And the Prophet said, "And lo, the beast looked upon the face of beauty. And it stayed its hand from killing. And from that day, it was as one dead."—An Old Arabian Proverb
Is there anyone here who doesn't know at least the gist of King Kong's plot—a giant ape falls in love with a beautiful blonde and winds up on top of the Empire State Building as a squadron of airplanes plays pin the tail on the forty-foot monkey. It's one of Hollywood's most enduring stories, inspiring two big-budget remakes, several sequels and countless imitations. But in all its various iterations, none of have had the lasting impact of the 1933 original. It's fun, it's stupid, it's a landmark, it's iconic—and it's my choice as the best drama of 1932-33.
Depending on which of producer-director Merian C. Cooper's tall tales you believe, the plot of King Kong was either the product of a nightmare in which a giant gibbon attacked New York City or it came to him full-blown after he watched an airplane fly past the city's skyscrapers. Whichever its origins, the idea certainly appealed to his sensibilities. Raised on tales of adventure and exotic locales, Cooper had already filmed documentaries in Persia and Siam, as well as traveling to Africa for an adaptation of The Four Feathers, and had pondered filming a drama inspired by a family of baboons he had observed while filming the latter movie, going so far as to write an 85,000 word monograph on the subject.
Too, Cooper had been a pilot in the U.S. Air Service in World War I, later flew seventy combat missions for Poland during that country's intervention against the Bolsheviks during the Russian Civil War, and in 1927, became a founding member of Pan American Airways. Surely the thought of flyers shooting up downtown Manhattan had occurred to him at least once.
In any event, Cooper pitched the story to Jesse Lasky at Paramount at the end of 1930. Lasky thought Cooper was nuts and that any resulting picture would likely bankrupt the studio, but David O. Selznick, who had just taken a job at RKO-Radio Pictures, decided the maverick producer was just what his struggling studio needed to goose its lackluster box office. Cooper didn't disappoint him. After producing a successful adaptation of Richard Connell's short story The Most Dangerous Game (with direction by Ernest B. Schoedsack and Irving Pichel), Cooper turned his attention to his giant gorilla movie in earnest. He commissioned special effects wizard Willis O'Brien to shoot two test scenes of the giant ape, and best-selling mystery writer Edgar Wallace to draft a screenplay.
A veteran of the 1925 silent version of Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World, O'Brien was the foremost expert in stop-action animation (the process of creating the illusion that an object is in motion by moving it incrementally between individually-photographed frames of film). He and Cooper conceived two test sequences, one of the ape attacking a crew of sailors as they cross a deep gorge, the second of the ape battling a Tyrannosaurus rex as a woman looks on in terror.
To people the test footage, Cooper borrowed two cast members from The Most Dangerous Game, Robert Armstrong in the role of Carl Denham, and as the heroine, Fay Wray, promising the latter a chance to work with "the tallest, darkest leading man in Hollywood." (She thought he meant Clark Gable.) When Game's third star, Joel McCrea, balked at performing the necessary stunts, Cooper substituted bit player Bruce Cabot. Fleshed out with footage of a Triceratops killing a man that O'Brien had prepared for an aborted film project called Creation, Cooper presented the test to RKO's board which immediately approved the project.
With frequent collaborator Ernest B. Schoedsack directing the live-action sequences and Cooper supervising the special effects work, filming was set to begin in August 1932.
Now all Cooper needed was a story.
Edgar Wallace wrote the first draft of the screenplay in just five days at the beginning of 1932, but died of pneumonia a month later. To replace Wallace, Cooper brought in James Ashmore Creelman who had written the screenplay for The Most Dangerous Game. Creelman made the ape more fierce and played up the beauty and the beast aspect of the story, adding the famous final line, "It was Beauty killed the Beast." Schoedsack's wife, writer Ruth Rose, then streamlined Creelman's script, eliminating, for example, an explanation of how the captured gorilla is ferried to New York. She also added autobiographical elements of her experiences with Cooper and her husband when the pair worked on those documentaries in Persia and Siam.
