King Kong might be one of the oldest movies I've ever watched. I've seen A Trip to the Moon from 1902, but that's only 12 minutes and 53 seconds long, so I don't think it counts. King Kong is also pre-Code, a set of guidelines regarding censorship in movies. It'll be interesting to see what, if anything is different about how this impacts the movie.
It is the first American made movie we've discussed on here, which is exciting to me, as I won't have to read any subtitles. It was directed by Merian C. Cooper, and Ernest B. Schoedsack, who also helped make The Most Dangerous Game the previous year, interestingly.
The movie is rated by Rotten Tomatoes as the greatest horror movie of all time, which I feel like is one of those "it's old, and a classic, so it will be good forever" kind of things, and I don't buy it. I'm not saying it's bad, I'm just saying I'll reserve judgement. It was also remade several times over the years, including in 1976, 2005, and, most recently, in 2017, which wasn't exactly a remake of the movie, more of a new movie with that character, but whatever. Why it matters to us is that King Kong later became a part of the Godzilla universe. The next movie we are discussing will be 1962's King Kong vs. Godzilla, and Kong will feature heavily in 2020's Godzilla vs. Kong. So these two are going to be fighting each other a number of times in the future, so let's see how he fares on his own, shall we?
The movie starts with a 4 minute long overture, so you know it's old. This was back when people thought movies were plays. The REAL movie begins with a ship, and a man named Weston talking with someone else about the ship going out to film a "moving picture". The leader of this expedition, a producer named Carl Denham, is said to be pretty crazy, filming dangerous things up close, without safety. I guess he should just wait until they invent CGI, huh? The ship has a ton of people on board, three times as many as needed. We also learn that the ship is carrying explosives, which is a no-no. Specifically, they are gas bombs, and we learn why they need those later (It's for Kong. I'm sure you could put that together.)
Carl Denham tells the captain that he wants to get to their destination before a monsoon starts, so they need to hurry. Weston meets Denham. Weston is a a talent agent, and Denham has been having a hard time getting an actress for his movie, since the destination is a secret, as is the length of the shoot, and no one is comfortable sending an actress away in those conditions, especially on a ship packed full with men. Weston voices these reservations, specifically calling out that she would be the only female on-board, which is bad news for the Bechdel Test (strike 1).
The misogyny really ramps up when Weston questions why Denham even wants a girl in the picture, since he hasn't had any in his other pictures (strike 2). Denham responds that the public must have a "pretty face to look at" (strike 3). "Everybody like romance", Weston says, and Denham expresses his disdain that you can't have "adventure and romance without a flapper in it", because you ALSO certainly couldn't have a gay romantic monster movie in 1933 (although that sounds awesome, let's get on that, Hollywood. Also, strike 4). Weston refuses to hire out anyone, so Denham goes out to find one himself (they're leaving first thing in the morning, so he has to work fast). As he wanders through the city, he happens to notice a woman stealing some fruit, and getting caught by the vendor. Denham steps in and rescues the woman, and, seeing that she is beautiful, calls for a taxi. It's a pretty weird sequence, but at least we meet Fay Wray in an iconic film role as Ann Darrow. He takes her to a diner and feeds her. He questions her, learning that she has no family, and almost no acting experience, so he hires her on the spot.
She, rightly, has hesitations after hearing that they'd be sailing off at 6am the next morning, but Denham convinces her that there's no "funny business", so she accepts, not questioning why he would hire her, a random person he ran into on the street. It's a pretty big leap in narrative convenience, but whatever! They didn't know how to do these things in 1933! The ship does indeed take off the next morning, with Ann on board. She meets with Driscoll, the first mate, who tells her that girls on ships are a nuisance (strike 5, literally this time, because Driscoll accidentally strikes Ann).
