“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.