If there’s one Sight & Sound film of which everyone knows at least the basic story, it’s King Kong (1933). Giant ape, blonde, airplanes, and the Empire State Building. It is one of the great enduring creations of Hollywood and has filtered across the global cultural lexicon through countless references, parodies, and remakes for 80 years — so we won’t trouble you with a lengthy recap. King Kong was the brainchild of filmmakers Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, whose sparse filmographies belie their influence. Cooper was a real-life adventurer — and the inspiration for King Kong‘s Carl Denham — and he and Schoedsack had previously collaborated on some well received silent docu-dramas filmed in Persia and Siam (elephant stampede footage from their 1927 film Chang is actually used in Duck Soup). But however much adventure and exoticism Cooper and Schoedsack brought to the proceedings, the bulk of the genius behind King Kong probably came from Willis O’Brien, the stop-motion animation pioneer who brought Kong and the film’s menagerie of prehistoric beasts to life. Kong was a special effects marvel in its day, and still has the power to awe with its inventiveness and visual splendor. Combine that with some killer action set pieces, frenetic pacing, and Max Steiner’s influential (and supremely bombastic) score, and you have a film that rivals the titular ape in scale and power. (104 min.)
S. – I was fortunate that my first King Kong experience was on the big screen, just a few months ago at the Astor. Such a big movie really deserves to be seen larger than life. There was no holding back in this production, the limits of what is possible to create on screen were stretched beyond belief and then some. Having somehow missed out on seeing this film until this year, yet having that King Kong on the skyscraper image burned into my brain, I was quite surprised at how much fun it was to watch. The famous imagery that exists outside the movie in countless tributes and spoofs conveys the drama, the danger and the pathos of the giant ape captured and brought into the modern world but filters out the humour of Kong in his element. There were quite a few laughs to be had in the journey through the jungle and the stop-motion animation manages to be impressive, whimsical and jaw-droppingly creative without missing a beat.
J. – King Kong is packed with laughs — although quite a few of them are unintentional. I love King Kong — I’ve loved it since I was a little kid, but man oh man is the first 20-30 minutes terrible. The dialogue is awful, awful canned tough-guy stuff; the acting is stiff and unconvincing; and the characterizations are ridiculous, particularly the women-hating eventual-hero, Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot). And when we saw it at the Astor (which was awesome!) there were quite a few moments in the early going when the audience was gaffawing over what were supposed to be tense or romantic parts.
The film does, however, do an effective (if heavy-handed) job of building up a sense of dread and menace aboard the ship, with movie director Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) cool with breaking the rules to film something amazing. He’s not sure what that something will be, but he knows it’ll be dangerous. Even so, it’s tedious going in those opening scenes. I’ve seen King Kong at least a dozen times, and I swear, I always forget how bad and how long the first third is. Why do I forget? Because as soon as they hit Skull Island the movie just clicks into relentlessly awesome mode for the rest of picture!
S. – You are not wrong about the first 30 minutes, they really do drag. Sitting in the cinema I thought this was going to be a hell of a long movie. However the dullness evaporates in a flash once we reach the mysterious island. The intrepid crew still come out with plenty of clunky dialogue but it is lost amongst the wonders on the screen. The is something very cartoonish about the scenes that unfold as the adventurers attempt to rescue their leading lady, these guys are seeing prehistoric creatures roaming in the wild without batting an eyelid, just another obstacle to overcome. Neither beast nor un-named crew members are spared as the body count climbs seemingly every minute the intruders remain in the jungle. The pace is relentless. Things don’t go so smoothly for Kong either, finding a safe place for his prize proves difficult but strangely he comes across as more sympathetic than the humans pursuing him. The animators somehow manage to find an appealing balance of ferocity, determination and curiosity in the creature they have created.
J. – Yeah, a tremendous amount of credit needs to go to Willis O’Brien for the creature effects. To be sure, a lot of it looks pretty cheesy by today’s standards, but I think I largely prefer King Kong‘s stop motion work to a lot of what is done on computers these days. If nothing else, there is a certain weight and volume to the monsters in King Kong because they actually are three-dimensional miniatures, and I often find that doesn’t happen with CGI creatures, who are frequently too glossy, flat, or weightless. But I think what really sells the illusion in King Kong is all of the little extraneous, unnecessary stuff that O’Brien does. An excellent example is the big fight between Kong and the Allosaurus (yes, it is an Allosaurus and not a Tyrannosaurus). When damsel-in-distress Ann Farrow (epic screamer Fay Wray) first spots the dinosaur, the animators have the creature nonchalantly scratch its own jaw. There is no need to do that, but precisely because it is so small and pointless, the gesture makes this little toy dinosaur seem so much more real.
But Kong is the real treat, and the Allosaurus fight demonstrates that perfectly. Upon defeating the dinosaur, Kong playfully opens and closes the mortally wounded dino’s jaws before thumping his chest in defiant victory. It’s, again, a small and pointless gesture that makes all the difference in making Kong a real character. I actually feel like in some ways O’Brien was working at odds with Cooper and Shoedsack, because the film constantly tries to make Kong to be an out and out monster but O’Brien’s animation of Kong the character lends him a great deal of sympathy and heart. The big ape’s grief and confusion when he is near death atop the Empire State Building is really and truly touching — that little model ape gives the performance of the film!