Among those autobiographical elements Rose added was the fictional movie director, Carl Denham, who heads the expedition to find Kong and film the encounter. Characterized as "crazy" and with a reputation for "recklessness," Carl Denham is not a man cursed by self-awareness and only his own half-crazed dreams can make his eyes light up. "It's money and adventure and fame!" he's after, the cost to those around him be damned.
"If he wants a picture of a lion," one character says, "he just goes up to him and tells him to look pleasant."
Armed with a cargo hold full of guns, explosives and gas bombs, Denham and a crew of "tough mugs" have everything needed to shoot a movie except an actress, but no matter how much he's willing to pay, no reputable agent will work with Denham and he winds up hiring a homeless waif right off the streets of New York—Ann Darrow, played by Fay Wray, of course. Going on nothing but a tale told by a Norwegian sailor in a Singapore bar, they set sail for an island "not on any chart" in search of a mythical beast, with Ann along in the role of Beauty—or perhaps bait.
"[T]his low-rent monster movie," Chicago Sun-Times critic Roger Ebert wrote for his Great Movies series, "and not the psychological puzzle of [Citizen] Kane, pointed the way toward the current era of special effects, science fiction, cataclysmic destruction, and nonstop shocks. King Kong is the father of Jurassic Park, the Alien movies and countless other stories in which heroes are terrified by skillful special effects."
King Kong is one of the most aggressive examples of a movie that bypasses your rational mind to work directly on the emotional centers of your limbic system, and much of the plot is a hodgepodge of cliches, culled from a variety of sources—Beauty and the Beast, King Solomon's Mines, The Lost World, The Perils of Pauline, and even the films of silent era director D.W. Griffith. (Indeed, in some ways, King Kong plays like a parody of the by-then passe Griffith, whose movies, when stripped of their art and their politics, can be seen as celluloid records of Griffith's neurotic dread that someone somewhere was about to relieve preternaturally pure Lillian Gish of her virginity, with Kong standing in for the freed slave, the Chinese shopkeeper, the Southern rogue and the French aristocrat of The Birth of a Nation, Broken Blossoms, Way Down East and Orphans of the Storm, respectively. Cooper even drove the joke home by having Denham put Ann through a series of cheesy silent-era poses while filming her with an old hand-cranked movie camera of the sort directors hadn't used since the advent of sound.)
But smarter stories have been told and instantly forgotten and a smart, sensible story isn't the point of King Kong anyway—fun-stupid terror is, and after a long tension-filled build-up, Kong finally makes his first appearance, thrashing through the jungle toward a screaming Fay Wray whom island natives have staked out as a sacrifice to their terrible gorilla god.
KING KONG 1933 -
MICHAEL STEVER | Myspace Video
The wait is well worth it—Kong's entrance is one of the greatest in film history.
To create the special effects at the center of King Kong, O'Brien designed a half-dozen eighteen-inch models of the gorilla, using jointed armatures of aluminum for the skeleton, covering it in cotton and rubber for the muscles, latex for the skin, and rabbit fur for Kong's hair. (Sculptor Marcel Delgado, working from O'Brien's designs, objected to using rabbit fur, fearing it would retain the impression of his fingertips as he moved the model between shots—it did—but RKO executives were thrilled with the result. "Look!" one exclaimed watching the test footage, "Kong is angry—his fur is bristling!")
For close-ups of Kong eating islanders and New Yorkers alike, E.B. Gibson built a full-size bust of Kong's head from wood and cloth with an air compressor to move the metal hinges of his jaws. Similarly, a hand mounted on a crane was built of steel, rubber and bearskin. The various models of Kong scaled out to eighteen, twenty-four, forty and seventy feet, depending on the scene, a fact which drove the meticulous O'Brien to distraction but which satisfied Cooper's dramatic instincts, and moviegoers knew only that Kong was as big as he needed to be at any given moment to scare them out of their wits.
