King Kong is a gigantic ape, the ruler of Skull Island. The island’s human inhabitants are terrified of him, and have built a giant wall as a barrier. One day, invaders, armed with gas bombs, overpower and capture him, bringing him to another island, the stone jungle of Manhattan, where he must again assert his power and majesty. Hemmed in and besieged, he searches for the island’s highest point and climbs the two year old Empire State Building. The one Pre-Code film that lives in the American Pop Culture universe, King Kong is many things, it’s a superlative monster movie, but also an ethnographic film in which the subject exacts revenge on the explorer. To some, Kong represents every outsider, minority, feminist, or LGBT individual exploited by white male adventurers, although its director insisted, “King Kong was never intended to be anything more than the best damned adventure picture ever made.” My father saw this film when it came out--he was eight years old. He never quite recovered from the excitement.
James Sanders asserts, King Kong is “one of the most powerful visions of the movie city ever created.” The parallels to Kong’s jungle realm are elemental; the streets are canyons, the skyscrapers are mountains and the waterfront is an island shore. “It is here, the films seemed to say, at the very core of the modern world, that powerful forces and pressures, little changed since prehistoric times, still govern our actions. In this vision, New York has gone further than anyplace else—further, that is, back in the direction of the jungle.” The film also showcases an anxiety over the destruction of America’s urban jewel, New York City. This may be the first time that the city is decimated on screen, but it would be far from the last.
It was Merian C. Cooper who hit upon the idea of a giant ape climbing the Empire State Building. He and his partner, Ernest Schoedsack, were documentarians, who made a couple of exciting true-life adventure films, Grass, about a monumental annual trek undertaken by Kurdish tribesmen in Iran, and Chang, which was a somewhat more fictionalized story about Thai elephants. He had been daydreaming about a movie centering on the discovery of a giant ape on a remote Pacific island, but he couldn’t think of a good conclusion, what he called a “chariot race” referring to the climax of Ben Hur. One day in 1930, he stepped out on the midtown Manhattan streets and glanced up at a passing airplane as the sun flashed off the wings, as it flew near one of the city’s tallest structures, the New York Life Insurance Building. “I immediately saw in my mind’s eye a giant gorilla on top of the building and I thought to myself, if I can get the gorilla logically on top of the mightiest building in the world and then have him shot down by the most modern of weapons, the airplane, then no matter how great he was in size that gorilla was doomed by civilization. And I remember saying aloud to myself, ‘Well, if that isn’t a chariot race, I don’t know what is'” (Saunders). Stylistically, King Kong would evoke, not the German Expressionism of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Metropolis, as many of the early Universal horror films like Frankenstein and Dracula did, but rather the magical turn of the century experimental films of Georges Melies.
Merian C. Cooper shares his vision with Fay Wray via some pipe smoke.
And, Kong’s destiny kept changing as the city built up. The New York Life Insurance Building was displaced by the 1,077 ft Chrysler Building and in 1931 the Empire State Building became the tallest at 1,250 feet. The Art Deco skyscrapers had a stepped shape for a reason. Zoning laws passed in 1916 dictated the square footage of the top floor of a building could be no greater than ¼ of its lower floors. This architectural reality contributed to the symbolism of Kong being hemmed in by the jungle, echoed by the density of the crowds and skyscraper bases, propelled to the top of the urban jungle by the inviting craggy setbacks of the skyscrapers. Part of the reason for the failure of the 1976 King Kong was that the same claustrophobia was impossible to induce by stranding Kong on the vast open plaza in front of the World Trade Centers, tall buildings, true, and their smooth regularity was less tempting to climb, lacking the old primitive symbolic thrust.
The film was produced by David O. Selznick, in uncharacteristic hands-off style. Cooper said, Selznick “…didn’t have the slightest idea what I was doing, but he said that Shoedsack and I had only made three films, but they were all smashes, so he’d back me all the way. And, he did, too. He never interfered, never tried to tell me what to do” (Senn).
Composer Max Steiner was told to recycle some of his scores from other films, but ignored the front office instructions and created one of the signature horror film scores. He composed the music in two weeks and had another two weeks to record it. “King Kong was made for music,” he said, “It was the kind of film that allowed you to do anything and everything from weird chords and dissonances to pretty melodies” (Senn). Kong’s roars were a lion’s run at half speed and printed in reverse. The whole experimental sound design of the film was revolutionary; talkies were only a few years old, and nobody had ever asked what a dinosaur sounded like before.
Author Michael Benson asserts that King Kong is the “greatest monster in the history of film.” Cooper had originally thought of using either a live gorilla, or a man in a gorilla suit, with menacing Komodo dragon lizards as a nemesis. But that plan was both unsatisfying both from an imagination point of view and a budgetary one; it was much too expensive. Then, Cooper saw an experimental reel of Creation, a film proposed by special effects pioneer Willis O’ Brien. He had first vivified prehistoric life in 1914 in The Dinosaur and the Missing Link. His previous masterpiece was the 1925 version of The Lost World in which a rampaging dinosaur destroys London. The effects in The Lost World were persuasive and dramatic. You could watch a brontosaurus breathe! Producer Merian C. Cooper felt Creation, in which humans were shipwrecked on an island of prehistoric creatures was exciting, but plotless. One completed reel of this film acted as an inducement to go ahead with King Kong, however, and some of the Creation footage did end up in the film. O'Brien was, in Cooper’s words, “A true genius. The only way he could communicate an idea was sketching out. He could sketch animals, particularly prehistoric animals, better than any man who ever lived. He was certainly the most brilliant trick and special effects man that Hollywood had ever seen.”
