Cranky Hanke’s Screening Room: King Kong—and I mean the real McMonkey

Cranky Hanke’s Screening Room: King Kong—and I mean the real McMonkey-attachment0

“It’s money and adventure and fame! It’s the thrill of a lifetime—and a long sea voyage that starts at six o’clock tomorrow morning!” —Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) in King Kong.

With the Asheville Film Society fundraiser showing of the 1933 King Kong coming up on Wed., July 20 (7:30 p.m. at The Carolina), I’ve found myself spending a lot of time recently with that simian gent. Yeah, there have been three versions of King Kong—and that’s not counting offshoots, knock-offs, rip-offs, and sequels of a highly dubious nature—but really has anything ever come close of the 1933 original? Certainly, the 1976 remake is negligible at best and blasphemous at worst. Peter Jackson’s more respectable and respectful 2005 version has its merits, but does it linger in the mind the way the 1933 film does? Is it in itself in any way iconic? I’d say no. The plain fact is that if it isn’t the 1933 King Kong on top of the Empire State Building with Fay Wray in his hairy hand, it just isn’t King Kong. It’s a pretender—however well done.

Nearly everyone I know grew up with the big ape—usually on TV. The movie had been re-issued several times over the years, but it’s a movie that most of us probably first encountered on TV on a Saturday afternoon. For those of my generation at least, these were the old C&C Movietime TV prints. C&C was the TV releasing outfit that in 1955 gained control of the 700-plus titles made by the RKO Radio Pictures between 1929 and 1954, and they were not exactly concerned about the quality of the 16mm prints they shipped to television stations—and I’m being charitable here. I suppose the quality was considered adequate for TV sets of the era, or that it didn’t matter much because old movies were mostly viewed as cheap filler for stations to wrap commercials around—and after all C&C was a soft drink company.

Those TV prints were shorn of the Radio Pictures logo—something that’s now (thanks, I guess, to The Rocky Horror Picture Show) unthinkable in the iconography—and they were taken from re-issue prints, which weren’t quite the same as the film looked in 1933. Stronger scenes of Kong’s mayhem—chomping and trampelling on natives, cavalierly tossing a woman he discovers isn’t Fay Wray to her death on the New York streets—and the more indelicate aspects of his examination of Fay’s anatomy and femaleness had been removed for those later, more censored times. (There wasn’t anything they could do about the shot where a breast pops out of Fay’s blouse as she surfaces from the water, but that was quick enough that it sneaked in.) More damaging, though, was the manner in which the bloodier scenes of Kong battling dinosaurs were handled. The solution was to hide the blood by printing the movie darker. Note that I said “the movie,” because rather than darken the individual scenes, the whole movie was dimmed down.

Now, these changes mattered—of course, they did—but the fact was that they didn’t matter enough to actually kill the movie. Chopped up with commercials, censored, darkened, and sometimes cut further to make way for even more commercials, there was still something unique that got in around the murkiness. There was—and is—a mythic and fairy tale quality that neither the passage of time, nor crappy prints on dinky TV screens with lamentable resolution could dispose of. Once seen in any form, it was somehow a part of our consciousness. I vaguely remember asking my father what King Kong was before seeing it, but I don’t honestly remember a world without it—almost as if it was something that had just always been there. Considering the longevity of the film, I’d say I wasn’t exactly alone in this.

I do very clearly remember seeing what was then touted as the “restored” version on the big screen in 1972. A big deal had been made over the censored footage having been found (in someone’s garage). (There was even a lengthy feature article in Esquire about it, discussing how these few bits of film altered the movie.) Naturally, prints were assembled with the newly discovered material incorporated and the film was sent back into the world, though I had to wait till it found its way to 16mm and college screenings to actually see it myself. It played for three shows—7, 9:30 p.m., and midnight—at the University of South Florida. I sat through all three. It was revelatory.

It wasn’t just the new footage (which was very obviously not in the same condition as the rest of the film) and the vastly improved quality. It had as much—maybe more—to do with seeing it in a packed theater on a big screen with an audience. That is so very much a different experience that it’s like seeing the movie for the first time, no matter how well you know it. And goodness knows, I knew it pretty well by the age of 18.

Since dealing with the film a good bit in the weeks leading up to the screening, I’ve come to a—not so much new, but a different kind of appreciation of King Kong. I’ve always found it a unique film—something that no other “giant monster” or “lost world” movie ever managed to duplicate—but I’ve only recently started questioning why that is. On the surface, it shouldn’t be the case. If you look at the movie’s separate elements, they don’t suggest something this enduring and even magnificent.

