King Kong (1933)
Leave it to film critics and everyone with a political agenda to spend close to 90 years picking apart a movie about a giant ape. Still, it should be a compliment to directors Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack that this movie has stood the test of time and has received praise for being more than just a light adventure film with monsters. It is that, but it is also one of the best of its kind, and one that hasn't been equaled despite two attempts to remake it for contemporary audiences.
Director Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong), famous for making nature films in exotic surroundings, is in a hurry to get to an undisclosed location. The only thing he needs is an actress to take along, as he believes the presence of a woman in his movie will draw a bigger audience. When his casting agent fails to find one on the eve of the voyage Denham himself goes looking among the soup kitchens of New York and finds Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) and convinces her to come on the voyage. The first officer on the ship, John Driscoll (Bruce Cabot), is not pleased to have a woman on board, but soon warms to Ann over the course of the journey.
The destination turns out to be an uncharted island in the Pacific Ocean with a native population on a small, accessible peninsula, divided by a giant wall from the rest of the island which builds up to a mountain in the shape of a skull. The crew lands and Denham attempts to film their rituals when he is noticed by the tribe's chief (Noble Johnson), who attempts to buy Ann from the ship's captain (Frank Reicher) to be a bride of Kong. He of course refuses and the crew retreat to the ship for the night, only to have Ann kidnaped. Kong turns out to be a giant gorilla that makes his home in the mountain, and Driscoll, Denham and the rest mount a rescue effort, hampered by prehistoric creatures and Kong himself. Eventually they are successful and Denham brings Kong back for display in New York to disastrous results.
As always with these older films I feel the need to get some things out of the way. Too often this movie has received a modern spin that there is an underlying message about the fear of black men being with white women. Anyone who reads anything about the origins of the story or why the movie was made would understand this is utter hogwash, and I have no idea why the critics who came up with this idea (mostly white) haven't themselves been called out for comparing black people to gorillas. Also, this was not a time in history where a movie would have to be made to be an allegory; if they wanted to make a movie to scare people about black men going after white women then they just would have gone and made that movie and not tried to hide it behind a monster.
That doesn't mean there isn't racism in the film. The natives of the island are treated with the usual condescending, colonial attitude of the time, and it is definitely offensive to a modern audience even if no true offense was meant at the time. King Kong in this aspect also shows society evolving from The Lost World, which effects expert Willis H. O'Brien also did the stop-motion animation for. The only black character in that was played by a white man in blackface, while by this point, offensive as the portrayal may be, the natives were played by African-American actors. It may seem a small step, but it was quite a big one at the time.
The real story behind this isn't some allegory about miscegenation, but rather that Merian C. Cooper liked gorillas and had a dream one night of a giant gorilla climbing the Empire State Building. From there he worked out a story - quite similar in many ways to The Lost World - and worked out how to film it. That was no mean feat, since the only movie even close to this was that other, and with an eight-year gap it is apparent that O'Brien, who had been working with stop-motion animation since the Teens, had made quite a number of advancements. So had cinema, with more mobile cameras than previously as well as sound. King Kong sees advancements in blending animation with live action, as well as developing a film score specifically for the movie, in this case quite a memorable original soundtrack by Max Steiner. Obviously the movie cost a lot to make, but the story was something never truly seen before in theaters and it managed to save RKO Pictures from bankruptcy.
Fay Wray was already somewhat of a star, appearing in Mystery of the Wax Museum and the film version of The Most Dangerous Game the same year. Robert Armstrong had also been in the latter film and Bruce Cabot was being promoted as a romantic lead at the time. All of them do a memorable job, particularly Wray. The "Eighth Wonder of the World", the true star of the show, also got his own mention in the credits. Though the acting in the film is often of its time it never gets stuck feeling like a stage play, and the pacing is definitely quite different than other adventure or monster films from the same period. While obviously this has influenced monster films through the years the actual way this is filmed and edited is responsible for action films even today. So many things came together that were right in this movie that it was both highly influential on how movies have been made ever since as well as being at the top tier of favorite films for audiences over the decades as well.
This is in large part why the 1976 King Kong failed and why, although Peter Jackson's 2005 version is a love letter to the original, it ultimately comes up short as well. Sure, Jackson's looks better, and I would argue Jessica Lange in the 1976 version is one of the few highlights of that film, but King Kong was the type of film that could only be successful once. It doesn't matter that the effects or the societal attitudes are stuck in an 88-year-old time capsule, but what matters is that at the time Cooper, Schoedsack and O'Brien were willing to do something new and different, and both their cast and their audience were ready for it.
King Kong (1933)
Time: 100 minutes
Starring: Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong, Bruce Cabot
Directors: Merian C. Cooper, Ernest B. Schoedsack