King Kong (1933)
king kong | merian c. cooper | ernest b. schoedesack | james ashmore creelman | ruth rose | fay wray | robert armstrong | bruce cabot | giant monster | giant monsters | adventure | united states | sci-fi | sci fi | frank reicher | sam hardy | animal attack
Film: King Kong
Director: Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack
Writer: James Ashmore Creelman and Ruth Rose
Starring: Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong and Bruce Cabot
This was a film that growing up I would refuse to watch, because I didn’t like anything that was in black and white. I came around to it though in college when I took Intro to World Cinema and saw some classics. My mother had this in a box set that I borrowed and remembered watching in my apartment. I’ve now seen this a handful of times, including at the Gateway Film Center during their Horror 101 series.
Synopsis: a film crew goes to a tropical island for an exotic location shoot and discovers a colossal ape who takes a shine to their female blonde star.
We start when a talent agent approaches a large shipping vessel. This is an interesting way to let us know back-story and he talks to the first mate, John Driscoll (Bruce Cabot). He is taken aboard to speak with Capt. Englehorn (Frank Reicher) and Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong). The purpose is they are going to shoot a film somewhere exotic, but he won’t tell anyone where they’re going. The agent is there to let Carl know that he can’t provide him with an actress as his lead. He then goes into New York City to find one.
It doesn’t take him long to meet Ann Darrow (Fay Wray). It takes a little convincing, but she has no money and needs the job. She joins them on the voyage. It is during this that she takes a liking to John, who feels the same. He is a rough guy and tries to avoid showing emotion. There are also interesting screen tests with Carl and poses she does that come full circle later.
He reveals they are going to an uncharted island where there is a large gate. Carl wants to know what is behind it. The captain is leery but continues. When they get there, they are met with hostile natives. Noble Johnson plays the chief and their shaman is Steve Clemente, known as Witch King. They are performing a ritual to marry one of their women off to ‘Kong’. That is until they set on eyes on Ann. At first, they try to buy her. The men refuse, but these natives won’t take no for an answer. This leads to an interesting chase when until we meet King Kong and other creatures on the island. We also learn the greed of man when Carl makes a dangerous decision to recoup his losses.
That is where I’ll leave my recap and introduction to the characters. It had been about a decade between my first and second viewing of this. What amazes me is that having now seen this a third time, how well it holds up. It is interesting, being that this film came out in 1933 with the film industry was still relevantly new, but they were going out in the nature to make Carl’s wild movies. It was interesting that he didn’t want a female lead, but the fans wanted more of a love story so that was the only reason. Carl is a good guy who is strictly about business.
Something I love about this film is the setting. I’m a big fan of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, which I do think this film borrows heavily from. It’s the idea of an island like this out there is fascinating and I kind of wish it was true. Being that it is isolated, we have creatures that we see today that are just larger as well as dinosaurs. There are so many uncharted islands out there, makes you wonder.
Another aspect is that I almost feel like the cannibal films might have borrowed some ideas from this. It is sad to see that us, as civilized people, coming to their island and disrupting what their way of life. Now in this case, the invaders didn’t necessarily disrupt their lives too much aside from trying to film them. What I have a problem with is what they do to Kong. I will delve into that more in a second with some concepts from a documentary I saw.
Now if you know me, I’m a Caucasian male. I like to think I’m open-minded and try to understand the plights of others. This viewing of the film, I can see how this film can be read as a racial tale. We have Kong being taken from his island, not much different than the slave trade especially with their plan for the animal. The up-close look at Kong’s face does seem to be very similar to that of caricatures that come out afterwards in the advertising and racist cartoons. On top of that, he is a mindless beast and going after a white woman. I don’t think any of this was in mind when making the film, but these elements are there. Plus, the men are quite sexist, which was a sign of the times it was made.
That should be enough for the story and the ideas behind it. Now I’ll to the technical aspects, this film runs 100 minutes, but I will admit it didn’t feel like. I never found myself bored and we are constantly seeing things happening. This film surprisingly had a bit of a sub-plot that you necessarily didn’t get in films of the era. There is a good allegory to Beauty and the Beast, while we also have the problems at hand. I do like the ending, but I feel it is tragic and quite sad.
Something else that struck me was the acting. I think a lot of that was we didn’t flashy filmmaking in the era that could cover it up. I thought Wray did a great job in her character. She is a bit passive, but that was a byproduct of the era. She was quite attractive and I liked the fear she shows. Armstrong is kind of a scumbag when it comes to business, but I can respect his treatment of Ann. Cabot is fine in his role and I think the rest of the cast rounded out the film for what was needed. It was good to see minorities casted in the roles they were playing, at least it did seem that way.
I couldn’t get through this without talking about the effects. They were done with stop-motion before it was popular. I do believe I read the man in charge trained Ray Harryhausen, who was a legend in this technique. I think it holds up for the most part. There are things here and there that I noticed, but for a film as old as this, I was still impressed. There is animal fighting that was solid and the number of deaths also, which I didn’t remember. The cinematography is also well-done. We don’t get a lot of crazy techniques there, but what we get is good. The setting also helps there as it feels real.
The final thing to cover would be the soundtrack of the film. I think the music selections fit for what was need and helped to build the tension. There are some drums, which I’m not entirely sure they would be able to hear where their ship is, but it does give a bit of the ominous feel of foreboding. I also like the sounds of Kong and the other animals in the film. I thought they were quite realistic.
In conclusion, I didn’t expect to like this film as much as I did. I think that it has a story that still works today. There are some underlying issues that can be read in this, depending on what you think which I’m a fan of. I think the acting is good and the effects were amazing for the time. The soundtrack fits for what they needed as well. It is insane to think how old this film is, but I think this is a good one. I would avoid this though if you don’t like old films or ones that are in black-and-white. This is a recommendation though if you can get past it.
My Rating: 9 out of 10