Merian C. Cooper was certainly an important producer, but neither he, nor co-director Ernest B. Shoedsack otherwise came across as truly great filmmakers. But the greatness of this one film is not in dispute. Similarly, it’s interesting to note that three main players in the film—Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong, Bruce Cabot—were not actors of what you’d call great range. Wray is remembered fondly for her work (and her screamin) in a handful of early sound horror films (a run that prettyt much ends with King Kong, but I think British film critic/historian John Baxter was right when he noted that she never completely adjusted to the talkies. The thing is that that’s the very reason she’s perfect for Kong. Similarly, Armstrong seems cast to type, giving the same kind of performance he gave—to less effect—in any number of movies.

What happened here, I think, is that a remarkable series of events dovetailed to find all the right people—not just Cooper, Shoedsack, Wray, Armstong, and Cabot, but RKO chief David O. Selznick, special effects wizard Willis O’Brien, and composer Max Steiner—in the right place at the same time. And then, there are the writers. The idea was Cooper’s, but it changed much after he met up with O’Brien. (Cooper’s original notion involved taking real gorillas to Indonesia and having them battle with Komodo Dragons. Even allowing for the probability of any such scheme causing an uproar with the 1933 equivalent of animal rights’ activists, it seems a singularly unwieldy proposition.)

How much famed British mystery novelist Edgar Wallace contributed is open to question, as to some extent is that of credited co-screenplay writer James Creelman. It seems evident from what has been unearthed over the years that the screenplay as we know it owes more to Ruth Rose—who was also Mrs. Shoedsack. And that makes sense when you realize that Carl Denham was based on Merian C. Cooper (with a dash of Shoedsack) and hero Jack Driscoll (Cabot) was based on Shoedsack. It seems it was Rose who turned the film’s dialogue into a very simple, functional style. Apart from the fact that Denham (presumably after the fashion of the excitable Cooper) speaks in pure billboard ballyhoo (“I’m going out and make the greatest picture in the world—something that nobody’s ever seen or heard of! They’ll have to think up a lot of new adjectives when I come back”), the dialogue in King Kong is rarely more than functional.

That approach, I firmly believe, is one of the secrets to the film’s enduring popularity. Sure, it’s never very clever dialogue. It’s often corny (“I guess I love you”) and (maybe) unintentionally amusing (I’ve never seen Denham’s “Too late, they’ve seen us” when the natives spot him trying to film their ceremony not get a laugh), but this is why it works. The characters are simply the wildman filmmaker, the girl, and the heroic sailor. They’re simple accessible archetypes. You take them at face value and accept them for what they are—characters in a fairy tale, which is what the movie is. And they work whatever age you are. Once you get into the rhythm of the film and the manner in which the characters speak, it doesn’t matter in the least whether what they say is clever or even terribly realistic. It matters that it fits the context of the story.

This is also where the remakes go wrong. They both insist on trying to create psychologically complex characters—something that not only adds nothing of note to the film, but which works against whatever psychological complexity you find—or don’t find—in the film. I have to admit I’ve never quite bought into any of the deep-dish readings of the film. It wasn’t until I encountered a film school professor sometime around 1977 (thankfully, I wasn’t in her class, I’d brought a film to be screened in it) boldly announce in no uncertain terms that King Kong represented the Depression (really? and a 1933 audience were sympathetic to him?) that it even occurred to me that anyone would find a deeper meaning. But if you want to find something “more” than a storybook tale—written in a very thrilling style—the characters in the original film can take on any quality you wish to give them. Myself, I just think the “better rounded” characters in 1976 and 2005 just drag down the proceedings.

Whatever the reasons—maybe a lot of it comes down to something magical or just plain good luck—the 1933 King Kong with its “quaint” special effects and its “outdated” acting remains the only real King Kong. Nothing that has come since has the same iconic power, the same mythic quality. The fact is simply that Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong, and Bruce Cabot are Ann Darrow, Carl Denham, and Jack Driscoll; that the stop-motion (with a little animatronic help, including that expressive full-size head) Kong is Kong. The pacing and atmosphere have never been equaled, nor has Max Steiner’s almost wall-to-wall musical score (easily his best known work after Gone with the Wind). It’s all part of the separate world of a unique film—that I do not believe can be topped. And if you have the chance, you should join us on Wednesday night to see it as it was meant to be seen—on the big screen. If you haven’t seen it that way, you really haven’t seen it.

