King Kong is a perfect film. I don’t think I’d realized before. It’s always hard to talk about films like Kong, influential standards of American cinema. I want to talk about how its structure still sets the tone for modern films–the gradual lead-in (it’s forty-some minutes before Kong shows up), the non-stop action of the second half, how establishing characters well in the beginning means they can go without dialogue for twenty minutes and still be affecting. Or the special effects. I’d love to talk about the special effects, like how I’d never noticed the absolutely brilliant sound design–the most effective stop motion moments are the ones with the people Kong interacts with. Murray Spivack’s sound brings them fully to life–best evidenced as Kong’s rampaging through the village and attacks a house. It engenders concern for the inhabits, who must have been six inch dolls.
But Kong isn’t a perfect film for its impact. It’s perfect because of itself. The film opens with the scene on the docks, quickly establishing the peculiar tone of the first half. Everyone sort of takes Robert Armstrong’s gung ho filmmaker with a grain of salt. They’re bemused by him. Armstrong’s perfect for the role, big and amiable, it’s hard to be mad at him when he does something selfish and stupid. Just like the characters, who get themselves into the mess by listening to him and knowing better, so does the audience. Armstrong’s like a big kid for lots of Kong, always coming up with the best action after the consequence.
That first scene also goes far in establishing Bruce Cabot. Cabot’s character is Kong‘s most interesting–as is the way the film handles him. The scene with Cabot ranting to Fay Wray about women not belonging on ships–we’re supposed to understand it’s Cabot who’s off, not Wray. Regardless of whether or not he’s right, the first forty minutes of Kong are about Cabot learning to stop acting like a little boy (which Armstrong never has to do). It makes the romance between Cabot and Wray a wonderful one to watch unfold–that “Yes, sir” following their first kiss elicits a fantastic mood.
These scenes all happen long before Kong shows up, long before the roller coaster starts. I didn’t even get to the coffee shop scene, where Armstrong’s enthusiasm even gets the viewer going–promising everyone, viewer and Wray alike, the wait will be worth it.
And when Kong does show up, it’s clearly worth it. King Kong doesn’t really make the monster a sympathetic character. He tends to chomp on people and his curiosity usually leads to someone dying in a horrific manner, but they do make him into a real character. Utterly insensitive to the chaos he causes, Kong still has these wonderful, inquisitive moments. He’s frequently confused by the little people and it rounds out the film, bringing about emotional concern for him without having to light it in neon. The film reduces Wray’s part to victim at the halfway mark–and she certainly never shows any concern for Kong–which is narratively reasonable. It also puts the onerous on the viewer–if he or she wants to care for Kong, it’s because of his or her response to him, not because the film’s dictating.
Once Kong gets back to New York, the whole thing seems to wrap up in fifteen minutes. There’s the interesting monologue from Armstrong though, regarding what he’s done to Kong. He’s fully aware he’s been culturally insensitive, as well as zoologically, but he doesn’t care. The people don’t care what they’ve done to Kong and Kong doesn’t care what he does for people. It creates an interesting, ego and superego free narrative. Anything the audience wants to bring to it or attribute to it, they’re bringing themselves.
King Kong‘s a lot of things audiences and critics had to come up with new adjectives to describe back in 1933–a romance, an adventure being the two easiest–but it’s simply just a fantastic way to spend a hundred minutes.
Produced and directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack; screenplay by James Ashmore Creelman and Ruth Rose, based on an idea by Cooper and Edgar Wallace; directors of photography, Edward Linden, J.O. Taylor, Vernon L. Walker and Kenneth Peach; edited by Ted Cheesman; music by Max Steiner; production designer, Carroll Clark; released by RKO Radio Pictures.
Starring Fay Wray (Ann Darrow), Robert Armstrong (Carl Denham), Bruce Cabot (Jack Driscoll), Frank Reicher (Captain Englehorn), Sam Hardy (Charles Weston), Noble Johnson (Skull Island native chief), Steve Clemente (Witch King), James Flavin (Second Mate Briggs) and Victor Wong (Charlie).