Patiño’s Lores and Myths: King Kong (1933)

 “And now, ladies and gentlemen, before I tell you anymore, I’m going to show you the greatest thing your eyes have ever beheld. 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. Ladies and gentlemen, look at Kong, the Eighth Wonder of the World!”

Welcome back, dear reader, to another trek down Monster Lane. Today’s journey takes us to the mythic Skull Island, home of the mighty Kong, a Hollywood icon unlike any other. Eighty-eight years later and counting, Kong continues to thrill audiences and push the boundaries of VFX filmmaking. It’s fair to say the 1933 King Kong is dated because it is in many ways. But make no mistake. Even after nearly a century’s worth of technological growth and evolution, King Kong’s visual wonders still stand as a benchmark of grade-A movie magic. Hail to the king, baby.

The film kicks off with an overture; a classic movie tradition lost in our current age. Much like the original Godzilla’s opening credits, this starts the movie off on an ominous note, setting the rhythm for a tension-filled adventure. Then, the opening credits; big, bold, powerful—a showy tune of the magnificence the filmmakers hope to impart onto us. It’s old school and wonderful. I couldn’t help but think of Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake while watching this flick. That was the first Kong movie I had ever seen, and it remains a personal favorite. It’s the reason I love Kong! So with this being my first viewing of the original King Kong, I couldn’t help comparing the two during my watch. It was a fascinating exercise because, for all the ways they’re the same, there are some vast divides between them.

What comes to mind immediately is the runtime. Jackson’s runs for a beastly three-hours, while the original is around one hundred and four minutes. While some feel Jackson’s version runs too long, his film definitely benefits from the extra time. It allowed him to take his time and fully flesh out the characters and story. That’s not to say I don’t appreciate the original’s expediency in certain areas. For one, the ’33 edition gets things going right off the bat, or more accurately, right on the boat. We’re immediately introduced to some key protagonists; Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong), a wilderness filmmaker who has chartered The Venture, a ship helmed by Captain Englehorn (Frank Reicher), and his first-mate, Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot). Unable to secure a leading lady for his next picture, Denham takes to the streets of Depression-era New York City to find his gal. After searching high and low to no avail, along comes willowy Ann Darrow (Fay Wray), possibly attempting to steal fruit from a street vendor. Denham intervenes, staving off the angry merchant, and after coaxing Ann with the promise of fame and fortune, the group sets sail for Skull Island. Now, I hate writing plot summaries, so the long and short of it is they get to the place, meet Kong, island shenanigans ensure, dinosaurs get punched, men scream in terror, die horribly, then back to New York we go to watch Kong flip his **** and die. The End.

Okay, not trying to be a jerk or anything, but you’re probably pretty familiar with the story even if you haven’t seen the movie. You may not know, though, is what a trailblazer of a film this was and the boundaries it pushed to make the impossible possible. You have to remember, for its time, this film was a spectacle unlike any seen before. I’m a child of the digital age. I’m used to men dodging bullets and Hulks smashing. Visual effects have come a long way since King Kong, but I’ll be damned if I wasn’t still blown away by the incredible work of VFX pioneer Willis O’Brien and his team. The effects of King Kong are nothing short of exemplary. This team didn’t have the luxury of green screens and compositing software. They were old-school illusionists, relying on literal smoke and mirrors to bring to life the impossible. Take this scene in Kong’s lair, for example,

Neat, huh? That’s the main takeaway. Here I am, in 2021, with my 55-inch Smart T.V., streaming this black-and-white creature-feature, muttering to myself, “How the hell did they do that?!” That’s timeless filmmaking. If you’re any kind of movie fan, you owe it to yourself to watch King Kong. The action set pieces ring with excitement and awe, even by today’s standards. My jaw couldn’t stop dropping. I couldn’t comprehend how they made it all look so good in 1933! It is a true testament to what brilliance may come from dedication, hard work and imagination. Because, honestly, it ain’t the story and characters keeping this flick high on the cinematic ladder. 

Y’all. The social optics on this one are, let’s just say, not great. If you’ve ever wondered what gender politics were for oldie time boat travel, well, why don’t you take this cracking dialogue on for size:

ANN: I think this is awfully exciting! I’ve never been on a ship before.

JACK: Well, I’ve never been on one with a woman before.

ANN: Well, I guess you don’t think much of women on ships, do you?

JACK: No, they’re a nuisance.

And it certainly gets better from there, folks, with other such memorable exchanges like:

JACK: Say, I guess I love you.