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress since December 2000. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

32 thoughts on “Cranky Hanke’s Screening Room: King Kong—and I mean the real McMonkey

  1. Chip Kaufmann

    For various reasons, I never saw KONG on TV although I remember seeing it scheduled in TV GUIDE countless times. I missed the 1972 reissue although most of my friends saw it (usually with the aid of some form of “mental stimulation”) and raved about how it took them back to their childhoods.

    I finally saw it for the first time on a big screen in 1976 when it was re-released to cash in on the publicity surrounding the Dino De Laurentiis remake. I took my 62 year old mother with me. She had seen it back in 1933. Within minutes she was transported back in time and related as well as showed me how the audiences then had reacted to it. It was like she was 19 again.

    That was the only time we went to the movies together after I had grown up and it remains a signature moment in my life. Now that I am almost her age then, I will be reliving that experience when I see it again on a big screen Wednesday night. I can’t wait.

  2. Big Al

    Must be the commoner in me, but I liked the 1976 version, especially the veiled political commentary surrounding Big Oil. I never saw the 1933 version, so I did not feel the sense of apostasy that such a comparison should have engendered.

    The 2005 version put me to sleep, in spite of Adrien Brody.

  3. Ken Hanke

    I keep hoping for a revival screening in Sydney so I can finally see this projected.

    Perhaps Sydney is in need of a programmer of vision…

  4. Ken Hanke

    most of my friends saw it (usually with the aid of some form of “mental stimulation”)

    I’m not claiming a total lack of stimulation by that third show, mind you.

    I will be reliving that experience when I see it again on a big screen Wednesday night. I can’t wait.

    I guess I’ll be reliving 1972 — sans any mental stimulation — except with a better print.

  5. Ken Hanke

    I liked the 1976 version, especially the veiled political commentary surrounding Big Oil

    Our definitions of “veiled” are somewhat different.

  6. DrSerizawa

    King Kong was a family event when I was a kid. We’d see it on the TV guide or see it promoted and my parents and brother and I would get the popcorn ready and we’d all watch it. This is notable because my parents usually thought that such movies were “trash”. They’d turn their noses up at Frankenstein or Dracula, but not the King. When it was the longer version that kept in the battles of the sailors with the dinosaurs it was especially memorable for me. It’s a timeless classic and one that actually deserves that accolade.

    Although Jackson’s KK was entertaining it really suffers for being about an hour too long. You gotta feel somewhat sorry for film school people who over analyze the fun out of movies. People went to the movies to escape the depression era for a brief time, not to wallow in it.

    Though, I would pay to see someone try to get gorillas to fight Komodo dragons.

  7. Chip Kaufmann

    In paragraph 7 under the picture of Kong breaking out, shouldn’t that be “were NOT actors of what you’d call great range”?

  8. Ken Hanke

    This is notable because my parents usually thought that such movies were “trash”. They’d turn their noses up at Frankenstein> or Dracula, but not the King.

    I’m not sure when it came to be thought of as a horror movie, because that was certainly not the intention of the filmmakers. Still, that accolade of it being a classic of the genre has probably helped to keep it alive all these years.

    I don’t recall reading the article, but I very much remember a blurb on the cover of an issue of Famous Monsters of Filmland that asked you to “read about the man who saw King Kong 100 times!” That doesn’t seem all that improbable with home video, but in the 1960s that was some claim.

    Although Jackson’s KK was entertaining it really suffers for being about an hour too long.

    I saw it once and enjoyed it — not in the least because it was obviously made by someone who was nuts about the original. But it was stupidly overlong and I’ve never been tempted to see it again.

    You gotta feel somewhat sorry for film school people who over analyze the fun out of movies.

    I’m careful about saying that, because I’ve done my share of it and don’t think it invariably takes out the fun — partly because you’re not compelled to buy anyone’s reading unless it makes sense to you. That said the “Kong as a symbol of the Depression” is simply ludicrous reasoning.

    Though, I would pay to see someone try to get gorillas to fight Komodo dragons.

    I suspect “try to get” is the operative phrase here.

  9. Ken Hanke

    shouldn’t that be “were NOT actors of what you’d call great range”?

    That’s what it does say…now.

  10. Me

    What do you think of the alligations that King Kong is a racist movie?

  11. Ken Hanke

    What do you think of the alligations that King Kong is a racist movie?

    Which allegations are you talking about?

  12. Me

    Its pretty well documented a quick search on Google brings up an article in the Times Online.

