Something monumental in the history of the world took place in 1933. Historians will try to convince you it had to do with the morality of a nation peaking in the great depression. Or just a hop across the pond where a firey little ball buster in Germany was setting the stage for a second World War. All that is well and good if you’re an enthusiastic young man sporting turtlenecks in patch elbow plaid blazers…
But for the rest of us, the biggest news of ’33 sprang from the rolling ginger tides of Scotland, where the very first photograph of the Loch Ness Monster was published and spread like wildfire through the imaginations of young adventurers across the world. It sparked a curiosity for a giant man eating creature in an era where technology could finally deliver evidence of mythical creatures to the world’s stage. It was just a mere coincidence that the very same year famed adventurer Merian C. Cooper released an original monster movie that would transcend time, cementing itself as one of the greatest films ever made.
Seriously though, how disappointed would you be if it was JUST a brontosaur
For the sake of this review it helps if you turn on the “Old Time Radio” voice in your head, as EVERYONE in this film seemed to sound a bit like William H. Macy talking up the ponies in Seabiscuit.
Produced and directed by Merian C. Cooper, King Kong is the tale of Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong), a character mirrored after Cooper himself. Denham jumps off the screen as a charismatic movie director fascinated with exotic locations and adventure stories. While the Great Depression is looming in America, Denham comes across a map. “Well how’d he get it?” “Nevermind you how, that’s how” “Why I outta…” “Well I’d sure like to see you try” (Now that only worked if you took my advice and used the old time radio voice).
Anyway, the map leads to a mythical island where rumors of a giant beast named Kong has spooked merchant sailors for decades. Denham wants to make a moving picture based on the timeless premise of “Beauty and the Beast” (Except without all the dancing teapots and candlesticks). But that’s it. No script, not plot, just cameras rolling at poverty stricken Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) who inadvertently relays the dire despair of New York City during the Depression by being easily persuaded to hop aboard a merchant vessel surrounded by lonely scurvy sailors for a trip around the world to an island populated by man eating beasts, where her role would be to simply stand in front of them and act surprised. Wowsers, talk about a hard sell! Just think, all you needed was a sheet thrown over the back of your model T, and VOILA! The world’s first “Bang Bus’ trolling through 1930’s Times Square. You’d make a killing, amirite fellas?
“Next stop, shame and regret”
On this voyage a romance blossoms between Ann and Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot). Make that a “1930’s romance”, which includes smooth lines like “Women can’t help but be a bother, just made that way I guess”. She was helpless against his charms (which even included a backhand across her kisser for startling him).
The sexism of the 30’s is almost as fascinating as Kong himself in this film. There was no such thing as “just the tip in” negotiations in those days. Just gentlemen sippin’ bourbon, honey badgering the dumb dames all over the place. Women were objects to be bartered with… even when they finally get to the island, the natives offer six of there girls for just Ann. Sounded like a solid deal to me. Probably could’ve talked ’em up to eight. Bet they were wild ones too. If that damn Driscoll didn’t get soft on this dame, those lonely merchant sailors could’ve turned the voyage back to NY into Carnival Cruise.
“Oohhh…so that’s why they call it a stabbin’ cabin.”
Now, you MUST know the rest… Kong carts Ann all over the prehistoric island with the crew in pursuit. After a slew of monsters and Kong himself kill most of the nameless sailors, Jack ends up rescuing Ann.
Kong rampages through the island killing many more people before Denham gas bombs the piss out of him. Then instead of Denham taking back a cute, manageable herbivore as proof of the prehistoric island, he decides it’s a swell idea to bring back the man eating Kong to New York City for a great unvailling at a sold out theater. Kong literally goes ape shit crazy and breaks loose in the city. During his rampage through New York he find his golden haired Ann and climbs the Empire State Building. At the top is where airplanes light him up like bad cheese in Mexican underwear until he falls to his death. Carl Denham, despite being responsible for countless deaths around the city, shakes his head in awe and corrects a man who claimed that planes killed Kong; “Oh no, it was beauty who killed the beast”
Merian C. Cooper was an innovator for all future filmakers. Just as King Kong was ahead of it’s time, Cooper’s accomplishments in turning moving pictures into experiences for the audience are not half as amazing as his real life adventures. A prisoner in both German and Russian prison camps before WWII, Cooper’s survival only fueled the fire as he later traveled the globe, risking life and limb to capture images and video never before seen by man. In part King Kong captures the essence of Cooper himself. Although Carl Denham is based on him, certain touches of subliminal creepiness, like the pitch of a man’s scream before death, is unlike most horror movies. It has a lasting eeriness that could only be relayed by a man who must have focused on the detail to get it “just right” after hearing so many himself.
“It reminds me of my childhood. I mean, before my 2 year stint at Children’s.”
Moving on from the downers of life in those days, Cooper focused his talents on shaping modern cinema. He used tricks like enlarging the screen during exciting scenes to heighten the audiences’ attention. He also pioneered technicolor and panoramic cameras. He even was one of the first to incorporate symphonic music scores to compliment each scene, helping him not only direct the actors, but the audience’s emotion as well.
Another toast-worthy aspect is that Kong remains a “monster” throughout. There is never any admiration or attachment with Ann, she’s relieved when Kong is shot to death, and why wouldn’t she be? It wasn’t until the hippies in the 70’s remake that the whole “love story” of Ann and King Kong reared it’s ugly head. “It’s not his fault he’s a monster, we should love him anyway.” Then in the 2005 remake it completely turns the tables and has the audience rooting for Kong and despising the people. Reflection of our evolution I guess.
Finally, just as John Hughes films have incidentally captured the 80’s on film for our grandchildren, it’s fascinating to see life portrayed on film from a time we never experienced. The pure sexism and ideas of romance are borderline “Lifetime Movie-worthy” abuse. During a scene where Kong strips down his prisoner in preparation of what we can only assume is going to be the first recorded bestiality scene, you can practically hear the 1930’s men’s zippers rip at what must have been, in those days, top tier tuggage. Speaking of pants, why did they wear them so damn high?
That’s just how badasses dressed back then.
Odds are the average MovieBoozer will not be picking this one up anytime soon, especially when there are two more valid remakes of this. This movie is reserved for the genuine movie buff who can appreciate the film so ahead of it’s time. It’s THE original monster movie that is worthy of being remade every generation. It is a true classic film in every sense of the word. I’d take King Kong over Casablanca anyday.
Bonus Drinking Game
Take a Drink: whenever Ann screams
Take a Drink: every time the stereotypical “Chinaman” speaks
Take a Drink: every time a man gets chewed, eaten, or bit
Down a Shot: every time Kong pounds his chest in triumph
Down a Shot: every time Kong smiles