King Kong is a 1933 American fantasy monster/adventure film directed and produced by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack for RKO. The screenplay by James Ashmore Creelman and Ruth Rose was from an idea conceived by Cooper and Edgar Wallace. It stars Fay Wray, Bruce Cabot and Robert Armstrong.
The film tells of a gigantic, prehistoric, island-dwelling ape called Kong who, after being captured by exploitative film-makers who see the gigantic beast as an excellent money-maker, pursues the blond human female who caught his eye on the island across New York City. Kong is distinguished for its stop-motion animation by Willis O’Brien and its musical score by Max Steiner.
The film has been released on video, DVD, and Blu-ray Disc and has been computer colourized. King Kong is often cited as one of the most iconic movies in the history of cinema. In 1991, it was deemed “culturally, historically and aesthetically significant” by the Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry. It has been remade twice: in 1976 and in 2005.
Setting sail from New York harbour is the good ship Venture, chartered by documentary film-maker Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong, Son of Kong and one of many who also appeared in The Most Dangerous Game) who has taken the homeless, pretty blonde, Ann Darrow (Fay Wray, The Vampire Bat, The Most Dangerous Game) under his wing, with the aim of making her a huge star, failing to mention that no-one else was stupid enough to accompany him on such a dangerous trip. We are introduced to Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot), the first mate who takes an instant fancy to Darrow and the ship’s captain, Englehorn (Frank Reicher, House of Frankenstein, Doctor Cyclops), who guiding the ship in the vicinity of Indonesia, is finally told of the un-chartered island they are actually looking for.
As they breach the fog-bank to the sound of tribal drums, the see a native village backed by a huge stone wall which separates it from the rest of the forested island – Denham finds this an apt time to tell them of the monstrous entity which is reputed to reside on the isle. Greeted by the native chief (Noble Johnson, The Most Dangerous Game, 1932’s The Mummy) they see a local woman chained to the rock, apparently waiting to be sacrificed by the rumoured beast and decline his generous offer of trading Darrow for six of his own clan. The refusal doesn’t go down well and lo, Darrow is captured in the dead of night by the tribe and is shackled to the wall like her poor, unfortunate predecessor. The crew of the ship attempt a rescue but not before the mysterious behemoth enters stage left, a gigantic ape who snatches her and disappears into the jungle.
The New Yorkers give chase and find that the island seems to have remained in a forgotten age and is populated with similarly enormous and ferocious creatures – they first encounter an enraged Stegosaurus, (which they kill); a lethal Apatosaurus (which capsizes their raft, killing several of the crew and causing them to lose their weapons); and, eventually, Kong himself, who prevents the men from following him across a ravine by shaking them off a fallen log bridge. Only Driscoll and Denham are left alive.
When a Tyrannosaurus attempts to eat Ann, Kong departs the ravine to fight the carnivore, killing it by breaking its jaw and neck with his bare hands. Driscoll continues to pursue Kong and Ann while Denham returns to the village for more men and weapons. The giant ape takes Ann to his cave at the summit of Skull Mountain, where she is newly menaced by a snake-like Elasmosaurus, drawing Kong into another battle to the death to save Ann. Driscoll sneaks into the cave as Kong takes Ann to a crag and begins inspecting her. He then hears noises made by Driscoll inside the cave and goes to investigate. While Kong is away, Ann tries to escape but is attacked by a Pteranodon. Again, Kong is alerted, and he snatches the Pteranodon out of the air, freeing Ann from its clutches. After winning this latest battle, Kong inspects the dead Pteranodon while Driscoll and Ann use this distraction to escape by climbing down a vine dangling from the cliff’s edge. Kong discovers the escape and starts pulling the vine back up. Ann and Driscoll let go, falling into a river and making it back to the village, but not without an angry Kong on their trail. The ape breaks through the large gate in the wall, and storms the village, killing many natives. Denham hurls a gas bomb at Kong, knocking him out, whereupon he exults in the opportunity presented: “We’re millionaires, boys! I’ll share it with all of you! Why, in a few months, his name will be up in lights on Broadway! Kong! The Eighth Wonder of the World!”
Amidst blinding camera-flashes and much hoopla, the day of Kong’s unveiling to an unsuspecting New York public approaches. Guests of honour are Darrow and Driscoll, who arrive just in time for the curtain to rise. The blinding flashes of the assembled army of photographers’ cameras startles the manacled ape, who frees himself from his bonds and goes on a rampage, sending the masses fleeing for their lives. Evidently blessed with incredible eyesight, Kong makes a beeline for Ann, even when in the apparent safety of his lofty skyscraper apartment. Breaking and entering as skilfully as a gigantic ape can, Ann is ferried ever-upwards by the ape until they find themselves with no further to go atop the Empire State Building. Denham and Driscoll inform their friendly neighbourhood biplane squadron and the race to the top floor to try to rescue Ann. Planes. Ape. Empire State Building. There are few more iconic scenes in film.