    On a side not after watching The Naked Prey all those times growing up, and then seeing it again a couple of months ago when they were showing it like crazy on Showtime i realized people could get that impression from that film if it wasn’t for the scene with the little boy.

  13. Ken Hanke

    Its pretty well documented a quick search on Google brings up an article in the Times Online.

    Look, if you want to bring up something for discussion, then discuss it — don’t tell me where to go look for what you’re talking about. And, no, I don’t want a link either — I want you to specifically tell me in what way the film is being called racist, because I’ve heard/read several different racial interpretations. If you’re referring to the portrayal of the natives, then, no, I don’t think the film is anything more than a reflection of its time and I think it needs to be judged in that context. If this is some deeper contention involving what Kong represents, those generally strike me as theories developed by racists — or at least by people wth racist leanings.

  14. DrSerizawa

    Some people see racism everywhere. It apparently pays pretty well.

    I suspect “try to get” is the operative phrase here.

    You caught that. I suspect that gorillas are smarter than some producers and directors.

  15. Ken Hanke

    Some people see racism everywhere.

    It’s not that hard to do in the 1930s if you’re out to find it. In the case of a movie like this, you’re bound to come up against the conventions of any jungle adventure yarn that era — scary natives performing weird rituals and all that. It has little to do with trying to paint a race as inferior. In fact, King Kong is less demonizing than your standard Tarzan movie.

    I suspect that gorillas are smarter than some producers and directors.

    Yeah, but it might be amusing watching them attempt to get these critters to fight.

  16. Me

    I was just wondering about the one most people address that the gorilla is supposed to represent “the black man”.

  17. Ken Hanke

    I was just wondering about the one most people address that the gorilla is supposed to represent “the black man”.

    Actually, I doubt that “most people” address the issue at all. What do I think of it? I think it’s nonsense. I also think that the person who sees the gorilla as “the black man” betrays his own racist bent. I could as easily make a case — and a more convincing one, I think — that the film is about American imperialism and/or capitalist exploitation. In essence, though, I think it’s what it claims to be — a movie with a giant ape in an improbable “Beauty and the Beast” story.

    I just came from the screening and I didn’t hear a single person — and these are people who like to talk about movies and subtexts and meanings — out of the entire 75+ suggest it was anything other than a simple fantasy adventure.

  18. Big Al

    Those uppity go-rillas, always tryin’ ta git their hands on our white women!

    Reminds me of reviews I read back in the late 80s about how “Alien” was really about 70s militant feminism, while “Aliens” responded with 80s “send-in-the Marines” Reaganism (or yet another
    critique of Vietnam, “M*A*S*H*” in space, take your pick).

    The subtexts seem endless.

  19. Me

    I agree. I guess I should have stated most people that have that view.

  20. Ken Hanke

    All this to one side, I want to make it clear that I have nothing against mining for subtext, and I’m perfectly willing to believe that filmmakers (or any other artists) are quite likely to say things in any given work that they did not consciously intend. However, I’d like to see a compelling case before I’m buying it.

  21. DrSerizawa

    Reminds me of reviews I read back in the late 80s about how “Alien” was really about 70s militant feminism,…

    That’s probably from the same people who claim that men buy their wives appliances in order to oppress them and keep them in the home. As if hand washing clothes would be “empowering”.

    Movies are first and always about making money. Especially the ones who claim not to care.

  22. Ken Hanke

    Movies are first and always about making money

    On a certain level, that’s true. No one ever sold a pitch by telling a studio that the movie they wanted to make wouldn’t make a dime. In fact, the game is quite the opposite. Consider that back in 1970, Ken Russell’s first pitch to the make The Music Lovers was that it was a film about Tchaikovsky. That didn’t go over so well, but when he told United Artists, “It’s the story of a homosexual who marries a nymphomaniac,” they were delighted with the project.

  23. brianpaige

    This is going to sound odd, but I’ve often wondered exactly why Bruce Cabot was in this film. Robert Armstrong was perfect as Denham and of course Fay Wray is the ideal pre code damsel in distress in a bunch of horror flicks….but why Bruce Cabot? RKO had Joel McCrea right there circa 1933, and he had actually worked with Wray in The Most Dangerous Game (another Cooper/Schoedsack production) the previous year. I think McCrea would have worked better in that role and brought a touch of easy going charm to a role that is sort of stiff.

    The 1976 version is goofy and certainly nothing resembling the original, but I wouldn’t say I hated it. If nothing else I got a chuckle out of a proto Dude Jeff Bridges. Somehow I wasn’t expecting him to look like that in a 70s movie, given how Bridges looks in everything else he was in back then.