But I’ve jumped to the end too soon. We’re still on the island. I’m curious to know what you think of the creature work, S., particularly with regard to how well you thought the filmmakers managed to combine the miniatures with real actors.
S. – I really enjoyed the way the figures and the humans were merged together onscreen. While it was not always convincing, I found the short-comings less jarring than is the case with the CGI effects generally relied upon today. Maybe it’s all that first hand experience of playing with toys as a kid that gives the goofs a nostalgia pass when the physics don’t quite check out. If you need precision to keep you in the zone though then King Kong is not for you, that ape changes size quite a few times throughout proceedings, personally I think it adds to his charm. I also appreciate the fact that they don’t make Kong too cutesy, the little moments of playfulness in his own backyard are great but the rampage through New York City leaves no doubt that he is still a wild beast. Plus this a pretty fine line we are treading here, it is one thing to have a giant ape want to keep a “possession” that he sees as his but playing up a romance element is just creepy.
J. – That romance is something they really do play up in the vastly inferior 2005 remake by Peter Jackson, and yeah, it is creepy. (Damn shame too, because I generally like Jackson’s work.)
You mentioned the pace as being relentless, and I think that’s definitely right on. As soon as Kong grabs Ann, the film really goes, well, ape. I mean, in the island sequence alone you have a Stegosaurus attack, a Apatosaurus attack, Kong knocking sailors off a log into a pit, the Allosaurus/Kong fight, a Plesiosaur/Kong fight, a Pteranadon/Kong fight, and Kong versus the entire native village. That’s just nuts, and most of it works excellently well. I think in part that’s because the conflicts rarely get particularly elaborate, so the movie has the good sense to wow you with a creature and then move on, where many movies today would linger or needlessly amp up the complexity in an attempt to show off (again, like the 2005 remake). The economy of presentation allows for the film to stay thrilling through the sheer number of adventures it packs into a pretty short amount of time.
The natives, however, are an unfortunate relic of Hollywood’s less racially sensitive days — and stereotypes aside, why would South Pacific islanders be black instead of Polynesian? (My guess: easier to find black performers in California.) But that failing isn’t as vile as the way that, say, Gone With the Wind deals with issues of race. There is a lightness of touch in King Kong and a certain recognition by the filmmakers of how inherently ridiculous the movie is. That goes a long way to plastering over most of the glitches in the story or the failures of the special effects — the classic example is the wall that the natives built to keep out the giant monsters: why the hell does it have a Kong-sized gate? Well, so Kong can conduct an amazing attack on the village, obviously.
S. – I agree that the scenes with the native islanders stray into cringe-worthy territory but the focus of the white folks is so much on getting to the other side of the wall that the interaction was mercifully brief. Without doubt my favorite part of the film is the sequence in the jungle, it is fast-paced and action-packed, helped along in no small part by the awesome soundtrack. I mean awesome in the large sense as opposed to the terrific sense, although it generally adds a powerful layer to the atmosphere of the movie. The music is clearly providing the audience with none-to-subtle cues as to how they should feel at any given point. During the drama I felt that the audio reinforcement worked but in the lighter moments, such as Kong investigating Ann’s attire, it was rather heavy-handed.
The last third of the movie changes pace again with the shift to NYC. We are spared the tedium of another boat trip and skip straight to Denham in full showman mode ready to stun the city with the “eighth wonder of the world”. Seeing the massive beast chained for the entertainment of the well-to-do crowd while the smarmy Denham spins a sappy tale for them to lap up is stomach-churning stuff and sets up a true sense of satisfaction when Kong breaks free and begins his trail of destruction through the city. I love that this movie had me cheering for a giant ape to show us stupid humans a lesson, but such is the power of Kong.
J. – Max Steiner’s score is bombastic as hell, which is appropriate for a clash of titans like Kong. But it’s also a real game-changer of a score in general. Prior to King Kong, scores tended to be sparse and recycle classical music or popular tunes. A lot of music was actually recorded live on the set in the earliest days of sound (which made it a nightmare to edit scenes together, forcing long and stagy takes). King Kong is generally ahead of the game in sound design (Kong himself makes a mighty racket!), and the score is part of that. It’s the first film to have a score that was specially composed to sync with the action on screen, and for me it adds a lot of gravitas to what is essentially a very silly movie.
I also like the jungle scenes best, but I do enjoy Kong’s rampage in New York — particularly his takedown of the elevated train. In general it’s such an excellent conceit: Because Kong’s power and relentlessness has already been so thoroughly demonstrated on Skull Island, the audience knows full well how terrifying a threat he poses in Manhattan. I think the film implies much more terror and destruction than it actually shows during the New York segments, and that works brilliantly to keep things concise and hurtling forward. And the finale atop the Empire State Building, which was then the tallest building in the world and only two years old, is still gripping and sad, no matter how iconic and over-exposed the imagery might be. So while the acting in King Kong might be flawed and the opening dull as dishwater, it ultimately gets you where the best fantasy films should take you — into the unknown and on top of the world.