Early cinema was an opportunity to take audiences to places they would never dream of being able to travel to in reality – to take this yet further and bring wonder to their lives, the temptation to embellish these fantastic journeys was irresistible. As early as 1918, only six years after the publication of the book, Tarzan films were hugely successful, their combination of exotic backdrops, hero and villain and never-seen-before wildlife were a huge hit with audiences. Also prior to Kong, films such as 1913’s Beasts in the Jungle and 1925’s The Lost World explored distant worlds and combined both real and fake locations with similarly vrai and faux creatures.
Kong’s birth is forever entwined with that of The Most Dangerous Game, an equally startling and pivotal film. Cooper and Schoedsack (Mighty Joe Young, 1933’s The Monkey’s Paw) were already friends and business partners when they made the film with Robert Armstrong and Fay Wray as the stars and an impressive jungle set constructed. To follow, a film called Creation was planned, with the plot concerning castaways finding themselves on an island populated by dinosaurs. The expense of bothersome Komodo dragons on a foreign location and an already dubious studio (RKO, who stepped in when Paramount declined) focussed Cooper on theThe Most Dangerous Game set and the talents of stop-motion wizard, Willis O’Brien. Still with several concerns, not least the fact that the country had entered The Great Depression, RKO gave the green-light.
Employed on screenplay duties was the popular British mystery writer, Edgar Wallace, though his initial draft was met with resolutely stony faces. Before a full re-write could be attempted, Wallace died, incurring the rather unreasonable wrath of Cooper who insisted he hadn’t written a word – the film’s producers were more merciful and gave him a joint credit. Taking up the baton was The Most Dangerous Game‘s James A. Creelman who, though managing to have more elements remain in the eventual end product was too dispatched in favour of another, this time, Ruth Rose (coincidentally Mrs. Ernest Schoedsack) who trimmed the lengthy plot. Having grown from The Beast, to The Eight Wonder, the bones of Kong were forged.
Marcel Delgado, who had already worked on The Lost World, constructed Kong (or the “Giant Terror Gorilla” as he was then known) as per designs and directions from Cooper and O’Brien on a one-inch-equals-one-foot scale to simulate a gorilla 18 feet tall. Four models were built: two jointed 18-inch aluminium, foam rubber, latex, and rabbit fur models (to be rotated during filming), one jointed 24-inch model of the same materials for the New York scenes, and a small model of lead and fur for the tumbling-down-the-Empire-State-Building scene. Kong’s torso was streamlined to eliminate the comical appearance of the real world gorilla’s prominent belly and buttocks. His lips, eyebrows, and nose were fashioned of rubber, his eyes of glass, and his facial expressions controlled by thin, bendable wires threaded through holes drilled in his aluminium skull. During filming, Kong’s rubber skin dried out quickly under studio lights, making it necessary to replace it often and completely rebuild his facial features.
A huge bust of Kong’s head, neck, and upper chest was made of wood, cloth, rubber, and bearskin by Delgado, E. B. Gibson, and Fred Reefe. Inside the structure, metal levers, hinges, and an air compressor were operated by three men to control the mouth and facial expressions. Its fangs were 10 inches in length and its eyeballs 12 inches in diameter. The bust was moved from set to set on a flatcar. Its scale matched none of the models and, if fully realised, Kong would have stood thirty to forty feet tall. The iconic building he scales had only been completed two years prior to the film’s release.
Two versions of Kong’s right hand and arm were constructed of steel, sponge rubber, rubber, and bearskin. The first hand was non-articulated, mounted on a crane, and operated by grips for the scene in which Kong grabs at Driscoll in the cave. The other hand and arm had articulated fingers, was mounted on a lever to elevate it, and was used in the several scenes in which Kong grasps Ann. A non-articulated leg was created of materials similar to the hands, mounted on a crane, and used to stomp on Kong’s victims. The dinosaurs were made by Delgado in the same fashion as Kong and based on Charles R. Knight’s murals in the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. All the armatures were manufactured in the RKO machine shop. Materials used were cotton, foam rubber, latex sheeting, and liquid latex. Football bladders were placed inside some models to simulate breathing. A scale of one-inch-equals-one-foot was employed and models ranged from 18 inches to 3 feet in length. Several of the models were originally built for Creation and sometimes two or three models were built of individual species. Prolonged exposure to studio lights wreaked havoc with the latex skin so John Cerasoli carved wooden duplicates of each model to be used as stand-ins for test shoots and line-ups. He carved wooden models of Ann, Driscoll and other human characters. Models of the Venture, subway cars, and war planes were built.
