King Kong

KING KONG (1933)

Notes:RKO Radio Pictures. 100 minutes.
Ann Darrow: Fay Wray
Carl Denham: Robert Armstrong
Jack Driscoll: Bruce Cabot
Captain Englehorn: Frank Reicher
Weston: Sam Hardy
Native Chief: Noble Johnson
Second Mate Briggs: James Flavin
Witch King: Steve Clemento
Lumpy: Victor Long
Mate: Ethan Laidlow
Sailors: Dick Curtis and Charlie Sullivan
Theatre Patrons: Vera Lewis and LeRoy Mason
Apple Vendor: Paul Porcasi
Reporters: Lynton Brent and Frank Mills

Produced and Directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack
Screenplay by James A Creelman and Ruth Rose
Story: Edgar Wallace and Merian C. Cooper
Adapted: James Creelman and Ruth Rose
Executive Producer: David O. Selznick
Chief Technician: Willis O’Brien
Art Directors: Carroll Clark and Al Herman
Sound Effects: Murray Spivak

Merian Cooper considered using a real gorilla fighting a kimodo dragon until he saw O’Brien’s footage of the aborted Creation. For this film, Kong at Yankee Stadium was the original intention, later changed to the theater. The new problem was that now dinosaurs needed to make sound. RKO’s sound department slowed and reversed organ tones, cougars, leopards, and lions.


INTRODUCTION: King Kong, “The Eighth Wonder of the World,” is announced with credits designed like spotlights — signifying a blockbuster film within blockbuster film.

“And the prophet said: ‘And lo, the beast looked upon the face of beauty. And it stayed its hand from killing. And from that day it was as one dead.’ ‘Old Arabian proverb.'”

PREPARATION: We learn of “crazy” Carl Denham, film producer/director, his upcoming sea voyage and his reputation: “If he wants a picture of a lion, he just goes up to ‘im and tells ‘im to look pleasant.” “He’s a tough egg, all right,” “with enough ammunition to blow up the harbor.” Theatrical agent Weston boards ship. Denham demands, “How ’bout the girl?” Weston can’t supply one for the “outdoor picture,” explaining, “you’ve got a reputation for recklessness that can’t be glossed over. And then, you’re so secretive.” It’s true that Captain Englehorn and first mate Jack Driscoll have been on these expeditions before, but “it’s a different thing taking a girl into danger.” Denham objects: “Holy Mackerel, do you think I want to haul a woman around?” “Then why?” “Because the public, bless ’em, must have a pretty face to look at.” [Note the condescension and hint of hostile sarcasm.] It actually sounds as if it’s the “critics and exhibitors” who typically whine, according to Denham, “If this picture had love interest, it would gross twice as much. All right, the public wants a girl, and this time I’m gonna give ’em what they want…. Listen, I’m goin’ out to make the greatest picture in the world — something nobody’s ever seen or heard of. They’ll have to think up a lot of new adjectives when I come back…. I’m going out and get a girl for my picture, even if I have to marry one!”

Women in line at the Woman’s Home Mission he rules out. Ann Darrow is caught stealing, but Denham pays off the vendor: “Here, here; here’s a buck. Scram!” Denham feeds Ann, whose former “studio’s closed now,” she says sadly (a vague, indirect admission of the Depression). “Don’t fool yourself; I’m not bothering about you just out of kindness.” Denham promises, “It’s money, and adventure, and fame! It’s the thrill of a lifetime and a long sea voyage that starts at six o’clock tomorrow morning!” (He’s advertising to Ann for an advertising end). He will dress her, and she’ll be the leading lady; he promises, “This is strictly business.” “What do I have to do?” “Just trust me, and keep your chin up.”

VOYAGE: Jack Driscoll doesn’t think much of women aboard ship: “No, they’re a nuisance.” But he admires Ann for being able to take “a pretty tough [accidental] rap on the chin.”

An African-American plays an Oriental named Charlie (apparently the marginalized are all interchangeable) who peels potatoes and speaks pigeon English: “eggs fo’ bleakfast”; “When we leave this place? Me no like.”

