King Kong

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(8/10) Larger than life in every aspect, the original King Kong was a juggernaut, as loud, daring and unstoppable as its titular monster, it crashed into cinemas in 1933 and has refused to leave ever since. Willis O’Brien’s revolutionary stop-motion work, a multitude of amazing visual tricks and Fay Wray’s legendary screams help cover up a weak script, terrible dialogue, non-existent character arcs and woeful acting.  

King Kong. 1933, USA. Directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack. Written by James Ashmore Creelman, Ruth Rose, Merian C. Cooper, Edgar Wallace, Leon Gordon. Starring: Robert Armstrong, Bruce Cabot, Fay Wray, Frank Reicher, Noble Johnson. Produced by Cooper, Schoedsack & David O. Selznick. Tomatometer: 98 %. IMDb score: 8.0/10. Metascore: 90/100. 

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Poster.

We all know the story of King Kong by heart, even if we have never seen the film. Filmmaker Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) sweeps up a girl who is down on her luck, Ann Darrow (Fay Wray), and takes her on a journey on a ship, to appear in one of his films. The trip takes them to an uncharted island, where Denham hopes to film the mysterious Kong – a creature terrorising the natives. On the island they find that the black natives have built a huge wall to keep out Kong – and they happen to interrupt a sacrificial rite when they arrive. The natives kidnap the golden-haired Darrow and present her to Kong, prompting Denham and his crew to go on a rescue mission, where they first encounter King Kong, the giant gorilla.

Kong fights off the intruders, separating them at a huge gorge, leaving only Darrow’s new-found love interest, first mate Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot) to chase the beauty and the beast alone. King Kong falls in love with the beautiful Darrow, and heroically defends her against several dinosaurs that attack them on the island. Finally Driscoll manages to rescue Darrow, and Denham and his team tranquillise the beast with gas. As Denham hasn’t got his film, he decides to take Kong back home to New York, where he displays it in a theatre, chained with ”chrome steel” chains, no less. But Kong breaks free, snatches up Darrow, and escapes to the top of newly built Empire State Building. Here Cabot and and a bunch of pilots shoot down Kong with their airplanes. With the giant ape lying on the ground, a police officer comments to Denham: ”Well, Denham, the airplanes got him!”, to which Denham solemnly replies: ”No, no, it wasn’t the airplanes. It was beauty who killed the beast”.

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Marcel Delgado’s King Kong puppet.

The film was the brainchild of director/producer Merian C. Cooper, head of production at major studio RKO at the time. Cooper had already worked with the other director/producer of the film, Ernest B. Schoedsack on a few films since the late twenties, and they specialised in the sort of adventure films that were extremely popular at the time – often taking place in Africa or some other exotic location. Jungle adventures with savage natives, lions, tigers, elephants and strange and fantastic creatures were often cheap to make and drew a decent crowd. Especially popular among the public were primates. One reason to this was that big apes were rarely seen at zoos, as opposed to, say, lions or elephants. Apes and monkeys in films were a staple, sometimes real ones, but often played by a man in a suit. Such was the case with the infamous exploitation film Ingagi, released in 1930. 

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Fay Wray in a promotional shot for King Kong.

Ingagi was presented as a documentary of African women being given as sex slaves to gorillas, and featured nudity and implied sex between women and gorillas, and has since become known as one of the most legendary pre-Code movies. It was, however, filmed in Los Angeles, and partly featured white actors in in blackface and men in obvious gorilla suits (one of these men was The Gorilla Man himself, Charles Gemora, presented in the review of Island of Lost Souls, 1932). It became a huge success and was one of the most seen films of 1930, despite the fact that some distributors refused to show it. Cooper has claimed that Ingagi was not an inspiration for his film, but to RKO anything with a giant gorilla and a beautiful woman meant dollar signs, so at he very least Cooper can thank Ingagi for getting the project green-lit. (Ingagi is not to be confused with Son of Ingagi, which is the first all-black cast ”old dark house”-styled horror movie [1940]).

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Bottom left to right: Merian C. Cooper, Willis O’Brien, Fay Wray, Ernest B. Schoedsack.

