King Kong (1933)

[Chris Edwards, who writes extensively about silent films on his blog, Silent Volume, has written the following review of King Kong. To see the full programme click on the Dirty Thirties header image above.]

“You’ll have to think of a lotta new adjectives when I get back!”

That’s Carl Denham’s promise as he storms out of a business meeting and into the New York City night. He’s a movie director; the type who makes BIG pictures; always exciting, always 100% authentic, filmed on location. Adventure, folks: straight from the planet’s last corners of untouched savagery, captured by the lens, offered to you. He’s got the funding, the equipment, and a boat ready to set sale for his next shoot. All he needs now is a girl.

“STRICT-ly business,” Denham assures Ann Darrow, the indigent beauty he finds on the street that very evening. His boat leaves in hours, to where he can’t say, but Ann’s welcome to come along. She barely hesitates. “There are a lot of girls like me,” she explains, describing her place in the legions of Depression-struck unemployed, from whose ranks Denham has deigned to pick her. She has looks, but no support, and better the risks of a voyage than the life of a thief.

We know what she’s in for. Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) will spend much of the next ninety minutes in the clutches of a 50-foot ape. She’ll take a terrifying trip to the top of a tower. She’ll scream twice for every single sentence of dialogue she’ll speak. This is King Kong, a film needing no introduction. Our only question, really, is what spectacle remains in the ‘special-effects wonder’ of…. 1933?

Oh, much. Enough for a few more adjectives than Denham would have called for. ‘Smart,’ for example. ‘Abstract,’ perhaps. Always interesting. And a reminder, if it’s needed, that today’s FX wizards may be jumping their own CGI-generated shark. But for now, more plot.

Lack of a love interest provided the only pause in the public’s otherwise uninterrupted stream of hyperbolic praise for Denham’s pictures. And this Ann will solve. Now his ship can steam for the South Seas, headed for a possibly fictional island his old-salt of a captain has never heard of. Nothing can go wrong. But if it does, Denham’s loaded this tub with an arsenal of rifles and gas bombs big enough to pause a herd of moose. This concerns the ship’s grim-faced first mate, John Driscoll, but then, he approaches everything with a sour disposition. Even falling in love with Ann seems to irk Driscoll, though he manages it.

Driscoll balks at bringing Ann to the lost island, but of course, they’re both Denham’s employees, and the director has learned to be ready to shoot at all times. In more than one sense. On the beach they discover an enormous wall, spanning the width of the peninsula, and before it, a native ceremony in full swing, with drummers, chanters, and dancers in gorilla furs circling a young woman. She will be the bride of Kong (whatever that is). The natives quickly turn their attention to Ann, whom they call ‘the golden woman.’ Denham and crew escape the beach, but Ann is captured that night and the ceremony resumes.

The natives open the gates of the great wall and lash Ann to two pillars on the other side. Everyone waits. We hear, along with Ann, the roar of the beast, and the crunch of its steps approaching her. The trees part and it appears, plunging its Bride into shrieking terror, and us, into giggles.
For a second, yes. We’re in the post-Jurassic Park era, after all; we’ve a tendency to knock off points when a fake monster looks fake. Kong sure does. His stare is empty and his movements are machine-like and repetitive. But give him a minute.

Ann screams and screams. She writhes against her bonds, trying to twist herself away from the monster’s hand. The monster pounds its chest and roars above her. We know how we’d feel if we were screaming like that. And Kong’s alien look—his strange gestures and bugged eyes and rippling fur from hundreds of animators’ hands re-adjusting the model—all of it, makes Kong more horrific. Nobody’s playing this for laughs; so now, neither are we.

One of the crucial choices made by King Kong’s directors, Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, was to allow the victims’ screams to continue even when cutting to a shot at the monsters’ scale. Take a later scene, when the sailors pursuing Ann are mauled by a dinosaur. Cooper and Schoedsack use dummies to represent the men. They’re obvious fakes, but they wail as they’re ‘killed,’ so we remember the people we saw before, not the props we see now.

Kong obsesses over Ann, but destroys all who follow her. He brutally kills a Tyrannosaurus rex, then a lizard creature, then a pterodactyl, as each threatens her. He also overturns a log bridge, consigning a half-dozen screaming dummies to the pit and leaving only Driscoll and Denham alive. Denham heads back for help, while Driscoll pursues the gorilla. And the gorilla? He takes Ann to a cliff-top—the highest point of the world he knows—and roars his victory.

What follows is one of cinema’s most violent scenes. Driscoll succeeds in rescuing Ann, but the gorilla gives chase, crashing through the huge gate, rampaging through the native village and killing hundreds. Now the body count is measured in close-ups, as we see spearmen crunched in Kong’s teeth and squashed beneath his feet. No one is strong enough to stop him. Only modern technology—Denham’s gas bombs, specifically—can put the monster out.

Like the other males in King Kong (giant gorilla included), Denham acts true to his nature. He sees opportunity and directs the ship’s captain to take the beast home. Cooper and Schoedsack decline to show how this is done. It truly doesn’t matter; it’s enough to know that it occurs. So when Denham stands on the beach and promises a marquee, that marquee is the next thing we see. And King Kong drops none of its breathless pace.

Denham now stands in a tuxedo and tails, before a curious audience and an enormous curtain. When the curtain is lifted, we see Kong on a massive platform, chained in a posture similar to Ann’s when they were betrothed. Denham then introduces Ann and Driscoll, and invites the press to close in for photos. When the camera flashes agitate the gorilla, Denham urges calm: “we’ve knocked some of the fight out of him.” Driscoll’s worried, though; what if Kong thinks the flashes are threatening Ann? He’s right, and Denham’s wrong, and Kong bursts free of his chains and begins his tear through the streets of Manhattan.

