In 1929, while filming baboons in Africa on the set of The Four Feathers, director Merian C. Cooper developed the concept of a film about a giant gorilla battling Komodo dragons. It would begin on an isolated island and end with a spectacular death in New York City. He took this idea to Paramount Studios in 1930, but by then the Great Depression had reared its head and studio execs were none too excited to film such an expensive project. Mega-producer David O. Selznick brought Cooper to RKO studios in 1931 telling him he could make any film he wanted. His first film for RKO was The Most Dangerous Game with Ernest B. Schoedsack as director. They built a huge jungle set for that film and Cooper knew he could then use the same set for his gorilla film.
He hired mystery writer Edgar Wallace to pen the screenplay, co-produced and directed it with Schoedsack, and hired Robert Armstrong and Bruce Cabot for the male leads. For the lead actress, he hired the star of The Most Dangerous Game, Fay Wray. The new film was called King Kong and it premiered in 1933. It was an instant hit raking in over $2 million worldwide on its initial release making it a huge blockbuster before the term “blockbuster” had even been coined.
It was massively influential. Its use of stop-motion special effects, matte painting, rear projection and miniatures was revolutionary. It influenced countless monster movies over the last 80 years. It spawned multiple sequels, has been remade and rebooted, and Kong has become a universal cultural icon.
Fathom Events and TCM presented King Kong on the big screen Sunday afternoon as a one-time-only event and I was lucky enough to catch it.
We need to talk about my showing for a moment before I return to lavishing praise upon the film itself. I caught it at the Warren Theater in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The movie was scheduled to begin at 1 PM. It didn’t actually begin until 1:30. I complained at 1:15 to the teenager at the ticket booth who seemed surprised that this theater was even playing King Kong much less that it was now 15 minutes late. This was followed by the Fathom previews and TCM trivia that should have been running a good half an hour before the film’s scheduled start time. Eventually, management realized this and we got to see them fast forward at thirty-second intervals until they finally landed on Ben Mankiewicz’s introduction.
The film played beautifully until about the time those pesky airplanes were trying to shoot King Kong down off the Empire State Building at which point we faded to black. A quick apology by management and ten minutes later treated us to another scene of fast-forwarding and finally the end of our film.
That’s just ridiculously bad management. Is it too much to ask that a movie theater actually shows the movie on time and without fail?
And now back to our show. King Kong is such a cultural landmark I feel like you probably know all about the movie even if you’ve never seen it. But in case you need a refresher, here’s the plot. Filmmaker Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) known for his risk-taking location shooting charters a ship to a remote, uncharted island. Along for the ride are an over-abundance of crew including first-mate John Driscoll (Bruce Cabot), loads of guns and gas bombs, plus his leading lady Ann Driscol (Fay Wray).
After a long preamble, they arrive at Skull Island where they find a giant wall and a group of natives doing a ritual which apparently involves the sacrificing of a young woman. Once they catch the eye of Ann, a blonde fantasy if there ever was one, they want nothing more than to offer her up to the gods. They first offer to trade her for six native women and when that is turned down, they kidnap her for the sacrifice. They tie Ann up just inside the gates. Kong arrives and instead of eating her, he steals her away into the jungle.
Driscoll and his men attack the natives, open the gates, and enter a land filled with pre-historic monsters. Cue a battle with a Stegosaurus, then a battle with Kong where everyone but Driscoll and Denham meet their doom. Cue loads of battle sequences between Kong and a T-Rex, Kong and a giant snake, Kong and a Pteranodon. Cue Driscoll snatching Ann away from Kong during that Pteranodon battle. Kong, now in full-on gorilla/pretty lady love mode, follows the gang back to the beach where gas bombs subdue him. Cue the famous battle in New York, ending on the Empire State Building.
King Kong is still just as thrilling as it was almost 90 years ago. Sure, the special effects aren’t as realistic as today’s CGI, but they don’t need to be. When did we decide all effects had to be realistic anyway? Suspend your disbelief and you’ll be amazed. Stop-motion pioneer Willis H. O’Brien was in charge of the special effects and they still hold up remarkably well. The set designs and the matte paintings all create a world full of fantasy and wonder.
Armstrong and Cabot both use that over-acting stage style that was prominent in this type of film in the early days of cinema but Fay Wray is fantastic. Her face is so expressive and her body language is so elegant that I can’t even complain that she spends much of the last half of the film doing not much more than scream and look terrified of the monster.
There are problems with the film, especially in terms of race and sexuality. The natives are all racist caricatures. Kong’s face is very expressive and made to look quite like the stereotypes of African Americans at the time. It’s hard not to see his lustful gazes at Ann and not conjure the racist notions of scary black men coming to take our beautiful white women away from us. There is literally one scene in which Kong strips the clothes off of Ann then smells his fingers.
But looking past that there is so much to love. King Kong is such an influential film, so much a part of our cultural history it was fantastic to finally see it on the big screen. Despite its flaws, it remains a wonderful spectacle, a brilliant piece of blockbuster cinema that has helped shape our cinematic experience for many decades, and no doubt will continue to do so for many decades to come.
This was a one-time Fathom Event and thus there are no more showings of King Kong at this time, but be sure to check out all the other great events Fathom has in the coming weeks by going to their website.