Cooper had for some years worked on an idea of a jungle fantasy filmed in Africa, of a gorilla fighting komodo dragons, involving a female explorer, but couldn’t get the project off the ground, as it was deemed too expensive. When he came to RKO in 1931 he got involved in a major fantasy production called Creation, involving an island with dinosaurs on – basically an unauthorised remake of The Lost World (1925, review) – with a pre-productions budget that had spiralled out of control. RKO had even hired The Lost World’s stop motion animators Willis O’Brien and Marcel Delgado to do the dinosaurs. Cooper was unimpressed with the work done on Creation so far, and decided to shelve the production. But when he saw O’Brien’s stop motion work, he got the idea to do the gorilla as a stop motion creature in gigantic scale, battling dinosaurs and climbing up on the Empire State Building, that had been completed in 1931. There was also a great jungle set created for Cooper and Shoedsack’s influential 1932 manhunt film The Most Dangerous Game, that he realised that he could reuse for the film. For scripting he called up British mystery/adventure/sci-fi writer Edgar Wallace, but he died suddenly after completing only a rough draft. James A. Creelman was called in, and he made some major revisions – turning the big game hunter in Wallace’s script into a film maker and developing the ”beauty and the beast” theme. Cooper thought Creelman’s script was too long, slow, expensive, and filled with flowery dialogue, so he gave it to Schoedsack’s wife Ruth Rose, who had never written a screenplay before. She nonetheless hacked away at Creelman’s script relentlessly, cutting several scenes, simplified and spiced up the dialogue, and reworked the two male leads to resemble Cooper and SchoedsackCooper loved it.

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Marcel Delgado (right) and his brother Victor working on one of the animatronic Kong hands.

However, anyone who has read Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1912 novel The Lost World or seen the 1925 film that was based on it, will realise that the over-arching story is lifted straight from Doyle’s book. In the book a group of explorers, led by a single-minded leader, travel to an unexplored tropical destination in order to find prehistoric beasts. They encounter a tribe of natives who give them some trouble, but are primarily concerned with surviving the onslaught of gigantic beasts from the past. At one point the group separates and the members are cut off from each other, with some of them having to fend for themselves against the beasts. Finally one of the great beasts is captured and sedated, and taken to a big city for display, but it sadly escapes. The film version foregoes the encounter with the natives, and in the book the captured beast is a pterodactyl, while the film ups the ante with a brontosaurus. The book has the pterodactyl simply flying out the window, presumably back home. In the film, the brontosaurus goes berserk on the city before swimming out to sea. Admittedly, the Kong and Darrow story is fairly original, even if it’s just the age-old “Princess and dragon” fairy-tale with a twist of The Beauty and the Beast. In particular, this version of the “Princess and dragon” story is lifted from the afore-mentioned Ingagi, only now the gorilla is as big as a four-story house. The rest of King Kong is just a rehashed The Lost World. 

The similarities of the two films were not lost on the critics of the time. Joe Bigelow at Variety noted that the film’s “idea” was presented as “conceived” by Cooper and Wallace, but continued: “For their ‘idea’ they will have to take a bend in the direction of the late Conan Doyle and his Lost World, which is the only picture to which Kong can be compared. Doyle visualized the existence of prehistoric monsters in some far corner of the modern world. Cooper and Wallace ‘conceived’ an identical hunch. The two plots develop in a basically similar manner.” The New York Times’ Mordaunt Hall was a bit less acerbic in his pointing out that King Kong basically rips off the 1925 movie, noting that the narrative was “mindful of what was done in the old silent film, The Lost World“. (Isn’t it funny to read a 1933 critic calling a film from 1925 an “old silent film”?)

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A scene from the 1930 film Ingagi.

Delgado and O’Brien revolutionised special effects with their work on The Lost World, and stepped things up further with King Kong. It was Delgado who was mainly responsible for making the models, that were more like articulated puppets than just simple clay models that were often used previously. Delgado built four different Kong models, and several dinosaurs. They were built around an aluminium endoskeleton which made them easier to animate, and gave them natural joints. For the actual modelling, he used foam rubber, latex and cotton, and rounded Kong up with rabbit fur. He also crafted a huge bust of Kong’s head with wires controlling the facial expressions, that took three people to articulate, and an articulated hand, as well as a huge static hand for Fay Wray to sit in.

The mastery of O’Brien’s stop-motion work is such that there are those who refuse to believe that Kong was almost entirely created with animation. The above mentioned Variety critic tried to prove his astuteness by pointing out that he could clearly see when “mechanical figures are obviously used in place of the ape impersonator”, as this, in his opinion, broke the illusion. Well, here’s a newsflash: there was no ape impersonator. It was all “mechanical figures”.

This idea that a man in a suit had to be used for some of the sequences lived on: in 1969 a man by the extraordinary name of Carmen Nigro came forward with claims that he had been King Kong in much of the movie, and that, for example, the entire Empire State Building sequence was done by him, and not by O’Brien and his stop-motion puppet. Of course today it’s easy to look up the sequence on YouTube and conclude that Nigro’s full of it: anyone can see that it’s stop-motion. But back in 1969 there was not even home video, so there was no way for the average newspaper reader to check the facts. Perhaps they had seen the film on TV ten, fifteen years ago, maybe they remembered it from the 1933 cinematic run. Nigro found a spokesperson in the Chicago star reporter Bob Greene, who interviewed him three times. Nigro, who had worked as a chef for 30 years and later as a nightwatchman, claimed that under a stage name he had worked as a stuntman and gorilla suit actor in over 100 films in his youth. His story really caught on in 1976, when Dino de Laurentis released his King Kong remake, and Greene did a big interview with him in The Corpus Christi Caller Times. But almost immediately film scholars questioned his claims. He might have been given the benefit of a doubt for having done some suit work in the film, if he hadn’t also named a dozen other films that he had reportedly played a gorilla in — most of which we now know featured other well-known gorilla actors like Emil Van Horn and Ray “Crash” Corrigan.

