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Movie Review: King Kong (1933)

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Starring: Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong, Bruce Cabot, and Frank Reicher
Written by: James Creelman and Ruth Rose, from the story by Merian C. Cooper and Edgar Wallace
Directed by: Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack
NR, 100 min, 1933, USA

Film director Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) discovers on the eve of his voyage that his film is lacking a love interest, so he rescues Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) from a shoplifting charge and recruits her for the production. They sail to an island where they encounter Kong, a gigantic ape who falls in love with Darrow. Kong is captured and taken to New York where he escapes and scales the Empire State Building in one of the signature scenes in the history of cinema.

It doesn’t take a whole lot of searching to see the fingerprints of King Kong in modern cinema. The film moves a bit slowly until we meet Kong, but from then on it’s non-stop action. Once he meets the girl of his dreams, he’s forced to battle two dinosaurs, a giant snake, a flying reptile, and a Tyrannosaurus rex. And that’s before he even gets to New York. The other creatures seem to be attacking at will, going after the crew and Darrow with little to no provocation [1], but Kong fights solely as a means of defense, either of himself or his girl [2]. Once in New York, he is startled by the reporters’ flash bulbs and believes that Darrow is being attacked, so he rips himself free from his restraints and goes on a rampage of the city. He knocks down walls, rips an elevated train apart, and knocks down a biplane with his bare hands. He is so focused on his goal of protecting Darrow that when he accidentally grabs another girl, he drops her without a thought to her safety once discovering his mistake. If he weren’t so concerned with his girl, he could have lived a long, if not miserable, life as a Broadway attraction. But Kong cannot stand silently while she appears to be in danger, and this is what proves to be his downfall. As Denham points out, “It was beauty killed the beast.”

King Kong was, and in many ways still is, a technical marvel on several levels. Kong himself is a model brought to life by stop-motion animation. He looks exactly like the Abominable Snowman in Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964), only 30 years earlier and not in color. The filmmakers use a litany of techniques over the course of the film, most prominently a good deal of rear projection that ensures we see Kong in the frame with the humans. It would have been easier, for sure, to show Kong in a close-up and then cut to a matching shot of a human and let our imaginations put them in the same jungle, but this film takes the extra time to show them in the frame together, bridging that gap and further adding to the realism of the scene.

And despite how primitive the effects look, there is a great deal of realism in the proceedings. It’s obvious that Kong is a model and that he’s knocking down model buildings, but the effects are done with such a sense of artistry that we get the full effect of the real thing. The destruction of New York rivals any number of big-budget CGI sequences that look almost real because the action in King Kong feels almost real in a way computers struggle to match. Were the remake half as exciting as the original, it would be a real treat. But it was hard-pressed to recapture the intangibles that made Kong the icon he is today.

[1] One of the dinosaurs that eats a crew member is, I believe, a herbivore. At least, that’s what I remember from when I was a kid and used to think dinosaurs were cool.

[2] He risks his life for her over and over, yet she still can’t stop screaming whenever he’s around. Once again proving that women can be impossible to please.

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