Prior to King Kong’s release in 1933, amazing and breathtaking spectacles onscreen were not entirely unheard of — Howard Hughes’ aerial adventure Hell’s Angels was out the year before, and faux dinosaurs had already been glimpsed in The Lost World in 1925. But there was something special about this “beauty and the beast” epic that was not only special, but magical.
The brainchild of co-directors (and longtime collaborators) Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, King Kong was one of the first scary movies to sympathize with the monster. Filmgoers actually felt sorry when Kong met his demise, and that was an unfamiliar twist.
It was interesting for me to re-watch the 72 year old film within just days of seeing the new 2005 homage, and the 1976 remake. In the original and in the 76 version, Kong is rather vicious — he eats people and he purposely steps on them. In both those versions he’s erring to the side of our shared DNA and acting as though he’s romantically attracted to his leading lady. In the 2005 version, he doesn’t nosh on anybody. He’s only sent into a rage when provoked, and the people killed are simply collateral damage. As for the attraction to Ann Darrow, it seems wholly aesthetic — the beast loves her beauty, not her booty.
The original King Kong, recently released for the first time ever on DVD and currently running this month on the Turner Classic Movies channel, is still a marvel. Sure, it looks dated and sounds a little silly, but like any true classic it stands the test of time because it is a good, entertaining story.
The action opens in Manhattan, where flamboyant filmmaker Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) hires a down-on-her luck aspiring actress named Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) to star in his new motion picture, which will be a variation on The Beauty and the Beast. He charters a ship and crew (first mate Jack Driscoll, played by Bruce Cabot, doesn’t have much use for women, but quickly falls for Ann — “Hey, I guess I love you,” he says) and sets sail for the legendary Skull Island.
As soon as they arrive on the island, they happen upon a sacrificial ceremony where a young native girl is to be offered up to the gorilla-like god, Kong. But when the chief sees Ann, he decides that she’d make a much niftier sacrifice — “Blondes are scarce around here,” Denham admits — and offers to trade several of his women for her. The offer is rebuffed, but that doesn’t stop the natives from kidnapping Ann, tying her between two giant posts, and letting Kong have at her.
The massive gorilla comes crashing through the jungle, swipes his screaming prize, and disappears through the trees. But he doesn’t live happily ever after — all the dinosaurs on the prehistoric island suddenly want a piece of Ann, and Carl, Jack and the rest of the S.S. Venture crew are after her too. Her piercing screams lead them to her. Kong fights dinosaurs and giant snakes to protect his bounty, but he’s no match for the mens’ handy gas-bomb that puts him out and allows them to ship him back to New York.
The rest is cinematic history.
When the movie was re-released in 1938, a few scandalous scenes were cut. All but one were restored in 1971 — it’s a sequences in which the sailors on Skull Island were devoured by giant spiders. (It’s back in Peter Jackson’s remake.) The restored scenes include Kong stripping Ann’s clothes off, poking at her breasts and then sniffing his fingers; Kong stepping on a villager and grinding him into the dirt; and Kong grabbing an Ann Darrow look-a-like from a New York high-rise, realizing his mistake, then dropping her several stories to the ground.
Aside from the character development and detailed story, King Kong was also groundbreaking in that it was the first film to have an original score written for it (by Max Steiner). The stop-motion special effects (by Willis O'Brien) were truly astounding, and are still surprisingly seamless.
Not much was commonly known about apes, so Kong’s human-like eyes and mostly biped gait are forgivable. To our modern sensibilities they make about as much sense as the stilted dialogue and the mile-wide plot holes. But to think about all those things is to miss the point of this delightful old monster movie — it’s a rip-roaring fantasy adventure, and always will be.
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Staci Layne WilsonTo read Staci's "King Kong" movie reviews for Horror.com click the year 2005 - 1976 - 1933
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