6 weeks into the voyage (6 weeks!), Ann tells Driscoll that she's going to do some costume tests later on, and Driscoll remarks that if he were the film director, she wouldn't be here, since this is no place for a girl. She asks him to stop being a douche, and I have to point out that I like how much the movie seems to be making these character's sexism a point, rather than just The Way Things Are. It's a fine line this movie is balancing on, and Driscoll is determine to leap over it. He tells Ann that woman can't help being a bother, "they're just made that way". Despite this, Ann tells him that she is having a great time, and then we meet Iggy, a tiny monkey that has taken a liking to Ann, and vice versa. Denham arrives to do the tests, and makes a reference to "beauty and the beast", an motif that will become important later.
Driscoll asks Denham when they land. Denham understands that Driscoll seems concerned for Ann, and asks whether he is falling for her. There are more beauty/beast references, warning him that a love affair will complicate things. They are then told that the ship has reached their destination, coordinates 2 south, 90 east. Near the Indonesian islands, and Denham says that there is an island southwest of there. He says it was told to him by the skipper of a "Norwegian bark", who picked up a canoe full of natives of the island. All of the natives died, but were able to describe the island and its location to the skipper.
The natives of the island live on a beach peninsula, the only part of the island accessible by sea, as the rest of the shoreline is steep cliff face, hundreds of feet high. The natives have cut themselves off from the rest of the island via a wall that would make George R. R. Martin proud. The origin of this wall is unknown, even to the natives, but its purpose is very clear: to keep the natives safe from the horrors that live beyond. What sort of horrors you may ask? Denham tells them about "Kong... something 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 of truth. I tell you there's something on that island that no white man has ever seen." Whoa! That's a super weird racist note to end you're cool speech on, Denham! It's Important and Special that you guys see it as the first White People, and the fact that there's an entire race that has managed to coexist alongside such a creature is small potatoes? Boo, 1933. Boo.
Ann and Denham have their photoshoot, which requires her to act scared for the camera, something that a peeping Driscoll doesn't like to see, asking "What's he think she's really gonna see?" I'll remind you, Driscoll, that you were there for his racist Kong speech before, so you know what he thinks she'll see. Later, the ship comes up on the island, which they recognize due to its giant (ostensibly) skull shaped mountain, called Skull Mountain, or course.
It's too foggy to make shore, so they wait until morning, the sound of drums playing the whole time. Going on the expedition is Denham, Driscoll, Darrow, the Captain, and 12 other random dudes. The movies is in black and white, otherwise we'd see that they are all wearing red shirts. Denham insists that he bring Ann and the cameramen with him, because you never know when the perfect shot will present itself. They bring with them guns and ammunition, as well as their costume box, because, you know, priorities.
The party lands on the island, and are surprised when they find none of the natives. That's because they're busy having themselves a bit of a ritual. When Denham starts recording them, they notice, and after a tense few moments, they explain what they're doing, with the captain translating. They've chosen a woman to be the "Bride of Kong", but after seeing Ann, they decide she'd be better suited. Ann really just gets noticed and picked up a lot in this movie, huh? They offer to trade some of their woman for her, but our guys are having none of it, so they peace off back to the ship.
Later that night, Driscoll decides to profess his love for Ann, and despite his treatment towards her, and the fact that he has done nothing to earn it, Ann feels the same way, and the two kiss. He leaves to go do something else, and no one notices the natives roll up on the boat and kidnap Ann off the side. Because this movie was made in 1933, they are able to just cover her mouth so she doesn't scream. She is taken in an apparent silence.
Driscoll returns and notices Ann is missing, and the cook (a Chinese man who we will absolutely talk about in the recap) finds a bracelet belonging to one of the islanders. Everyone peaces together what must have happened, and start to gear up to go back to the island. Speaking of which, the islanders open the giant double doors in the wall (did I mention there was a door? There is, a big one with a bar run across it. You know what, it looks like this:)
Ann is brought across and tied to a pair of posts, and left alone as the door is closed. The natives run to the top of the wall and begin hitting a gong, calling out for Kong. Soon, he arrives. 46 minutes in, we get our first look at the beast. He is huge, a stop-motion monster. He has the dexterity and intelligence to untie Ann, and he picks her up, taking her back into the forest.