In post-production, Murray Spivak, the head of RKO's sound department, created the sound for all the movie's special effects sequences, which had necessarily been recorded silently. For Kong and prehistoric creatures, Spivak recorded animals at the Selig Zoo, slowing the recordings to deepen their growls and stitching recordings together to make them longer. For Kong's grunting, Spivak recorded his own voice through a megaphone. Kong's chest-beating was the sound of Spivak hitting his assistant Walter Elliott with a drumstick while holding the microphone against Elliott's back. Spivak also provided all of the screams in the movie, with the notable exception of Fay Wray's.
Another innovation, one we very much take for granted these days, was Max Steiner's heart-pumping score which underlined the action and ratcheted up the tension. As hard as it may be to believe now, at the time producers such as Irving Thalberg were firmly opposed to the use of a musical score in a film. He and others believed that music playing in a film from a source not immediately obvious—from a radio, in a nightclub—would only confuse the audience. A quaint notion now, but it took films such as King Kong to prove Thalberg and his ilk wrong. (Check out the blog A Shroud of Thoughts for an interesting article about Steiner's score.)
The real technical achievements, though, involved the processes necessary to integrate the models into the live-action sequences so that instead of dwarfing an eighteen inch model, the actors were battling a full-size ape. Sydney Saunders of the RKO paint department developed a new process for rear-screen projection (used for the first time in Kong's fight with the Tyrannosaurus). Linwood Dunn engineered a new optical printer that made composite and "traveling matte" shots (for example, Kong pushing open the gate at the wall of the native village) practical and economical. And O'Brien himself patented a projector that allowed full-scale live-action footage to be mixed with the miniature on a frame-by-frame basis. Each of these breakthroughs in optical effects technology quickly became the industry standard for decades to come, and while the film's effects are dated by today's lights, personally I find them more satisfying than many of the computer-generated images that have dominated the film industry for the last decade or so. (For a fuller discussion of Kong's groundbreaking special effects, check out Ray Morton's book King Kong: The History of a Movie Icon From Fay Wray to Peter Jackson.)
If I were handing out a complete set of alternate Oscars, I'd give King Kong awards for sound, score, special effects, visual effects, art direction/set decoration (what, at the time, was called interior decoration) and film editing, which along with the award for best drama, comes to seven, making it the biggest winner of the year.
Of course, none of these innovations would have meant much if King Kong hadn't fulfilled its basic promise of scaring the pants off its audience, and it most certainly accomplished that, with stories of audience members fainting in the aisles during the film's screening. Whether you congratulate Cooper, Schoedsack, O'Brien, et al. for their achievement or blame for the thousand pale imitations that followed is up to you.
Which brings us to the acting.
I can't say I disagree with Stephen Hunter's assessment, who for Washington Post wrote that "Bruce Cabot [who played the nominal hero, first mate Jack Driscoll] gave what was probably the worst performance in a great movie on record—he seemed more wooden than a tobacco store Indian and not nearly as colorful." (Indeed, Cabot played "Sam the Indian" in John Wayne's 1971 western, Big Jake.) And Robert Armstrong as Carl Denham isn't much better, although his eyes do shine with the evangelical fervor of a true believer.
But I do take issue with James Berardinelli's assertion that the overall acting is "barely adequate." As I've said before, Fay Wray made a vital contribution to the horror genre, teaching a generation of damsels in distress how to scream—and scream she did. Think about it: just six years before King Kong's premiere, it hadn't even been possible to hear an actress scream in a movie. After Fay Wray, we knew it was the only proper way to enjoy a horror movie. And while she couldn't bring to the table the nuance a talent like Naomi Watts brought to the 2005 remake, ultimately Wray brought something better—fear. And fear, after all, is what we go to a horror movie to experience.
Still, the most likeable and sympathetic character in the entire film, and the only one who feels completely original, is a stop-action model of a forty-foot gorilla.
