I saw King Kong first when I was a child and through the years I always retained a foggy, general idea of how the story went, but there were four things that I always remembered distinctly: the moment when Fay Wray first sees Kong and screams her head off, Kong stepping on a man and squishing him into the ground, Fay Wray being filmed while on the boat and being told to look into the sky and scream for her life, and Fay Wray screaming while Kong carries her off. The screaming made a big impression on me. And I remember that I watched the film with a number of other children roughly my age and that there were some tears shed at the end.
I don’t remember being sorry when Kong died, but I think it was because he had squished that man into the ground.
Years later, I saw Peter Jackson’s 2005 King Kong. 2005 is now almost ten years ago and though my memories of the recent film are much clearer, through the years the two movies increasingly merged together in my mind and it was with great interest that last weekend I re-watched the 1933 King Kong and tried to untangle my memories.
My first reaction, unfortunately, was disappointment. Kong looked far more fake than I had ever realized, though I was not mistaken about the amount of screaming. However, once I got over that, I was able to settle in and enjoy the film. And while watching the film, I had a revelation. If a giant mega-gorilla came roaring at me, I’d scream my head off, too. And if that giant mega-gorilla carried me off, swung me high off the ground, put me on a very high tree, put me on a ledge in a cave, took me to various locations were various monsters tried to eat me and then chased me through the streets of New York and finally carried me to the top of a 1,454 ft. building, I might even faint dead away. If you scream on roller coasters, then you would definitely scream with Kong.
It’s really a unique film, at least as far as I have ever seen. It draws you in and makes you sympathize with Kong. It is amazing how much sympathy they can generate for a character that is really just a puppet; a puppet in a mostly live action film.
Most people are familiar with the plot of King Kong. Movie director Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) has a map and is looking for a legendary creature, the great Kong, who is supposed to be on an island where no European has ever been. He needs a leading lady and picks up hungry Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) from the street and he and his crew go off to Skull Island to shoot his film. Once there, Ann is kidnapped by the natives and sacrificed to Kong.
Kong is smitten, Ann is later rescued and then Kong is captured by Denham and his crew and brought back to New York as a great attraction, billed as the Eighth Wonder of the World. But of course Kong escapes and goes after Ann and climbs up to the top of the Empire State Building, where he is shot down by airplanes.
When he is dead, Denham comments that it was not planes, but beauty that killed the beast. Denham rides this theme for all it’s worth through out the movie. In that respect, King Kong is a monster/adventure retelling of a classic fairytale. Although Kong’s affection does not appear to be reciprocated and he is not changed into anything other than he is. But that’s because there are other themes going on in the film, such as the beast being destroyed by civilization, a sort of high powered, collective, mechanized beast.
And of course the moment when Kong is shot down by the pilot with machine guns is quite a sad one. Here is this powerful, mighty creature being taken down by machines that he can’t possibly understand. I was watching the documentary that came with the second disc of the restored edition of the film, and the commentators (all men) were almost lyrical about the death of Kong. I have to admit, however, that my reaction as an adult was still somewhat similar to what it was when I was a child. I still didn’t quite feel the tragic pathos of his death. It was sad, but he had just killed dozens of people who we are never given time to feel bad for and that always makes me feel more bad for them than for the creature getting killed (I have this problem with all disaster and monster movies – those unnamed, random people dying in droves).
My theory is that empathizing with Kong to that extent is more of a guy thing. It seems to resonate with them more. One commentator said that Kong had a soul, which is true that he’s more than just a large gorilla, but if that’s the case, than he is morally culpable for all those deaths (perhaps I am over-analyzing the moral aspect of this film). So, though I felt for him, I was not quite rooting for him.
What was really cruel was to capture Kong and bring him to New York, though if you really think about it, by taking him away from the island, they saved the lives of the remaining islanders, who now have no barrier between them and Kong (since he breaks through the gate). But then the Islander’s shouldn’t have kidnapped Ann. Of course, perhaps Denham shouldn’t have been arrogantly barging in in the first place.
Still, part fairy tale, part adventure, part romance, part monster movie – King Kong seems to combine so much that resonates with people in many different ways and I found it oddly compelling. It was a huge hit when it was released in 1933 -which was the height of the American depression when unemployment was 25% – though Kong had stiff competition from top grossing films by Greta Garbo, Mae West and the musical 42nd Street. King Kong must have really stood out, however, in a year that produced Little Women and musicals with Mae West and Ruby Keeler, and Greta Garbo’s Queen Christina.
I think to really appreciate it, you have to watch RKO Production 601: The Making of ‘Kong, the Eighth Wonder of the World’, the two and half hour documentary that was produced by Peter Jackson and is included on the second disc of the two disc DVD release of King Kong. The documentary is in eight parts and includes everything from a biography of Merian C. Cooper, the producer and originator of the King Kong story who led an out-sized life, to the development and invention of stop-motion animation by Willis O’Brien that made King Kong, and all future movies reliant on special effects, possible.
Anyone who has ever watched the copious how-they-made-it discs on Peter Jackson’s extended editions of his Lord of the Rings films knows that he never does anything by halves. There is a discussion of how Max Steiner (composer for movies like Gone With the Wind) revolutionized movie score composition. In fact, if you think about most movies from 1933 and before, there are hardly any original scores and often not even music, except for diegetic music (music that comes from within the movie, a record or a band playing). Steiner’s score for King Kong is almost like a modern score: thematic music for characters, using music to tell the story. In the documentary they argue – and I think it is true – that half the sympathy the film generates for Kong is because of the music. There is also a discussion about how Murray Spivak essentially founded modern sound recording for these kind of films. He was the first to think to combine various animal noises to create new and unique roars and growls.
What I especially enjoyed was the detailed discussion of how stop-motion animation is done and Peter Jackson and a team from WETA go into great detail as they attempt to imagine and film a missing scene from King Kong involving spiders so that it could fit seamlessly into the film, using the same kind of equipment. These guys are obviously major King Kong fanatics, but it was extremely illuminating just how complicated it was to make the film; suddenly Kong didn’t look so cheesy to me when I realized what a staggering achievement it was.