Kong himself was only 16” high (although his perceived scale does vary during the film) and special effects took a full year, and a budget of $650,000, 3 times the cost of the average RKO film of the time. A full size head and torso of Kong was built for close-ups. The model was the most sophisticated ever built. Numerous sketches became a dozen trial designs, and eventually 6 identical models were built, so six crews could do the stop-motion photography on miniature sets simultaneously. The model was the first to use a metal armature with ball and socket joints for a great range of anatomically correct movements. The rubber flesh was covered with rabbit fur, and improvement over the previous wax models, which tended to melt under the hot lights. Kong is not a representation of an actual primate. As pointed out on the Unspooled podcast by primatologist Kate Gilmore, there really was no field of study of the great apes until the 1960s. Kong is definitely not a gorilla, and his eyes are human eyes, which is part of the reason one identifies so strongly with him.
Willis O’Brien said in a contemporary interview, “Speaking for myself, King Kong represents the goal of more than 20 years. For that long a time—and that is a long time in motion pictures—I have delved into bygone periods, studied the life of animals long before the descent of man, preparing myself for the day when someone would dare to reproduce on the screen the giant beasts that once ruled the world. Without knowing it, I was waiting for King Kong. That is the picture for which I have studied 20 years. I fell it has been worth the long years of research. And, I hope you, too, will feel the same way after seeing King Kong.”
Backgrounds were painted on glass using scenes from Gustave Doré’s Paradise Lost. Shoedsack directed the live action, and Cooper the animation. Both directors can be seen as pilot and gunner in the airplane that shoots down their own creation. (Cooper actually had been a pilot in WWI, and had been shot down and badly burned). The great wall on Skull Island was built for the Cecil B. DeMille King of Kings and can be seen in other RKO films, as well, before being burned as part of Atlanta for Gone With the Wind. You can clearly see the collapse of the great gate as Rhett and Scarlett flee in a wagon.
Robert Armstrong, who plays Carl Denham, was a busy character actor, usually playing a variation on the good hearted tough guy. This is without a doubt his most famous part. He bore a physical resemblance to Merian C. Cooper, and supposedly modeled his performance on Cooper’s personal style and mannerisms.
Fay Wray eventually came to terms with the fact that her long career was remembered primarily for a single film. She began in the late silent era, and her big break was acting opposite Erich von Stroheim in The Wedding March. In 1969 Wray reminisced about her famous screams, “I made myself believe that the nearest possible hope of rescue was at least a mile away and my only chance of survival was to be heard loud and clear!” If there is a lot of shreiking, perhaps her screams were intended to fill gaps in the dialogue. Wray said of her most famous role, “Cooper and Schoedsack gave me absolute freedom to make my own choices and never made me feel that I was being directed; there were often scenes that were done in one take. For instance, the scene on the ship when Denham is making a 'screen test' of Ann was done just once” (Wray) And, in spite of the epitaph of the film, it was NOT Beauty who killed the beast, it was not her fault!
Fay Wray with her natural hair color: "In private life the wife of John Monk Saunders, the author and scenarist. Miss Wray is one of the most popular of Hollywood's free lance leading women, following a long stay at the Paramount studios where she played a wide variety of roles."
Although we tend to think of King Kong as a horror or fantasy film, the audiences of the day probably felt it was more of a jungle film (like a Tarzan movie) or an expeditionary film like the documentaries previously made by King Kong’s directors. Thomas Doherty notes this early sound film made before film censorship was rigorously enforced, " is a perfect synthesis of the genres and tropes of the era, equal parts expeditionary film, nightmare picture, romantic melodrama, preachment yarn, special effects showcase and sound-on-film innovator.”
A condescending attitude towards people of color was standard for the time. Jungle documentaries routinely demeaned not only the tribal members, but those Africans (or other indigenous peoples) who were likely saving the bacon of the intrepid white explorers. The depiction of the natives on Skull Island may cause some discomfort in these more enlightened times, although they are treated with a surprising amount of dignity for the era. But, in the deepest Depression year of 1933, all the actors you see portraying natives were quite appreciative of the jobs that King Kong and other popular jungle pictures could provide.