While Greene has taken some flack for being duped by Nigro, it’s clear that he had his doubts, doubts which he aired in his second interview with Nigro in The Free Lance Star in 1983, but in the end decided that he chose to believe Nigro, if only so not to disappoint the 200 cub scouts he had just been telling about his experience as King Kong. Nigro passed away in 1990, and writing an obituary in The Chicago Tribune, Greene seems to have accepted the fact that Nigro was never King Kong, but concludes that Nigro clearly believed that he had been the greatest movie ape in history, and if that made him happy, then why not believe him? “So was Carmen Nigro really King Kong? Hey, why not? Carmen deeply believed he was King Kong, and that’s good enough for me. As far as self-images go, that’s a pretty swell one. Rest in peace, Kong, you made me smile.”

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One of Marcel Delgado’s original King Kong armatures.

One odd aspect of the 1933 King Kong is the inconsistency of Kong’s size. Cooper had originally envisioned a 50-foot (15 m) ape, but Delgado and O’Brien scaled the puppet to a height of 18 feet, or 5,5 meters. However, the full-size bust of Kong’s head used in the film was in the scale of a 40-foot ape, or 12 meters tall. And in order to get Fay Wray to sit snugly in Kong’s palm, the full-size hand was had to ba made in a scale appropriate for a 70-foot (21 m) ape. Cooper also manipulated the sizes of the miniatures and adapted shooting angles as to constantly play with Kong’s size as best he saw fitted the scene. In an interview Cooper stated ” He’s different in almost every shot; sometimes he’s only 18 feet tall and sometimes 60 feet or larger. This broke every rule that O’Bie and his animators had ever worked with, but I felt confident that if the scenes moved with excitement and beauty, the audience would accept any height that fitted into the scene. For example, if Kong had only been 18 feet high on the top of the Empire State Building, he would have been lost, like a little bug; I constantly juggled the heights of trees and dozens of other things. The one essential thing was to make the audience enthralled with the character of Kong so that they wouldn’t notice or care that he was 18 feet high or 40 feet, just as long as he fitted the mystery and excitement of the scenes and action.”

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A publicity shot for the film.

Apart from his impeccable animation, what so stunned the audiences was O’Brien’s uncanny ability to combine live action with animation, hugely improved from his previous dinosaur film. For wide shots he would use animated puppets of Wray wriggling in Kong’s hands, and could perfectly match the live action of Wray in the huge hand with his animation, so we got scenes where it actually looks as if Kong is holding and prodding her. And the scene of Kong at the top of Empire State Building is, of course, one of the most iconic of film history.

The composite shots are mindblowing. The film has some of the best travelling matte shots seen up to that day — they were created with the so-called Dunning process, introduced by Carroll H. Dunning. The Dunning process was vastly superior to the previously used “black screen” process, that would often render dark patches and shadows transparent in the final product. Without getting too technical, the Dunning process basically used the black-and-white medium to its advantage, separating the background and the foreground with the use of blue and yellow light and dye. Some scenes involve a new and improved rear-screen projection technique, with actors reacting to dinosaurs and Kongs in front of them. And in some of the stop-motion scenes, O’Brien inserted small projection screens (made out of condoms, no less) where he would project previously filmed live-action footage, moved forward frame by frame as he animated Kong and the lizards. This gave him a unique chance to actually have his animation interact with the actors. Some of the shots are spectacular, involving something life five different composites in a single frame.

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Kong grabbing airplanes.

There are also some moments of genius in the rest of the direction, most notably the scene where Kong is first revealed. The marvellously expansive scene against the huge wall is shot at night with hundreds of black extras dressed as natives. In a long unbroken crane shot the camera follows Darrow as she is being dragged through a throng of ecstatically dancing and chanting natives to the gigantic gate, and gets strung up between to totem poles on an altar on a ledge by a vertical drop (screaming, of course), just outside the gates. The gates close, and the blaring music reaches fever pitch – until it suddenly stops – and all sound goes mute, creating amazing suspense. The native chief (Noble Johnson) stands in front of a huge gong with four servants, two holding torches, two other hold giant ”drumsticks”. The chieftain speaks a few commanding staccato sentences, ending with ”Kong”. The gong sounds. Silence. The chieftain speaks again. ” … Kong”. Silence. A third time. ”… Kong”. Silence … and then a huge ROAR like a blast of thunder as we hear King Kong for the first time. Absolutely sublime filmmaking.