The film crew (remember when they were gonna make a movie? That's out the window now) arrive and force the door open, running out into the forest to rescue Ann, and this is when the movie starts to get great. They find a giant footprint of Kong, which reminds me of a scene from the 2005 movie ("Only one thing could make a footprint that size..." *Big puff from cigarette* "The Abominable Snowman"). But it seems that the giant gorilla isn't the only monster in these woods, as the crew soon learns when they come across a live Stegosaurus. It charges at them, but they are able to toss a gas bomb at it, knocking it unconscious. It's about to wake up, though, so they shoot it in the face a bit. It's still alive, but they leave before it does wake up.
The next obstacle is a lake/river thing that they (very quickly) build a raft to cross. Things seem okay for a little bit, before a long-necked head emerges from the water. They shoot at it, so it knocks over their raft and they have to swim to shore. NOW I'M WORRIED ABOUT GIANT LEECHES, PROBABLY THE MOST HORRIFIC THING I'VE EVER PICTURED IN MY LIFE!!! Was that a part of the 2005 movie? It's been so long I don't remember. Let me know in the comments. Anyway, the dinosaur, which I'm assuming is a Brachiosaurus, picks up one of the men in its mouth and drops it, then picks up either the same dude or someone else, and throws him. I'm gonna further assume it's the same dude. So that's our first death of the movie, good job, Brachiosaurus!
By the way, a quick note: I wasn't sure if this creature was supposed to be a Brachiosaurus, or an Apatosaurus, and I decided on Brachiosaurus because at the time of this movie's creation, scientists believe that Brachiosaurus lived in the water, and they are the bigger of the two. Also, they are featured in the Carnivore series of video games, so that's why this one is eating people, despite the fact that all of these long-necked animals were most likely herbivores. Deal with it.
Anyway, the rest of the dudes run off, and the dino chases after them on land. One unlucky bastard decides to run up a tree, and the Brachiosaurus has no trouble reaching back and snatching him. Meanwhile, my boy Kong carries Ann across a giant log bridge, and places her on a decaying tree, for safekeeping? He seems to hear the film crew, since he takes off in their direction, as they all begin crossing the bridge. They get trapped on it, but Driscoll manages to make it to the other side, and hid in a crevasse on the cliff-face. Kong once again displays some scary intelligence by grabbing the log bridge and shaking everyone on it off. They fall to the ground (or at least, some dummies do. I'm not knocking it, the effects look great. The way the bodies land, and the fact that they are still screaming until the second they hit the ground really makes it all seem pretty horrific.) Kong ends up throwing the log down the ravine.
Kong then begins swiping at Driscoll, but he manages to stab his giant, ape fingers, staving him off. Also a giant lizard begins crawling up Driscoll's rope, so he cuts it, and the thing falls. Back at Ann's tree, the woman wakes up, seeing no Kong, but instead the movie's third dinosaur, a Tyrannosaurus Rex. Because the movie only gives Ann one move, screaming, she does that. Kong hears this and forgets about Driscoll, running back to one of my favorite sequences in the movie, Kong fighting the T-Rex. There's an incredible shot of Ann's tree getting knocked over, which should have killed her, but she's fine. Eventually, Kong is able to crush the T-Rex's head, killing it.
Instead of Ann leaving, she waits until Kong is finished, and gets picked up and carried off again. Driscoll and Denham meet up, the only two survivors (the Captain stayed behind), but they are on opposite sides of the ravine. Driscoll tells Denham to go back and get more bombs, while he trails Kong and Ann, sneaking her out if he can. Driscoll follows them to what I can only assume is Kong's living space. It's a large cave, and Ann is put up in a crevasse, where a truly nightmarish snake/worm thing almost gets her. Kong fights that off, too, and I love (but hate seeing) the effect of the lizard creature (it has legs) wrapping around Kong's neck. Our boy wins, of course, and Kong, once again, picks up Ann and takes her to the side of a cliff. She faints, because Women Be Fainting, and there's a super weird, super uncomfortable scene of Kong tearing pieces of her clothes off and sniffing his fingers. I don't like it.
