The granddaddy of all giant monster movies, the 1933 King Kong is in town for one show at The Carolina on Wednesday, July 20, at 7:30 p.m. under the auspices of the Asheville Film Society. This is a rare opportunity to see this classic on the big screen—and in the proper aspect ratio, so the top and bottom of the film are not cut off. It’s hard to imagine that there’s anyone out there who has never seen the film—though I’ve actually heard from one person who claims not to have—but having merely seen the movie on TV isn’t really the same as having seen it as it was meant to be seen. This is, after all, a picture about a giant ape (or ape-like creature) and dinosaurs—things that need to be significantly more than a few inches high.
Today we consider King Kong one of the great classic horror movies from the “golden age” of the horror film, but that’s not exactly what it is—and it certainly isn’t how filmmakers Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Shoedsack saw the film. The duo met at the end of WWI and found they both had a taste for adventure and the more remote parts of the world. They parlayed this into a couple of ground-breaking documentaries, Grass (1925) and, more importantly, Chang (1927). These were different than the normal documentary in that the pair invented dramas that would be played out by the people they were documenting. In that sense, these were more docu-dramas than documentaries. Chang, in fact, contains both the genesis for several scenes in Kong (substitute elephants for a giant ape), and the inspiration for the story of Kong—an adventure experienced by a documentary filmmaker and his crew.
That was the point: King Kong was an adventure story unlike anything anyone had ever seen. It’s one that became possible thanks to the creativity of special-effects pioneer Willis O’Brien, who was added to the team in the early 1930s as the film developed. Somewhere along the way it morphed into something more than a fantastic adventure, becoming a modernized Beauty-and-the-Beast fairy tale. Like all good fairy tales, it contained elements of horror, but it was never intended to be a horror movie in the normal sense. Perhaps the fact that—like such memorable creatures as the Frankenstein monster—Kong was ultimately a sympathetic character helped blur the line, moving it over time into the horror realm. In any genre, it’s still a classic.
On the unlikely chance that anyone doesn’t know, King Kong is the story of documentary filmmaker Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong), who—taking the advice of critics and exhibitors—has decided to incorporate a girl into the film he intends to make about a mysterious uncharted island in the South Seas. When no theatrical agent can—or will—provide him with an actress, he finds a girl, Ann Darrow (Fay Wray), who’s a victim of the Depression and perfectly willing to throw her lot in with him. What they find when they reach that island is beyond even Denham’s wildest dreams. Rather than bringing back a movie, they return with Kong himself and put him on display in a Broadway theater, which doesn’t turn out well for anyone.
The film is everything solid entertainment of the sort should be—exciting, thrilling, weirdly convincing and finally mythic. There have been imitators, but there’s simply nothing like it. Not Rated