This is the next entry in my ongoing 100 Essential Films series. If you missed the first one, you can find the explanation for what I’m doing here. Film number four is 1933’s King Kong. This is the first talkie of the series, as well as the first straight genre picture. The stop-motion animation in King Kong forever changed the industry. It was a watershed film for special effects. Just like the first two films in the series, I borrowed a Blu-ray through intralibrary loan. It’s a lovingly produced transfer from 2010 by Warner Bros. which features a two+ hour documentary. Director Peter Jackson, who made his own mega-budget remake of King Kong in 2005, played a role in the making of the documentary.
One of the greatest examples of the power of spectacle in cinema is special effects and stop-motion pioneer Willis O’Brien’s brilliant work in 1933’s King Kong. It might look a little clunky now, but O’Brien’s artistry in bringing the gargantuan Kong to life – as well as the other prehistoric beasts that populate the movie – elevates what is otherwise a standard B picture of Hollywood’s early sound era. The terrifying great ape Kong has had a lasting impact on our cultural consciousness for over 80 years. Anyone who appreciates the wizardry of the stop-motion art form recognizes the towering (pun intended) achievement that King Kong represents.
The rest of the film hasn’t aged quite as well. The outmoded ideas it espouses about gender and race are so pervasive that it’s impossible to overlook them.
It’s deliciously ironic that for all the male characters’ talk in the picture about how helpless and inferior woman are (of course the men refer to them as girls, always girls) the one female star of Kong outshines every male actor. James Creelman and Ruth Rose’s screenplay doesn’t do actress Fay Wray any favors. Her character, Ann Darrow – the last name is surely a sly nod to the Scopes Monkey Trial, which had only taken place eight years before Kong was released – is about as passive as a heroine can be. At one point, Kong even strips Darrow in a sexually charged scene that could only have passed the censors in the pre-Code Hollywood era.
Things are done to Darrow or decided for her again and again in King Kong. But Wray has a screen presence that is inexorable. We only see her in three modes: being helpless, terrified, or rescued, but Wray makes us believe her existence in those states for every second she’s on screen. It’s a stark contrast to Robert Armstrong’s portrayal of movie director Carl Denham, the man who sets the events of Kong in motion. As someone obsessed with filmmaking myself, I find the all-consuming need of others to make movies a fascinating topic. Armstrong takes it beyond camp, though. His Carl Denham is more carnival side-show barker than anything else.
Jack Driscoll, the first mate of the ship that Denham commissions in order to get to the mysterious island where Kong lives, is also pure stereotype. Actor Bruce Cabot isn’t able to transcend the material like Wray is in order to give us a different angle on Jack. All we see is the tough guy who doesn’t believe dizzy dames have any place in a man’s world. That is until, predictably, Jack and Ann inexplicably fall in love over the course of just a few hours in the movie’s timeline.
Once Darrow, Driscoll, Denham, and crew reach their destination, things only get more uncomfortable as they encounter the natives who worship King Kong like a god. About the only thing I can say for the production is that directors Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack cast actual people of color in the roles, instead of populating them with white actors in blackface. That’s how we get the legendary actor and film producer Noble Johnson – a man at the vanguard of black filmmaking – in the role of the Native Chief.
There is exactly one moment when these natives aren’t otherized as mindless savages or evil villains. When Kong bursts through the gate that has held him safely on the other side of a massive wall, everyone scrambles for safety. A native child, probably four or five years old, is terrified and becomes frozen in the oncoming path of the colossal ape. Cooper and Schoedsack build real suspense out of the villagers’ attempt to rescue the child. In a moment that lasts mere seconds, we care just as much for this child as we do our main heroes.
The directors are also effective at giving us a sense of the desperation that existed during the Great Depression, which the country was in the depths of while filming occurred. Carl Denham “discovers” Ann as she contemplates stealing a piece of fruit from a New York grocer.
The electrifying climax of King Kong is also a sight to behold. Willis O’Brien’s stop-motion mastery as Kong climbs to the top of the Empire State Building – which had become the world’s tallest building upon its completion just two years before the movie’s release – is a medium defining sequence. O’Brien’s imagination and craft spawned sequels, remakes, comic books, and even video games.
Robert Armstrong might deliver the last line of the film, “It was beauty killed the beast,” as pure cheese, but it doesn’t diminish King Kong’s lasting cultural impact.