- Ernest B. Schoedsack, Merian C. Cooper
- Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong, Bruce Cabot, Frank Reicher
- 105 min.
- Release Date
Escape is the most crucial function of Hollywood cinema. An audience supplied with hearty diversion forgets their daily troubles and returns for more, in turn supporting the entire industry; the relationship is one of mutual symbiosis. As a result, the filmmaker’s challenge is to unite universal entertainment value with artistic vision, engaging both the audience’s emotions and intellect. Released during the dog days of The Great Depression, Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s 1933 production of King Kong doles out crowd-pleasing thrills to be sure, but behind their film resides groundbreaking technical achievements and creative theory formulated to unleash the very primal nature of escapism.
Whether to evade reality or survey the world’s hidden secrets, escapism guides fiction through unknown lands and introduces the limitless possibility therein. Inspired by his own fascination with yet-undeveloped technologies and undiscovered sections of the planet, in his youth Merian C. Cooper read Explorations and Adventures in Equatorial Africa by Paul du Chaillu and found himself rapt with desire to conquer the unknown. The book features man venturing into the wild to hunt gorilla-like beasts, thus taming the savage land. The idea that such a place existed on earth and remained largely unexplored intrigued Cooper, and so a great deal of his life was spent investigating such mysteries. Friends called him driven, obsessed even about shedding light on the dark sections of the globe and illuminating them—at least enough to get the shot he wanted. Cinema’s Rough Riders, Cooper and Schoedsack’s early filmmaking efforts contained documentarian aspirations, though drama slowly penetrated their subjects so that audiences would not only learn about someplace new and strange, but their emotions would be addressed as well. The duo’s silent documentary Grass (1925) follows the Bakhtiari tribe of Persia and includes incredible location photography across the hills of modern day Iran. Chang (1927), however, takes place in Siam, and while praised for its detailed footage, includes a skeletal plot about a farmer encountering the jungle’s many wild animals. Included are stampeding elephants and an extremely close encounter where a tiger comes face to face with the camera, and thus, the viewer.
Cooper and Schoedsack sought to combine the awe of discovery with full-fledged drama, and then elevate their concept with irresistible Hollywood spectacle. Few forerunners to their eventual film King Kong exist, which further underlines their pioneering of filmic adventures. Novels like Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ The Land That Time Forgot, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World aroused the filmmakers’ interest with their descriptions of surviving dinosaurs and massive insects. Harry Hoyt’s silent 1925 picture The Lost World adapted Doyle’s novel, its dinosaurs brought to life by special effects wunderkind Willis O’Brien. The film’s plot lacked substance beyond prehistoric creatures stomping through an urban sprawl, but supplied the method and foundation from which Cooper and Schoedsack’s King Kong was born. Conceived by Cooper and Edgar Wallace, and written by James Creelman and Ruth Rose, their yarn was about the very nature of escapism—about the production of a motion picture meant to show audiences something never before seen. The story within the film mirrors the intent of Cooper and Schoedsack’s efforts: Taking viewers away to an impossible world filled with wondrous things. In the end, their film would return to familiar territory, unleashing the unknown onto the everyday, smashing the illusion of escapism and confronting the audience head-on.
A film production crew travels by boat, following fanatical motion picture director Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong, playing a carbon copy of Cooper himself) and his fair-haired star Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) to Skull Island, an uncharted place surrounded by fog and built up by legend. Taking us far away from New York City where the story begins, the boat lands at this fantastical world, a beach cut off from the rest of the isle by a gigantic wall. Islanders worship a beast called Kong, and after seeing Ann, who they call “the golden woman,” kidnap her as a sacrifice to appease their god. The boat’s crew, led by Ann’s newfound love Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot), ventures into the island’s dinosaur-laden territory to get Ann from the enormous gorilla creature Kong, who has taken her as his prize. When Jack finally does save Ann, Kong chases them down, only to be rendered unconscious by Denham’s smoke bombs. Rather than dwell on the uncanny locale of Skull Island, where escapism would seem to flourish, in a stroke of genius the story brings Kong back into a real-life setting. Kong appears in chains onstage while New York’s well-to-do elite view him as mere entertainment. Denham introduces the creature: “And now, ladies and gentlemen, before I tell you any more, 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!” All at once, Kong escapes his chrome steel shackles to wreak havoc on the city, the delusion of our safe world destroyed. Kong all but conquers the metropolis when he climbs atop the Empire State Building, Ann in hand. For a brief moment fiction has penetrated reality, threatening our safe daydream, only to be shot down by attacking biplanes to restore order.
Much has been said and written about the “Beauty and the Beast” theme, but the grand emotional connection of King Kong as a narrative is better left to Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake. This is not to say viewers will find themselves detached from the 1933 version, just that Cooper and Schoedsack’s concerns were rooted in escapism, not sentimentalism. Denham himself calls the love story an “angle” by which the monster is presented. The original created a sense of awe and wonderment beyond the story, in an age of cinema when crowds were not yet used to effects-driven sights. Indeed, Kong was one of the first movie monsters to receive credit as a main character. For the time, this speaks to the marvel of the film’s effects working in harmony with the power of the narrative, as the filmmakers relied on pure invention to render Skull Island, Kong, and the beast’s distinct personality onscreen.
