Classic Cinema Wednesday #2: King Kong (1933)
Classic Cinema Wednesday is a weekly spotlight review series focusing on a classic film from the “Golden Age” of Hollywood (roughly 1927-1960) that I have never seen prior to watching for this series. The goal of the project is to catch up on old films that I haven’t seen and have overlooked due to their age.
King Kong (1933)
Starring: Fay Wray, Bruce Cabot, Robert Armstrong
Director: Merian C. Copper, Ernest B. Schoedsack
Writer(s): James Ashmore Creelman, Ruth Rose
Studio: RKO Radio Pictures
Genre(s): Action/Adventure, Fantasy, Monster
Release Date: March 2, 1933
Running Time: 104 minutes
At its release in 1933, King Kong was quite a spectacle and a true blockbuster. And while it’s been almost 80 years since this film released, it is still quite a spectacle.
Prior to watching this for the first time, I had previously seen the 1976 remake starring Jeff Bridges and Jessica Lange and thought it okay. I had also seen, and greatly enjoyed, the 2005 remake starring Naomi Watts and Adrian Brody. So I was more than familiar with the story of King Kong, but I had never seen the original. Now that I have seen it, I believe it to be the best version of the film.
King Kong’s story is really a simple one. Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) is a film director known for shooting animal movies in exotic locations like jungles. He has a goal to make the best film anyone has seen and puts together a crew to sail to an island he had heard was home of a legendary beast known as Kong.
The public wants to see a pretty face alongside Denham’s animals, so for his latest project he hires Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) to be his lead and the “beauty” of the film. Ann, having nothing going on and nothing to lose, agrees to the part and boards the tramp steamer S.S. Venture for a voyage halfway around the world. On the ship, Ann meets the first mate of the ship, Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot). Jack hates the idea of a woman being on board, and has several funny lines insulting women. Eventually though, he comes to love Ann Darrow (and she him).
After making contact with the natives of Skull Island and interrupting their ceremony presenting a bride to Kong, the crew of the S.S. Venture head back to their ship. That night, some natives make their way to the ship and kidnap Ann. With the “golden beauty” in their possession, the natives tie Ann to an alter and present her as a gift to the mighty Kong. Meanwhile, the crew realizes what has happened and storms the island looking for Ann; and ultimately chasing off after Kong.
All but two (Driscoll and Denham) of the crew who entered the jungle to rescue Ann die. Kong takes a liking to his small woman, and every time he puts her down to do something else (like kill the crew), he his pulled back to Ann because of her screaming and thrust into a fight to protect her. This includes fighting a T-Rex, a big snake, and a pterodactyl. Jack eventually saves Ann, and Kong isn’t happy about it so he chases off after them and kills some natives. He’s ultimately gassed and taken captive by the crew and brought back to New York City.
In New York City, Kong is the unwitting star of Carl Denham’s new production: “King Kong: The Eighth Wonder of the World.” Ann and Jack are brought out on stage in front of Kong, and when the press starts snapping photographs, Kong gets and angry because he thinks Ann is being attacked and he breaks loose. Uh-oh, the monster Kong is free to run wild in New York City as he tries to reclaim Ann. You know what happens next; that iconic image of King Kong scaling the Empire State Building.
The stop-motion animation of the film may seem like a joke by today’s standards, but in 1933 it was top of the line effects. And despite the film being almost 80-years-old, it still holds up really well. The silliness of the animation really does wear off quickly and before you know it, you’re sucked into the world and can buy into everything that is happening. Really, the animation is great.
Likewise, the acting is also really good. Robert Armstrong played his role as Carl Denham really well, as did Bruce Cabot. What can be said about Fay’s performance as the damsel? Prior to being captured by Kong, she performed well as an actress in her scenes. After being captured by Kong, her role basically consisted of nothing more than being pretty, looking scared, and screaming. Lots and lots, and lots, of screaming. And you know what? Fay Wray could look pretty and scream with the very best of them.
The one thing about the movie (and this applies to the remakes too) is I can’t help but feel sympathetic for Kong. Yeah, he brutally kills people; including picking a woman up out of bed that he thinks is Ann and then dropping her to her death when he realizes that it isn’t his golden beauty.
He’s king of Skull Island, and the natives present him with the gift of Ann Darrow. From the very beginning of it, it’s clear that Kong is drawn to this small woman. Every time she screams, Kong shows up to save her from some terrible creature (including a T-Rex). He even plays with her some (granted she didn’t like it too much and he did peel some of her clothes off). It’s obvious that Kong cares for this woman like a young girl would care for a doll. And he doesn’t know any better. His beauty is taken from him and next thing he knows, he’s being attacked and ultimately wakes up half way across the world in a steel jungle known as New York City.
He’s chained and brought out on stage in front of hundreds of people while Carl Denham boast of how much money will be made off of Kong, the “Eighth Wonder of the World.” And then Ann is brought out on stage, right in front of Kong, and photographers start snapping pictures. Denham correctly told the photographers to stop when Kong started getting rowdy, because he thought the photographers were attacking Ann. The beast is loose in New York City, and next thing you know he has Ann again and is climbing to the top of the Empire State Building.
If you don’t feel sorry and sad for Kong as he is being shot at from airplanes, picks up Ann one last time, puts down and then grabs at his bleeding chest (his heart), before plummeting to his death then you have no heart. What makes it even worse is the remark by Denham afterwards, “beauty killed the beast.” No, greed killed the beast. As humans tend to do, this one-of-a-kind creature was captured, taken away from its home, chained up and shown off to a paying public because Carl Denham thought it’d make him a millionaire. People just can’t leave things alone.
Sorry for the tangent there; I’ve just never liked the way Kong was treated and something about the stop-motion animation had an even bigger impact than the realistic looking Kong we saw in the 2005 remake.
If you are like I was and have never seen the original King Kong, do yourself a favor and watch it (if you’re an Amazon Prime member, it’s available for free streaming). Fay Wray was approached by Peter Jackson to make a cameo in his 2005 remake, which she declined. Supposedly, she stated that the original Kong was the true “King.” And that’s very much true. I thought the 2005 film was great, but it doesn’t hold a candle to this black and white one with stop-motion animation. Unfortunately, Fay passed away in her sleep in 2004 at the age of 96 and wasn’t able to see the remake. Had she been able to see it though, she could have done so with the pride of knowing her 1933 classic really was still the “King,” and that her performance of Ann Darrow was still the best Ann Darrow.
King Kong is a true classic and probably still the standard for the monster movie.