A game changing, spellbinding adventure about the power of beauty and the evils of civilization
“King Kong” left such an impact on the world that probably just about everyone knows the story, or at least the character of “Kong”. There’s even a good chance those new to classic cinema have seen one of the remakes. But this original version, in black and white from 1933, stands the test of time and I would argue it is hands down the best “King Kong” ever made. Movie goers nowadays are used experiencing sound and visual effects that forge a realism at its most extraordinary. And yet, the original “King Kong”, made decades before computers, transports us to a world of its own, like no other. The stop-motion animation used in this films is so effective and mesmerizing it elevates and heightens the magic and fantasy of the story - something that is lost with today’s super realistic effects. And except for serious cinema fans, I would assert that this film is somewhat taken for granted. We all know it’s a classic but forget just how outstanding and revolutionary it is.
“King Kong” is a breathtaking look at the power and price of beauty, and what civilization does to innocence. The storytelling is so concise and crafted so well there is nothing superfluous. Once the characters are established through a quick buildup, there is non-stop action until the end.
This film first premiered during the heart of the Great Depression and when it was released people had no clue what they were about to see. The film’s story begins in the Depression and then it quickly leaves “reality”, becoming escapism at its best. Despite the majority of the public having little or no money at the time, “King Kong” was a phenomenon with lines of people paying to see it. It was made during the Pre-Code years (which I talk about in the “Red Dust” post) and you can see lots of Pre-Code situations, most notably when “Kong” starts to undress “Ann”, ripping and sniffing her clothes. A total of almost five minutes (that scene plus some violent scenes) were removed because of the enforcement of the Code when the film was rereleased in 1938. The cut footage was thought to be lost but a print of the original version was found in the 1960s, with a better quality of the original found in the 1980s, which is usually the one bought or rented today. You definitely want to see the original version. It’s simply amazing.
“King Kong” was directed by two men, Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack. They were friends, both fought in World War I, were adventurers, risk takers, and loved exploration to the point where each of their biographies reads like an Indiana Jones script. Ernest Schoedsack started in films as a cameraman, and the two decided to make films together which would thematically capitalize on their love of adventure starting in 1925. They made adventure documentaries which they called “natural dramas”, traveling to Africa, Asia, and other places considered “exotic”. In addition, they co-directed the 1929 feature film "The Four Feathers" starring William Powell. The two were incredibly imaginative men. Cooper was a film producer and director at the time of “King Kong" who was also the Head of Production at RKO Pictures. He is the person who thought up the idea for “King Kong” and brought Schoedsack, with his technical expertise, on board as co-director. In “King Kong”, the character of “Carl Denham” was loosely modeled after Cooper, and the character of “Jack” was somewhat modeled after Schoedsack. The part of “Ann” was loosely modeled after Schoedsack’s wife, Ruth Rose, who co-wrote the screenplay for the film with James Ashmore Creelman. “King Kong” was her first screenplay.
A key factor as to why “King Kong” is so bewitching is the mind-blowing and ground breaking visual effects, starting with with “Kong” himself. The effects drive the story in this film instead of slowing it down for the sake of spectacle. People at the time never saw anything like this film. Imagine not knowing this story or seeing anything remotely like these special effects, and seeing a realistic giant “monster” mixing with real people in real settings for the first time. “King Kong” made such an impact that an entire genre of Monster Movies emerged largely because of this film. No details were spared in the animation. Take “Kong” for instance. He is so expertly created and so real with such a wide range of emotions that you honestly feel for him, a reason the story is so affecting on many levels. Willis H. O’Brien was the mastermind behind the astounding visual effects. He had created special effects for the 1925 silent film “The Lost World”, as well as several short films before “King Kong” . But with “King Kong” he pushed the limits of special effects, combining techniques in ways that had never been done before, inventing things as he went along. There are up to five composite shots in a single frame in the film, yet when watching it you could never tell. The use of miniatures is so well integrated you would never know the actual stop motion figure of “Kong” was no larger than two feet tall. O’Brien’s effects were so cutting edge (and still look that way today) that he got US patents for some of the techniques he created on this film. Might I add that the effects don’t just act alone. They are integrated into striking composition and lighting, even during heavy duty action sequences. This film is truly a work of art.
Not only were the visual effects unprecedented, but so was the film score and sound effects. The memorable and dramatic score was written by Max Steiner who became known as the “Father of Film Music” largely due to his score for “King Kong”. This score is noted as being the first completely original film score, and it’s where Steiner defined what we now know as a film score. Steiner invented distinct themes synchronized to individual characters and events specifically to enhance the film’s action and emotions. Something we take for granted now, but it was way ahead of its time. Like the rest of the film, there is nothing superfluous about the score. Music is only used when needed, one example being that there is very little music if any until the characters are established and arrive to Skull Island. Steiner even uses music occasionally as a sound effect in the film. I will talk more about Max Steiner in an upcoming blog.