After seeing test footage from Willis O’Brien’s scrapped 1931 project Creation, the filmmakers hired him to assemble the effects needed to bring life to their story. Designing the Kong puppet was Marcel Delgado, but the film required more than simple puppetry by way of stop-motion animation. Employing every trick in the book to assemble a believable environment, evident are uses of back projection, matte and glass paintings, miniatures, and models, each disappearing into one another to create an incomparable magic show where the impossible lives and breathes. Pieced together with a metal skeleton frame, foam, and animal fur, the Kong puppet was made into an unlikely source of audience sympathy through O’Brien’s animation. The stop-motion process meant Kong’s persona was built little by little, creating the suggestion of movement and personality through a meticulous progression. Miraculously, Kong conveys a singular character in motion pictures, his love for Ann Darrow fully described, his death painfully sad. There are moments where Kong’s behavior is best defined as idiosyncratic but strikingly true, such as when he verifies his Tyrannosaurus Rex kill by flapping its lifeless jaw, or when he smells his fingers after touching Ann. These moments grow throughout the film until the creature is no longer just a beast, but the story’s protagonist, elevating the B-grade monster movie into a moving tragedy when Kong falls to his death.
Suspension of disbelief, the audience’s willingness to accept what appears before them, provides Cooper and Schoedsack with their best ally. Sweat and blood earned the audience commitment required to make a story about a gargantuan monkey one of the most iconic in not only film, but narrative history. Even the film’s anatomically incorrect monsters and dinosaurs are conceived in a simulated, artificial way that informs their construction as one of pure imagination, versus how creatures of their size might actually appear in nature. That the picture delivers this fantasy with such perfected clarity thanks to the special effects invents the standard and preemptively innovates from it. Few of King Kong’s followers would have the same effect, wherefrom cinematic illusion an audience was left utterly engrossed. Only several decades later, when the industry’s technologies improved enough to produce characters like Gollum from The Lord of the Rings films, would moviegoers be so emotionally invested as viewers once were, and still are, with Cooper and Schoedsack’s Kong. Strangely enough, Jackson’s remake of King Kong offers the most compelling example of a fabricated character having a potent authority over the audience. After the original’s release, audiences became more skeptical, their doubt more difficult to convince, their viewership more unimpressed by Hollywood trickery. Filmmakers must now make technological leaps and bounds to deceive viewers into feeling something for their fabricated characters. This pattern began with Cooper and Schoedsack’s film.
Depression-era moviegoers found King Kong delivered them from their poverty and financial distress into the hands of a beast, but it was important to return them to the safety of the world when the adventure was over. Consider the notoriously lost “spider pit” sequence, where after Kong rocks his human pursuers off a bridging log into a chasm, the survivors are eaten by a giant-sized spider, a crablike creature, a lizard, and an octopus. When the film was prescreened in California, audiences were appalled by the display of death in this scene, prompting Cooper to cut the footage to appease censors. Though the sequence is believed lost, its effect remains a crucial example of how Cooper and Schoedsack endeavored to manipulate their audience. Never intending to scare them out of their seats as the “spider pit” would have done had it remained in the final cut, the filmmakers bring their viewers to the brink of danger, and by the end return them to safety. Even without benefit of arachnids and octopi, Kong does enough damage on his own; his victims are chewed apart, smashed by his fists, and crushed under his feet.
Modern day viewers might balk at the stop-motion effects, having seen more convincing, photorealistic, computer-generated sensations in Jackson’s remake. From the perspective of today’s cinema, King Kong presents an easy target for abatement given the social and technical developments made since 1933. Detractors focus on the questionable depictions of Skull Island’s dark-skinned inhabitants dancing about in gorilla suits, or the boat’s stereotyped Chinese cook. They also question the varying sizes of Kong, as he seemingly grows from 20 feet tall on the island, to about 50 feet tall atop the Empire State Building. But these problematic portrayals and poetic licenses are simply absorbed by viewers willing to indulge their imaginations and transport themselves to a time and place where cinema was blind and hopeful, allowing an ageless story to unfold.
After all, Cooper and Schoedsack were pioneers first and foremost, forging methods and stories for cinema to develop and audiences to enjoy. Spearheading Technicolor advances and backing fellow directors like John Ford, their work together includes some of the great early entertainments, each artfully made and as significant as the last. The Four Feathers (1929), The Most Dangerous Game (1932), The Last Days of Pompeii (1935), Mighty Joe Young (1949), and The Searchers (1955), among others, were each either directed or produced by Cooper and Schoedsack to bring something new to audiences. But never were their spectators as unspoiled and severely wowed as they were by King Kong. By taking their audience to the brink of the unknown, Cooper and Schoedsack invented the concept of spectacle and showmanship as industry standards. Within its splendid sense of awe and its ability to involve the viewer emotionally through skilled technical merits, King Kong provides the underlying ambition of all Hollywood cinema. The film brings the movies to a colossal and iconographic highpoint of entertainment, acknowledging within the narrative and subtext how readily audiences seek out diversion, and how amusement, if sharp talent assembles the production, can have greater significance than merely pictures on a screen.