Everything Kong destroys, he destroys for a reason. It was this way on the island, and so it is in New York. He wrecks a subway car because it comes at him at eye level, just like the monsters he’s used to. He crushes the men in suits as he did the men in grass skirts, because they pose equivalent danger. Consider the film’s most terrifying scene, where Kong climbs an apartment building, reaches through a high-rise window, and snatches a screaming woman from her bed. He holds her over the street, sniffs her, then drops her. It’s an awful murder, but Kong is merely an animal, looking for a different woman.

Kong acts logically. King Kong is a logical film. And that makes its main character much more than a mindless, destructive force for the hero to kill.

This movie’s shown us men who were stupid, greedy, short-sighted or cowardly. If they killed, or stole, or ran away, it was of their own free will. But when Kong, with Ann in hand, begins his climb up the Empire State Building, it is the last act in a film filled with his heroism. Kong is the film’s only, truly noble male. Whereas Denham endangers Ann repeatedly, and Driscoll, in the end, follows orders, Kong always puts Ann’s welfare first. Only Kong has to face the biplanes and their machineguns.

Kong’s duel with the planes completes King Kong’s vision of New York as a jungle writ-large. The gorilla climbs the Empire State Building because it is the tallest structure around. In fact, the building was, in 1933, the tallest building on earth. The metaphor is simple—as the ultimate alpha male, Kong must attain the highest point of whatever world he knows. And having been brought to the Big Apple, that’s now all the world there is.

Kong tries in vain to swat the planes while protecting his woman. The pilot’s technology seems underhanded—they’re out of Kong’s reach when they shoot him, and we cheer when he manages to destroy one. When the last bullet finishes Kong, he reaches for Ann, then falls hundreds of feet to his death. He was too good for this soft, urban world anyway.





9 comments

  1. I love King Kong to death, one of my favorite old movies. And you gotta love all those significant problems with scale throughout the entire movie. King Kong grows and shrinks from scene to scene like he was Britney Spears' breasts :P

  2. Thanks for this article, Chris! I've always liked King Kong, but this gave me an even greater appreciation for it.

  3. I have to see this a first time. Can't imagine it lives up to King Kong Lives of 1986. I suppose that film killed the idea of doing another Kong with models but it would be kinda of cool to see another one done in the spirit of the original embracing the schlocky aspects as part of the fun. Kind of Tim Burton's King Kong or something.

  4. I've seen this film many times, many ways–my only regret is having never seen it on a theatre screen. It would be interesting to see if the effects look better or worse at that size.

    And the beauty of it? It's not too long. As much as I appreciated Jackson's remake, he gave himself way too much time.

  5. King Kong is one of my favourite films of all time. And what makes it great is that, like the first two Universal Frankenstien films, King Kong is not a mindless monster. He is, IMHO, one of the great tragic heroes of cinema: a poor ape who falls in love with a woman and must face to face with "civilisation," intent on turning him into a freak show or destroying him. It's one of the very few films that make me cry.

  6. I love the original kong very much, from the Overture to the Empire State building Finale. That it has stood the test of time so well is a testament to the care and creativity invested here. The effects do take on a life of their own!

    That being said, I believe that Peter Jackson's Kong gets shit on waaaaay to much. Sure the Dino chase was 3-4 minutes too long, but what a finale with both the Tyros in Vines, and the elegant stampede off the cliff. There is so much to love about the remake, one of the better ones out there. And I like how he fleshed out the time period a little more for a modern audience. I believe that was the right decisions.

    It's been ages since I saw the Jeff Bridges Twin Towers Kong, and even then it was on Commercial TV, so I can't comment on how that one has aged, or where it fits into the classic other two.

  7. I agree with you, Kurt. Jackson may have thrown a bit too much at his King Kong, but his love of the original showed through. All in all, as remakes of classics go, I mostly liked his approach. And I did like his evocation of the 1930s in the New York section.

  8. I know people who hated the T-Rex-on-the-vine bit, because it was largely self-contained, but to me, that scene typified Spectacle, which was a big part of the original. And the spider-pit scene is the most horrific thing I've ever seen on film.

    I don't think Jackson gave the audience enough credit, though. The ape didn't need to be humanized so overtly(especially if the original can make someone cry). And he was clumsy with his depiction of the natives, though maybe there was no winning that one, these days.

  9. Aha, but isn't the humanization (or nobility) of the King Ape the essence of the story? Didn't the 1970s version of Kong make the relationship between Darrow & Kong more sympathetic. I think that the story, and how the story is embedded in peoples minds over the years has made that a much clearer focus than the actual 1933 film. Jackson was just taking things even further along. I've got no problem with that.

    And his portrayal of the Natives is much safer than going all "Oooga Boooga" camp like the original (unintended side effect, the only part where the film has aged badly, IMO). As you said, Chris, there may have been no winning ground, but I do like Jackson's choice with the more primal-earthy natives in this one.

    I still remember the audience reaction in my screening of the recent Kong during the spider pit sequence as being the most visceral response to onscreen horror in some time. Trumped only by a certain scene in Michael Haneke's CACHE, which had 1300 audience members cry out in shock in a fraction of a second. Still the prolonged agony of the audience during the spider pit sequence is one for the ages.

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