Ann insists she hasn’t been trouble. Jack insists, “Oh, this is no place for a girl.” Ann protests: “I haven’t been any trouble to anyone.” But Jack says, regarding women, “Just bein’ around’s trouble…. But women can’t help being a bother; just made that way, I guess.” Ann plays with the chained monkey, Iggy. Denham arrives: “Beauty and the beast, eh?” and continues ruminating, “beauty and the beast.” Jack expresses concern about the mysterious voyage. Denham asks, “What’s the matter, Jack, you gone soft on me?” Jack: “Oh, you know I’m not, not for myself — for Ann.” Denham: “Oh, you have gone soft on her, eh? I’ve got enough trouble without a love affair to complicate things. Better cut it out, Jack…. I’ve never known it to fail: some big hard-boiled egg gets a look at a pretty face and bang, he cracks up and goes sappy…. You’re a pretty tough guy, but if beauty gets ya!” Denham interrupts himself: “I’m goin’ right into a theme song here…. It’s the idea of my picture: the beast was a tough guy too. He could lick the world, but when he saw beauty she got ‘im. He went soft. He forgot his wisdom and the little fellahs licked ‘im. Think it over, Jack.” [Wisdom? And what supposedly well-known tale is this, anyway? Denham, thinking abstractly about an angle for the movie not yet made, assumes the story is out there in a supposedly automatically hostile world. It’s his story, the headline version of a media creation; and he’s sticking to it. It doesn’t reflect truth, but attempts to force interpretation onto events. It even feels forced.]

Denham reveals his map, which shows a wall cutting a peninsula off from the otherwise uncharted island, “built so long ago that the people who live there have slipped back — forgotten the higher civilization that built it. But that wall is as strong today…. The natives keep that wall in repair. They need it…. There’s something on the other side of it — something they fear.” “A hostile tribe,” suggests Captain Englehorn. Denham: “Did you ever heard of Kong?” Captain Englehorn believes it is “Some native superstition, isn’t it? A god or spirit or something?” “Well anyway, neither beast nor man — something monstrous, all powerful, still living, still holding that island in a grip of deadly fear. Well, every legend has a basis in truth. I tell you there’s something on that island that no white man has ever seen.” Jack asks, “Suppose it doesn’t like having its picture taken?” Denham: “Well, now you know why I brought along those cases of gas bombs.”

Ann’s screen test begins. “You’ve put on the beauty and beast costume, eh?” says Denham. The sailors look on, and Charlie suggests, “Maybe him like-a take my picture, huh?” Another sailor responds, “Them cameras cost money. Shouldn’t think he’d risk it.” Denham, filming Ann, tells of a former cameraman who chickened out during the filming of a charging rhino — “That darned fool. I was right there with a rifle.” [Note: shooting and shooting: camera and gun.] Jack: “Think he’s crazy, skipper?” “Just enthusiastic.” Denham directs Ann to stare up in horror: “It’s horrible, Ann, but you can’t look away…. Perhaps if you didn’t see it, you could scream.” She screams [Fay Wray’s trademark and claim to fame]. Jack ponders, “What’s he think she’s really gonna see?”

This scene involving “seeing” cuts to one in the midst of fog, as they look for Skull Mountain, which they do find. Says Denham of the natives, “Funny they haven’t spotted us. I’d think the whole population would be on the beach.” The native drumming creates tension, as they plan to land. With patronization gone haywire, Denham says, “Now Jack, run along and deal out the rifles and ammunition.”

NATIVE VILLAGE: Awe and speculation about the wall is answered by Jack’s attitude: “Oh, I was up in Ankora once. That’s bigger ‘n this and nobody knows who built it.” [This wall was set on fire and used during the burning of Atlanta in Gone With the Wind (1939).] On hearing the “Kong Kong” chanting, he says, “Aw, they’re up to some of their evil tricks.” Denham: “What a chance; what a picture…. Holy Mackerel, what a show!” A theme of “seeing” emerges: “Ever see anything like that before in your life?” “I wanna see.” “Boy, if I could only get a picture before they see us…. Too late; they see us.” The filming party get caught in the gaze by the natives as they watch the ceremony. The Captain translates the Chief’s explanation: “He says the girl there is thebride of Kong.” The witchdoctor is enraged: “He says the ceremony is spoiled because we’ve seen it.” Denham asks, “What’s the word for ‘friend’? … Bala. Bala. Steady with those rifles, boys.” Captain: “He says look at the golden woman.” Denham: “Yeah, blondes are scarce around here.” The native chief wants to buy Ann: “He’s offering to trade six of his women for Ann.” Denham: “tell ‘im we’ll be back tomorrow to make friends.”

KIDNAPPING: Aboard ship, Ann says, “The sound of those drums makes me nervous, I guess.” Jack worries about Ann’s safety and Denham’s plans. Ann: “Well, after all he’s done for me, I’d take any kind of chance for him.” She makes light of Jack’s worry in light of his attitude about “having a woman on board.” “Don’t laugh — I’m scared for you. I’m sort of, well I’m scared of ya too. Ann, uh, I uh. Uh. Say, I guess I love you.” “Why Jack, you hate women!” “Yeah, I know, but you aren’t women.” [Inarticulate Jack vs. slick Denham. Note language and its use in this film.]

The natives are presented as sneaky kidnappers and accompanied with low tremolo notes. But they can be silent! “Crazy black man been here,” notes Charlie(!). The crewmembers realize Ann has been taken and prepare to rescue her, although “this is no job for a cook.”

