King Kong (1933)

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Director: Merian C. Cooper, Ernest B. Schoedsack

Producer: Merian C. Cooper, Ernest B. Schoedsack, David O. Selznick (RKO)

Writers: Ruth Rose, Edgar Wallace, James Ashmore Creelman (screenplay), Merian C. Cooper, Edgar Wallace (story)

Photography: Edward Linden, J.O. Taylor, Vernon L. Walker

Music: Max Steiner

Cast: Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong, Bruce Cabot, Frank Reicher, Sam Hardy, Noble Johnson, Steve Clemente, James Flavin

Introduction

In the entire history of movies, only a select few are so famous, so engrained in our culture, that we feel as if we’ve seen them, even if many of us haven’t. King Kong, directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, is one of those movies. Perhaps it’s because every one of us, somewhere or other, has seen a remake, like Peter Jackson’s in 2005, or heard a reference, like Jeff Goldblum’s comment as his car approaches the giant gate of Jurassic Park (1993): “What do they got in there, King Kong?”

There is no greater tribute to Kong than the fact that Spielberg paid homage as he rebuilt visual effects in Jurassic Park (1993) and Jackson chose it to follow his groundbreaking CGI in The Lord of the Rings (2001-2003). But Kong is more than just the origin of special effects; it’s a cultural staple and legend of Hollywood; the godfather of blockbusters; the birthplace of movie scores; and the standard bearer of adventure, fantasy, horror and romance. Remove it, and movies veer in a vastly different direction.

“I think as a film, [Kong] inspired more people to become filmmakers than any other film ever made,” said Peter Jackson, no doubt speaking for himself. “I’m absolutely certain of that fact.”

In this light, one can view Kong in one of two ways. It opened Pandora’s box to a special effects mindset of years of movie magic, but which, left in the wrong hands, has threatened to kill it.

Plot Summary

Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) is a hot shot adventure filmmaker, who wants to turn his next project into the most extravagant picture ever made. He states his goals rather clearly: “It’s money and adventure and fame! It’s the thrill of a lifetime!” Denham finds his female lead, Ann Darrow (Fay Wray), wandering the streets of New York, and asks if she’d like to be a movie star. With nothing to lose, she agrees, and joins Denham and crew on the ship Venture for an undisclosed on-location shoot somewhere near Indonesia.

While on the high seas, first mate Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot, replacing Joel McCrea) admits he’s falling for Darrow, which causes Denham to say, “I’ve got enough troubles without a love affair to complicate things.” Viewers wonder what Denham has in mind as he gets Darrow to practice “screaming for her life.” Finally, the director reveals the crew’s ominous destination: the uncharted Skull Island, where he plans to not only use the exotic backdrop to give his film atmosphere, but also to capture the never-before-seen image of the island’s mythical beast, known only as Kong.

When they arrive, Darrow is kidnapped by island natives, who sacrifice her to the giant beast on the other side of a massive security wall — King Kong. When the 50-foot ape sees Darrow, he does not eat her, but rather takes her back with him to his mountaintop cave.

In a rescue mission, the film crew battles dinosaurs and other monsters until finally rescuing Darrow and capturing Kong. Of course, Denham can’t leave well enough alone and decides to bring Kong back to New York City, where they sell tickets to see “The Eighth Wonder of the World.” Of course, the chains are no match for Kong, who breaks loose, terrorizes the city and pulls Darrow from her apartment window. Taking her with him to the top of the Empire State Building (then the tallest building in the world), Kong makes one final stand as fighter planes shoot him down to a sad, tragic death.

