Cinematic Century

1933 – King Kong

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After last week’s delightful Freaks, a movie that seems to have been marketed and designed to be a story about monsters but actually ends up being a tale of a tight-knit group of friends dealing with hate-filled villains, how about we follow things up with a movie about another questionably qualified monster. That’s right, when it comes to 1933, there was no other movie that I felt I could highlight than the seminal monster flick, King Kong. There are some other great films that came out in 1933, including one that I really came close to picking over Kong, but in the end this larger than life adventure is more than worthy. I’ve already talked about my love of Universal’s the Invisible Man on the site before, and I highly recommend watching that film. Likewise, I’m a little saddened that no Marx Brothers movies ever made it onto my list, finding tough competition in each year that they were released, but this year was probably the hardest. I love Duck Soup so much, and it’s probably the film that most encapsulates the delightful shtick that they produced, and it’s a hell of a film. Unfortunately, they just couldn’t beat this book goofy ape for me. I always think it’s interesting to see the films that both won and were nominated for the Best Picture award of the year, especially to see how often these films are mostly forgotten. I’ve never seen Cavalcade, but it sure doesn’t seem like a film that’s up my ally. I think it’s also worth noting that 1933 was a banner year for musicals, specifically the ones that were choreographed by the influential Busby Berkeley. I suppose the genre had been percolating since the advent of sound in movies, and it all seemed to come to a head this year, pumping out three massive figures in the genre. 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933 are both really fun movies, but it’s Footlight Parade that really clicked for me, and the one of the batch that I would highly recommend. But, none of that’s what we’re talking about. We have apes to discuss.

Because director Merian C Cooper clearly had apes on the brain. I find it fascinating that King Kong isn’t based on anything. It’s such a big and outlandish story, and it draws heavily from the adventure novels of the nineteenth century, lending their sense of adventure and mystery to create a wholly original story. It seems that Cooper had been obsessed with apes for quite some time, and after seeing the success of jungle documentaries he knew that people would be fascinated with a story that took those locales and added some surreality to it. He gradually became obsessed with the idea of explorers finding a secret island that housed a giant ape, only to bring it back to New York to their own ruin. And, as the technology to create the story finally arrived, Cooper was finally allowed to bring his vision to the big screen. Cooper then decided to bring aboard pioneering special effects master Willis O’Brien, who was able to bring Kong and the various denizens of Skull Island to life. They used then cutting edge stop-motion effects, matte paintings, and a whole array of tricks and gimmicks that pulled off Cooper’s visions, bringing his obsession to the screen, and becoming one of the most popular and successful films of all time, leaving an indelible mark on cinema.

 

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King Kong follows a group of people who have been tasked by famed director Carl Denham to accompany him on a trip to a mysterious island that may or may not exist. Denham is well known for creating fabulous movies set in jungles that often shoot on location, and he’s constantly on the look out for bigger and better stories. So, when he came across a story from a sailor about a hidden island near Indonesia that has never been visited by white people and that apparently has terrible and massive creatures that Denham just has to get on film. So, he hires a ship called the Venture and its sailors, and finds an actress named Anne Darrow to accompany him to this island, which is actually never called Skull Island in the film, in the hopes of making Denham’s greatest film yet. He keeps the true nature of the Island secret for most of the voyage, while the crew bond and wonder where they’re off to. And, one of those crew members is the first mate, Jack Driscoll. He and Anne have an initially confrontational relationship, primarily because Driscoll is an incredibly unpleasant misogynist, but they gradually fall for each other, and Anne’s presence wears off his rough and terrible edges. And, eventually they reach the Island, and Denham tells them the truth about the tribe that lives there and their gigantic king. So, they disembark and head to the island, quickly coming across a surprisingly empty village. Denham quickly starts to film some footage of the village, but they run into a problem when they encounter the entire tribe getting ready for some sort of ceremony. The villagers are not pleased to see some mysterious white strangers on their island, but it turns out that Captain Englehorn speaks a language similar enough to theirs that they understand each other. The leader of the tribe commands them off the island, and tells them to ignore the ceremony they just interrupted, and the young girl that appears to be prepared for sacrifice.

So, the crew return to the ship and start planning ways to fix the situation. Denham is plotting with Englehorn for a way to ingratiate themselves with the tribe while Driscoll and Anne talk about their feelings and how frightening the whole thing was. But, disaster strikes when Driscoll heads off to talk to Englehorn and Denham and a group of tribesman board the ship and kidnap Anne. Denham and the crew race after Anne, but by the time they get back to the village they’ve prepared her for the ceremony to become the latest bride to their king known as Kong. And who is Kong? Why, a giant ape that lives on the island behind a massive wall that separates the rest of the island from the jungle. They occasionally give Kong their women to placate him, and they’ve chosen Anne as their latest sacrifice. The massive Kong arrives and is immediately transfixed by Anne, stealing her away. Jack Driscoll then leads the sailors through the jungle after Kong, which is when they realize that things are even weirder here than they’d thought. The Island is full of dinosaurs, blowing the minds of the sailors. Driscoll does his best to ignore them though, keeping his mind on Kong and the woman he loves. Meanwhile Kong is taking Anne to his home, a cliffside cave, and along the way he fights off a litany of dinosaurs who try to attack him and Anne. She becomes fascinated with Kong, and his delicate nature, but never quite gets over how horrifying the ape is. Meanwhile, Driscoll and the other sailors have been chasing after Kong, gradually getting picked off, one at a time, until Jack’s the only survivor. He finally finds Kong’s sanctuary, and sneaks inside to rescue Anne. They manage to distract Kong and sneak off together, fleeing back to the ship. Kong obviously follows, and is enraged that someone would steal his latest woman. He manages to burst through the great wall and follow the sailors down to the beach, where Denham surprises everyone with a secret weapon. He lobs some gas grenades at the great beast, knocking Kong unconscious. And, with the great best asleep, they decide to do something insane.

