Taken For Granted: King Kong
So this week’s big new release is Kong: Skull Island. While neither the trailers or the initial critical buzz has me convinced it will be a good film, it does serve as a reminder of just how important the original is. I mean, isn’t it crazy that this giant gorilla from the 1930’s is still a ubiquitous part of pop culture in 2017?
Welcome to Taken For Granted; a column where I analyze films that are almost universally considered classics. Why? Because great movies don’t just happen by accident. They connect with initial audiences and they endure for a reason. This column is designed to keep meaningful conversation about these films alive.
Wide Release Date: April 7, 1933
Directed By: Merian C. Cooper and
Ernest B. Schoedsack
Written By: James Creelman and Ruth Rose, based on a story by Edgar Wallace and Merian C. Cooper
Produced By: Merian C. Cooper and
Ernest B. Schoedsack
Cinematography By: Eddie Linden, Vernon Walker and J.O. Taylor
Edited By: Ted Cheesman
Music By: Max Steiner
Production Company: Radio Pictures
Distributed By: Radio Pictures
Fay Wray as Ann Darrow
Robert Armstrong as Carl Denham
Bruce Cabot as Jack Driscoll
Frank Reicher as Captain Englehorn
Noble Johnson as the Native Chief
What Do We All Know?
King Kong was a smash hit in 1933, wowing and terrifying audiences with groundbreaking special effects and a fresh, original story. The film is the grandfather of special effects blockbusters, with Willis O’Brien’s stop-motion monsters paving the way not just for monster movies like Godzilla and Jurassic Park, but wrote the book on how to incorporate special effects into a grand story. The great ape himself is a pop culture icon whose presence is still felt a century later.
But time and technology march on, and King Kong has seen many incarnations since then. He fought Godzilla in 1962. The original film was remade in 1976 by John Guillermin and in 2005 by Peter Jackson, and a reboot is hitting theaters this week so that he can fight Godzilla in 2020. And there’s numerous other spin-offs and adaptations. Does the original 1933 film still hold up as a great movie? I say “Yes… if you let it.”
What Went Right?
The film is essentially the brainchild of Merian C. Cooper, who originally conceived of a story where apes fought Komodo Dragons. After a few script changes from a slew of writers and the economic decision to use Willis O’Brien’s stop-motion dinosaurs from the aborted film Creation instead of new Komodo Dragon models, everything eventually settled down to the plot we know and love today. Cooper directed O’Brien’s revolutionary special effects scenes, while co-director Ernest B. Schoedsack handled the dialogue scenes.
King Kong was brought to life with an 18-inch animatronic puppet, a 24-inch puppet for certain scenes, an animatronic arm and leg, and a massive puppet head that isn’t to scale with Kong’s body. The individual body parts were used for close-up scenes where humans had to interact directly with Kong, while the 18-inch puppet was used to battle similarly scaled dinosaurs that he shared the island with. The stop-motion process was painstaking, with his famous battle with a Tyrannosaurus Rex taking seven weeks to finish. O’Brien worked with his assistant Buzz Dixon, and the Kong puppets were constructed by Marcel Delgado, who also operated the enormous Kong head with his own team.
But it wasn’t just the puppets that were groundbreaking. Film composition, the process of several layers of film played over each other for one image, was revolutionized here. Footage of actors on stage were laid over footage with the stop-motion scenes, which were often laid over matte paintings in the background. One scene in which Kong battles a serpentine dinosaur was perhaps the most technically impressive scene ever when it was made, with multiple layers over it.
The film also had amazing sound design, and was the first “talkie” to have a feature length score, which Cooper paid for himself. The score was done with a 46-piece orchestra and featured leitmotifs and themes; no other film had had such impressive music before. On nearly every technical level, King Kong was a pioneer. And it had to be. There was no other way the film could have been made without breaking new ground.
What Went Wrong?
You may notice I haven’t discussed the actual human part of the film. While none of it is what I would call outright bad, it’s nothing to write home about either. The characters are serviceable, and Jack Driscoll and Carl Denham have definite personalities and arcs. Denham even has the killer final line. But… yeah this film is kind of boring when it’s just the human characters, and the first twenty minutes can feel slow. I still think it’s miles better than say, 2014’s Godzilla when it comes to its human characters, but the acting is wooden and nobody really cares about the characters. Well, maybe Ann Darrow’s screaming. I imagine people can find that annoying.
There’s also the theory that King Kong and his pseudo-sexual relationship with Ann is allegory to warn of the “dangers” black men pose to white women. And yes, there are superficial similarities between Kong and American slaves, as Quentin Tarantino was more than happy to point out in Inglourious Basterds. But I tend to take the filmmakers at their word and say this is a straightforward movie with no sinister hidden message. If it’s there, it comes from ingrained passive racism and not active, intentional bigotry.
What Went Really Right?
I’m gonna level with you readers; I love King Kong. I can talk about the technical achievements all day, but the most important thing is that it was all in service of a thrilling story. The visuals of Ann Darrow as a human sacrifice, humans being chased by dinosaurs, Kong fighting dinosaurs, his attack on the tribal village, his escape from Broadway, his climb of the Empire State Building and his ultimate demise… I love all these moments. If you are willing to let the film entertain you, it’s a wild, exciting ride.
I think what’s more telling about what this film did right is that neither remake is as good as it. A major reason is because it’s a tight script with little to distract us from Kong once he arrives. It’s easy to make fun of how fake and even cheesy the film’s effects look today, but that ape still has personality, it’s still terrifying and exciting and larger than life. And that’s why, in my opinion, King Kong more than stands the test of time.
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