The sound effects in “King Kong” were also a landmark in cinema. RKO's sound department head Murray Spivack decided to integrate the sound effects with the film score so they would complement each other - also done for the first time. Spivack came up with cutting edge sounds for the creatures and of course for “Kong”. This film revolutionized sound effects and became the model for how we think about film scores and sound effects, even today. It also set the framework and palette still used for sound effects and music in monster films.
In spite of all the technical breakthroughs and excellence in “King Kong”, it was not nominated for any Academy Awards. However, in 1953 Merian C. Cooper would receive an honorary Academy Award for his innovations and contribution to cinema, and in 1949 Willis O’Brien would receive a “Best Special Effects” Oscar for his effects in “Mighty Joe Young”.
Fay Wray, who stars as “Ann Darrow”, an actress who largely appeared in “B” films, would forever become an iconic “scream queen” (a term given to actresses associated with horror films) because of her role in "King Kong". Born in Canada but growing up in Los Angeles, Fay started acting shortly after High School. She began working in films in 1923, mostly silent Westerns, and her break came with her first lead part in director Erich von Stroheim’s 1928 silent film, “The Wedding March”. She made the transition to sound films somewhat easily and continued to work steadily. “King Kong” is by far her most remembered role and film, was the pinnacle of her career, and with it she became known internationally and became a film icon. Wray is perfect in the role - innocent, sexy, and vulnerable, along with very potent and powerful screams. She was able to hold her own against “Kong” which says a lot about her talent and appeal. She wasn’t blonde and wore a wig in the film. After “King Kong”, her career declined but she continued working until her retirement in 1980. She appeared in over 100 films and television shows, and her other notable films include "Doctor X", "The Most Dangerous Game", "Wax Museum", "The Vampire Bat", and "The Texan". She was married three times, including a marriage to Robert Riskin, the screenwriter for the classic "It Happened One Night”. Fay Wray died in 2004 at the age of 96. For this film alone she will always be fondly remembered in the history of cinema.
Robert Armstrong, who portrays “Carl Denham”, was a prolific character actor, sometimes a lead, known for mostly playing fast-talking tough guys. After serving in World War I, Armstrong began his acting career on stage. Eventually noticed by a talent scout, his film career started in silents in 1927. He immediately transitioned to sound films and his career flourished. It was with “King Kong” that he found his biggest success. He was just right for the role of “Carl”, and radiates a sense of adventure and excitement so important to this film. In the daytime Armstrong, Fay Wray, Cooper and Schoedsack would film “King Kong”, and simultaneously at night shoot the film “The Most Dangerous Game” on the same jungle sets as “King Kong”. Armstrong would again team with Cooper and Schoedsack on several more films, most notably “Son of Kong” also released in 1933 (made to capitalize on the success of “King Kong”), and “Mighty Joe Young” in 1949, another classic about a giant gorilla. Armstrong would make close to 200 films and TV shows in his long career, which ended in 1964. In addition to the films listed above, he also appeared in "The Fugitive", “‘G’ Men ", "Iron Man" with Jean Harlow, and the Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy film "The Sea of Grass”. He was married four times. Interestingly Robert Armstrong, who Merian C. Cooper cast to emulate himself in several films, died at the age of 82 on April 20, 1973, one day before Cooper’s death on April 21, 1973.
Like his two co-stars, Bruce Cabot, who plays “John ‘Jack’ Driscoll”, is best remembered for his role in “King Kong”. He too is perfect for his role as the tall, masculine and imposing, yet with a softness about him, hero. Also a prolific character actor, he appeared in films beginning in 1931, and worked in films and TV until 1971 with over 100 credits to his name. He took a break from acting while serving in World War II. Cabot famously lost the lead in the film “Stagecoach” to John Wayne (which made Wayne s star), and the two later appeared together in “Angel and the Badman” in 1947. They would become friends and drinking buddies, and Cabot would appear in almost a dozen more films with Wayne late in his career. Other notable films Cabot appeared in include “Dodge City” (with Errol Flynn - another actor with whom he was close friends), "The Quiet American", "The Desert Song”, "The Last of the Mohicans", "Cat Ballou", "The Green Berets", and his final film the James Bond classic "Diamonds Are Forever”. He was married three times. Bruce Cabot died in 1972 at the age of 68.
“King Kong” has been remade, sequels have appeared, “Kong” has appeared in cartoons, films and even video games, but there is nothing better than this original version. Even if you’ve already seen this film (and especially if you haven’t seen it in years) I highly recommend watching “King Kong”. This film, which set a new bar for films in so many ways, is sheer enjoyment from start to finish. It is definitely a film to be watched and re-watched. So sit back, get out the popcorn, and get ready for a true spectacle, “King Kong”. Enjoy!
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TO READ AFTER VIEWING (contains spoilers):
“King Kong” contains one of the most famous lines in cinema history - the very last line of the film: “Oh no, it wasn't the airplanes. It was beauty killed the beast”.