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Fay Wray being sacrificed to Kong.

Unfortunately the rest of the film is not as well directed. All of Willis O’Brien’s scenes are pure magic, and Schoedsack/Cooper handle the action and adventure parts well. But as soon as we get to dialogue and drama we’re suddenly in B-film land. The exposition scenes and the human interaction seem very slapdash, as if the directors simply wanted them out of the way to get to the chase. The dialogue is often stilted, the direction and filming flat and uninspired, and the acting wooden. Robert Armstrong was a part of the Schoedsack/Cooper inner circle and was cast as Denham more out of friendship than talent. He’s stiff and inarticulate, often shouting his lines as if he was reading them from cue cards. He does convey some of the drive and obsession that Denham has, and has something of a natural charisma. A stronger actor might have done more with the role, though.  Bruce Cabot as the romantic lead is even more wooden, but somehow still comes out as the more sympathetic of the too, as you sort of like the old knucklehead.

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Bruce Cabot, Fay Wray and Robert Armstrong in a publicity shot.

Fay Wray is well cast in the role as the innocent ingenue, even if she had to dye her hair blonde (she was a natural brunette). She shows her acting chops especially in the scenes where she completely throws herself into the role of the victim of Kong, giving an impressive physical and emotional performance. And that scream is, of course, legendary. But Wray comes off well in the quieter moments, too, on the strength of her open and bubbly personality. Of course it wasn’t necessarily her acting that male movie-goers remembered from the film. The film was made in 1933, the year before the Hays office started enforcing the Hays Code for real, and the amount of bare skin put on display as Kong strips her of all but the most necessary garments would not have been looked kindly upon a year later.

Very good performances are also given by German-born director Frank Reicher as the captain of the ship, and by Noble Johnson as the native chief – and we don’t even understand a word he is saying.

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Kong shaking his chasers off a log.

The film led to a quickly cobbled together sequel, Son of Kong, released the same year, again with Armstrong and Reicher, and adding Helen Mack as the female lead. The script was written by Ruth again, and played heavily on comedy. The film describes Denham returning to the island looking fir a lost treasure, and encountering a smaller Kong, believed to be the song of King Kong. It received negative reviews, but was a modest commercial success.

King Kong did nothing to halt the onslaught of bad ape films, although it would take decades before anyone tried to replicate the special effects of the two original Kong movies. Japan produced the unauthorised King Kong Appears in Edo, one of the first Japanese Kaiju, or giant monster films, with a man in a gorilla suit in 1938, and in 1948 Jack Bernhard directed Unknown Island, featuring monkey suits and really, really hokey dinosaurs suits and crude rubber puppets. The first ones to replicate the stop motion animation ape were the original team of Cooper/Schoedsack along with O’Brien/Delgado, now with the help of a young apprentice called Ray Harryhausen, who would go on to become a stop motion animator of even bigger fame than his teacher. The film was 1949’s Mighty Joe Young, that featured a kinder and more heroic ape, and it is perhaps the best big ape film made to date. A scene where Joe Young fights a pack of panthers, throwing them through the air, and punching them repeatedly, outraged animal rights groups, even though they were stop motion models.

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The island natives in front of their wall.

King Kong had a huge impact on later giant monster films, and was the main inspiration, along with The Lost World, on the Ray Harryhausen-animated The Beast of 20,000 Fathoms (1953, review) and the original Godzilla (1954. review). Japanese film company Toho also had Godzilla fight King Kong in Godzilla vs King Kong (1962) and he featured again in the kaiju film King Kong Escapes (1967). Dino de Laurentiis remade King Kong in an infamous flop with make-up artist Rick Baker in an ape suit in 1976, and produced a much funnier sequel, King Kong Lives, in 1986. Hot off the heels of The Lord of the RingsPeter Jackson remade King Kong in 2005 with CGI effects in an artistically accomplished, but dreadfully long 3 hour film. But credit must be given to Jackson, the team at special effects company Weta and actor Andy Serkis for revolutionising digital effects with their motion capture technique just as much as O’Brien revolutionised physical effects with his stop-motion work. And of course in 2017 we got Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ star-studded stand-alone film Kong: Skull Island, that relocated Kong to the end of the Vietnam war.

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Kong and Wray.

