With Kong roaring back to theatres, Oscar begins a Skull Island retrospective with his very first appearance.
Who made it?: Merian C. Cooper, Ernest Schoedsack (Directors/Producers), Ruth Rose (Writer), RKO Radio Pictures.
Who’s in it?: Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong, Bruce Cabot, Frank Reicher, Sam Hardy.
Tagline: “A Monster of Creation’s Dawn Breaks Loose in Our World Today!”
IMDb rating: 7.9/10.
In a way, the King Kong movies are to Hollywood what the Godzilla films are to Japanese cinema; they convey the cultural zeitgeist of the times in which they were made. From the 1933 classic from Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack right up to Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ action-heavy 2017 spectacle, Kong and his successors have been in the public consciousness throughout the history of cinema. It seems like, as technology and special effects advance over the years, Hollywood must showcase their latest developments by making a more realistic giant ape. Yet, for all their progress, Cooper and Schoedsack’s original remains the best. And just how is that so for an 84-year-old film? Let us dive in.
In 1933, a successful wildlife filmmaker, Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong), is preparing to embark on a voyage to the Far East to shoot his next picture. To satisfy the public’s desire for romance in his films, Denham invites washed up actress Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) to join in on his expedition. Along the way, Ann becomes acquainted with the gruff first mate Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot), and despite his churlish attitude, they begin to fall in love. The captain of the Venture, Englehorn (Frank Reicher), questions Denham of his real intentions, and the director reveals a map where an undiscovered island lies hidden in fog. He believes it to be the home of “Kong”, an old maritime superstition described as “neither beast nor man.”
The crew of the Venture arrives at the mysterious Skull Island and explore the natives’ village, flanked by an enormous stone wall, interrupting their ceremony. Despite the native chief attempting to bargain for Ann, the crew return to the ship without incident, but at night, the natives kidnap Ann and prepare to sacrifice her to Kong. Denham and Jack lead a team of sailors to rescue Ann, but are too late since Ann has already been taken by Kong, the giant ape of Skull Island revered as a god by the natives. Jack, Denham and over a dozen sailors face living dinosaurs and an angry Kong in order to rescue Ann.
The acting is very much of its time, coming off as corny to most viewers, but it is charming nonetheless. Fay Wray has a cheerful and optimistic demeanour that endears the audience to her character, but she is less interesting while she is Kong’s figure of interest and spends a lot of the film screaming and looking distressed, but Wray does a good job of using her imagination to react to something that isn’t real. Cabot is a rough and tough sailor who has a soft centre, and he has a certain warmth to his voice similar to Harrison Ford, if not quite his charisma. Armstrong plays the part of Denham brilliantly, as a dry, eccentric thrill-seeker but is still charismatic and professional enough to successfully lead his team. Reicher makes for a witty and charming gentleman of a sea captain, and has good chemistry with Armstrong.
The movie utilises every trick in the book to create its illusions, using live-action, rear-projection, stop-motion animation, miniatures, models, and matte paintings. The matte paintings in particular are very detailed; the paintings of the Wall and Skull Island are especially convincing in the medium of black and white, making the illusion more seamless. On occasion the compositing is a little dodgy, when it looks as though the actors are walking on a different set from the dinosaurs. The jungle sets convey a very chaotic and ancient-looking rainforest, adding to the wildness of Skull Island. As usual, having suspension of disbelief does help as this film depicts a Brontosaurus eating up crewmates with the same ferocity as a T. Rex. The tribe of natives is rather typical in style and appearance, and don’t strike me as intimidating compared to the other aspects of Skull Island.
The cinematography masterfully frames the New York and Skull Island scenes, and while the camera is fixed during the stop-motion scenes, it never loses the sense of size or power of the creatures. Remarkable visuals abound from Kong emerging out of the jungle to take Ann to the climax atop the then-new Empire State Building. That climax in particular heightened the contrast of the primitive and prehistoric to the modern and contemporary, and was a visually-striking and bold centrepiece.
There is a definite charm and personality to the old stop-motion animation which modern visual effects seldom replicate or match, and this is true of the original Eighth Wonder himself. Kong is a combination of a stop-motion figure as well as life-sized animatronics, such as a whole arm for the cast to interact with, such as a giant Kong head that could hold an actor in its mouth. Admittedly, it’s the weakest practical effect in the film with its bizarre, dopey smile. Despite the relatively crude Kong figure, effects man Willis O’Brien conveys a lot of animal qualities through his expressions and behaviours. Having Kong alternate between walking on all fours and upright distinguishes him from real gorillas and makes him a creature all his own. While not the scariest in terms of creature designs, his unpredictable behaviour makes him memorable.
The stop-motion dinosaurs by special effects wizard O’Brien are another highlight of the film, and are more convincing than the dinosaurs in his previous adventure film, The Lost World. While the dinosaurs are based on outdated depictions, inspired by the work of paleontological artist Charles R. Knight, there’s an imaginative, almost otherworldly quality to them that sets them apart from the real animals. There is a great sense of scale between the dinosaurs and Kong compared to their human victims, especially when Kong jostles the log to make the sailors fall to their deaths, or when he breaks through the natives’ gate and rampages through the village. The battle between Kong and the T. Rex is still one of the most entertaining monster fights of cinema. The way the music stops and we’re exposed to the thunderous roars of the two enemies is reminiscent of the T. Rex attack on the tour car from Jurassic Park, and adds to the visceral, impactful nature of the fight scene. Everything that involves a visual effect of some variety can trace its ancestry to this film, and the fact that it was lauded in its time is the reason why the best blockbusters exist.
