King Kong directed by Meriam C. Cooper & Ernest B. Schoedsack
Of all the titles that appear on my personal Top 10 Films list, this is the one that I have a feeling every single person who is reading this has already seen. For we baby boomers, this is a film that has always been with us. We’ve seen it over and over on television, and many of us, including myself, have seen it over and over on the big screen. It has been an acknowledged classic ever since it first premiered in NYC on March 2, 1933, and has been wowing successive generations of film viewers ever since. Not surprisingly, the film was a smash hit when initially released, garnering almost $10 million at the box office (huge money, back when) after being put together for around $670,000. It is a film that is so very ubiquitous that at this point it might be taken for granted. But this viewer has never taken this movie for granted, and indeed, to this day, and after more viewings than it is possible to estimate, I still deem the original King Kong not only the greatest monster movie of all time, but possibly the greatest adventure film that the silver screen has ever given us.
We all know the story by heart; it is ingrained into us, practically part of our DNA; the story of how film director Carl Denham (played by Robert Armstrong with a whole lotta energy) acquires a map of the legendary Skull Island, somewhere off the shipping lanes in the Indian Ocean, and decides to make one of his adventure movies there. After putting together a crew of toughs, he and his first mate, Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot), and Capt. Englehorn (Frank Reicher), are all ready to set sail aboard their steamer, the S.S. Venture, but only one thing is missing: a leading lady. After doing a quick search through the streets of Depression-era Manhattan, Denham finds THE perfect lead for his picture when he spots beautiful blonde Ann Darrow (Fay Wray, in the role that made her an eternal legend) filching an apple from a street vendor.
The first half hour of King Kong, in all fairness, may be justly accused of being a little on the slow side, as the steamer makes its way around the world to Skull Island, and Driscoll becomes entranced with the blonde beauty. (His drawled line “Say, I think I LOVE you” is something of a classic, and one that my old work buddy Rick used to like to imitate.) But once the crew arrives at the steamy, primordial hellhole that is Skull Island, the picture really takes off, and never stops delivering back-to-back thrills for the duration of its length.
We all know what comes next: the initial meeting with the Skull Island natives and their chief (Noble Johnson), one of the most fearsome-looking South Seas islanders in film history; the kidnapping of Ann from off the ship; her intended sacrifice to the legend that is Kong, a creature whom the natives worship; the initial reveal of King Kong himself, one of the most awesome moments in cinema; Denham and Driscoll’s pursuit of Kong into the dinosaur-infested island interior; the brontosaurus attack on the crew; Kong’s fight with the T. rex (possibly the greatest dukeout in movies), the giant snake and the pterodactyl; Ann’s rescue by Driscoll and their looooong plunge off of Kong’s mountain perch and into the water below; Kong’s maniacal attack on the native village (the most violent bits — such as Kong crushing a native beneath his giant ape foot, and chewing a native between his humongous teeth — of which we never saw as kids, and which were only reinserted decades later for theatrical viewing); Denham’s gassing of the giant ape and bringing him back to NYC to put on display; Kong’s escape from his shackles and the resultant rampage through the streets of Manhattan; and finally, the now legendary finale atop the Empire State Building. As I say, we have been watching these classic scenes since we were kiddies, and think we know this film backward and forward. However, if you have never had the pleasure of watching this film on the big screen, I enthusiastically urge you to do so, as the film is so replete with little details, especially in the island segment, that many of them will surely be lost on the small screen at home.
There is SO very much to love about this legendary picture, but the two elements that surely work the hardest to make it an eternal joy are the absolutely first-rate stop-motion effects by Willis O’Brien (who had already impressed audiences with his effects in the 1925 silent marvel The Lost World, and who would go on to amaze filmgoers via his work in 1949’s Mighty Joe Young) that make Kong a living, breathing and feeling character — his love and affection for the little blonde doll that is Ann Darrow are always made manifestly clear — and the thrilling and pounding score by Max Steiner. Direction by Meriam C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack is similarly first rate (director Schoedsack, as well as Steiner and Wray, also collaborated on another film at the same time as Kong, called The Most Dangerous Game, and it is, perhaps not surprisingly, another of my personal Top 100 Films). The picture’s script, by James Creelman and Ruth Rose, is exciting and at times witty (the line about there being enough big apes already in NYC always gets a huge laugh when seen theatrically), and the film’s final line — “It was beauty killed the beast” — is surely one of the most memorable final lines ever. Truly, the film is a bona fide classic in every sense of the word.
A bit of personal history here: I had seen King Kong both at home and on the large screen many times before March 2, 2008, when my beloved Film Forum in NYC showed the picture on the occasion of its 75th anniversary. It was a memorable screening for the sold-out crowd, and made even more special for me by a Film Forum memory that I had from a few years before. Fay Wray, as it happened, was a member of Film Forum herself, and would often be seen in the audience when one of her old pictures was shown. In 2004, the woman was pushing 96 but still made occasional appearances in the audience there.
So one day that year, and shortly before her passing, she was in the audience for a screening of her early talkie Thunderbolt (1929), in which she plays a character named Ritzy. As always, after the movie was over, the Film Forum audience would mob her to shake her hand or converse with the living legend, but I never did. My attitude was always: Leave the poor woman alone. She’s old and is probably overwhelmed by the crowd surrounding her. On this occasion, the same thing happened, and as Fay was besieged by the FF audience, I made my way to the men’s room, preparatory to leaving. But on reemerging into the theater lobby, who should I bump into, squarely face to face (well, not quite face to face; Fay was a good eight inches shorter than I am), but Fay herself. Feeling that I ought to say SOMETHING to her, I knelt down, wagged a finger at her and said “Nice work, Ritzy!” She appeared confused for a moment, but then let out a cackle so loud that the entire lobby could hear it. That line really tickled her, somehow.
Anyway, when she passed away a short while later, I felt glad that I had been able to give this legendary actress a laugh during her final days, and when I saw Kong on its anniversary four years later, was happy to see Fay Wray on the big screen as we will always remember her: blonde, beautiful and gutsy. Of all the actors and actresses who appear in my Top 100 Films list, she is one of the very few who I ever got to actually meet and greet (not counting the time when I was at the Western Wall in Jerusalem and backed into a group of people … that turned out to be the Odd Couple themselves, Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, standing next to Monte Hall, of all people!).
Anyway, the bottom line here is that King Kong, currently in its 85th year of wowing audiences, is not a film to be taken for granted. If you don’t believe me, and think you’ve seen it enough, just try sitting down in front of it the next time it plays (hopefully, at your local revival theater), and you’ll soon find yourself getting irresistibly drawn in. And by the way, no comment on the 1976 and 2005 remakes. The original King Kong still rules!
I LOVE your story about meeting Fay Wray!
The thing I remember loving (and being surprised by, when I first saw it) was how many other prehistoric beasties there were. And I loved Kong’s feelings for Ann.
The big galoot just wanted to be alone with his sweetpea. Who could fault him for that?
But it wouldn’t have worked. He’d want to be on his peaceful island, killing the occasional giant lizard, and she’d always be yearning for the stage-lights.
Love is irrational. The heart wants what it wants. Maybe if there had been a female 100-foot-tall female ape on the island, it might have been different. Guess we’ll never know….