They load Kong up onto the ship and sail him back with them to New York. By the time that they get back to America Driscoll and Anne have decided to wed, and Denham is ready to become the most famous man in the city. He lets word spread that he’s brought something amazing back with him from his voyage, and a crowd quickly arrives to see his latest find. Denham rents out a Broadway theater and plans to show off Kong, letting him stand there for everyone to gawk at. The people of New York arrive to look at Kong, horrified and fascinated by his sheer spectacle. Unfortunately, the crowd of reporters all begin taking picture of Kong, and the flash is enough to throw him into a rage, giving him the gumption to rip himself out of his confines. Kong then begins storming through New York, trying to find his way in this strange new world. He leaves a swatch of destruction, all trying to find Anne again. And, he succeeds. Surprisingly Kong is able to locate Anne, and plucks her out of her hotel room, taking her with him. He looks for higher ground and ends up discovering the Empire State Building, perching himself and Anne on the very peak. Driscoll has meanwhile begun working with the police to track down and defeat the beast. They decide to assault him from the sky, getting a squadron of airplanes to fly up and shoot Kong. He does his best to defend himself, but the planes and their bullets are too much for him, and he eventually succumbs to his wounds, falling to his death and ending his reign of terror, still having no idea where he is or what’s going on.

 

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It’s remarkable the power that King Kong still holds. It’s big, it’s boisterous, and it’s a whole lot of fun. Merian C Cooper clearly had a very specific vision in his head when he started to create Kong, and together with a hell of a team including screenwriters James Creelman and Ruth Rose and special effects king Willis O’Brien they brought that vision to life on the screen. King Kong is a film that can certainly feel dated at times, both from our ridiculous feelings that special effects that aren’t cutting edge aren’t worth anything, and more justifiably from the rather problematic racial components. However, as I’ve discussed during this project before, films from he past represent the thinking of that time, and shouldn’t really be judged negatively for that fact. You can’t excuse the way that the film treats the native tribe on Kong’s island, but you can understand why such a thing would be included, especially if you’re familiar with the adventure serials that this film is drawing inspiration from. But, despite all of that, the film is still a very enjoyable story. The acting isn’t anything overly special, especially Robert Armstrong and Bruce Cabot as Denham and Driscoll respectively. But I do think that Fay Wray is legitimately terrific in this movie, making Anne an instantly likeable protagonist and doing a frankly remarkable job interacting with the Kong special effects. It’s certainly a skill for an actor to be able to act against something that isn’t quite real, and more than likely isn’t even slightly resembling what’ll eventually end up on the screen. The special effects in this film are remarkable for the time, and they represent a hodgepodge of ingenuity, throwing as many tricks as the medium had at the time, and probably creating a few in the process, in order to create this film, and Wray is able to sell every moment of her time with Kong and the other effects.

And it all paid off wonderfully. Ever since the films of Georges Méliès it’s been clear that cinema was the perfect medium to bring visual wonder and spectacle to the world. We’re seen other movies in this project that have played with this idea, especially the German Expressionist films that I’ve highlighted, but King Kong represents something different. This is a film that shows off the spectacle of the silver screen. A movie that, pun intended I suppose, looms large over the cinematic world. It’s a movie that uses every trick in the book to pull off something wonderful and amazing. It’s a pretty trite and hackneyed complaint in modern times that films rely too much of their special effects, and don’t rely too much on story. There can be occasional validity in that statement, but the idea that people just ant to see big spectacles is far from a contemporary idea. King Kong is a film that seems to become a demarcation mark in film history, a pivotal moment that  pushes film history barreling towards the time of the blockbuster. Which isn’t to say that this film prides itself in style over substance. There’s still a very enjoyable and well-crafted story in this film, but it’s certainly the spectacle and special effects that keep this film remembered. King Kong is a movie that understood that special effects should be used to prop up a story, not to replace one. Merian C Cooper had something terrific in his head, and his crew were able to translate that vision to the masses, showing them things they’d never seen before, and inspiring countless people to take their own dreams and put them up on the silver screen where they belong.

 

King Kong was written by  James Creelman and Ruth Rose, directed by Merian C Cooper, and released by Radio Pictures, 1933.

 

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