King Kong (1933, Merian C. Cooper & Ernest B. Schoedsack)
The films that age most quickly and irrevocably tend to be those that attempt to function on pure spectacle — effects pictures, in other words — yet down through the decades, despite a silly and extremely racist storyline (Kong’s been offered Black native women for years, but suddenly goes all Don Juan and shit when Fay Wray marches into town), despite overwhelmingly flat and rote performances in all of the major roles, despite a hoary and badly dated script, and despite the technologically primitive stop motion and composite effects, King Kong retains its mystical cachet. It’s a rip-roaring good time, sure, but so are lots of similar movies that haven’t managed the universally beloved status of this one. Happy memories of King Kong hinge almost entirely on the streamlined but enormously effective sense of pacing and urgency, the strange beauty of the Empire State Building climax, and plenty of pop psychology about what Kong as an animal, a male, a “lover” really means — but most of all, it’s an icon because it’s so convicted about itself and its own glorious massiveness. In 1933, hot blooded David O. Selznick, then working at RKO, and directors Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack wanted to invent something, to raise the stakes. Films had barely even had consistent sound for four years, and already we’re seeing here the conception of the modern Event movie.
Our relationship with the film today, in turn, is much more complex, and actually fascinating — track your own emotional responses to what happens onscreen and you may surprise yourself. We’re amused, we roll our eyes, we perk up and get excited, we have all of the originally intended reactions except with the added layering of wisdom and irony that only intervening decades, a war and a depression (deftly acknowledged by the introduction of Wray in a breadline), can contribute. Kong gains power from both involving us and allowing us to step aside, to study, to critique it. There’s enough brilliance here to sweep us up, but enough flawed messiness and open-ended questioning that it exercises the student in all of us. It’s an artifact of its time, but never ceases to remind us that we still live in its era.
The structure is, of course, a model for other adventure films to follow: the journey, the destination, things going awry, the return, and things going awry again — and Cooper and Schoedsack refuse to allow any audience member not to be swept up in it. No strangers to visual enormity, the pair had made the legendary silent documentaries Grass and Chang, and knew their way around the hearts and minds of a room full of moviegoers. But this is their signature achievement by a longshot, and its problems perversely become a part of its charm. All of said problems, which hinge mostly on characterization, hamminess, and antiquated prejudice (unwisely appropriated by Peter Jackson in his remake), die with the killed off cast members, and by the third act back in New York City, we are witness to an ingenious, emotionally rich, and unstoppably fast thrill ride — poetic, insane, wild.
We’re used to restraint. We like restraint, even, and in some respects we miss it today. But in the case of King Kong, a total absence of restraint is essential, new, remarkable. It drives forward with increasingly violent and visually overwhelming action sequences to make the point that the directors (and Selznick) own this domain, and none of the limits we imagine are in place. Kong squeezed in just before the Production Code, so people get picked up and eaten, graphically, dinosaurs get their jaws broken and played with by Kong, civilization gets halfway to destroyed and stepped on, and there is a more than slight suggestion of impossible lusting by Kong for beautiful and scantily clad Ann Darrow (Wray). The film goes “all the way” with everything it attempts in a fearless sense that few filmmakers are prepared to try, in large part because it believes in its audience so completely — one reason it remains relevant: it documents the viewer of films in 1933 as well as anything it actually shows, and the convergences and changes in mainstream audiences since then are endlessly intriguing. Mostly, though, this is simply an example of an exceptionally fruitful director-producer match. Cooper was an adventurer at heart, Schoedsack his pragmatic partner; their uncompromising audaciousness fuses brilliantly with Selznick’s populism and love of nurturing sheer spectacle, but also his belief in absolute top standards of entertainment. Even with everything that came after, it must remain one of his vital achievements.
The human characters are good for a laugh, their threadbare story providing some relief from all of the action, but Kong himself is the character in the film who wins our hearts. Willis O’Brien’s absolutely brilliant stop motion effects may be a feature of their era, and they’re hardly seamless, but I prefer them to any computer graphic — Kong as O’Brien imagines him is a human, multilayered character, and his only marginally realistic movements emphasize the power of cinematic fantasy. We always know we’re watching a movie, thus we feel safe, thus we invest ourselves more. I can never get over his eyes, though, the haunting eyes that cry out and beg to be understood for all the animal impulses Kong only naturally cannot avoid. The people, of course, are the real inhuman monsters, and that’s a thesis that rings louder and longer than “beauty killed the beast,” which is so much nonsense.
Kong is such an engaging creation, we can’t help missing him when he’s offscreen; this includes the lengthy buildup, which drags a bit until we reach Skull Mountain. Still, there’s something of a ring of truth to Carl Denham, the filmmaker who’s come to rough the high seas and shoot a picture, an unmistakable caricature of Merian Cooper. It’s Kong we love, but we understand Carl too, for he wants what we want: a great time at the movies, yet another reason King Kong‘s constant reminders of its own flatness and fakery is such a cinematic coup. Without the excessive machismo that often marked the adventure film, and frankly with far more to see and to hear, King Kong is able to remain the best film of its type, a movie of chutzpah and directness — an endless amount of unforced, naive play. Yet Cooper, like Denham, is enough of an entertainer to know to leave us with a tear, and with the help of Max Steiner’s hauntingly beautiful score, all woodwinds and mystery, he crafts pathos and permanent international icononography from an ostensibly silly story about a giant ape. When you really think it over, that’s one hell of a dramatic accomplishment.