The score by Max Bernstein is nothing short of a classic, and one of the most famous in the pantheon of classic films. He created a rousing, memorable theme for Kong, reflecting his bestial, larger-than-life nature. The score highlights are the bombastic opening, the intro to Skull Island where the tribal drums and horns builds atmosphere and suspense, the romantic melody for Ann and Jack, the chilling sacrifice of Ann to Kong, and the ending piece.
The script by Ruth Rose was not considered a great piece of screenwriting, but it succeeds in delivering a well-paced, highly entertaining slice of escapist fiction where anything from giant apes to mysterious islands can still be found. Retroactive recognition has made many lines iconic. Simplicity is the key; Cooper and Shoedsack own the fact that it is a pulpy jungle adventure and roll with it. Yet, the subtext of Kong’s fascination with Ann is never lost within the shuffle.
The first act builds up suspense and mystery, but never to the point when it becomes tedious, making the journey more focused and to the point. That tension continues to build when we first see Skull Island, shrouded by fog and distant tribal drums heralding the island’s presence, sparking fear and anticipation of what is to come. Kong is portrayed as a dark, distant and dangerous creature; his intentions regarding Ann are treated as somewhat ambiguous, meaning you never really know what he’s going to do to her, maintaining the suspense of the moment. He protects her and attacks when provoked like any other animal. The relationship between Kong and Ann is more driven by fear and revulsion, with Kong showing an unrequited interest in Ann and Ann being in constant terror of the giant ape.
Underneath its layers, King Kong is haunting adventure and an arresting exploration of man’s inexplicable drive to subdue nature. We come to feel less inclined to trust Denham after he reveals the nature of the expedition to the Captain and first mate; he films Ann’s first screaming shoot, and a concerned Jack says to Englehorn, “What’s he think she’s really gonna see?” At that point, Denham becomes a much darker and more ambiguous character because he is willingly taking the crew and this woman into unknown danger, and the escalation of danger only continues from there. It doesn’t take long for the crew of the Venture to be overwhelmed by the perilous journey, and the sense of retribution builds towards Kong as an emblem of the prehistoric denizens of Skull Island.
The character dynamics that seem clichéd today are still sufficient for telling the story. Even with his exploitative actions towards Kong, Denham is such a fun and likeable character in spite of his failings and there is a sense that he was misguided by the end. His successors in similar roles would have a more antagonistic stance. The romance between Ann and Jack doesn’t receive a lot of screen time so it isn’t distracting from the main attraction of the film. Remarkably, it is the only version of the romance in all of these Kong films that has the most chemistry and charm, due in part to its simplicity and playfulness between characters. Ann is no sultry temptress trying to woo Jack, and Jack is not so macho that he lacks basic sense and decency; they’re just two normal people in a dangerous situation. Their scene after the first native encounter provides a relief from the tension and concludes Jack’s brusque attitude towards Ann during the voyage. Even a tough old bean like Jack can soften up around a beauty like Ann, rather like the film’s titular ape.
There is something archaic and a bit jarring about the film’s stance on Kong as the antagonist and the crew as the heroes. In contrast to later Kong movies, Ann never feels pity for Kong and there is a clear distinction made that Kong is the monster that must be stopped, even if he is just following his instincts. Technology ultimately overpowers the prehistoric creature, and here it still has an old fashioned heroism to it; save the girl by slaying the monster. The film plays to the old 1930s attitude that surrounded gorillas as aggressive, savage beasts in the early 30s, and Kong’s characterisation reflects that. The feeling at the end is one of triumph, with only the slightest hint of tragedy at this creature taken out of his element, for, as Denham puts it at the end, “It was Beauty that killed the Beast.”
Despite the fairly two-dimensional human characters and special effects that may seem quaint and antiquated, King Kong is a revolutionary film and rightly deserves to be celebrated as a classic and a masterpiece in its own right. It is a movie about spectacle as much as it is one; relishing in the era of Broadway decadence, contemporary jungle adventure serials, and entirely new special effects for the era, capturing the zeitgeist of entertainment in the 30s. And yet it’s also timeless because it inspired directors and visual effects artists alike and permeated cinema for decades afterwards.
What else was it going to be?
- Grossed $90,000 its opening weekend, the biggest opening ever at the time. The success of this film is often credited for saving RKO from bankruptcy.
- When describing Kong to Fay Wray, Merian C. Cooper said, “You’ll have the tallest, darkest leading man in Hollywood.” She thought it was Cary Grant.
- King Kong’s roar was a lion’s roar and a tiger’s roar combined and run backwards but more slowly.
- At around 80 minutes into the film, a man (LeRoy Mason) standing in line to see Kong complains to his lady companion, “These tickets cost me 20 bucks.” At presumably $10 per ticket, this would have been a tremendous cost in Depression-wracked 1933. By contrast, a ticket to see the 1933 New York Yankees, which featured Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, or to this movie itself, would have been about 35 cents.
- The 2005 DVD restoration further details the risqué liberties of a 1933 pre-code film release in two scenes. The first is when Ann is on the ship’s deck while Charlie is peeling potatoes, and the second is where Denham is shooting some test footage of Ann (“Scream for your life, Ann, Scream!”). The thin material used for Ann’s dress and gown in both scenes makes it obvious that Wray is not wearing a bra; a wardrobe decision that may not have made it past the Breen Code the following year.
- The laserdisc edition of the film includes the first ever audio commentary.
- For the 2005 re-release, the director of that year’s remake, Peter Jackson, recreated the famed and long lost “Lost Spider Pit Sequence” (below).