It was 80 years today that King Kong premiered at Radio City Music Hall. The film is proof that special effects, which advance almost year, need not be state of the art to make a film work. By today’s standards, the effects in King Kong are laughable (though, in some ways it was the Avatar of its day). Technology may advance the ways of telling a story, but the story itself is paramount.
The film has been remade twice, and neither film trumps the original, which tells the story of a filmmaker (very much like the co-director and conceiver of the project, Merian C. Cooper) who hires a tramp steamer to take him to an uncharted island in the Pacific Ocean. He has heard tales of some kind of powerful being, known only as “Kong,” that keeps the islanders in fear, so much so that an ancient wall separates them from the domain of Kong.
Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) needs an actress for his film, but no agent will send one on such a mysterious trip. So he finds a woman fainting from hunger, Anne Darrow (Fay Wray) who jumps at the chance (after Armstrong, in a carefully worded scene, assures it will be “strictly business”–this was a pre-Code film, after all). After being seen as bad luck by the crew, she eventually becomes beloved, especially by Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot), the first mate.
The boat arrives at Skull Island through a thick fog, the sound of drums in the distance. Everything that Denham says was true, but an encounter with the natives goes badly when they want to buy Wray, offering six of their own women. It’s commented that the natives don’t see many blondes. After refusing, the crew slip back to their ship, but Wray is kidnapped, and offered to Kong as a “bride.” That’s when the big guy makes his debut–a giant gorilla.
In the second act of the picture, which I think is the best, the crew try to rescue her, while Kong carries her around like a Barbie doll. We find out that many previously extinct creatures live on the island, and often Kong has to kill them to keep Wray safe, most notably a Tyrannosaurus Rex. There is a visceral thrill to this section, as the sailors run for their lives from a Brontosaurus (a biological error–they were herbivorous) and when they are shaken off a log by an angry Kong. They fall to their deaths, and though it is obviously dolls falling and landing on the ravine floor, a sense of brutality still exists.
After Kong is captured, because he will not do without Wray, comes the memorable New York sequence, which is also heart-pounding. I especially think a scene in which the escaped Kong, looking for Wray, pulls an unknowing woman out of her bed, and, realizing she is not Wray, drops her to her doom, has real punch to it. The famous end on the Empire State Building, when Kong is shot by airplanes (in one of them Cooper and co-director Ernest Schoedseck play the pilot and gunner) still has tremendous emotional impact. As Armstrong says in the last in, “It was beauty killed the beast.”
The film has been immensely popular since it was released. For years in was a Thanksgiving Day staple on WOR in New York, and it’s surely one of the most viewed films of all time. The stop motion work by Willis O’Brien, which of course looks pretty silly today, was far ahead of its time, and wowed crowds in the ’30s, and small children would still be pretty thrilled by it. But, there are some troubling aspects to the film.
As Quentin Tarantino pointed out in Inglourious Basterds (and he wasn’t the first) there is a strong racial component to King Kong. Kong’s journey mirrors in many ways the black American experience–taken back to America in chains, and then vilified for liking a white woman. I don’t know what Cooper’s thoughts were on the subject, but it’s hard not to think that the fear of miscegenation lurks not so far beneath the surface of the film. The closeup of Kong when he first sees Wray reveals almost a lustful leer and he looks a lot like some of the depictions of blacks from the time, such as Uncle Ben and Little Black Sambo. The scene (which was cut out of the film after the Hays Code came in effect) of him undressing her and then sniffing his fingers seems to be of the same lustful provenance.
The depiction of the islanders, though pretty tasteful for the period, also carries some racial stigma. That they would offer six of their own women for Wray may be because she’s unusual to them, but audiences of the time I’m sure couldn’t help but think “that’s about right.”
Wray would also be remembered for her role in this picture (a person would be hard pressed to name another, though she was in Cooper’s The Most Dangerous Game). Kong would go on to be a household name, not only appearing in remakes but in knockoffs like King Kong vs. Godzilla, which I remember seeing as a very small child in my local library. As with all great monsters, he is terrifying but sympathetic, and watching him fall from the top of the building leaves us with a profound sadness. When Denham pushes his way through the crowd to view the ape’s corpse, it’s kind of interesting, because one, I hope that the city is going to slap him with a huge fine and possible jail time for being the cause of this mayhem, and two, I wonder if has any remorse? Does he realize that he could have left Kong on the island, the balance between man and nature still intact?