Indeed, looking back from "T H E - F U U U U T U U U U U U U U U U R E !", it's easy to take a long gander at 1933's original King Kong and dismiss it as a somewhat overacted, sexist and racially insensitive motion picture with some vastly out dated special effects. This would be a shame to do, and would completely ignore the zeitgeist and the undeniable influence that King Kong has had on film and literature throughout the years. Taken objectively and enjoyed on its own merits, this is a very fine film, stunningly groundbreaking in its special effects and admirable in its scope and vision. What doesn't get remembered is that this can be graphically violent and, at times, super-scary. King Kong, the film and its title character, is anything but careful, and is one monster of a good time.
Because of its impact, a recap of Merian C. Cooper's most famous film would be an exercise in the superfluous. The story of a daring filmmaker (Robert Armstrong's Carl Denham) and his quest for the perfect real life action film and the perfect dame to star in the "pick-cha" might not be quite as well known as what the cast and crew find on the island, and what they bring back to the Big Apple. Yep, it's safe to say that they find one hell of a leading man there; the only leading man big enough to take a bite out of that Big Apple.
Most films of the era do tend to be pretty gosh darned racially insensitive, and King Kong isn't much different. The mysterious uncharted island (whose most prominent feature is "Skull Mountain") is populated by black natives who are treated as savage and superstitious kidnappers, less sensitive than Kong himself. However, this is a mere means to a progressing plot, and it isn't long before the natives and the "Great White Hunters" are working side by side in defense against old Chrysler-butt! Further, Kong's NYC Rampage is much more destructive than the island village counterpart, and the natives are depicted as heroic and caring toward their families. Is this the movie that would be made today? I'm thinking no... however, compare this film to similar sensitivities of the day and we can agree that Cooper, co-director Ernest B. Schoedsack and co-writers Edgar Wallace, James Ashmore Creelman and (Schoedsack's own wife) Ruth Rose are most certainly not ones to wear the white sheet. It should also be noted that the "natives" themselves were played primarily by some very fine African American actors of the day, most notably the successful film producer Noble Johnson, who brings us the Chief.
Fay Wray's beautiful damsel in distress doesn't quite get that balanced treatment. Ann Darrow isn't a whole lot more than a screaming and swooning object, the focus of both Kong's attraction and that of Bruce Cabot's Jack Driscoll (equal parts Hondo bravado and Ward Cleaver sexism). How any dudes got laid in the '30's is beyond me, but hey, if Richard III can get him some, I guess Jackie the Driscoll can too. Regardless, Wray does a fine job (considering the era) playing the scream queen who meets her King. Unlike some of the actors here, Wray actually does out-act her claymation counterpart. The image of the finale, in which Kong takes Darrow on the grand-ma-ma of all first dates in the form of the ultimate sight-seeing tour of New York, is practically tattooed on the face of film history. Meanwhile, the concept of Kong's obsession with Miss Darrow tends to bring up more questions than the wedding night of Clark Kent and Lois Lane. But back to the innocence of 1933 (stop laughing, Germany).
As I say, the acting here is pretty much the loudmouth idiomatic delivery one might expect from the announcer on "The Jack Benny Program", with the exception of Cabot who sounds more like the sleep-walking model for Brando's latter-day mumbling days. Keeping in mind that this film isn't too far removed from our silent flicks and microphone-free stage days, this isn't all that bad, and, again, is superior to much of the 1930's-era counterparts.
But what about our most famous actor? Herein lies the real dating of this film. In this day of overused CGI and photorealistic cartoons, it's comparably laughable to look at the jerky frame-by-frame moldings of Kong and his prehistoric peeps. While "Stop Motion" animation did not get its start in King Kong, this was probably the penultimate example of what could be done with it up until this date. In truth, the Kong puppet suffers from some alternately rubbery and mechanical movements, which don't always mesh well with the full-size face or arm and leg used for close-ups. It might be easy to nitpick today, from over seventy years beyond the debut of this flick. Take note and look at movies from just twenty years ago. How much more convincing is Calibos from Clash of the Titans, the "Snake-man" from Dreamscape, or even the Tauntauns from The Empire Strikes Back. No one in 1933 was completely "convinced" of these effects, any more than we suddenly believe that Yoda or Gollum have amazingly come to life as we watch our present-day computer embellished film fare. The effects were the best of the day and convincing enough to take the audience on an incredible ride, just as the effects of the day do the same thing for us all! If you start to love the film, you're not going to care too much about the flaws after a while. Especially when the great special effects technicians do such a good matting and compositing job in act after act! You'd be hard pressed to do too much better with the same tools today!
It's easy to get lost in this film, and it's easy to see why it has become such an undeniable classic that has more than left its mark on pop culture. Would we have our Godzilla without our Kong? Would we have our Planet of the Apes? Our Jurassic Park? Our William Conrad?
Four and One Half Stars out of Five for the original King Kong! Though a lot have followed in his footsteps, few have made it without falling in. This one deserves its spot in both Hollywood History, as well as the collective American Movie Lexicon. You won't find these footprints in front of Grauman's Chinese Theatre... if we ever do, I guess we can forget about ever seeing a flick there again. This dude could share Nike's with Shaq! Well, almost!
Broadway's Biggest Star!
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