King Kong is the greatest giant monster movie ever made in Hollywood. Nothing feels more cinematic than a 24 foot tall gorilla scaling the Empire State Building. Decades before Godzilla, King Kong became one of the most iconic characters in film history. Since jungle movies were all the rage back then, directors Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack developed their own picture. Their simple, but ambitious idea was to follow a giant ape from a prehistoric island and into the modern world.
Although almost 100 years old, King Kong has aged surprisingly well. It wowed audiences with state of the art stop-motion special effects, a tragic monster, and a genuine build up. King Kong was a major hit that led to sequels, remakes, cartoons, video games, and several giant ape imitators. I have my mom to thank for introducing my brother and I to the 1933 classic. Unlike most remakes, our mom encouraged us to see the original first. No matter how many times I watch King Kong, it never fails to give me a chest pounding cinematic experience…
King Kong has a perfect three-act structure. It all begins with a 4 minute overture that I usually skip. Though Max Steiner’s score is wonderfully thrilling for the adventure ahead. The first act takes place in New York Harbor where director Carl Denham prepares a voyage on the ship Venture. Denham is a reckless director known for swell pictures filmed in exotic locations full of dangerous wildlife. Robert Armstrong manages to give Denham honest passion without him seeming like a bad person. He’s joined by a crew of rugged shipmates including first mate Jack Driscoll. Bruce Cabot fills the role of handsome action hero. Much like the movie itself, Denham knows the only way to sell his picture is with a beautiful woman at the center.
King Kong is in many ways a romance. Beauty and the Beast in its most primitive form. Ann Darrow is found on the streets by Denham and immediately cast with promises of adventure. Although her performance is at least 60% screaming, Fay Wray is truly the human face of King Kong. Her blonde hair was specifically chosen to stand out opposite her tall, dark, and handsome co-star. Despite initially objecting to dames aboard the Venture, Jack can’t help but fall in love with Ann. It may seem like a lot of time is spent on the boat, but it’s all worth it when they reach the ominous Skull Island. The second act sees the crew reach their exotic destination where Denham plans his shoot.
They’re first greeted by natives performing a mysterious ritual. Having black natives may suggest racial implications, but I don’t believe that was the intention. They’re a simple people that keep Kong out with a giant wall and sacrifice their women to him. When bargaining for Ann doesn’t work, the natives kidnap her instead. A screaming Ann tied to two pillars is one of several iconic moments that finally gives us Kong in glorious black & white. Although Kong’s design is modeled after a gorilla, he is given more upright positions. Willis H. O’Brien’s stop-motion animation is the true star of the show. O’Brien trained Ray Harryhausen himself, so you know he knows what he’s doing. Kong is fully expressive when he sees Ann. Drawn by her beauty, the beast takes her deep into Skull Island where the crew encounter a variety of prehistoric creatures.
There’s a definite divide when special effects start to take over. Schoedsack directed most scenes with dialogue and Cooper directed the miniature dinosaurs. Since King Kong is pre-Code, many violent or suggestive scenes were cut for many years. Denham, Jack, and the crew encounter a Stegosaurus and a particularly dangerous Brontosaurus in the water. Kong famously protects Ann in a fight against a Tyrannosaurus. Their fight only ends when Kong breaks the jaw of the T-Rex and performs his signature chest pound. Kong seemingly kills most of the crew when he sends them falling off a log. I say seemingly because a lost sequence would’ve seen them devoured by large insects. Denham survives along with Jack who tries to rescue Ann. After fighting off an Elasmosaurus snake creature in his lair, Kong undresses Ann. An innocent act that I mostly see as curiosity. Jack saves Ann when Kong is distracted by a Pterodactyl. It’s clear that Ann wants nothing to do with Kong, but he pursues her anyway. Kong breaks through the native wall and terrorizes their village. Denham gets particularly reckless when he gas bombs Kong and somehow takes him back to New York City with the moniker “Kong, the Eighth Wonder of the World!”
The third act is in New York where patrons pay to see Kong tied up in chains. Another iconic moment that ends badly when flash photography causes him to break loose. Despite often being labeled a villain, Kong is a misunderstood creature who should never have been forced to leave his home. Though it is hard to excuse Kong eating people, stepping on villagers, attacking a train, and throwing an innocent woman out a building in an attempt to find Ann. When Kong does find Ann, he creates one of the greatest moments in movie history by climbing the Empire State Building. Airplanes are sent to gun down Kong at the very top of the building. Though he manages to destroy one, Kong protects Ann one last time before falling to his death. Ending with Denham’s famous final words that “It wasn’t the airplanes, It was Beauty killed the Beast.” Even though King Kong screams Hollywood, it wasn’t nominated for a single Academy Award. The only Oscar it got was a Special Achievement Award. Regardless of accolades, King Kong has left an undeniable impact on the movie industry.
Followed by: Son of Kong