Origins of Kong

The idea came from a dream Cooper had about a massive gorilla attacking New York City.  (A) It stemmed from his obsession with Paul Du Chaillu’s book Equatorial Africa, about a hunt for a wild gorilla in Africa. Cooper always wanted to be an explorer, and found the next best thing in the Navy. He made his life into an adventure, helping pursue Pancho Villa in Mexico, and eventually became a fighter pilot in World War I, where he was shot down and reported dead twice, spending 10 months in Moscow concentration camps. During the war, he befriended Schoedsack, who was filming battles for the U.S. Signal Corps and the Red Cross. Sharing a passion for nature and adventure, exactly like Kong‘s Denham, they became the best of friends. (B)

After the war, the duo formed Cooper-Schoedsack Productions and traveled the globe to shoot nature docs like Grass (1926) and Chang (1927), with Schoedsack as cameraman, facing the dangers of wild animals and the uncertain reception of natives. Some even doubted Cooper’s sanity, a regular Howard Hughes in his adventurous eccentricities. But that didn’t stop them from landing their first big Hollywood gig, The Four Feathers (1929), combining their adventure docs with studio narrative drama. All the while, Cooper kept this idea of a gorilla attack in his head. Then, in 1931, he met the man that would change his life: visual effects pioneer Willis O’Brien. (B)

O’Brien, or “Obie” for short, had started as a cartoonist for the San Francisco Daily News before tinkering with a new technique called stop-motion photography. The process was laborious, requiring him to move a miniature puppet an inch, turn the camera on, turn the camera back off, move the puppet another inch, turn the camera back on and off, and do this repeatedly until the images created a sort of live animation. In 1914, O’Brien sold his five-minute film The Dinosaur and the Missing Link to Thomas Edison, who gave O’Brien the funds to make 10 more films. His biggest success was The Lost World (1925), based off the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle book, which led to a new massive project titled Creation, about a shipwrecked crew landing on an island full of dinosaurs. What irony that Creation was never created, as RKO head David O. Selznick pulled the plug. It was a blessing in disguise, as Selznick blended the project with one Cooper was working on — his beloved giant gorilla movie. (B)

Known then as The Beast, the first script was written by British novelist Edgar Wallace, who died of pnemonia in 1932. Screenwriter James Creelman was brought in for a new draft, retitled The Eighth Wonder, but Cooper didn’t like what he saw. So, he settled on someone who had never written a script before, Schoedsack’s wife, Ruth Rose, who had fallen for Schoedsack aboard a ship, just like the Driscoll-Darrow affair she would write. When it came time for production, Schoedsack and Cooper were busy shooting The Most Dangerous Game (1932), from which they borrowed Armstrong, Wray (who appeared in 11 movies that year) and the massive jungle sets, which Selznick later destroyed in Gone With the Wind‘s famous burning of Atlanta. Through it all, O’Brien’s contribution remained the most important, because if his visuals failed, nothing else mattered. (B)

“O’Brien was a genius,” Cooper said. “Kong is as much his picture as it is mine. There was never anybody in his class as far as special effects went … and there probably never will be.” (C)

The Birth of Visual Effects

Working with sculptor Marcel Delgado, O’Brien built a life-sized bust of Kong, as well as an over-sized hand and foot for specific scenes. However, the majority of the work would be carried by stop-motion puppets. At 18-inches (for jungle scenes) and 24-inches (for city scenes), the puppets were made of metal, ball-and-socket skeleton armatures, covered with cotton dental dam, latex rubber, then rabbit fur. They were also equipped with wires, to control facial expressions, and an inflatable diaphragm to simulate breathing. When you watch Kong, you’ll see his hair bristling throughout the film, an unintentional side effect to O’Brien moving the puppet around. At first, the studio hated it, but they quickly changed their tune when critics said the tiny detail added to the lifelike experience. (B)

The process of animating Kong one frame at a time was a labor intensive venture. At a rate of 10 frames an hour, and 1,440 frames for every minute of film, it could take animators 150 hours just to get a minute of film. If one frame was off, they’d have to start over. The stop-motion animation was performed in an elaborate set-up of matte paintings shot through different layers of decorated glass to create the illusion of depth (similar to what Disney did on Snow White). Several methods were used to combine the stop-motion Kong footage with the live-action shots of the actors, including partial exposures (shooting on the same piece of film twice and exposing different portions of it); traveling mattes (loading two strips of film into the camera at once); optical printers (synchronizing a camera with a projector to combine several strips of film into a composite image); and rear projection (actors literally acting in front of a movie screen, allowing a rear-projected Kong to toss an object out of the top of the frame, and then have a real prop come crashing down in front of the actors). (B)