The leader of Skull Island is an actor named Nobel Johnson. He had an incredible life! Where is his biopic? Johnson was born in Missouri in 1881, possibly to a black father and white mother, but grew up in Colorado Springs, Colorado. In school he hung out with a white kid who became one of silent Hollywood’s greatest stars, Lon Chaney. Johnson loved horses, and hoped to be a cowboy. He worked on a ranch, but tall and athletic, he was also a professional boxer, and worked many rough and ready jobs. In 1914, a movie company filming in Colorado needed a quick replacement for a stuntman injured doing a horse stunt. He was handsome, but also light skinned, and he was cast as an Indian. He began his film career playing all races, white, black, Native American, Italian, “exotic” and so on. Early black and white film stock made it difficult to identify a person solely by skin tone. By 1916, the black press called him “the race’s daredevil movie star” and “America’s premiere Afro-American screen star.” (Bogle 20). He quickly realized that he was leading man material, but not in mainstream Hollywood. So he and his brother started the Lincoln Film Company, making films for black audiences. Like many independent minded filmmakers, he worked studio jobs to finance his independent films. But, distribution was a struggle, and in spite of success with black audiences, Lincoln folded in 1921. Returning to Universal, he portrayed ethnic roles in silent era blockbusters like The Ten Commandments, The Thief of Bagdad, Ben Hur and Buster Keaton’s The Navigator. He refused to play the shuffling stereotypes often demanded of black actors. Continuing into the sound era, he remained one of the most steadily employed black actors, his last film credit was in 1950. He died at the age of 96.
Censors demanded multiple cuts, some of which were restored in 1972 after the demise of the Hollywood Production Code, which fumed over scenes like Kong sniffing his fingers after fondling Fay Wray. One scene that was never recovered was when men, shaken off a log into an abyss, were devoured by a giant spider, cut as being too gruesome. Peter Jackson recreated this scene in original Kong style: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0bjDNu9VFXc To tone down the gore, produced by glistening chocolate syrup, the whole film was printed darker than normal, which resulted in the loss of layers of special effects and the set detail of NYC and the gate on Skull Island.
King Kong is among the most famous of motion pictures, the classic film shown most often on television, with the exception of Casablanca. “There are few images in all of Western Art more outlandish and unforgettable than the giant ape holding Fay Wray like a prize atop the delirious deco-phallicism of the newly constructed Empire State Building,” David Skal asserts.
King Kong is still an audience pleasing film. The NC Museum of Art crowd may have giggled at some of the stilted dialogue, but loved all the special effects scenes, which have retained their power. O'Brien's observation of animal behavior, like Kong's curious testing of the lifelessness of the T Rex after he has been vanquished, humanizes him in an effecting way. Audience members applauded enthusiastically at the end, and excitedly discussed their favorite scenes on the way out.
There are many academic readings of this film that assign Kong and the various characters symbolic roles. It can be read as a fear of miscegenation, metaphor for colonial conquest, desire for the exotic “other” etc. Cooper scoffed at the sexual and religious symbolism assigned over the years to his creation. “King Kong was never intended to be anything more than the best damned adventure picture ever made. Which it is, and that’s all it is” (Senn).
It wouldn't be a Pre-Code movie without some lacy lingerie. Fay Wray cowers with Bruce Cabot.
Sometimes, the contemporary reviews get it just right. This is from the February, 1933 The New Movie Magazine. It concludes on the next page, " There is no doubt at all about this picture. It is definitely one that you should see. The kids will talk about it for months to come."
Thanks to David Spencer at the NC School of the Arts Film Archive for loan of the print.
Kong photo from Jerry Ohlinger's Movie Material Store, Wray glamour portrait from October, 1931, The New Movie Magazine. Souces include: The Monster Show by David J. Skal, Vintage Science Fiction Films by Michael Benson, Golden Horrors by Bryan Senn, Celluloid Skyline by James Sanders, Tracking King Kong by Cynthia Erb, On the Other Hand by Fay Wray, Film Encyclopedia by Ephraim Katz, https://www.earwolf.com/episode/king-kong/ , Bright Boulevards, Bold Dreams by Donald Bogle, Noble Johnson on imdb: https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0425903/bio?ref_=nm_ov_bio_sm
A note on Peter Jackson's King Kong: Peter Jackson's professed admiration for the original King Kong has created a largely satisfying remake, a seemingly impossible task. Jackson has incorporated numerous homages to the 1933 film, some as little in-jokes and others considerably more extensive. He and his scriptwriters have retained much of the classic dialogue of the New York section of the film, in spite of having acknowleged Cooper and Schoedsack only as authors of the original story. Judging by the reaction of the multiplex audience to the final line, it's clear that few of them have ever seen the original. Big complaint: Too many giant bugs! Nitpicky complaint: Ann Darrow is recruited for the voyage in part because she will fit in the existing "size 4" costumes. Sizing was different in the 1930s, there was no such thing as a size 4. But, Naomi Watts did not want movie audiences thinking she was a (1930s) size 12. I don't think that many would dispute that Jack Black is a better actor than Robert Armstrong, or Adrien Brody a better actor than Bruce Cabot. I feel strongly that it's possible to appreciate both of these films as separate entities. Please don't disparage the older film to justify enjoying the new one. Time would be better spent concentrating on why, along with The Wizard of Oz, this is one of American's most resonant fairy tales. There is of course, yet another reboot, with Kong: Skull Island, starring Tom Hiddleston and Samuel L. Jackson (and Brie Larson in a very un-1970s tank top). This version has far less to do with the original King Kong than Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now.