The original film’s intended Writer Edgar Wallace was a curious type. He started out as a journalist, covering many stories abroad, including Africa, and wrote a tremendous amount of dime novels, mostly thrillers and adventure stories. He said that he loved writing sci-fi, but his sci-fi books did not sell, so he mostly stuck to the genres that the audience wanted most. Wallace’ method of work was to lock himself in a room with an early version of a dictaphone, where he would then dictate the book from beginning to end, sometimes in only three days, and sometimes working nearly 72 hours straight. Assistants would then type out the stories, which meant he was able to release books at tremendous speed (and may be why Cooper insisted that he “never wrote a damn word” for King Kong). His publishers published almost everything he ”wrote” without much editing. His novels were universally panned by critics, although his energetic storytelling received praise. One critic wrote that his stories were ”cliché- ridden, characterization that is two dimensional and situations [that] are frequently trite, relying on intuition, coincidence, and much pointless, confusing movement to convey a sense of action. The heroes and villains are clearly labelled, and stock characters, humorous servants, baffled policemen, breathless heroines, could be interchanged from one book to another”. His description of natives in Africa was lambasted as racist, and George Orwell (author of 1984) called him a ”proto-fascist”. Despite the lack of literary recognition, there are over 200 film or TV adaptations of his books (or the Kong screenplay) listed at IMDb. Today he is primarily remembered for his (disputed) contributions to the Kong mythos, for the J.G. Reeder detective stories and for creating the character of The Green Archer.

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Edgar Wallace and his dictaphone.

Merian C. Cooper worked on many high profile films, including several with John Ford, such as his cavalry trilogy and the 1956 Searchers, as well as films like Little Women (1933) and The Last Days of Pompeii (1937). The 1952 John Ford film The Quiet Man was nominated for an Oscar as Best film. His only all-out sci-fi film was the the 1940 ”shrinking man” film Dr. Cyclops (review), made a whole 17 years before the much better known The Incredible Shrinking Man. His first name on the Hollywood Walk of Fame is misspelled as ”Meriam”.

Dr. Cyclops was also directed by Ernest B. SchoedsackSchoedsack and Cooper were old friends from fighting together in World War I and held a close relationship throughout their careers. They both started out making documentaries for Paramount before moving to RKO. Schoedsack is best known for the manhunt film The Most Dangerous Game, filmed in tandem with King Kong, the latter, and Mighty Joe YoungThe Most Dangerous Game was based on the short story of the same name (also published as The Hounds of Zaroff) by Richard Connell, and featured a big-game hunter becoming the prey himself as he is stranded on an island with a crazy cossack lord. The book and the 1932 film inspired numerous later movies, including some dystopian sci-fi’s. The film was largely made with the same production team that made King Kong; it starred both Armstrong and Wray, alongside Leslie Banks and Joel McCrea. It was directed by Schoedsack and Irving Pichel, written by James Ashmore Creelman, and the score was composed by King Kong-composer Max SteinerCooper produced.

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Ernest B. Schoedsack and Merrian C. Cooper.

Fay Wray was a teenage starlet who got her first big breaks in horror and adventure films like Doctor X (review) and The Most Dangerous Game (both 1932), as well as The Vampire Bat (1933, review) and The Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933). Having starred in four quite successful horror/thriller movies in the beginning of the decade, she was already a genre favourite and a Hollywood star by the time King Kong was released.

With King Kong she became internationally known as the scream queen, and appeared in a number of dramas and mystery films during the thirties, even if her career was somewhat hampered by her B-movie reputation. In the forties she partly withdrew from the business, although she did continue to appear in films sporadically, and made a slight comeback during the fifties, appearing in about one film a year, until 1958, when she completely dropped out of films, before making a surprising appearance in Gideon’s Trumpet in 1980. Peter Jackson approached her to deliver the famous line ”Beauty killed the beast” in his King Kong remake, but she declined, and passed away in 2004 before the movie was released. The lights of the Empire State Building were dimmed in her memory after her death. Despite receiving few accolades in her prime, she was awarded with lifetime achievement awards later in life, and was a special guest at the 1980 Oscar gala.

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Fay Wray in the grasp of Kong.

King Kong was one of Bruce Cabot’s first roles, and he has later described his work as ”standing where I was told to stand, speaking my lines, and doing what I was told”. Despite his wooden appearance in King Kong, he would later become a major box office draw, starring in Fritz Lang’s first Hollywood film Fury as a lynch mob leader in 1937 and the blockbuster western movie Dodge City, starring Erroll Flynn. After fighting in WWII he teamed up with John Wayne, who cast him in 10 of his films. His last role was in the 1978 James Bond film Diamonds are ForeverCabot plays Saxby, the corrupt casino manager employed by Jimmie Dean’s playboy Willard Whyte. As Saxby is shot and tumbles down a hill, Sean Connery, realizing it is him, states: “Saxby.” Dean: “Bert Saxby? Tell ‘im he’s fired!”

