From the video case:
King Kong teems with memorable moments: a movie-making expedition on a fantastic isle filled with dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures; the giant simian’s lovestruck obsession with the film shoot’s blond starlet (Fay Wray); Kong’s capture; his Manhattan rampage; and the fateful finale atop the Empire State Building where Kong cradles his palm-sized beloved and swats at machine-gunning airplanes. “It was beauty killed the beast.” But in these and other great scenes, Kong lives forever. (1933, b&w)
For King Kong fans, it is hard to talk about the 1933 original without sounding overly extravagant in our praise. However, this picture is such a ground-breaker, and done so well, that it absolutely deserves the gushing acclamation that is often heaped upon it.
The star of the picture is an 18-inch (or sometimes, 24-inch) puppet, spectacularly animated by stop-motion master Willis O’Brien (The Lost World, The Black Scorpion). Not only does O’Brien bring Kong to life, but he gives the great ape character and pathos. We get caught up in Kong’s plight, and it is not too surprising to find that many of us, upon first viewing, had an emotional reaction to Kong’s tragic fate. I’ll admit that today’s CGI effects can be impressive, but not once have they made me cry.
Of course, Kong’s animation does have its imperfections. The most noticeable is that his fur sometimes moves in an unnatural manner. This was caused by O’Brien’s handling of the puppet. As O’Brien moved Kong one tiny motion at a time, his fingers would leave slight impressions on the fur. This wasn’t apparent during the stop-motion process, but when the footage was assembled as animation, the fur’s motion sometimes looked awkward. Early viewers attributed the strange motion to wind, but modern devotees know better. Still, this imperfection is not overly distracting, and is certainly forgivable considering the movie was released in 1933 and O’Brien was a pioneering talent in the field.
I like what Ray Harryhausen (who directly credits King Kong as his own inspiration for entering a career in stop-motion animation) says concerning the aesthetic charm of Kong. Harryhausen states in the 2005 DVD commentary of the film that Kong’s look is not so real that it compromises the fantasy element of the movie. Even today, over 85 years later, Kong is utterly fascinating to watch. A pretty neat trick.
The heroine of the film is Ann Darrow, played beautifully by one of the earliest scream queens, Fay Wray (Doctor X, Mystery of the Wax Museum). Fay keeps the film interesting while we’re waiting for Kong’s arrival. She is so enchanting in the role that we have no problem believing Kong’s fascination with her.
Robert Armstrong (Mighty Joe Young) plays film producer, Carl Denham. Denham is a reckless adventurer who will risk anything to bring back a quality film. I used to think that Armstrong’s portrayal was a little too over-the-top, but after watching a documentary on Merian C. Cooper, who Denham’s character is based on, I now believe Armstrong’s characterization is not far off the mark. Merian C. Cooper is the real life producer, co-writer, and director of King Kong. The documentary of his life is included with the 2005 DVD Special Edition, and is well worth a look. A truly incredible man.
Bruce Cabot is Jack Driscoll, Fay Wray’s love interest. Cabot’s character is based on co-director, Ernest B. Schoedsack. Unfortunately, I find Cabot’s portrayal lacking. A more convincing actor in this role would have improved on an already great film.
Also look for Frank Reicher (House of Frankenstein, The Mummy’s Ghost) in the role of Capt. Englehorn.
Although the acting and dialog can seem dated, it also lends to a documentary feel. I think one of Peter Jackson’s wisest decisions regarding his remake was keeping it a period piece. Kong existing outside of that time period (as Dino De Laurentiis’ 1976 version attests to) just doesn’t seem right.
King Kong also features some fantastic original music by Max Steiner, and breakthrough sound effects by Murray Spivack.
Entire books have been written on this film, and so my little review does not give it or its creators justice. But take my word on this: King Kong is a deeply satisfying movie. It is not only a wonderful film for its genre, but it is a great accomplishment in cinematic history, period.
Scene to watch for: Kong, realizing the woman he has pulled from her bed is not Fay Wray, drops her to her death.
Line to listen for: “Oh no, it wasn’t the airplanes. It was beauty killed the beast.”
Trivia: Directors Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack pilot the plane that sends Kong to his demise.
Mark’s Rating: ! ! ! ! ! out of 5.