Friday, December 26, 2008


Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack co-directed “King Kong” in 1933 and forged the first gargantuan beast on the rampage classic of the sound era. The success of their super-sized simian spectacle sired countless sequels, remakes, and imitations, notably “The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms” (1953), “Godzilla, King of the Monsters”
(1954), and “Gorgo” (1961). Reportedly, Cooper’s inspiration for the movie was the vision of a 50-foot ape straddling the highest edifice in the civilized world, the Empire State Building, clashing with a squadron of warplanes. Truly, “King Kong” couldn’t have arrived at a more opportune time. America had been wallowing in the doldrums of the Great Depression since the bottom fell out of the Stock Market in 1929. Now, as Frank Delano Roosevelt entered the White House with his promise of New Deal legislation designed to boost the country out of its misery, “King Kong” qualified as a New Deal in filmmaking. Nobody had made a movie about mammoth monsters since Harry Hoyt’s “The Lost World” (1925), based on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel about an expedition into an imaginary land of dinosaurs. Special effects technician Willis O’Brien created the stop-motion behemoths for “The Lost World,” and Cooper and Schoedsack hired O’Brien to make their eponymous protagonists. During the 1930s and the 1940s, Hollywood filmmakers produced a number of movies about murderous apes. For example, Robert Florey helmed the Edgar Allan Poe epic “Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1932) about a mad scientist who wants to find a white woman as a bride for his ape. “King Kong” amassed the highest opening weekend grosses when it debuted. Reportedly, the receipts from “King Kong” rescued RKO Studios from bankruptcy. The movie coined even more money during its revival in the 1950s.

The James (“The Most Dangerous Game”) Creelman and Ruth (“The Last Days of Pompeii“) Rose screenplay adheres to the basic three-act structure. The first third occurs in the modern metropolis of New York; the second third takes place at sea and later on Skull Island where our protagonists meet Kong. The final third transpires in New York City. “King Kong” opens at night in New York Harbor as a theatrical agent, Charles Weston (Sam Hardy), discusses the ship and Carl Denham with a dock worker. The dock worker identifies the ship as the Venture and labels its voyage ‘crazy.’ He points out that Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong of “G-Men”) is a “crazy fella.” “He ain’t scared of nothing,” he says. The dock worker adds Denham has three times the number of crewmen required for a voyage. “I don’t see where they’re gonna have room enough to sleep.” Jack Driscoll appears on deck and demands to know Weston’s business. Weston identifies himself as Denham’s theatrical agent who was hired to find Denham a woman. Jack invites Weston to board.

Meanwhile, aboard the Venture, Captain Englehorn (Frank Reicher of “Topaze”) warns Denham they must soon weigh anchor. “Insurance company found out we’re carrying explosives the Marshal will be aboard tomorrow or the next day.” Denham fears if word leaks about the cargo, they’ll be tied up for months. “With enough ammunition to blow up the harbor,” Englehorn complains, “What do you think the marshal will say to these new gas bombs of yours? According to you, one of them is enough to knock out an elephant.” Denham wants to reach his destination before the monsoon season. The topical rains would delay Denham’s efforts to shoot his movie.

Driscoll and Weston join Denham and Englehorn. Weston is the only theatrical agent left who is willing to find Denham a girl for his new movie. He compliments Denham for being honest. Indeed, Denham has a reputation for completing pictures. Weston points out, however, that Denham also “has a reputation for recklessness that cannot be glossed over.” He laments Denham’s secretive nature. Englehorn agrees. Neither Driscoll nor he knows their destination. Weston boasts about his conscientiousness. “I cannot send a pretty girl such as you ask on a job like this without telling her what to expect.” Weston assures Denham no woman wants to take an unknown trip to somewhere unknown. She would be the only woman on a ship with a crew of the toughest mugs alive. Denham defends his record and reminds Weston that Englehorn and Driscoll have been with him on two trips.

Denham brags that this picture represents a first for him. He must have a starlet “because the public, bless them, must have a pretty face to look at.” He complains, “Isn’t there any romance and adventure in the world without having a flapper in it?” The critics have told Denham that a love interest will generate twice as many receipts. “Alright, the public wants a girl, and I’m going to give them what they want,” Denham declares, even if Weston cannot procure one. “I’m going to go out and get a girl,” Denham resolves, “even if I have to marry her!” He vows, “Listen, I’m going to make the greatest picture in the world. Something nobody has ever seen or heard of. They’ll have to think of a lot of new adjectives when I come back.” Denham leaves the ship to search for a suitable woman for his film. He cannot find anybody alluring enough at a woman’s soup kitchen, but he discovers a starving girl, Ann Darrow (Fay Wray of “The Most Dangerous Game”), who used to work as an extra in movies. A Times Square fruit vendor accuses Ann of stealing an apple. Denham pays for the apple, dissuades the vendor from taking legal action, and buys Ann a meal at all-night diner. Denham learns that Ann has no immediate family, though she admits she may have an uncle somewhere. He allays Ann’s anxieties when he assures her that everything “is strictly business.” She feels better when he adds, “Just trust me and keep your chin up.” Denham emerges as a mirror image of King Kong. He qualifies as the king of show business, and he appropriates Ann Darrow as an object of desire for his movie. Later, Kong will appropriate her as his bride. In between, Jack Driscoll appropriates her as his future wife.

