplane with Schoedsack at the machine gun. Top that, Alfred Hitchcock. The structure of the film is equally unconventional, lurching from a dull yakky start to exotic colonial-minded travelogue, until finally we get our first glimpse of Kong almost halfway in, at about 45 minutes. Then it's mostly creatures and screeching. And there's still another lurch toward the end, back to New York. I suspect it's not the way they teach it in screenwriting workshops.

Hold up—I know I overran that "creatures and screeching" part. It's the special effects that make King Kong, then and now, though they may be outclassed in every way (save, perhaps, conception) by what has followed in the nearly century since. The original King Kong has lost much of its formidable ability to dazzle and there's no putting that genie back in the bottle at this point. But even in its arguably limited way it's still no less than amazing. That's why everyone should see it at least once, regardless of what you have or have not already seen.

The way King Kong goes down now is as a typical '30s movie with noticeable soundstage tape hiss (even in a circa 2000s restored version) that slowly wheels around into more of a rear-projection but still mostly stodgy and stagy action / adventure kind of movie, with righteous explorer whites and mysterious hostile natives in a lost land. And then it erupts into some 40 minutes of the weirdest stuff you have ever seen or heard. The spectacle of it is mesmerizing. It still reverts to being a wooden '30s movie in brief cross-cutting scenes of dialogue, but then it's back to this bizarre and titanic single-minded world of Kong, the giant ape, and his many adversaries.

You have to wonder whether every day is like this one for Kong. I mean, of course not, all these white people have shown up, and he's toting around the blonde prize to keep as a pet or toy or something. But that doesn't explain the constant attacks by giant spiders and giant snakes or the mano a mano fight to the finish with an ur-Godzilla T. rex (unless we're meant to believe they want some of that blonde prize too, which is possible, all things considered). Oh the sounds of this battle! Raspy electronic roaring, bellowing, howling beast-screeches accented by Fay Wray's curdling screams from in front of the rear-projection screen. Genuinely unworldly and gripping too, albeit it somewhat rotely in the way of boxing matches or Street Fighter throwdowns.

I think King Kong might still be impressive to anyone who has never seen it. There might be life in it yet. I know the first time I saw it and two or three other times, usually when finding it by accident somewhere on TV after not seeing it for years, it has absolutely blown me away. The stop-motion animation is meticulous yet flawed and jerky enough to modern eyes to feel almost quaint in a way. But the life-force of these monsters is felt at least as much, if not more, than in the smoother CGI concoctions we live with now. The movie provides its own context as a '30s movie with '30s technology (early '30s at that) to suggest how spectacular it must have seemed to audiences in theaters at the time.

It has gone on, after one reportedly dismal sequel (Son of Kong, also 1933), to become one of the most persistent movie franchises in the past 50 or so years. I never did see the '70s version, or even 1962's King Kong vs. Godzilla, but Peter Jackson's faithful 2005 remake (down to the era, which was its smartest move) and 2017's Kong: Skull Island owe obvious allegiance and affection to this great monster movie. The story may feel as slapped together as Carl Denham's own filmmaking style, but that's just part of the charm. By the time we've reached New York again we've seen Denham as the crypto-colonialist that he is. He announces to a packed theater that Kong, in chains behind him, "was a king and a god in the world he knew, but now he comes to civilization merely a captive, a show to gratify your curiosity." We have a good deal of sympathy for Kong at that point. His thwarted escape and ultimate fall from the Empire State Building is as devastating as it is understated, a long shot of the skyscraper with the ape in perspective, plummeting. Contrary to Denham's famous ringing last word, no, it wasn't beauty killed the beast. It was the airplanes.


  1. I love reading your take on King Kong! Not sure why you'd remember, but it was #11 on my Facebook 50 list. The 70s version is underrated ... not great, but not the disaster people think it is. I actually had an essay on that movie published by someone who paid their writers (hard to believe, but true).

  2. I forgot that! I had it as high as the 40s in early versions of my list. It's so great. I'll have to check out that '70s version. I've got it and Kong v. Godzilla in my queue now!

  3. I wish I could find a clip on the Internet, but you'll have to take my word for it. There was actually a sequel to the 1976 Kong, King Kong Lives, that was released TEN years later. It was truly dismal (2/10), but it had one immortal scene. Some guys are out on a golf course ... one of them is lining up his tee shot ... meanwhile, Kong wanders onto the course. He's 200 feet tall, give or take, yet somehow none of the golfers notice there's a giant ape on the fairway. The guy takes his shot ... and it hits Kong in the face.