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Bruce Cabot, Fay Wray and Robert Armstrong.

King Kong, Son of Kong and Mighty Joe Young remain Robert Armstrong’s best known films.

The native chieftain was played by the black film pioneer Noble Johnson, often sadly forgotten when talking about groundbreaking black actors in America. Johnson started out in silent films as early as 1909 when he filled in for an injured actor playing a native American. Johnson was light-skinned enough to pass as a variety of nationalities, and the black and white film stock was less discriminate to skin colour. In the course of his career he would play Arabs, Latinos, Africans, Polynesians and even Asians if need arose. His great acting talent combined with his athletic physique and tall stature quickly made him a sought after actor for bit parts as exotic ruffians, nobles and warriors, and he got a number of prominent parts in high-profile films. Salaries from Kinkaid, Gambler (1916) and the Jules Verne-inspired 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1916, review) helped him set up his own film company, The Lincoln Motion Picture Company, that produced so called ”race films” aimed at the black audience in 1916. The race films were films made by and for a black audience, where African-Americans could be portrayed as real people, instead of the often racist stereotypes prominent in mainstream films. He appeared in about a dozen films between 1917 and 1921, using his salaries from Universal to keep his own company going, until he resigned in 1921 because of internal strifes.

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Noble Johnson as the tribal leader.

1921 also saw him appear in the big budget epic The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse starring Rudolph Valentino, and by the time he acted in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments in 1923 he had already become America’s first black major movie actor. He played an Indian prince in the 1924 Thief of Baghdad, and the devil himself in Dante’s Inferno the same year (and reprised in 1935). He continued his epics with Ben-Hur in 1925, DeMille’s The King of Kings (1927) and Noah’s Ark (1928). He had a major starring role as the master harpooner Queenqeg in Moby Dick (1930). In 1932 and 1933 he starred in two of his most widely remembered roles, as The Nubian in Karl Freund’s classic The Mummy starring Boris Karloff, and the native chief in King Kong. He later appeared in Frank Capra’s Lost Horizon (1937) and as the native American Red Chief in John Ford’s classic She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. He retired in 1950, and died in 1976 – 96 years old. Ironically, while he set up his own company partly in order to break down racial stereotypes and portray black people in a positive light, his Hollywood roles often helped to strengthen these same stereotypes. While we cringe at seeing white people play in blackface in early films, few seem to have problems with a black man portraying a native American, a Latino, or an Indian prince. Many of his roles included servants, brutes, other stereotypical ”Negro” roles. But on the other hand, a black man in Hollywood in those days couldn’t afford to be picky.

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Left: Noble Johnson catches Fay Wray reading a pulp magazine. Middle: Noble Johnson and his dog between takes, chatting with Cooper and Schoedsack. Right: Steve Clemente and Noble Johnson harrass Fay Wray for the camera.

The only other credited native in King Kong is the witch chief, a charismatic character, snarling and flailing aggressively at the explorers. This role was played by Esteban ”Steve” Clemente, a Mexican-born actor who started acting in Hollywood movies in 1917, and who also acted in a number of movies, playing several ”races”, but mostly Latinos – in four of his movies his character’s name was Pedro. Clemente’s initial ticket to Hollywood was his prowess as a knife thrower, which landed him a role in one of John Ford’s films. He showcased his knife throwing abilities in several movies, and was sometimes trusted to throw his knives just inches away from leading actors – he never missed his mark, according to legend. He also had a reputation as a good stunt man. Clemente appeared in the 1941 sci-fi serial Captain Marvel.

A fun fact was that both Clemente and Johnson had to paint their faces darker to appear in Kong Kong, as they weren’t deemed black enough for the roles. So we have a black man and a Latino in blackface. On the other hand, in Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932) opposite Bela Lugosi, it actually looks as if Johnson is wearing whiteface, even though his character is called “Janos the Black One”.

The supporting role of the ship’s Chinese cook Charlie was played by American actor Victor Wong (not the later Chinese-American actor Victor Wong from 3 Ninjas and Big Trouble in Little China, who is in turn often confused with Pat Morita of Karate Kid fame), who reprised his role in Son of Kong. Wong was mostly confined to bit parts or small supporting parts throughout his career.

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The iconic Kong-Dino battle.