ANN: Why, Jack! You hate women.

JACK: Yeah, I know. But you aren’t women.

And the racial politics are just as smashing! Take this bit of wonderous wordplay from Denham as he and Captain Englehorn gaze out at a torch-lit Skull Island: “Looks like the night before a lynching.”

Jesus. Christ. And it sure was nice of those natives to offer six of their women for one blonde white girl. That’s not terrible at all.

Look. I get it was a different time. While racism, misogyny and sexism are never okay regardless of the time and place, these things weren’t as mainstream a priority as they are now. So I’ll cut the movie some slack, given that it is very much a product of its time. But I’m sure as **** still going to make fun of it. Jack Driscoll is such a “man’s man,” it’s hilarious. A woman is useful to Jack only so far as…what? This dude has such a hate-on for the ladies that I can’t even comprehend why he’d fall in love with Ann at all. And what does that say about Ann? “You aren’t women.” What the hell does that even mean?! I asked my mother this, and she said, “That I’m a man. And ugly.” Right. So, a woman, but not a woman. The messaging here seems to be speaking to a warped sense of exceptionalism; “You’re a credit to your *insert minority group!*” A classic Hollywood love affair if ever I’ve seen one, dear readers.

In comparison, Peter Jackson’s remake majorly diverts in its characters, and for the better. Ann and Jack’s love story feels more authentic and well-realized. Jackson and co-writers Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens knew this aspect needed retooling, changing Jack from sailor to playwright. Adrien Brody in the role brings empathy and a sweetness absent in the original iteration. Naomi Watts’ Ann Darrow is also more proactive and autonomous. She’s tough, lovely and suffers no fools. If only we could’ve had such dimensionality in the original.

The terrible love story is part of a larger undercurrent of human nastiness that permeates within King Kong. The stench of colonialism stinks as high as Kong is tall. Denham and his (mostly white) crew stroll into Skull Island like they own place. No invitation, no RSVP. Just a gang of trespassing Caucasians, causing chaos and taking the land’s most precious treasure. The devastation Kong wreaks upon New York, in the end, is just desserts. Holy retribution wrought down onto the heads of a privileged class of invaders. I dig that. The thing is, though, I’m not too fond of this version of Kong. He’s a wild beast, more monstrous than Jackson’s rendition, who sung with real humanity. Our affection for the ’05 Kong comes about through his relationship with Ann. The love between them intensifies the tragedy of Kong’s death. Here, the dynamic between Kong and Ann is of a kidnapper and his hostage. At no point is Ann enamored by this Kong. She only knows fear. And Kong, for his part, is a possessive, rampaging alpha ape. I never got a “protector” vibe from him. It just felt like he was trying to guard his property.

However, there are a small collection of moments that do bleed the heart. Once the adventurers manage to down Kong, Denham proclaims, “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!” What a hero. Seeing Kong chained on Broadway as a sideshow act for the gawking New York elite hurts. The ensuing chaos plays like a horror movie. The iconic dogfight at the top of the Empire State building brings Kong’s story to an end, but not without a final instant of tenderness as Kong gently caresses Ann before plunging to his death. The anguish on Kong’s face is real. You don’t just see it. You feel it.

I get why filmmakers like Peter Jackson would connect with Kong and want to characterize him further. It’s not hard to imagine why people would love this movie either. It’s well shot; the sets are amazing and genuinely epic, and the special effects are incredible. The compositing of miniatures, stop-motion animatronics, matte paintings and live-action footage is beyond good. It’s baffling. By tricking the eye, King Kong wins the mind and its place in cinematic glory. So that’s the 1933 King Kong, dear readers. Next up is another first: Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla (1974)! Oh yeah. Let’s get nuts.

— Chris J. Patiño, Film Blogger.

Chris’ Bio:

Chris J. Patiño is a senior at Lewis University, working toward a Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism. Inspired at an early age by the late great Roger Ebert, he looks to follow in the footsteps of the acclaimed film critic and add his voice to the choir of movie discourse. As a Tempo reporter, Chris writes film reviews for The Lewis Flyer. He enjoys just about every film genre, but favorites include horror, sci-fi, and action. A lover of books, board games and the great outdoors, he spends most of his free time in worlds of fantasy and thought. Favorite authors include Stephen King and Jim Butcher, with favorite novels being The Dresden Files series, the Harry Potter series, Salem’s LotThe ShiningThe Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and All the President’s Men.

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