The stuff was absolutely revolutionary, the special effects equivalent of reinventing the wheel. O’Brien acquired a U.S. patent for his inventions, but sadly never quite received the credit he deserved. The same year Kong was released, his estranged wife murdered their two sons. (C) His new children would be the young creative minds who went to see his movie. King Kong sparked the imaginations of generations of special effects wizards, namely Ray Harryhausen, who contacted O’Brien after seeing the film at age 13. (D) He would later became his partner on Mighty Joe Young (1949), and went on to his own legendary effects work, including Clash of the Titans (1981) and that amazing sword fight between a live actor and stop-motion skeletons in Jason and the Argonauts (1963). If a torch was passed from O’Brien to any one person, it was Harryhausen, who would carry Obie’s flame into new era.

“I’m another snowball,” said Harryhausen, who had a restaurant named after him in Monsters, Inc. (2001). “Willis H. O’Brien started the snowball, then I picked it up, then ILM picked it up and now the computer generation is picking it up. Where it will end, I don’t know. Maybe in holography, although I’m not sure I’d like a grotesque monster appearing in 3-D in my living room.” (J)

The Soul of Stop-Motion

Now that we’ve all become accustomed to seeing computerized graphics, there’s no getting around the fact that the go-motion of King Kong is going to look dated in comparison. After all, the film came out in 1933. By those same standards, even The Lord of the Rings will probably look fake by 2076. It’s all a matter of technology and human progression. When you first see Kong flash that big, teethy grin, some of you may want to laugh. And when “human” dolls flail in his hand, you may want to laugh even harder. But try to look at Kong with perspective. While I agree that its effects have dated, I also agree with scholar David Thomson that the unrefined quality is part of the film’s charm. Thomson writes, “Pedantic schoolchildren are sometimes heard to complain that you can see (and feel) the flickering trickery in King Kong. Well, yes, you can; it’s the trembling poetry of the magic.” (C)

To see such a technique, so ambitiously carried out in its infancy, is like gazing through a window in time. Some of my own fondest childhood memories are of making stop-motion movies with Lego figures, and I can’t imagine it being done, on a grand scale, for profit, half a century earlier. After 1933, O’Brien, Harryhause and others stayed busy perfecting the technique for another sixty years, until Jurassic Park (1993), when effects specialist Stan Winston finally persuaded Spielberg to scrap Phil Tippett’s stop-motion and create his dinosaurs entirely with CGI.

“My one precedent for Jurassic Park was King Kong,” Spielberg said. “As a young person, that scene [where Kong fights a T-Rex] had no peer. And I think that was my high-water mark for imagining what it would be like to do a King Kong of today. Certainly I don’t consider Jurassic Park a classic the way King Kong is a classic, but I was so inspired by King Kong that that was one of the reasons I think I wanted to make Jurassic Park.” (E)

If you’re old enough to have seen Jurassic Park upon release, remember how shockingly life-like the dinosaurs looked? Imagine the reaction a ’30s audience had to King Kong. For the first time, they saw a movie that couldn’t be told on stage, realizing the film medium was truly its own beast. They looked up on that screen and saw Kong fighting dinosaurs, disposing of humans, smashing train cars and scaling buildings. Those who saw the 1938 re-release noticed some changes, thanks to the newly-arrived Production Code: Kong no longer peeled off Wray’s clothes; he no longer chewed a New Yorker or dropped another from the Empire State; the Brontosaurus now killed only three victims rather than five; and the giant spider scene was gone completely. (F) All these scenes have since been restored, but the fact that censors even bothered to change them shows just how life-like the effects seemed at the time.