The ceremony is alternately chaotic and effectively silent — grandiose with a smooth opening and closing of the gates and the heavy bar when locking Ann out. [The natives have turned what they don’t understand into a god, and created a respectful formalistic relationship.]

Kong appears. [It’s probably no real use to ask why there are enormous trees remaining in front of the sacrificial altar.] His face fills the screen and even closer. [It is useful to ask why Kong is a huge gorilla except for the addition of fangs. Also, Kong comes to the sound of the gong. He is not like (and is not treated like) other animals. Why is he a menace? Why does the ritual refer to a “bride” of Kong instead of a “meal” of Kong, which is the implication? What does he do with these women?]

PURSUIT: Unlike the natives, moving the bar to open the gate requires the strain of the white men’s “HEAVE! HO!” Shot from almost a bird’s-eye angle, the men look insignificant going into the jungle. Progress is from left to right. The white male cannot refrain from commenting:

“C’mon, c’mon fellahs!” “Keep up, fellahs!”
“Hey, look at that!” “Yeah, look at that!”
“Just listen to those birds! It’s dawn, all right!”
“Yeah, that’s a track, all right!” “We’re on his trail, all right!”
“Look at the size of that! He must be as big as a house!”
“C’mon fellahs, and keep those guns cocked!”
“Keep quiet; he doesn’t see us!”

A stegosaurus attacks, arguably because these idiots don’t shut up. It is subdued by a gas-bomb; but Denham shoots the animal, who revives only to be shot repeatedly. More inane commentary ensues:

“A prehistoric beast.”
“If only I could bring back one of these alive!” [You’d have to not shoot it.]
“Say, just look at the length of that brute!”
“Boy, one swipe of that!”

They build a raft and encounter a dinosaur in the swamp, who pursues them on land. One sailor climbs a tree to escape (?!) from this now obvious brontosaur (a vegetarian), which attacks and eats the man.

Kong shakes the sailors off a log, despite the useful instruction, “Hang on, fellahs!” [Originally, the men’s bodies were to have been eaten by giant spiders!]

With Kong above on the overhang, Jack defends himself, below left in a hole [mise en scene: top-heavy].

A tyrannosaur attack on Ann brings Kong to the rescue. A dizzying bit of film shows the log falling with Ann atop. The fight is won by Kong tearing apart the dinosaur’s mouth. He checks for signs of life and beats his chest. Then, Kong looks at Ann [a filmic zoom].

Jack will proceed onwards (“Someone’s gotta stay on his trail while it’s hot”), but Denham, at the other side of the ravine, will return to the village. Jack passes the dead dinosaur as Kong goes deeper into the jungle with Ann. Back at the village, Denham says to Captain Englehorn, “I tell you, Skipper, this Kong is the biggest thing in the world. Why, he shook those men off that log like they were flies….” The Captain laments, “All those men lost. It’s incredible.” Denham seems uninterested and discusses the bombs, then asking, “Have you had any trouble with the natives? … What happened?” “We fired a couple of volleys over their heads and they took to their huts like scared rabbits.” “Gunpowder’s something new in their lives, huh?” “Yeah, they’re terrifed. They haven’t shown up since.” The two men await a signal from Jack.

Kong battles a snakelike creature. He brings Ann to a cliff. In a portion of the film originally cut (after the Hayes Code), now restored, Kong plays with Ann, tickling, smelling, and taking a few loose clothes off. [Why was this censored?] Jack loosens a rock; Kong investigates. A pterodactyl attacks Ann; Kong kills it while Jack and Ann climb down a vine.

Silence at camp cuts to a chaotic race through the jungle [coming towards the camera].

RAMPAGE: Although Jack and Ann are back inside the gates, Denham asks, “Wait a minute. What about Kong?” Jack: “Well, what about ‘im?” “We came here to get a moving picture and we found something worth more than all the movies in the world!” When Jack declares capture impossible, Denham reminds him, “But we’ve got something he wants.” “Yeah, somethin’ he won’t get again!” A sailor interrupts: “Hey, look out! It’s Kong! Kong’s comin’!” And Ann screams again — almost a relief [because it breaks the tension and diverts the horror of what Denham was proposing?].

Kong breaks through the gate and the natives flee. Kong smashes huts and kills a few natives throwing spears at him. He even chews on a couple and stomps one into the mud. After destruction of the village, at the boats Denham throws a gas-bomb which knocks out Kong, and proposes another raft: “Why the whole world will pay to see this!” Englehorn: “No chains’ll ever hold that.” “We’ll give him more than chains. He’s always been king of his world, but we’ll teach him fear. We’re millionaires, boys! I’ll share it with all of you! Why in a few months it’ll be up in lights on Broadway: Kong — the eighth wonder of the world!”