As the Venture leaves New York, Ann approaches rough-hewn Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot of “Dodge City”), on deck where he clobbers her accidentally. Their relationship gets off to a rocky start. “I guess you don’t think much of women on ship?” Ann says. “Women on ships,” Jack shrugs, “No, they’re a nuisance.” Later, he observes that the Venture is “no place for a girl.” When she tells him that Denham was to make a test to determine which side of her face to photograph, Jack says, “Both sides look alright to me.” Jack philosophizes about the opposite sex, “Women can’t help being a bother. Made that way I guess.”

Denham joins Jack and Ann on deck. Interestingly, Ann takes an interest in a little monkey called Iggy. She kneels to pet the spider monkey in what constitutes an ironic reversal on what happens to her when she encounters King Kong on Skull Island. Denham observes, “Beauty and the beast. Meanwhile, Jack falls hard for Ann, but discounts his infatuation in front of Denham. “You think I’m going to fall for any dame?” Denham knows better. “Some big hard-boiled egg gets a look, he cracks up and goes sappy. You’re a pretty tough guy but if beauty gets you, I’m going right into a theme song here.” Denham outlines his picture. “The beast was a tough guy, too. He could beat the world, but when he saw beauty, she got him. He went soft. He forgot his wisdom and the little fellas licked him.”

Captain Englehorn and Jack worry about Denham’s lack of candor about their destination. When they reach a point “way west of Sumatra” and “way out of any waters the skipper knows,” Denham shows them his map. “I know the East Indies like I do my hand,” Englehorn boasts, “but I’ve never been here.” When he tries to locate the island on his charts, Denham assures him that it exists on no map. Denham obtained his information from the skipper of a Norwegian bark. “A canoe full of natives was blown to sea,” he explains. “Only one was alive when the bark picked them up. He died before they reached port, not before the skipper pieced together a description of the island and got a fairly good idea of where it lies.” Denham tells them that he got the map about two years ago in Singapore.

Denham describes Skull Island to Englehorn and Driscoll. The island consists of a long sandy peninsula but most of the shoreline is sheer precipice on all sides, hundreds of feet high and across the base of the peninsula, cutting it off from the main island. The natives have built a wall across the island peninsula. He adds, “Built so long ago that the people who lived there slipped back, forgotten their civilization that built it. That wall is as strong today as it was centuries ago. The natives keep the wall in repair.” “Did you ever hear of Kong?” Apparently, King Kong still holds Skull Island in a grip of deadly fear. Denham states, “I tell you that there is something on that island that no white has ever seen. Now you know why I brought along those cases of gas bombs.

The Venture penetrates a thick, eerie fog bank surrounding the island. Denham orders Driscoll to break out the camera equipment, rifles, ammunition, and the costume box. He warns a sailor about the gas bombs, “There’s enough trichloride to put a herd of hippos to sleep.” Denham and company enter a village in the middle of a ceremony. Natives are parading around in gorilla suits. Drums are being beaten and a native girl is being draped with garlands. The girl is slated to become the bride of Kong. Denham tries to get film of the ceremony, but the natives spot him. Englehorn serves as their interpreter. The natives argue that their ceremony has been spoiled because of the appearance of these intruders. The chieftain and his followers spot Ann with her blond hair and demand that the whites make a gift of her to them for Kong. Denham and company retreat to the ship and try to look cool as they leave the village.

Safely back aboard the Venture, Denham and company settle down. Jack and Ann stand on deck. “Why, Jack,” Ann notes, “you hate women.” Jack retorts, “Yeah, but you aren’t women.” Clearly, Jack has become infatuated with Ann. He leaves her on deck. Later, he discovers her missing when the cook Charlie finds a native’s bracelet on deck. The Skull Island natives stole aboard the Venture and abducted Ann so they can provide her as their gift to King Kong. Englehorn arms the crew. The natives lash Ann to an altar on the far side of the great wall Forty-seven minutes into the story we see King Kong emerge from the jungle foliage. He claims Ann as his prize and storms back into the jungle with Denham, Driscoll and company in hot pursuit. Our heroes run into a Stegosaurus and Denham has a chance to prove the potency of his gas bombs. “If I can only bring back one of these alive,” he dreams. Afterward, Denham, Driscoll and company find one of Kong’s footprints and marvel at its size. They come upon a foggy lake and Denham has his men fashion a raft for them to cross over. No sooner have they begun to cross the lake than a Brontosaurus emerges from the water and capsizes them. The dinosaur chomps down on a sailor and storms the land and snatches another sailor from a tree. Denham and company lose their firearms.