“There’s something about the way the special effects work in King Kong himself, the way he moves, that made him very life-like, and still for me, of course I’m older, but I still prefer that move over the digital moves,” Martin Scorsese says. “It gave him a soul.” (G)

Beauty and the Beast

Despite the jerky moves, King Kong remains the most famous character in movie history. While the Eighth Wonder of the World was voted #30 on Premiere’s 100 Greatest Movie Characters, he was left off the AFI’s Greatest Heroes & Villains, no doubt because they couldn’t decide whether he was friend or foe. We start off viewing Kong as a terrible monster, but as we see his torment, imprisonment and ultimate murder, we come to see the monster as a tragic love figure.

“If this picture had romance, it would gross twice as much,” Denham says. Like Romeo, Kong scales great heights to be with his gal. At first, we fear he’ll squash the poor girl, but as he gently strokes her, we realize he only wants to love and protect. While we start out thinking the romance is between Darrow and Driscoll, it ultimately transfers to Kong and Darrow, even if half that relationship is scared to death. Thus, Kong is a tragic lover, who loves someone and may never feel that love in return.

King Kong trumps even Harold and Maude (1973) as the most bizarre love story ever committed to film. How can a giant ape ripping off pieces of a woman’s clothing be so sensual? Perhaps it’s Darwinian, or our subconscious underdog pride for the “Beauty and the Beast” story. As Denham explains, “The Beast was a tough guy too. He could lick the world, but when he saw Beauty, she got him. He went soft. He forgot his wisdom and the little fellas licked him.”

To play up this theme, Wray was given a blonde wig to contrast against Kong’s dark hair (Wray was a natural brunette, unlike blonde bombshell Jean Harlow, who turned down the role). When Cooper told her she would be co-starring with “the tallest, darkest leading man in Hollywood,” she thought he meant Cary Grant. (B) Wray instantly became known as “The Queen of Scream,” praising Kong in her autobiography, On the Other Hand, a reference to the time she spent in Kong’s grasp. (F)

The film’s final line, voted No. 84 on the AFI’s Top 100 Movie Quotes, cements the film as a romance: “Oh no, it wasn’t the airplanes. It was Beauty killed the Beast.” For those of you who say King Kong is no romantic, I’ll have you know that it was he who took his girl to the top of the Empire State years before Love Affair (1939), An Affair to Remember (1957) and Sleepless in Seattle (1993). Dare I say Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer, Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr, and Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan have nothing on Kong and his lady Fay? If you want further proof, check out the AFI’s 100 Passions, where King Kong ranks No. 24, one spot ahead of When Harry Met Sally (1989).

Soundtrack

The balance between horror and romance is echoed in Max Steiner’s groundbreaking score, the oldest on the AFI’s Top 25 Movie Scores. Known as “the father of film scores,” Steiner revolutionized the concept of music in movies, scoring motifs for each character (like the three descending notes for Kong) and scoring specifically for the action (syncing beats with the tribe leader’s footsteps and inserting drums as Kong beats creatures into submission). Prior to Kong, movie scores were often just themes over the credits, with occasional background music from the studio music library. (B) Steiner instead turned Kong into the first feature-length score written specifically for a U.S. talkie. (F)

Another first came from RKO sound department head Murray Spivak, who for the first time in history made sound effects specifically to match the score. (F) For Kong’s growl, he mixed a tiger growl played backwards over a lion roar. (B) Spivak achieved this by recording the sounds onto three separate audio tracks, which pioneered the way sound design was done for years to come. (F)

Social Commentary

For a film so revolutionary in the making of movies, it’s only fitting the film itself be about making a movie. After Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. (1924), King Kong remains one of the very first “movies about movies,” and one of the first looks at the mad filmmaker who will stop at nothing to make the film he envisions, even endangering his crew. As Denham says, “I’d'a got a swell picture of a charging rhino, but the cameraman got scared. The damned fool. I was right there with a rifle.” Such stuff was pulled from the filmmakers’ own experience, as Schoedsack came face to face with a tiger and kept the camera steady in Chang. It’s Schoedsack and Cooper’s charm that they can take their own adventurous attitudes, fuse them into the character Denham, and keep a sense of humor about it.

