Beauty Killed The Beast: A Look Back at King Kong (1933)
In the 1930s, Universal Studios had all the fun (and money) with their genre coining Vampires, Mummies, Werewolves and the like. In the competitive studio-era market, what could RKO Radio Pictures do to edge in on this lucrative market of the macabre? Well, the answer wasn’t in Transylvania, the tombs of Egypt, or rural England. King Kong, 'The Eighth Wonder of the World' was born on the mythical Skull Island and died on streets of New York City, but the giant ape is anything but forgotten. Since its release in 1933, King Kong has been remade twice, spun off a few side stories and sequels, had a son, and duked it out with Godzilla. On top of all of that, the pioneering stop-motion photography of Willis O’Brien has been the gold standard for special effects gurus over the years; from Ray Harryhausen to Rick Baker to Dennis Muren to Phil Tippett, influencing generations of filmmakers and their work - not to mention this week's eagerly anticipated Kong: Skull Island.
Visual effects have obviously come a long way since the 1930s, but King Kong has played a pivotal role in the larger conversation on movie magic. Digital wizardry can give every microfiber on screen it’s own unique characteristic, but there’s something irrefutably dazzling about the frame by frame craftsmanship of stop motion photography. It wasn’t just Kong that captured our imaginations but the various prehistoric inhabitants on Skull Island that comprise some of the picture's best sequences; it makes sense that filmmakers are returning to it. While the Empire State Building finale is thrilling to say the least, King Kong is at its best on Skull Island. Time will no doubt take its toll on a movie from the 30s, but the Tyrannosaur fight is expertly crafted; it’s loud, violent and still packs a punch, especially when Kong breaks that T-rex’s jaw in half with a satisfying crack.
O’Brien and directors Merian C. Cooper, and Ernest B. Schoedsack pull out all of the stops here with a grab bag of dinosaurs, serpents, and the big ape himself wailing on them all. This classic also marks the innovations of forced perspective, miniature work, rear projection, and matte paintings. King Kong offers a myriad of rollicking set pieces and iconic moments, plus with it being made just before the Motion Picture Production Code it can be easy to forget just how violent King Kong is. People are getting tossed off of cliffs, eaten, crushed and stepped on. King Kong has been defined in our minds as one of the cinemas famous monsters, racking up a body-count that far exceeds the Universal Monsters.
Of course, the original King Kong doesn't hold up particularly well to modern scrutiny, and one can chalk up some of the movie's less desirable, occasionally sexist elements to the “Welp, those were the thirties.” Elsewhere, you'll hear hammy lines such as “Say is this the moving picture ship?” and a whole lot of exposition that feels like the script was made up of old-timey movie trailers with dialogue that sounds like “the greatest screen thrills of all time”.
While King Kong might appear a tad sexist on the surface, the egomaniacal director who spearheads this suicide mission isn't so flattering either; Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) is simply a huckster showman with no reservations in risking people's lives to make a monster movie. Seeing as RKO was likely taking a beating at the box office from Carl Laemmle Jr’s Universal Monsters, Cooper's picture takes on an extra-textual bite when you consider the staging of Denham before he unveils Kong on stage, not unlike Edward Van Sloan’s wall breaking intro to Frankenstein speaking on behalf of Laemmle Jr.
Before Kong, Cooper and Schoedsack were traveling ethnographic documentarists in the Siamese and Galapagos Islands, who would go on to collaborate on the 1927 version of The Four Feathers. Another high stakes chiller to their credit is their 1932 feature The Most Dangerous Game, also starring Robert Armstrong and adapted from Richard Connell's story of the same name. So hey, if the Ice-T & Gary Busey vehicle Surviving the Game wasn’t to your liking but still enjoy people people being hunted for sport, it might be right up your alley. This all goes to show that their shared resume certainly informs the daredevil adventure yarn spirit of King Kong.
Coined as a monster movie, a 'creature feature' and a classic work of horror, King Kong feels more akin to a globe-trotting adventure film more than anything else, but there’s a lot of work in front of and behind the camera in this ambitious film. That's just one of the major reasons Kong is still fondly remembered 84 years after its initial release.