As a theatre-goer in New York (according to some sources also as a native dancer) we see the legendary half Native American athlete Jim Thorpe, known for winning Olympic gold medals in both decathlon and pentathlon in Stockholm 1912, and later had a successful career in baseball, American football and basketball. He was later stripped of his Olympic medals, as it turned out that he had played baseball professionally prior to the games – forbidden as the Olympics were strictly for amateur athletes at the time. This caused great controversy both nationally and globally, as it was seen by many as motivated by racism. In modern times, Thorpe was voted by ABC as the greatest American athlete in history, and in 1950 as America’s greatest footballer of the first half of the 20th century. He was played by Burt Lancaster, of all people, in the 1951 film bearing his name. The connection is not that far fetched (well it is, but there is a connection). Even if Lancaster had no Native American ancestry, all his grandparents came from Northern Ireland, and Thorpe’s mother was Irish. Jim Thorpe appeared in bit parts and as an extra in as many as 69 films over the course of his life.

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The full-size bust of Kong’s head outside the studio.

Apart from the groundbreaking stop motion effects and the clever combination of animation and live action, another one of King Kong’s great contribution to films is the musical score by Max Steiner. The description above of the first revelation of Kong, and how the music helps to build up the moment, is a good example of the ingenious score of Steiner. In these early days of sound film, it wasn’t at all set in stone that a movie was supposed to have a score. Think for example of Frankenstein (1931, review), that had no music except for the start and end credits. King Kong wasn’t supposed to have music – but the studio demanded it since they were not sure if the audience would buy the special effects. Music would help them get in the mood for the scenes, they thought, and asked Max Steiner – a respected composer but not a big name at the time – to create a soundtrack. RKO didn’t want to pay for a new composition, though, and asked Steiner to put together a score from stock music.

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Willis O’Brien.

But Merian C. Cooper protested, and told Steiner to compose a score to the best of his abilities, and promised to pay for the orchestration from his own pocket, whatever the cost. Steiner certainly took advantage of the offer, and hired an orchestra of 80 musicians. Ironically, the result was one of the most legendary soundtracks of film history, and a milestone for film music. Steiner not only set the mood for the scenes, as was the custom, but brought the music into intimate interaction with the visuals – making it almost a character in the film. Contemporary critics were blown away, and many thought the music was one of the reasons the film actually worked, despite the hokey dialogue and the incredulous script. Thus says film historian Ronald Haver: ”There had never been a score so ambitious and so perfectly attuned to the visuals; Steiner’s music for King Kong was and is a landmark of film scoring, as much responsible for the success of the film as Cooper’s imagination and O’Brien’s gifted animation”. (One could argue that there had been one, but the Americans had never heard it: the original score for Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927, review).

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A look at the amazing special effects.

Steiner was born into music in Austria, and Richard Strauss was his godfather. During his youth he studied under two of the greatest composers of the 19th and 20th century, Johannes Brahms and Gustaf MahlerKing Kong was his breakthrough in Hollywood, and he would go on to win three Academy Awards for his music. The American Film Institute in its respected ”100 Years of Film” list, ranked his score for Gone with the Wind (1939) as #2 and King Kongas #13 of all American film scores in history. He also scored Son of Kong, and during his career composed 380 films with either his own material or stock music. Despite the whopping number, he somehow managed to keep completely clear of sci-fi after Kong.

Uncredited special effects photographer Vernon L. Walker was later nominated for 4 Oscars for special effects and worked on a number of successful films, including Orson Welles’ ”the best film in history” – Citizen KaneKing Kong was cameraman Kenneth Peach’s first film, and he would later establish himself in TV, but he did film the cheap 1959 sci-fi film It! The Terror from Beyond Space, often cited as the main inspiration for Ridley Scott’s Alien (although that is a hotly debated topic). Costume designer Walter Plunkett was Hollywood nobility, and his designs for famous films are too numerous to list – suffice to say he won an Oscar and was nominated for a whopping nine! The point of interest for sci-fi fans is that he designed the men’s costumes for the 1957 classic Forbidden Planet.

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Fay Wray ducks before the wrath of the T-Rex.

Special effects technician Harry Redmond Jr. had a very successful career working for big names like Frank Capra, Fritz Lang, Howard Hughes and Orson Welles. Later in his career he created memorable effects for a few sci-fi films of the golden age, such as The Magnetic Monster, Donovan’s Brain (both 1953), Riders to the Stars (1954) and Gog (1954), as well as the sci-fi TV-series The Science Fiction Theatre (1955-1957) and The Outer Limits (1963-1964). Redmond and his father Harry Redmond Sr. were a crucial addition to the team of O’Brien and Delgado on King Kong, and their main role was the supervision of travelling mattes and back projections that so beautifully merged animatronics, stop motion animation and live action. Sadly Junior never received any industry rewards for his long career, and it wasn’t until his death in 2011 – at the respectable age of 101 years – that his work was recognised in lengthy obituaries in publications like Hollywood Reporter, Variety and The Guardian.

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Movie magic.