Driscoll accidentally makes some noise, so Kong goes to investigate, leaving Ann alone to almost get kidnapped AGAIN by another dinosaur, this time a flying one. It's RODAN! No, it isn't, it's the mighty Pterodactylus! Still cool. Once again, Ann screams, and once again, Kong comes running, killing the bird.
Driscoll finally makes it to Ann, and uses Kong's fight as a distraction to take her and begin climbing down a rope. Unfortunately, Kong is onto them, and pulls them up. Fortunately, they have arms that are capable of letting go of things, so they do that, falling into the water below. Together, being chased by Kong, they are able to make it back to the beach, and the door is opened to let them in. Everything seems perfect, Yay! Movie's Over! EXCEPT that damned Denham decides that they came her to make a movie, and now they have something even better. If they can use their gas bombs to capture Kong and take him back to the mainland, they'll be famous and rich forever. I guess he's never seen The Lost World: Jurassic Park, or Mothra, or King Kong, or all the other examples of this not working, and going obviously and disastrously terrible. For whatever reason, the others don't say no to this, so when Kong arrives at the wall, they get their gas bombs ready. The beast breaks down the door, and wreaks havoc on the village, in classic Godzilla fashion. This movie also has what I believe to be the first use of the "baby in danger" trope, where and infant or small child is about to be harmed by some danger they can't see/avoid, and an adult runs out at the last minute and grabs them. I can't imagine it would have come up before now.
Kong keeps doing this thing where he picks people up and puts them in his mouth, then takes them out and drops them, I'm not sure what the point of this is. He's not eating them, and he could kill them easier than that, but whatever.
Eventually, he is hit by a gas bomb and knocked unconscious. Denham is happy about this, and demands a raft be made. He's gonna take Kong back and make him a tourist attraction, naming him "Kong: The Eighth Wonder of the World!"
The movie flashes forward several months, where Denham has set up his show, and the opening night house is packed. Backstage is Ann Darrow and Jack Driscoll, who, we learn, are engaged to be married. The lesson here is: "It doesn't matter how you treat a woman. If she is a woman, she'll fall in love with you for some reason." Seriously, I have no idea what she sees in him in any way, he's a douche 24/7. Whatever. Denham tells them that they've got $10,000 in one night, which is nearly $200,000 in today's money. That's pretty dope for a one-location show. For example, the highest grossing Broadway show this week was Aladdin at $1,191,764 for the whole week, averaging about $170,000, per day. MisterRed Watches: Come for the giant monsters, stay for the cost analysis of 1933 stage shows.
Reporters meet with the backstage crew, where Denham gives them their angle: "Kong could have stayed sage where he was, but he couldn't stay away from beauty." Again, putting the blame on Ann. She "tempted" Kong out of his home. Just great. The show begins, which is just Denham giving a speech about Kong, Ann and Driscoll. He reveals Kong, chained up on stage, and... trying to smile?
Ann, Driscoll, and the reporters are brought out, and when the cameras start going off, Kong gets agitated, and (surprise, surprise), breaks free of his bonds, chasing after Ann. the audience panics and runs. Kong gets outside and begins climbing buildings. Soon, he sees a woman asleep in bed, and reaches in to pick her up. He sees that it isn't Ann and drops her to the ground. This might genuinely be the most terrifying part of the movie. This woman was asleep in bed, woken by a giant, hairy arm grabbing her and pulling her out of her room, where she comes face to face with an enormous gorilla, who throws her aside to her death. The whole thing takes about 20 seconds, and is legitimately chilling.
Meanwhile, Ann and Driscoll have made it home, which seems to be the same building Kong has been climbing up. He sees her, as Driscoll tells her she is going to be safe. Kong reaches through the window, and Driscoll hilariously tries to hit his arm with a chair. What the hell do you think that's gonna do? This thing killed a T-Rex! Kong grabs Ann and takes her out for a night on the town, to do some sightseeing. They go see the train (where he destroys the tracks and pulls the cars down), and the Empire State Building (where he climbs to the top of)! Driscoll tells the authorities to get some planes to shoot Kong down.
