A section-by-section review of the 1933 classic. Warning: there are spoilers ahead!
New York City: Film director Carl Denham is about to leave for a distant location to make his new movie. He needs an actress at short notice and finds Ann Darrow destitute on the streets…
* The script for King Kong was rewritten by Ruth Rose after a number of writers had contributed to purple-prose drafts. The directors, one of whom was married to Rose, were pleased with her punchy dialogue and economic storytelling. To modern ears, though, the relentlessly unsubtle exposition takes some getting used to. These opening scenes consist largely of actors barking information at each other. To be fair, this was 1933 and talkies were still new – it would take a while for Hollywood dialogue to calm down.
* Elsewhere, this opening sequence does have a shining light. Fay Wray is pretty, plucky and likeable as down-on-her-luck actress Ann Darrow. It’s a paper-thin character, but Wray makes her so watchable. (Ginger Rogers and Jean Harlow were also considered for the role.)
* Meanwhile, Robert Armstrong is good enough as Carl Denham. His character seems to be a ‘Mary Sue’ for King Kong’s director Merian C Cooper. There are references to a track record for jungle movies and gags about how he’s being forced to include a love story in his new production. Actually, King Kong gets very postmodern on this point. The movie that Denham wants to make – something spectacular, based on a creature audiences haven’t seen before, featuring a pretty leading lady – is basically the film we’re watching in real life.
On board the Venture: Denham, Darrow and the crew of a ship called the Venture set sail for the filming location – an obscure island somewhere west of Sumatra…
* It’s here that a love story heats up – or at least is put on a low simmer. Ann meets and flirts with the ship’s first officer, Jack Driscoll. He’s played rather woodenly by Bruce Cabot (who 38 years later cropped up in Diamonds Are Forever).
* We also meet some of the other crewmembers, including cook Charlie (who moans in Chinese-accented English about having to peel potatoes) and the ship’s pet monkey. But the film doesn’t seem especially interested in anyone other than Denham, Ann and Jack.
* Near the end of this segment, a really nice special-effects shot reveals Skull Island for the first time… There’s a great sense of scale and foreboding here.
Skull Island: Going ashore, the crew encounter natives who live near a massive wall. The tribe soon kidnap Ann and offer her as a sacrifice to an enormous ape…
* The island’s tribe is, let’s face it, a fairly racist bit of cinema history. The locals been cast with black actors, which doesn’t make sense for an isolated atoll near Indonesia, and they’re just homogenous extras. Having turned a blind eye to that, we can say that their scenes show off some glorious old-Hollywood grandeur. The set is *huge*, while there are dozens of people on screen. To save money, the wall was actually a set reused from an earlier film and was later seen burning to the ground in Gone With The Wind (1939).
* In the 41st minute, Kong finally enters the story. We hear his roars then he walks out of the forest. This is where special-effects genius Willis O’Brien really starts to earn his money. There’d been some cute rear-projection shots during the Venture voyage – actors performing in front of cinema screens showing pre-filmed footage of an elaborate background – but now the variety of movie tricks shoots through the roof. As Kong snatches Ann and takes her deep into the jungle, Denham, Driscoll and others give chase. It’s an extended action sequence with little dialogue…
* This film is now 83 years old. It’s easy to forget how early it came in cinema history: there’d only been synchronised sound for four years; many of the people who worked on this film were *older than the medium itself*. But this was the Jurassic Park of its day, presenting astonishing special effects that are all the more impressive because they tell story so well. There’s rear-projection, stop-motion animation, matte shots, composites, double-exposures, life-size models, some how-did-they-do-THAT?! moments where Kong and actors interact in the same frame… It takes your breath away, and the fact you know it’s fake doesn’t matter at all.
* This segment also features some shocking deaths: men fall into a deep ravine and we see their bodies hit the floor, while Kong eats and stamps on natives! He also, in one strange scene, tenderly removes Ann’s clothes. Both the carnage and the perviness were cut out by censors when the film was rereleased from 1938 onwards. Thankfully a full version survived and became the default cut again from 1969.
* A scene deleted in post-production saw crewmembers of the Venture eaten alive by large insects and spiders. The directors thought it slowed the pace down. Sadly the footage was then lost.
New York City (again): Denham has captured Kong and is showing him off to an audience in a theatre…
* What a fantastic storytelling shortcut we get at the end of the Skull Island sequence. Denham tells the other survivors that they can make a fortune by taking Kong back to America. Then we cut to the flappers and jazz music of NYC, 1933… and the ape is on a Broadway stage! The fun time-jump masks the issues of how the blinking bejesus they got Kong onto the boat, how he fit into the hold, and what they fed him on for the weeks of sailing to get home.
* At the theatre, there are cute lines of dialogue from various audience members – all are cynical about what they’re about to see and are getting ready to be disappointed. Nothing changes, eh?
* This final act is all about the hubris of Carl Denham. He’s tried to tame Kong and it’s clearly not going to end well. When the creature inevitably breaks loose and goes on the rampage, he mistakes a woman for Ann and snatches her from her bedroom window. When he realises his mistake he drops her to the ground – more cruelty and another scene later cut out by censors. There’s also more very impressive action, including a terrific train crash, then Kong climbs up the then-new Empire State Building. The model work here is ace. After the ape is attacked from the air by biplanes, he falls 1,250 feet to the ground. A crowd gathers round the corpse, and a policeman says the planes got him. Denham disagrees: “It was beauty killed the beast.” (It’s nice of the surrounding people not to correct his grammar.)
Review: It’s easy to see why this was such a sensation. Even now, it’s exciting and gripping and full of scale and ambition. There’s no depth, but it’s a great ride. It must have seemed otherworldly in 1933. Even before the monsters appear there’s a building sense of dread for the opening 40 minutes, which must have worked so well when the reveal would have been more of a surprise. Most of the characters don’t know what they’re going to find on Skull Island, while en route Carl Denham gets Ann to rehearse screaming – clearly he’s hoping she’ll be scared by *something*. This tension is eked out brilliantly. As the characters approach the island dense fog hits the boat and distant drums are heard… Terrific stuff. It must also be said that Max Steiner’s incidental music is tremendous. It was revolutionary too, being the first purpose-written score for a full-length talkie and the first to use themes and motifs. All this good stuff almost makes up for the flat, risible dialogue you’ve been sitting through before the action begins. In short, the film excels when driven by tension or action (the scenes generally directed by Cooper), but is pretty ropey when focusing on actual drama (the stuff overseen by Schoedsack).
Eight chains of chrome steel out of 10
Next: The 1976 remake…