Wednesday 22 May 2024

King Kong (1933)

Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s King Kong astounded audiences in 1933. It hasn’t lost any of its impact. It’s deservedly regarded as a classic, and it’s one of the most important movies in the history of genre cinema. 

This is a movie about a man who wants to make movies unlike anything ever seen before and that’s exactly what Cooper and Schoedsack were aiming to do, and they succeeded.

King Kong was made at RKO with David O. Selznick acting as executive producer.

Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) makes what we assume are semi-documentary movies in wild and exotic places (such movies were indeed hugely popular at the time and Cooper and Schoedsack had made such movies). He’s been advised that what his films need is some love interest. He’s decided that that is good advice. He’s looking for a suitable actress but due to his reputation for risk-taking no agent will provide such an actress. Quite by accident he encounters Ann Darrow (Fay Wray), a former film extra down on her luck. She’s desperate and she jumps at Denham’s job offer. She’s told she’ll need to be on board the ship ready to sail at dawn.

The movie starts fairly slowly but that’s OK since we get a gradual buildup of the sense of mystery. This is a ship headed to an unknown destination for an unknown purpose. We also get a chance to get to see just how obsessive Carl Denham is, and we get the chance to get to know Ann Darrow and care about her. She’s feisty, likeable and sexy. She also takes a very sensible and grown-up attitude towards Carl Denham. He’s certainly using her but he did rescue her from destitution and gave her a break when she needed it so she owes him. He also promised not to put the moves on her and he’s kept his promise. He’s played square with her and she intends to play square with him.

The destination turns out to be an uncharted island west of Sumatra. If Carl Denham wanted something special to film then he’s certainly found it here. Dinosaurs and a gigantic gorilla definitely qualify as something new. A great deal of mayhem follows, Ann gets to be up close and personal with King Kong, there’s plenty of slaughter. Eventually even more slaughter will follow, in New York, leading up to one of the most iconic ending sequences in movie history.

Of course it’s tempting to focus on Willis O’Brien’s stop-motion animation which was ground-breaking at the time and still impresses but King Kong has a lot more than that going for it. Once the action starts 40 minutes in it’s relentless. There is a solid hour of non-stop action and excitement and danger. It has a solid plot, basically a riff on Beauty and the Beast. The sets are wonderful. There’s tragedy (Kong is certainly a tragic monster). There’s romance.

It’s also a pre-code movie. Had this movie been made two years later it would have been a whole lot blander. The mayhem and violence wrought by Kong would have needed to be toned way down. And the hints of perversity would have been eliminated (any suggestion that Kong’s attraction to Ann was sexual would have been ruthlessly eliminated). It would have been just a routine monster movie. But in 1933 RKO didn’t have to worry too much about such things and King Kong is breathtakingly violent and loaded with perversity.

I love the extreme artificiality of the island. It’s like a fever dream. Or a voyage into the unconscious of a madman. The special effects are stunning but they’re not aiming for realism. If you’re going to make a fantasy movie it’s pointless trying to make anything in the movie look realistic. King Kong takes place in its own world where the rules are different.

The movie was shot entirely on sound stages and on the backlot. There is no location shooting at all. Which is a major plus - it reinforces the sense that we’re no longer in the everyday world. We’re not in Kansas any more.

Two acting performances stand out. Robert Armstrong is excellent as Carl Denham, effectively conveying the character’s complexity. Carl is unscrupulous and cynical but he’s basically honest and in his own way he’s an obsessive visionary who will sacrifice anything to get his vision on the screen. There’s a lot of Carl Denham in most of the great film-makers in cinema history.

The other standout is Fay Wray. She’s mesmerising and very sexy and she’s never whiny.

And, to be fair, Bruce Cabot is quite good as the handsome first mate Jack Driscoll with whom Ann falls in love.

The Warner Archive Blu-Ray offers a lovely transfer and most importantly the film is uncut. Anyone who saw King Kong on TV in the 60s, 70s or 80s was seeing a heavily cut print. The audio commentary track features Ray Harryhausen, a very appropriate choice. It also features snippets or archival interviews with original cast and crew members including Merian C. Cooper and Fay Wray.

King Kong works as well today as it did ninety years ago. A hugely entertaining visually stunning movie. Very highly recommended.


tom j jones said...

It really does still stand up - actually the slow bits before the mayhem are some of my favourite bits. Sadly, it also has one of the most famous deleted scenes in movie history, when Kong throws the sailors off the tree across the gully and we don't see what originally happened to them (which has been remade, REALLY badly, as a special feature, in the loosest sense, on some DVDs and Blu Rays). Ironically, the 2005 remake demonstrated why they were right to cut the scene - it's too distracting from the main plot, and you don't lose anything having not seen it.

It's also one of the first sound films to have what we would recognise as a film score - and it's still one of the best, after all these years.

One of the greatest films ever made.

I also love Most Dangerous Game, made by the same crew, and some of the cast, back to back with this

dfordoom said...

tom j jones said...
I also love Most Dangerous Game

The 1932 version of The Most Dangerous Game is a favourite of mine as well.