King Kong (1933)
“The Most Amazing Show On Any Screen! Adventure to make you wonder if it’s TRUE . . . while your very eyes convince you that it IS!”
Director: Merian C. Cooper, Ernest B. Schoedsack
Cast: Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong, Bruce Cabot
Synopsis: A film crew goes to a tropical island for an exotic location shoot and discovers a colossal giant gorilla who takes a shine to their female blonde star.
I think of all the classic movie monsters King Kong and Frankenstein’s creation are the most sympathetic simply because they have their monstrousness imposed upon them by humans. Frankenstein’s monster is stitched together from the parts of the dead by a scientist in the grip of a God complex, while Kong is abducted from his homeland and displayed like a circus freak show in a strange land. True, he’s a fairly bad-tempered sort even when he’s on his home turf, but as long as the natives leave him alone and leave out the occasional fleshy morsel he’s happy to co-exist. Other monsters, like Dracula and the Mummy choose to be bad, and so the sympathetic angle is lost. Larry Talbot has monsterhood thrust upon him, but he at least has the capacity to bring an end to his own evil acts if he chooses which, in a way, makes him culpable for the murders he commits under the spell of a full moon.
The story, for those who don’t know it, has big-time movie producer Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) chartering a ship to take him to a tropical island about which he has heard strange rumours. Denham believes it might be a good location for his latest movie but, strangely, he sees no need to take a cast or crew along with him. However, he suspects he might need a leading lady and so, the night before the ship is due to embark, he walks the City streets and stumbles across Ann Darrow (Fay Wray), a waif so hungry she has resorted to stealing apples from fruit vendor’s carts. Denham buys her a meal and offers her a leading role in his new venture. Naturally, Ann readily accepts, but it’s a decision she soon comes to regret.
Aboard ship, she falls in with Jack (Bruce Cabot), a strapping young deckhand who shows a worrying dislike of women until Ann’s charms begin taking effect. And Ann certainly has charms in abundance, with pre-Code Wray looking pretty choice in a selection of outfits. She’s also persistent, and no sooner has she finally coaxed a stuttering declaration of love and a kiss out of Jack than she’s kidnapped by the tribesmen of Skull Island who rightly believe she’ll make a nice change from the constant supply of darker meat they’ve been serving Kong for God only knows how long. Her abduction provides the cue for a series of lung-bursting screams from our imperilled heroine which acts as a kind of aural beacon for Jack and Denham as they explore the jungles of Skull Island in search of her. Their quest is complicated by the presence of a whole slew of prehistoric creatures to whom humans are nothing more than a tasty little snack.
Kong makes an engaging monster, and you can sort of understand him being a tad ticked off with having his routine disrupted by Denham and his crew. He certainly doesn’t need the kind of metaphorical jab in the ribs Jack requires to awaken him to the fact that Ann is something of a cutie, and the famous scene in which he plucks her clothing from her as she lies unconscious in her hands is both humorous and titillating. And the writers dream up inventive little ways to give Kong a definite character, whether it’s simply by having him scratch his nose as he tickles Miss Wray, or issues an ‘I’m the man’ beating of his chest each time he sees off another predator. Having given him a character, Cooper then invites our empathy for him by filming from Kong’s point-of-view as the biplanes descend upon him while he clings to the roof of the Empire State Building in the movie’s legendary climactic scenes.
Given its age, it’s surprising just how much fun the movie is. Of course, the special effects look pretty archaic by today’s CGI standards, but that’s what makes them so endearing, and you don’t need to know a lot about movies to appreciate just how advanced the effects were for the era. But it’s not just the effects that make the movie; Cooper also invests the film with an overwhelming energy that is complemented by some inventive use of the camera and a breakneck pace that leaves no time for boredom to set in. Even if you’re one of those misguided souls who refuse to watch any movie made in black-and-white, you really should make an exception for King Kong. There’s a reason it’s remained a classic for so long…
(Reviewed 9th July 2013)