    The 2005 movie? I hated it. It is interminable at nearly 3 hours, Adrien Brody was lousy, Jack Black was horrid as Denham, and I actually found the film in its own way more disrespectful to the original than the silly 70s flick (how about them filming scenes from the original as if to say “See, our movie doesn’t have such cheesy dialogue?”).

    I think the effects hold up perfectly in the original. There’s a strange otherworldly quality to them that still works nearly 80 years later.

  24. Ken Hanke

    I think McCrea would have worked better in that role and brought a touch of easy going charm to a role that is sort of stiff.

    While I like McCrea and think he was one of the sexiest of male stars at the time, I think he has too much personality for the role.

    The 1976 version is goofy and certainly nothing resembling the original, but I wouldn’t say I hated it.

    I would, but you probably weren’t around to hear Dino De Laurentiis prattle on about how much better his movie was than the original and how the thing people would remember about 1976 was that it was the year “I made-a ma King Kong.”

    If nothing else I got a chuckle out of a proto Dude Jeff Bridges.

    This perhaps assumes a far greater fondness for The Dude than I’ve ever been able to muster.

    I’m not a fan of the 2005 version, but, apart from Jack Black, I don’t agree with anything you’ve said about it, though it didn’t need to be that long.

  25. Ken Hanke

    By the way, if any members of the AFS are still following this, we’re looking for input on other movies you’d like to see on the big screen enough to pay for, so fire away.

  26. brianpaige

    Oh geez, if De Laurentiis said that then you have a point about the 1976 movie. However, I saw that version around the time the 2005 movie came out and was expecting cheese….and got cheese.

    Here is what I meant by the 2005 comments. The crew filming the boat scenes from the original was a way to make fun of the original, which rubbed me the wrong way. It was like Peter Jackson was saying “Hey, look at how much better our writing is on this flick compared to 1933!” while delivering a tedious narrative that spent an absurd amount of time on stuff no one cares about.

  27. Ken Hanke

    However, I saw that version around the time the 2005 movie came out and was expecting cheese….and got cheese.

    Some of that cheese was last minute to attempt to overcome pre-opening bad press, especially when it got out that the movie didn’t have dinosaurs. The solution? Toss in the scene where Kong wrestles the papier mache snake.

    Here is what I meant by the 2005 comments. The crew filming the boat scenes from the original was a way to make fun of the original, which rubbed me the wrong way.

    I know what you meant. I don’t think it was intended that way — any more than including Steiner’s score in the stage music was. While I don’t have any desire to ever see it again, I do think it was made by a guy who’s nuts about the original.

  28. Tonberry

    First time I saw King Kong, it wasn’t the original but the 1976 version. I remember nothing about it other than the fact that it led me to finding a King Kong book in my school library (I was in 3rd grade)and all the book dealt with was the 1933 version. I was hooked. For some reason, every picture from that book had me entranced and I had to see the original. When I finally did, it was my favorite movie for months and started that tiny crush I have on big monster movies (I admit now, I am a much bigger Godzilla fan.)

    It was delightful to see it again, and on the big screen, especially since it been years since I’d last seen it. Even better was watching it with someone who had not seen the movie, and watching how shocked she became at a couple of the scenes.

  29. Ken Hanke

    Even better was watching it with someone who had not seen the movie, and watching how shocked she became at a couple of the scenes

    This to me is one of the really cool things about showing old horror movies. It makes them seem fresh again — especially with movies you’ve seen into or at least approaching triple digit range. I wasn’t with anyone — or within earshot apparently — of anyone who reacted with shock with Kong, but I very much remember the gasps when we ran Mystery of the Wax Museum over things that obviously had no shock value to me.

    I could, however, hear that the audience was having a great time. That’s just about as good. I enjoyed the fact that the audience absolutely adored It Started with Eve tonight. Afterwards I said to someone, “It’s not a great movie, but it’s fun,” and was told that fun is fun and shouldn’t be dismissed. There’s a lot to be said for that. Of course, you can’t but wonder how much fun they’d think it was if they paid $9.75 to watch it.

  30. Ptrrrlorre

    How effortlessly the original Kong transports viewers to an imaginary world of its own making is certainly one of its greatest strengths. All the cgi, endless storyboards, and directorial one-upmanship that crafted Jackson’s remake seemed at a loss to conjure up even a fraction of the mythical power the original. Nearly 80 years on, Kong is still King.

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