King Kong (1933) USA / 104 min / Adventure Fantasy Horror / B/W
Written by Roger MalcolmThe greatest monster film ever, unrivaled in spectacle is the classic King Kong. The premise is based on an idea by Merian C. Cooper and Edgar Wallace. Cooper alongside Ernest B. Schoedsack would co-direct though both would be uncredited. The screenplay was written by James Ashmore Creelman and Ruth Rose. Creelman would write the screenplay for The Most Dangerous Game (1932) which was filmed simultaneously on the sets of King Kong as both would feature Fay Wray and Robert Armstrong. Rose would go on to write the screenplay for Mighty Joe Young (1949) which Schoedsack would also direct as well as directing Kong’s sequel Son of Kong (1933) released fittingly only 9 months later to capitalize on the success of it’s predecessor.
The story revolves around filmmaker Carl Denham, wonderfully played by the fast talking Robert Armstrong. Denham with a reputation for being crazy and scared of nothing is known for filming animal/jungle pictures in dangerous exotic locales. “Everyone says there’s only one Carl Denham.” says the skipper of the ship Captain Englehorn, played by Frank Reicher. Denham has been preparing for his next film, though the details are a secret, he has commissioned a ship to sail to an island that only he knows the location of leaving his crew mystified. The ship’s crew is said to be three times the size needed, furthering the mystic. On board the ship Denham discusses the urgency of the voyage with the skipper due to the insurance company discovering the cargo consists of enough explosives and “ammunition to blow up the harbor.” They must leave quick as the Marshal may come aboard tomorrow or the next day which would leave them tied up for months.
A theatrical agent, named Weston, comes aboard to inform Denham he can’t provide him any actresses for the project. Though he’s reassured Denham he’s square it’s due to his reckless reputation. Desperate Denham sets out onto the streets of New York City to get himself a girl saying “even if I have to marry one.” Taking a Yellow Taxi Cab Denham gets out in front of a Woman’s Home Mission but after looking over the ladies waiting for soup decides to walk off. While walking the streets he witnesses a street vender accuse a young woman of stealing an apple she was just touching. The young woman, played by Fay Wray, admits she wanted to but didn’t. Denham steps in giving the man a buck telling him to scram. The girl starts to feint falling back as Denham reaches out steadying her with her head dropping back revealing her face. Denham turns yelling “Hey taxi!” pulling her along. They go to a cafe where he get’s her coffee and something to eat. He wastes little time in offering her the lead in his film enthusiastically telling her “It’s money and adventure and fame. It’s the thrill of a lifetime and a long sea voyage that starts at six o’clock tomorrow morning.” At first hesitant to take the job, Ann agrees once Denham reveals his identity saying “and listen, Ann, I’m on the level. No funny business… Just trust me and keep your chin up.”
Back on the ship as the crew prepares to set sail, First Mate John Driscoll shouts orders at the crew. Not knowing Ann has walked up beside him, Driscoll suddenly gestures with his left hand hitting Ann accidentally in the face . Driscoll apologizes poorly while maintaining his harden persona but realizes his error and admits he did a poor job apologizing as it “was a pretty tough rap on the chin.” At first Driscoll makes clear his dissatisfaction of a woman being on board, though it quickly becomes clear his disgruntled nature seems due more to the fact of Ann’s welfare being potentially in jeopardy on the trip. Denham accuses Driscoll of going soft, “some big hard-boiled egg gets a look at a pretty face and bang. He cracks up, and goes sappy.” Not only is this the idea for Denham’s film, as he explains to Driscoll “The beast was a tough guy too. He could lick the world, but when he saw beauty, she got him. He went soft, he forgot his wisdom and the little fellas licked him. Think it over, Jack.”, it also becomes the theme in King Kong.
Denham is informed they have reached the spot on the map that he’s marked for the unveiling of their destination. An island in the middle of nowhere surrounded by reef filled ocean. He pulls a map from his pocket with a layout of the island displaying the only safe route between the reef to the sandy peninsula. He points out where there is a wall that separates the small peninsula from the rest of the island explaining the natives have long since forgotten the details of it’s creation, though they keep it in repair as there is something on the other side, something they fear. The skipper quickly assures it must be a hostile tribe. However, Denham decides to ask the timely yet chilling question “Did you ever hear of Kong? The skipper indeed has saying “some native superstition, isn’t it? A god, or a spirit or something.” With a slight grin on his face Denham turns to walk out but not before saying “Well, now you know why I brought along those cases of gas bombs.”
Searching in a dense fog Ann asks Denham how will they know it’s the right island? Denham replies, “The mountain that looks like a skull.” Once arriving at Skull Island the momentum of the film becomes an almost nonstop thrill ride revealing one spectacular shocking horror after another including not only the real star King Kong, credited as The Eighth Wonder of the World, but an assortment of prehistoric creatures including a Stegosaurus, a Brontosaurus, a Pterandon, a Tyrannosaurus Rex and more. Overseeing the creation of these spectacular creatures was famed visual effects supervisor and chief technician Willis H. O’Brien. Due to the advance of modern technology many if not all the effects in King Kong will come across severely dated to most audiences today, yet there is some kind of unique magic creating an eerie atmosphere that is captured within those frames of film. An undeniable appeal that simply works perhaps because of the mystic behind the creation of the effects themselves which utilized live action mixed with rear projection, matte paintings, models, miniatures and stop-motion animation. O’Brien would go on to be the mentor of acclaimed visual effects creator Ray Harryhausen starting on Mighty Joe Young (1949).
Fay Wray starts out as a girl that’s down on her luck which the audience can’t help but feel empathy or sympathy depending. There’s nothing exactly spectacular about her performance necessarily, but Fay Wray was defined by her role in King Kong becoming Hollywood’s first Scream Queen. That one particular aspect led to the nickname The Queen of Scream. Having done other B-films around the time such as Doctor X (1932), Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933) and The Vampire Bat (1933) she would also earn the title of Queen of the B’s. She once commented on this saying “Those horror pictures were the parts I was being offered at the time, and the scream came into play in almost all of them. People today call them classics; that amuses me a little, because I had so many reservations about them when I made them. I thought they were much too gruesome.” Though the most shocking horror of all in King Kong isn’t the creature himself but rather the treatment of Kong. Wray once told a story of when her youngest daughter first saw the film, she said, “Kong wasn’t trying to hurt you, he was just trying to protect you.” Wray said “She was right” and indeed she was but man rarely see’s beasts as nothing more.
Released by RKO Radio Pictures King Kong would have it’s original title of just Kong changed by executive producer David O. Selznick who was responsible for bringing Cooper’s vision together with O’Brien’s technical expertise. A musical score by Max Steiner, which became a milestone in film history. King Kong has been remade twice with several sequels yet nothing of it’s sort had ever been accomplished before nor since. The sequel that followed changed the horror elements to comedy. Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake was a polished spectacle indeed but it doesn’t contain that bit of magic I feel the original possesses. There’s something very organic and personal in the archaic effects that’s completely lost with modern day computer imagery. Never to be replicated, forever to be astonishing, King Kong is filmmaking at it’s creative peak. I give it 5 out of 5 for a rating of Masterpiece.