The film cut from 125 to a still relatively weighty 100 minutes, with scenes that slowed the pace or diverted attention from Kong deleted. The most infamous deleted scene was what later became known as the “Spider Pit Sequence”, where a number of sailors from the Venture survived a fall into a ravine, only to be eaten alive by various large spiders, insects and other creatures. In a studio memo, Merian C. Cooper said that he cut the scene out himself because it “stopped the story”. Others report that a test screening had people screaming and fleeing the theatre so shocking were the images. Aside from some still photographs and pre-production artwork, no trace of it has ever been found.
Other creatures not appearing in the finished film but appearing in footage from deleted scenes, include Styracosaurus, Arsinoitherium, a giant crab, a giant tentacled insect, Erythrosuchus, Gigantophis garstini and Triceratops.
With half a million dollars already spent on a film about a giant gorilla, the studio was in panic mode, executives cutting costs wherever possible, too late to abandon a project that had disaster written all over it, and not in a good way. The initial plan was to allow the studio’s musical director, the Vienna-born Max Steiner, a budget sufficient to give a ten-piece orchestra 3 hours in the studio to re-assemble pieces already written for existing films. The director, Merian C. Cooper, intent on an all-or-nothing blow-out, gave Steiner $50,000 of his own money to go away and compose a full, original score.
Utilising a 45-piece orchestra, Steiner produced just over 77 minutes-worth of music, for a film lasting 100. Upon release, King Kong broke American box-office records, RKO’s and cinema’s confidence in the film to strong that the ticket price in Hollywood shot up from 10 cents to 75 cents, taking just under $90,000 dollars in its first 4 days, nearly tripling RKO’s investment upon the first release, the first time the company had made a profit. The film had its official world premier on March 23, 1933 at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. The ‘big head bust’ was placed in the theatre’s forecourt and a seventeen-act show preceded the film with The Dance of the Sacred Ape performed by a troupe of African American dancers the highpoint. Kong cast and crew attended and Wray thought her on-screen screams distracting and excessive.
The film certainly saved RKO but also cheered the country during The Great Depression, as well as sporting what can be recognised as the first full-length, original score for a major motion picture. It would be churlish to say the score was the reason for the film’s success but there can be no doubt that it was an important contributory factor.
The score itself is, well, very ‘1930’s’. It’s booming, portentous and is studded with what are known musically as ‘leitmotifs’; a ‘leitmotif’ being the process of assigning a musical theme or sound to a specific character or setting. One might, therefore, suspect that for Fay Wray, there are lush, romantic melodies, for Kong, dramatic, aggressive horns and percussion, for scenes on the island, jungle drums and tribal-sounding gongs – you’d be correct. It is easy to view the score now as being far too literal, the tribal accompaniment really does sound twee to the point of ridicule, especially when the Tribal Chief’s footsteps are, well, ‘aped’ by plodding instrumentation, though it still succeeds in inspiring an early empathy for Kong with the audience.
Elsewhere, lengthy experimentation was needed to create Kong’s trademark roar. The eventual sound, a combination of lion and tiger roars combined, then slowed down and reversed, displays a level of attention not previously seen in any genre of film sound departments. With such a large amount of money being committed to the film, the threat of a film about an animated gorilla terrorising New York could so easily have descended first into farce, then quickly to comedy and financial ruin for Universal; making the monster credible and believable was crucial.
It is interesting that the pivotal moment in the film, with Fay Wray and Kong atop the Empire State Building, takes place in musical silence. Whereas Kong’s world is full of musical tonality from the foggy approach to Kong Island to his capture, the absolute antithesis, at the top of Man’s Modern-Age art-deco masterpiece, takes place only with the drone of swarms of bi-planes and the crackle of machine gun fire. The reintroduction of music at the film’s finale thus becomes even more arresting and a rather subconscious nod to the audience as to the who really displays brutality in the film (before the more obvious legend of ‘it was Beauty killed the Beast’ appears).
What seems obvious to us now, should not be brushed off so easily. Although opera tradition set down these markers many years before, indeed Steiner’s approach could certainly be described as ‘Wagnerian’, there was no precedent for employing this over the course of a whole movie. There was no evidence that Cooper’s confidence in Steiner would pay any dividends (literally), nor that the studio, even though not paying for it, should back him. For Steiner, there was nothing but a blank canvas to work from. Maybe this was a blessing. The only nod to something familiar-sounding is the “King Kong March”, the beginning of which is almost identical to what would become 20th Century Fox’s fanfare. There is no evidence of court action being taken over this – it’s never too late, guys. Max Steiner created something entirely new to film, something that was immediately seized upon and can be said, without any fear of exaggeration, to have changed the way we watch films and how they were made forever. Cooper, who never directed a film again, and Steiner are amongst the most important visionaries cinema has produced. A sequel, Son of Kong, was released just nine months later.
Daz Lawrence, moviesandmania
On March 15, 2020, King Kong was re-released on the big screen by Fathom Events, Turner Classic Movies, and Warner Bros.