The planes take off and head for the Empire State Building, where Kong and Ann have reached the top. Driscoll and Denham runs inside to climb the building the traditional way, while Kong sets Ann down on the top of the building. A truly iconic sequence takes place, where the planes attack Kong, who swings at them when they get too close. He only takes down one of four planes, before eventually taking enough damage to pass out, and fall to his death.
Driscoll finally makes it up and grabs Ann. Back on the ground, a crowd has gathered around Kong. Denham pushes through, and a police officer tells him that the airplanes got him, setting Denham up for one of the most famous lines in film history. "Oh, no. It wasn't the airplanes. It was Beauty killed the Beast."
King Kong came out in 1933, a world that was incredibly different from ours today. We hadn't even had a second World War, yet. So, it's difficult to look at King Kong using a modern perspective. That being said, we've come a long way in filmmaking, and in society, and I think it's important to look at the failings of the past, and analyze why they may have happened, so that we can move on, learn, and grow to something better. I'd always heard that King Kong had a lot of racism attached to it, and watching the movie, I could see where these allegations come from. I'll talk about that later, but what I found most striking was how it handled the female element. Most egregiously, how it didn't.
Ann Darrow is the only named female in the movie. She would be the only female if not for the line of women that Denham dismisses at the start, and the bride of Kong when they first get to the island. The movie explains why this is, so it is not a "plot hole", so to speak, but it is an issue. Carl Denham acts so begrudging toward the idea of having a woman in his "picture" that it almost seems he'd rather not even make the movie (given how things turn out, this would have been the best possible outcome). His first mate, Jack Driscoll was even worse. At least Denham saw something in Ann. Driscoll only saw her as either a nuisance, or a victim to save. His confessing his love to her may be seen by some as some kind of character growth, but I have a hard time believing that, when he makes no amends for his behavior earlier. And even after he stops calling her a "distraction" or a "bother", he constantly needs to run after her to save her.
Ann is in peril at nearly every turn in this movie. So often she is seen by someone, who decides that Ann should be his, and takes her. It even has a terrible sort of progression. First, Denham convinces her to leave New York and join him on his expedition. Despite the fact that she doesn't now this person or where they are going, or how long they will be gone, she accepts. This is her only decision in the movie. Seriously, she has no agency beyond this point. Next, she is seen by the island natives, and they decide that she would be a suitable bride for Kong. She is aptly freaked out by this, and everyone goes back to the ship, but she is captured later. She does nothing to help facilitate her rescue. The bracelet that clues the crew into thinking she was taken, was left by the islanders. The movie even thinks she can't make a sound to alert anyone if her mouth is covered up. She's then taken by Kong, where, I notice, there are many opportunities she has to escape that she deliberately ignores. When the tree falls over, she just waits there until Kong picks her up. When Kong is fighting the lizard, she could crawl away, or the Pterodactyl. Even later in New York, when Kong is fighting all those airplanes, he sets her down to do it. She could easily run over to the door, we even see Jack run through it at the end, and the two embrace. She takes none of these opportunities, however, because the movie has decided that Jack must be the one to rescue her.
The movie's most poetic note is also its most sexist. "It was Beauty killed the Beast." When I was young, I didn't understand the significance of this line. I just thought it was pretty. And it is, but it means so much more. The movie is constantly making the Beast's tragedy the fault of the Beauty. It's Ann's fault that Kong left the island and fell off the building. Ann made it happen, due to her femininity, and beauty. This is a theme that is brought up a few times. Men are tempted by women. The burden is always on them, never the men. It's this attitude that leads to the toxic culture we experience today, where women are told to dress a certain way, so as not to "tempt" or "distract" men. Or that they were "asking for it" when they come forward a harassment rape allegation. I think even 10 years ago, this sentiment would probably go unchecked, but in this time we live in, it's hard to watch these scenes and not feel angry.