Merian C. Cooper and the special effects team famously filmed a whole scene with some of the rescuers getting shaken off a log and falling into a pit with giant spiders and lizards. At the first screening, Cooper thought the scene slowed the movie down and cut it from the film, and it has since been lost. When Peter Jackson made his 2005 remake he also made a short recreation of what he thought the scene would have looked like, taking his cue from drawings and photographs. He then filmed the scene in the style of the 1933 film, using the same tools, effects and techniques that the team with O’Brien, Delgado and the Redmonds would have had at their disposal.

I must admit that the first time I saw King Kong (at a relatively adult age) I was a bit underwhelmed. Not because the effects were dated, but because I just didn’t find the story all that engaging. I have since learned to like it a bit better, but I have a creeping suspicion that this is partly because of all its fans telling me that I should like it better, and that it is “one of the greatest films ever made”. To be clear: the film is damn impressive, and the whole scene with Darrow being sacrificed by the tribe to Kong is a sublime piece of filmmaking. Delgado’s and O’Brien’s work with the stop-motion animation is unbelievably impressive, even to this day. Part of the problem is that Kong is the best actor in the movie, and also gets the best — the only — character arc. The script is just a badly written one.

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Robert Armstrong, Frank Reicher, Fay Wray and Bruce Cabot.

When compared to The Lost World, a film which I previously criticised for having a flawed script, King Kong’s script is downright amateurish from the perspective of drama. It manages to hit its marks as far as action and very basic story-arcs are concerned because it is basically a carbon-copy of The Lost World. But it has removed all interesting characters, almost all of the humour and all of the character arcs. The Lost World gave us interesting characters, backstory, motivation and a sense of urgency for the mission. King Kong has none of this. For a silent film, which had to set everything up using title cards, The Lost World’s characters are a lot more rounded than those in King Kong, who are simply cardboard cutouts. We do not care one iota about Carl Denham’s film. We do not care one iota about Carl Denham. In fact, perhaps with the exception of Ann Darrow, we don’t care for any of the human characters in the film. And there’s no character development whatsoever, partly because there’s nothing to develop. I have seldom seen a romance handled so badly in a film as in King Kong. The love story is so inconsequential that it’s even joked about in the film: in the beginning of King Kong, Carl Denham lets us know that he would prefer the expedition to be a sausage party, but he must take a girl along because “the studio keeps telling him there has to be a girl in the picture”.

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Not that we complain about having a girl in the picture.

Don’t get me wrong: King Kong is a great movie. From at technical perspective it’s one of the greatest movies ever made. In its own juvenile manner it’s a visionary movie. It’s sprawling, riveting, entertaining — and at times incredibly dull, because we don’t give two flying fucks about the characters. What ultimately saves the movie, though, isn’t its technical prowess, but its heart. Because there is one character arc in the film: that of the big guy himself. Roger Ebert puts it more eloquently than I can: “King Kong is more than a technical achievement. It is also a curiously touching fable in which the beast is seen, not as a monster of destruction, but as a creature that in its own way wants to do the right thing. Unlike the extraterrestrial spiders in the Alien pictures, which embody single-minded aggression, Kong cares for his captive human female, protects her, attacks only when provoked, and would be perfectly happy to be left alone on his Pacific Island. It is the greed of a Hollywood showman that unleashes Kong’s rage, and anyone who thinks to exhibit the beast on a New York stage in front of a live audience deserves what he gets–indeed, more than he gets.”

Ebert points out many of the film’s flaws, such as the numerous plot holes, the inane dialogue, the weak script the sluggish first half and the wooden acting, but still gives the movie 4 out of 4 stars, writing that all is forgiven by the riveting action and the marvellous cinematography of the second half of the film: “Even allowing for its slow start, wooden acting and wall-to-wall screaming, there is something ageless and primeval about King Kong that still somehow works.” I’m not quite as forgiving as Ebert, settling for 8 out of 10 stars, but I whole-heartedly agree: it still somehow works.

Janne Wass

King Kong. 1933, USA. Directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack. Written by James Ashmore Creelman, Ruth Rose, Merian C. Cooper, Edgar Wallace, Leon Gordon. Starring: Fay Wray, Bruce Cabot, Fay Wray, Frank Reicher, Noble Johnson, Sam Hardy, Steve Clemente, James Flavin, Victor Wong, Jim Thorpe. Special & visual effects by: Willis O’Brien, Marcel Delgado, Harry Redmond Jr, Harry Redmond Sr, Frank D. Williams, C. Dodge Dunnng, Carol H. Dunning Cinematography: Edward Linde, J.O. Taylor, Vernon L. Walker, Kenneth Peach. Editing: Ted Cheesman. Music: Max Steiner. Art direction: Carroll Clark, Alfred Herman. Costume design: Walter Plunkett. Make-up supervisor: Mel Berns. Produced by Cooper, Schoedsack & David O. Selznick for RKO.

 

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