#7 Golden Age of Hollywood Series
Though they are tame to the modern eye, both Dracula and Frankenstein terrified audiences in their heyday.
The same cannot be said for King Kong.
Though classified as a horror film, King Kong did not terrify its 1933 audience.
It awed them.
King Kong was the first popcorn movie—an expensive, ridiculous, over-the-top tall tale of pure, mindless entertainment.
This isn’t just me talking from atop my 2020 high horse. The TIME Magazine 1933 review notes:
“It might seem that any creature answering the description of Kong would be despicable and terrifying. Such is not the case. Kong is an exaggeration ad absurdum, too vast to be plausible. This makes his actions wholly enjoyable.”
But movies are often at their best when they are mindless spectacles. There are few pleasures as good as sitting in the cool dark of an air conditioned movie theater, eating popcorn while man battles the beasts of a filmmaker’s imagination.
It’s actually rather amazing that King Kong was even made in 1933.
Director Merian C. Cooper had long had an idea for a film about a fifty foot ape that ravages New York, but studios were wary of the expense, especially when all but MGM were just trying to survive the Great Depression.
Cooper had eventually given up and left the movie business altogether to work at Pan American Airlines, and was with the company when it launched the first regular transatlantic flight service.
At the time, David O. Selznick (a giant in movie making history…much, much more on him later) had just taken over as Head of Production at RKO Studios. He was looking for ways to turn the company’s finances around in the midst of the Great Depression, and find a way to compete with MGM.
Like Universal, RKO had to compete without any top stars.
Unlike Universal, Selznick decided to go big.
(Selznick, as we will learn, always went big.)
He lured Cooper back into the film business with the promise that he could finally make his ape picture with minimal studio interference.
In one way, it paid off—King Kong was the highest grossing film of 1933. But the high cost of the film meant it didn’t make enough money to keep RKO out of receivership.
King Kong is the story of Carl Denham, an adventurous filmmaker (much like Cooper himself) who sails to an exotic location to find—and film—the mythical beast Kong. Along for the ride are John Driscoll, a member of the ship’s crew, and Ann Darrow, the unknown young woman Denham has plucked from skid row to star in his film.
Carl, John, and Ann arrive at Skull Island to discover Kong, a fifty-foot ape who is infatuated with Ann—oh hell, I’m just going to call her Fay Wray, that’s how everyone thinks of her—and kidnaps her.
The second act of the film is Kong carrying Fay Wray through the jungle and protecting her by fighting off various monsters, including a gigantic snake and a surprisingly carnivorous brontosaurus.
Carl has a touch of P.T. Barnum in him, and once Fay Wray is rescued he decides to kidnap the beast and take him back to New York to exhibit as a sort of circus freak.
How, exactly, they transport this fifty-foot ape from an island too remote to be on the map all the way to New York City is a plot point that is (probably for the best) unexplained.
Once in New York, Carl sells tickets to see Kong, the “eighth wonder of the world.”
At his first exhibition, Kong breaks free and terrorizes New York in search of Fay, whom he finds and again kidnaps. Fay Wray’s primary role in the film is to scream and cover her eyes with her forearm.
Kong ultimately goes down in a blaze of glory, gunned down from the top of the Empire State Building by a dozen airplanes, but not before carefully depositing his lady love safely on the ledge of the building.
Like Frankenstein’s monster, Kong elicits our sympathy despite his reign of destruction as he is at heart nothing more than a stranger in a strange land looking for love.
I like big blockbuster movies as much as anyone, but movies based on special effects almost by definition don’t age well.
King Kong is often listed as one of the greatest movies of all time, and based on the reaction of the audience that first saw it in 1933, perhaps it is. It was the talk of the town and set attendance records in its first week, selling out every showing.
I guess you had to be there.
Want more? Click here for an index of all posts in this series, as well as source notes and suggested reading.