Later, Kong attacks the sailors, too. Kong seizes a tree and shakes them off it. Driscoll falls into an overhang and Kong struggles without success to reach for him. While Kong harasses Driscoll, a Tyrannosaurus Rex threatens Ann. Hearing her scream, Kong battles with it and kills it. Kong lugs Ann into a mammoth cavern and wrestles with a giant snake and eventually kills it. Kong climbs a rocky incline and comes out on a mountain top where a Pteranodon grasps Ann in its claws and tries to fly away with her. Kong attacks the prehistoric bird and kills it. While he is subduing the bird, Jack Driscoll helps Ann down a vine from the shelf of the mountain. Kong reels the lovers back toward him, but they dive into the river.

Meanwhile, back at the great wall, Denham and company await Jack and Ann.
Denham is reluctant to leave Skull Island without Kong. “We came here to get a moving picture and we found something worth more than all the movies in the world.” No sooner do Jack and Ann appear than King Kong charges into sight. They shut and barricade the huge gates with the help of the Skull Islanders. Their combined strength cannot withstand the onslaught of a crazed King Kong. Eventually, Kong breaks down the doors, chomps on three natives, knocks over a platform with warriors hurling spears at him, and crushes two natives under his foot. Denham resorts to a gas bomb to knock out Kong. Boasts Denham, “He’s always been king of his world, but we’ll teach him fear.” He adds, “Kong could have stayed safe where he was but he couldn’t stay away from beauty.”

At this point, “King Kong” leaps forward to New York City as ushers lead patrons who paid $20 a ticket to get in and see the giant ape. Jack and Ann are backstage with Denham and the press and Kong secured to a huge platform with chrome steel chains. Denham unveils Kong to the packed house. “He was a king and a god in the world he knew but now he comes to civilization merely a captive, a show to gratify your curiosity.” The photographers snap photos of the giant gorilla and the flashbulbs set off King Kong. Kong breaks free of his restraints and the audience stampedes out of the theater. Jack and Ann flee. Kong goes berserk, climbs buildings outside, and the police roll out in force. The huge ape pulls a woman out of her apartment in a skyscraper and casts her aside after he realizes that she is Ann. Later, he smashes up an elevated train. Eventually, the mad ape finds Ann, knocks Jack unconscious, and seizes Ann. The police don’t know what to do as Kong scales the Empire State Building beyond their grasp. Jack recovers and suggests that they call out planes armed with machine guns. Four bi-planes equipped with multiple machine guns soar off to the Empire State Building. Kong sets Ann aside and slaps the air at the planes as the gunners pour hails of gunfire into his humongous hulk of a body to no apparent effect. Kong swats one plane and sends it crashing to the ground. The remaining three aircraft carry out more strafing runs. Weakened by the loss of blood, King Kong loses his grip on the tower and plummets to the earth. Interestingly, Cooper and Schoeshack fly the plane that kills Kong. Carl Denham makes his way through the crowd and gazes at the corpse of the gorilla. He provides a memorable eulogy for Kong’s demise: “It was beauty killed the beast.”

A multitude of themes appear in “King Kong.” Principally, the most written about theme is ‘beauty and the beast.’ Despite his size, King Kong is the proverbial putty in Ann Darrow’s hand, even though she occupies the space in his grip. The themes of civilization versus savagery as well as technology versus nature are obvious. Kong rules Skull Island with his formidable strength. He whips every predator on the island that gets in his way. However, he cannot withstand Denham’s gas bombs which incapacitate him. Gas had been used with success by the Kaiser against the Allies in World War I ,and King is no match for chemical warfare. Later, the authorities mobilize air power to bring down Kong. “King Kong” amounts to a pastiche of genres. First, it is a jungle adventure epic in the tradition of “Trader Horn” and the “Tarzan” yarns. Second, “King Kong” is a horror film with the inevitable woman-in-jeopardy. The theme of miscegenation rears its ugly head in “King Kong” and it is interesting that the Production Code Administration did not ban the film, though it did censor the film, particularly when Kong removed portions of Ann Darrow’s apparel, for its 1938 re-issue. Remember, the first bride of Kong is African-American until the native spot blond Ann Darrow and realize that Kong will treasure her more for her whiteness. Cultural imperialism is part of the plot. An American explorer, Carl Denham, arrives on Skull Island and captures Kong, the eighth wonder of the world and takes the ape prisoner so that he can exploit him for $10-thousand dollar a night in New York City.

According to Orville Goldner and George E. Turner, in their book “The Making of ‘King Kong,’” Murray Spivack created a first with “King Kong.” Namely, he harmonized music with sound effects. He achieved this by altering the pitch of the sound effects so that they conformed to the music.

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