NEW YORK: We overhear the jaded, cynical, world-weary comments of the New Yorkers. Irony is heavyhanded. Backstage, Ann says, “I don’t like to look at him, Jack. It makes me think of that awful day on the island.” Jack expresses discomfort with the suit, noting that it’s the first time he’s been dressed like this (in a “monkey suit”?). Ann says, “Of course we had to come when he [Denham] said it would help the show. Do you think it will really make a lot of money?” Denham appears: “I’m glad I dressed you up for this show.”

Denham courts “the boys from the press,” who ask Jack about his own role as rescuer, and Jack replies, “The rest of us were running like scared rabbits, but Mr. Denham had the nerve to stand there and chuck bombs.” But Denham says, “Wait a minute. Lay off me, boys. Miss Darrow’s the story. If it hadn’t been for Miss Darrow we couldn’t have gotten near Kong.” Denham’s false humility leads the press’s attention to Ann, and the reporters stumble into his set-up: “Beauty and the beast, huh?” “That’s it! Play up that angle! Beauty and the beast. Kong could’ve stayed safe where he was, but he couldn’t stay away from Beauty. That’s your story, boys!” “That’s a story, all right!”

In reaction to Kong’s straining, Denham reassures: “Now now, it’s all right — we’ve knocked some of the fight out of him since you saw him.” [Does this mean they’ve tortured Kong all along?]

Denham speaks to the audience about the “strange story,” but “seeing is believing.” He plays up the “adventure in which twelve of our party met horrible deaths.” Regarding Kong, Denham says, “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. [Note the blame dynamics.] Ladies and gentlemen, look at Kong, the eighth wonder of the world!” The tall curtains open like the native gates. Kong is shackled as Ann had been at the altar. “And now I want to introduce Miss Ann Darrow, bravest girl I have ever known. There the beast and here the beauty! … She has lived through an experience no other woman ever dreamed of.” Denham also introduces “her future husband, … Mr. John Driscoll” [note the use of the uncomfortable formal name]. “I’m going to ask the gentlemen of the press to come forward, so that the audience may have the privilege of seeing them take the first photographs of Kong and his captors.” [Privilege of seeing photos taken? If Kong was a god, what are we doing to that god here? His shackling looks like crucifixion. And what does our calling him “King” signify? It is not more impressive than “Kong,” which sounds godlike….]

The reporters prepare to “shoot”: “Miss Darrow first alone.” Kong roars but Denham reassures the audience: “Don’t be alarmed, ladies and gentlemen; those chains are made of chrome steel.”

“Make it a good one. Shoot!”
“Get ’em together, boys; they’re gonna be married tomorrow.”
“Put your arm around her, Driscoll.”
“He thinks you’re attacking the girl.”
“Aw, let him roar; it’s a swell picture.”

[The flashlights seem to enrage Kong. So light (and “shooting”) signify what? Or is this really what is enraging Kong — the taking of the picture or the picture itself?] [Kong undoes the foot shackles — initially surprisingly meticulous unless you remember he had learned to undo these things at the altar on the island. Note how much Kong and Ann have had in common, not the least of which is their treatment by the American men all along.]

RAMPAGE: The wrong woman screams from a high window. [What does screaming mean to Kong? The noise humans make? What does the screaming of animals signify to humans?]

As Jack insists “Anyway, they’re bound to get him,” we get effective mise en scene moments where Kong’s face fills windows, and his arm reaches into the window of a room high within the skyscraper where Ann has tried to escape. Jack tries beating him off with a chair but falls unconscious. Kong grabs Ann, pulls her out the window, and continues climbing the building. The men plan to keep searchlights on Kong on the roof: “That’ll keep him in sight.”

Kong has a run-in with the public transportation system, before heading for the Empire State Building. “That licks us,” says Denham, when the police report Kong’s climbing. Jack proposes: “There’s one thing we haven’t thought of: airplanes. If he should put Ann down and they can fly close enough to pick him off without hitting her?” [Then?] “Oh, boy, what a story!” says a reporter.

We see the Empire State Building with something wrong. [Similar technique to the Statue of Liberty at the end of Planet of the Apes.] At the top, Kong’s right hand is still manacled. Top-gun insti-impression notwithstanding, we cannot side with the planes and their anonymous pilots. [Actually the film’s producer is in one shot.] The tragedy of the ending is further insulted by Denham’s crass bullshit. He assumes that he deserves to be let through police lines, once his identity is announced: “Let me through, officer. My name’s Denham…. Lieutenant, I’m Carl Denham.” “Carl Denham?!” “Yeah.” “Well, Mr. Denham,” begins a police officer [and we perhaps expect him to continue by saying, “just how are you going to pay for all this destruction?” but no…], “the planes got him.” The last words of the film are those of Denham correcting him: “Oh no, it wasn’t the airplanes. It was beauty killed the beast.”

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