Then there's the racism. It's something I had always heard about, but I never heard anyone talk specifically about it. So, before watching it, I thought it all had to do with the treatment of Kong. Americans went out and found something that they thought they could profit from, a sentient, living creature. So they captured it, put in in chains, and tried to capitalize on it, before it blew up in their faces. To me, this rang as an allegory for slavery. This would all be well and good, if not for two points. One, the allegorical stand in for the slaves is a giant gorilla (I trust I don't need to go into detail why equating black people to apes is a problem, to say the least.) Two, (and, racism aside, this is a weird point of the narrative) the movie makes no attempt to paint Carl Denham in a negative light. This is a man who hears about a weird thing in a remote part of the world, and decides to go capitalize on it, with no regard for the wishes of the inhabitants. He begins filming the moment he finds something interesting on the island, without communicating first with the people who live there. And if it sounds like I'm reaching, consider that the islanders even tell Denham that he's ruined their ritual by seeing it. He goes on to kidnap Kong, who is at worst a destructive monster, and at best, and innocent animal in the wild, and he brings him back to the mainland, where Kong proceeds to terrorize and kill the innocent people of New York. Denham is not punished for this, or reprimanded, or even guilty about anything he does in the movie. The worst thing is that he seems sad Kong is dead in the end. Whether that's for his business, or for the creature is, I suppose, open to interpretation.
All of this being said, I don't really believe that the filmmakers were intending for Kong to represent anything other than what all monsters represent: Destruction and death, nature vs humanity, that sort of stuff. The other theory that I read after seeing the movie, was that Kong (still representing the black man) and Ann's relationship served as a stand in for interracial couples, and how they are doomed to fail. This seems a bit farfetched to me. I think we're safe there. Where I think the movie really makes its racist mark is in its treatment of the natives of the island. They are shown as savage, brutal, and uncultured, and the white men are put against them as "civilization". The islanders aren't considered when Denham begins filming, other than as an interesting thing to shoot. Then there's Charlie, the Chinese Cook (that's how he's listed in IMDB). This is a weird character that is almost completely useless. He finds the native bracelet, and that's it. I think he's supposed to provide comic relief, with his broken English and all that. I don't know. Seems unnecessary.
But, that's the sociological view of King Kong. To analyze it from the perspective of a movie... I was actually really impressed with it. The special effects held up, and looked good, although there was so much articulation in Kong's face that it got a little silly at times. It was even really scary. Kong and the dinosaur's killing all those people in the forest was graphic and terrifying. Even in New York, with that scene I mentioned, where Kong picks someone up and drops her, was awful! In a "good job, movie." kind of way, not a "that was bad, delete that part" kind of way. It was also pretty faced paced, too. Scenes just went by, which is part of why the recap is so long. There was just so much to talk about. For an older movie with limited technological resources, I was surprised by how much stuff they were able to do.
I was surprised by how much Kong was not a good guy in this movie. That might seem like a weird statement, but after seeing 2017's Kong: Skull Island, and other recent media referencing or featuring the beast, he seems to have, like Godzilla, taken on a protective and benevolent personality. He is more a savior than a destructive force in modern interpretations. So that is a fascinating change from the old to the new. Kong is set to face off against Godzilla in our next movie, King Kong vs. Godzilla, and again in next years Godzilla vs Kong. So how will he square up against the King of the Monsters? Let's discuss.
Godzilla has been established as a dinosaur, and Kong fights his fair share of dinosaurs in this movie. He is able to defeat the lizard and the Ptera handily, but the Tyrannosaur seems to give him pause. That dino is the most Godzilla-like, of the bunch, and it didn't even have atomic breath! It's a common joke among Godzilla fans that Kong doesn't stand a chance against G, and it almost seems comical to even try to pit the two against each other, and nothing I saw in this movie makes me thinks otherwise. Kong was cool, but seems smaller than G, and doesn't really have any powers. He's a little intelligent, so maybe that will come into play somehow. I think we'll just have to see.
Tune in next time where we, finally go back to our friend Godzilla, in King Kong vs Godzilla, from 1962, the next movie to feature Kong since Son of Kong, also in 1933. That's a 29 year break between Kong in movies. We left him dead at the foot of the Empire State Building, and Godzilla was left buried under an avalanche on a remote island, so how will these two come to blows? Who will win? We'll have to wait and see...