In addition to a commentary on filmmaking, Kong also lays out a ton of social themes that are easy to overlook. First, we get Man vs. Nature. Just as Dr. Frankenstein paid a price for trying to play God, so does Denham for thinking he can harness the wild. This also introduces the theme of Free vs. Imprisoned. Seeing as Kong is taken from his native land, placed in chains, and shot out of fear, he becomes the symbol of the oppressed and a warning against the lynchings of blacks taking place even as Kong was in theaters. Above all, the most obvious theme is Modern vs. Primitive. After all, the tagline reads: “A Monster of Creation’s Dawn Breaks Loose in Our World Today!” The film begs the question of whether modernization is always a good thing; if we lose some innate good in the process. Rolling Stone critic Peter Travers put it best: “Naked, alone in the big city, in heat for a troubled blonde and brought down by technology, Kong is the definitive wronged male of the cinema century.” (H)

The film is also interesting to consider from the perspective of its Great Depression release. Wray’s character is a poor woman, wandering the streets of ’30s New York and stealing an apple just so she can eat. When she agrees to participate in the film, it’s with the hope that she will not only achieve fame, but also escape her depressed existence. Many ’30s moviegoers followed suit, plopping down money they didn’t even have for tickets to see Kong and escape from their own everyday world. Like Wray, they were terrified by the experience, and RKO was thrilled to see them coming through the turnstiles.

Pop Culture

Premiering on March 2, 1933 at Radio City Music Hall, King Kong went on to break all previous box office records and saved RKO from certain bankruptcy. (F) There’s a chance that without Kong, there would have been no Citizen Kane (1941). The instant success caused Cooper, Schoedsack, O’Brien, Steiner, Armstrong and Rose to churn out an immediate sequel, Son of Kong (1933), as RKO tried to keep up with the horror franchises coming out of Universal (i.e. Dracula and Frankenstein). The sequel was only a modest success. It was another decade and a half before Cooper took another stab at a giant gorilla in Mighty Joe Young (1949), where O’Brien’s effects earned a long overdue Oscar.

The Japanese soon caught onto the idea and invented their own monsters: Godzilla, who first appeared in 1954, and Mothra, who first appeared in 1961. These monsters each sustained their own series of films, until Kong returned for a monster heavyweight bout in Japan’s King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962). It was here that Cooper realized what he had first suspected in 1935, when he pitched a Tarzan vs. King Kong project: that he might not have the rights to Kong, the figment of his own imagination. (I)

And so, other entities continued to release Kong pictures, much to the dismay of Cooper. After King Kong Escapes (1967) and King of Kong Island (1968), John Guillermin directed the popular remake King Kong (1976), the one you’ll probably find on cable most often. The film starred Jessica Lange and Jeff Bridges, boasted Oscar-winning special effects and saw Kong climb the World Trade Center rather than the Empire State. After the UK’s Queen Kong (1976) and Korea’s A*P*E (1976), Guillermin made a sequel to his own remake, King Kong Lives (1986), and it flopped bigtime.

For years, the giant ape disappeared, save for the animated The Mighty Kong (1998) and a remake of Mighty Joe Young (1998). Finally, in his follow-up effort to The Lord of the Rings, Peter Jackson directed his own remake, King Kong (2005), starring Naomi Watts, Jack Black, Adrien Brody and Andy Serkis (of Gollum fame) to play the a CGI Kong with motion sensors attached to his body. The film won three Oscars for visual effects, sound mixing and sound editing, and came the closest to capturing the magic of the original. Even so, there is only one Kong, and if you’re going to compile a best list of the great movie achievements in history, you have to go with the trailblazing original, not the solid homage. The fact that Jackson’s remake made the Empire Top 201 over the original shows how unreliable fan-voted lists can be.

Beyond the sequels and remakes, King Kong continues to show up in other places. Many of you have ridden the King Kong ride at Universal Studios.

Many more of you have cowered from the Abominable Snowman in Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer (1964), who takes his victims back to a mountain cave like Kong.