And that, ultimately, is the genius of King Kong. I suspect that audiences of the time, mired as they were in the worst economic Depression in American history—25% unemployment, a third of the nation "ill-fed, ill-clothed, ill-housed," the stock market worth only ten percent of its previous value—saw in Kong a reflection of their own plight, first as a representation of those outside forces we can't understand—the tornado, the flood, the economic turmoil that punishes the just and unjust alike—but then, as Kong is uprooted from the only home he's ever known and dragged in chains halfway around the world for the jaded amusement of Upper East Side popinjays, as the farmer who has lost his land, the man who has lost his job, the descendant of a slave oppressed by Jim Crow, the recent immigrant adrift in a hostile culture he doesn't comprehend.
"How did you ever get into this fix?" Denham asks.
Speaking for people the world over, Ann replies, "Bad luck, I guess."
In deeply anxious times, King Kong allowed audiences to express their anxieties without confronting them directly, and afforded them, in addition fun-stupid escapism of the first order, a satisfying emotional catharsis.
King Kong opened in New York City on March 2, 1933, to rave reviews and enthusiastic crowds, with lines stretching around the block to see the sold-out show at the 6,500 seat Radio City Music Hall. The film's Los Angeles premiere at Grauman's Chinese Theater featured a seventeen-act stage show as well as the forty-foot "big head" bust of Kong which was placed in front of the theater. Mordaunt Hall of the New York Times called Kong "fantastic" and "compelling," Edwin Schallert of the Los Angeles Times dubbed it "sensational," and Relman Morin, writing for the Los Angeles Record wrote that "King Kong is the supreme product of the coordination of human imagination and human skill."
The film was a solid winner at the box office, too, grossing $2 million in its initial run, enough for ninth on the year's list of top movies. More importantly to RKO executives, the film helped the studio turn its first profit in five years, rescuing RKO from receivership.
After the success of King Kong, Merian Cooper worked primarily as a film producer, first as the vice president of production at Pioneer Pictures, then as the vice president of Selznick International Pictures. During the Second World War, Cooper joined the United States Army Air Force and was stationed in China, eventually rising to the rank of brigadier general. After the war, he formed Argosy Productions with John Ford and produced some of that legendary director's most beloved films, including The Quiet Man, The Searchers and the cavalry trilogy.
Ernest B. Schoedsack continued to direct, working on sixteen movies in all, including the Oscar-winning King Kong knock-off Mighty Joe Young. He and his wife, screenwriter Ruth Rose, remained married for fifty-two years, until her death on Schoedsack's eighty-fifth birthday. He died a year later, in 1979.
Willis O'Brien continued to work as a special effects expert and he was the "Technical Creator" on the 1949 film Mighty Joe Young which won the Oscar for Best Visual Effects. Although no individuals were officially named on that award—it went to "RKO Productions"—O'Brien did receive a statue from the Academy.
Max Steiner went on to compose some of the most famous film scores in history, including those for Gone With The Wind and Casablanca. His scores were nominated for Academy Awards twenty-four times, winning three.
Of the lead actors, Fay Wray remained the most visible, appearing in ninety-nine movies, though never again in a movie of King Kong's renown. "At the premiere," she said later, "I wasn't too impressed. I thought there was too much screaming. I didn't realize then that King Kong and I were going to be together for the rest of our lives, and longer." She was to have made a cameo in the 2005 remake directed by Peter Jackson, cast to speak the famous final line, but passed away before the scene was filmed.
Both Robert Armstrong and Bruce Cabot also worked steadily, but aren't much remembered today outside of the context of King Kong. Indeed, the actor connected with the movie who fared best was Joel McCrea, who turned down the part of Jack Driscoll. He went on to star in such classics as Sullivan's Travels, The Palm Beach Story, The More The Merrier and Ride The High Country.
In 1991 the Library of Congress selected King Kong for preservation in the National Film Registry. The American Film Institute has twice listed Kong as one of the fifty best films of all time (in 1975 and again in 1998) and in 2008, ranked it as the fourth best fantasy film ever made.
Trivia: The "Great Wall" set from King Kong appeared in several other movies over the next five years then was redressed as Atlanta and burned to the ground for the filming of Gone With The Wind.
More Trivia: Look for director-producer Merian Cooper as the pilot of the plane that finally kills Kong and Ernest Schoedsack as the gunner.