Kong also inspired Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958) and Honey I Blew Up the Kid (1992).

Two of the most famous WWF wrestlers of the 1980s were named after King Kong: King Kong Bundy and Andre the Giant, nicknamed The Eighth Wonder of the World.

Nintendo fans know that before Mario saved the Princess from “another castle,” he saved her from the clutches of Donkey Kong. Gamers got to play as both King Kong and Godzilla in Nintendo’s Rampage. Super Nintendo brought the video game masterpiece Donkey Kong Country. Finally, a great documentary was made about classic arcade gamers in The King of Kong (2007).

Jack Nicholson’s Joker steals a line in Batman (1989) when he says, “Beauty and the Beast, and if anyone calls you beast, I’ll rip their lungs out.” It’s a clear reference Kong‘s exchange, where Denham says, “Beauty and the Beast, eh?” and Driscoll responds, “I never I thought I was good lookin’.”

Of course, there’s the aforementioned giant gate of Jurassic Park (1993) where Goldblum says, “What do they got in there, King Kong?” The sequel, The Lost World (1997), even saw a T-Rex brought into San Diego, much like Kong in New York City.

Finally, Denzel Washington fans will recall his Oscar-winning performance in Training Day (2001), where he defiantly screams, “King Kong ain’t got shit on me!” You see, even when today’s most gangster characters try to prove they’re badass, they have to reference Kong.

Legacy

Today, after all the pop culture references and technical innovations, Kong‘s legacy is self explanatory. But in 1933, the Academy awarded Kong zero Oscar nominations. What, you say? Not even an Oscar for special effects? Such a thing didn’t exist until 1939. It took Kong to even begin that conversation.

Today, it has been vindicated as an obvious choice for any best list. King Kong may serve the widest range of AFI best lists: Passions (#24), Thrills (#12), Fantasies (#4), Quotes (#84), Scores (#13) and overall Top 100 Films (#41). The film also places exceptionally high on the Village Voice Top 100 (#39), above such art masterpieces as Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), Jean-Luc Godard’s My Life to Live (1962), Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. (1924) and Werner Herzog’s Aguirre: the Wrath of God (1972). More impressively, it ranks as high as #11 on Rolling Stone‘s 100 Maverick Movies.

That’s precisely what Cooper and Schoedsack were: mavericks. Visually, you can see it in the way they tilt the camera in the New York train car, upping the ante from Chaplin’s The Gold Rush (1925). Technologically, you can see it in their continued careers. Two months after Kong, Cooper joined Jock Whitney to form Pioneer Pictures and release the first feature live action all-color film, La Cucaracha (1934). As for Schoedsack, he went on to develop the Cinerama, a widescreen precursor to IMAX.

Better pictures followed — Cooper produced many a John Ford film, including The Searchers (1956) — but the duo was always remembered for Kong. The fact that Cooper died the same weekend as Armstrong, who played the filmmaker Denham, was fitting for a film so autobiographical, so expressive of the passions and fears behind its creation, that its filmmakers might as well have been on screen. (C) Oh wait, they were: Cooper as the pilot and Schoedsack as the gunner who ultimately shoots Kong down. As Cooper said, “We made him. We should kill the son of a bitch ourselves.” (B)

Citations:

CITE A: IMDB Trivia
CITE B: DVD Special Feature: RKO Production 601: The Making of Kong, Eighth Wonder of the World
CITE C: David Thomson, New Biographical Dictionary of Film
CITE D:
Willis O’Brien’s IMDB Bio
CITE E: The Making of Jurassic Park (1995)
CITE F: Tim Dirks, AMC Filmsite.org
CITE G: CBS special, AFI’s Top 100: 10th Anniversary Edition
CITE H: Rolling Stone, Peter Travers’ 100 Maverick Films
CITE I: Vaz, Mark Cotta (2005). Living Dangerously: The Adventures of Merian C. Cooper, Creator of King Kong. Villard. p. 277. ISBN 1400062764.)
CITE J: Harryhausen’s IMDB Bio

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