Confession time: I’ve never actually seen King Kong. Does there ever come a point when a film is so deeply ingrained in the cultural zeitgeist that you no longer need to see the film to get all the benefits of having seen it? Here’s what I know about King Kong: giant monkey climbs the Empire State Building, all while reflecting a subconscious fear in 1930s America of black men coming along and stealing white women. Is there anything else I really, truly need to know? Let’s find out. Here’s King Kong.
We begin with a film director, Carl Denham, who has a reputation for adventurous location shoots and is really being unnecessarily mysterious about where he is going to be taking a crew full of sailors for his next film. What is to be lost by at least telling the captain of the ship, you know, where you’re going, or a single detail of the shoot other than, “Adventure! Fame! The greatest movie anybody’s ever seen!” OK, but where? When? For how long?
He then meets Fay Wray’s character, a down-on-her-luck actress who is so hungry that she almost passes out. Denham, always a class act, takes advantage of her vulnerability and convinces her to join his suicide mission film as its leading lady. Fay, sweetie, there are better ways to get your SAG card.
So they sail away from the relative safety of New York City to an mysterious island somewhere in the Indian Ocean. Soon they will reach the peaceful isle, which we are told is populated by primitive natives. Surely we are in store for a thoughtful, sensitive portrayal of indigenous people.
Well, one can always dream. But hey, we do have to give King Kong props for the character of Charlie the Chinese Cook actually being played by a real life Asian (Victor Wong), which is, you know, something. Ignore the fact that he has to be credited as Charlie the Chinese Cook rather than Charlie the Cook or just plain Charlie.
Anyway, things escalate once Fay Wray is captured by Kong in a bridal ceremony that was maybe not as romantic as the prototypical damsel in distress would have hoped for. She is carried away, and depending on what edit of King Kong you’re watching, slowing undressed by Curious George’s horny uncle. Yup.
It’s interesting to look at how Fay Wray’s costumes are treated, even in the theatrical release of this film. King Kong managed to get in just under the wire before the Production Code decided to take all the fun out of storytelling and ban everything because MORALITY. What you see here is a pretty risqué example of what pre-code films were able to get away with back in the day. Same thing goes for the super violent (if not particularly graphic) deaths visited upon a lot of the natives and some of the sailors. This movie actually has a crazy high body count.
So King Kong carries her away and engages in a series of epic battles against various dinosaurs, snakes, and what kind of looks like the Loch Ness Monster. Honestly, I was beginning to expect the Abominable Snowman or Bigfoot to show up. And credit where credit’s due, this is where the movie excels. The stop motion animation of all of the various monsters but especially King Kong is incredibly detailed and masterfully executed.
I remember when I was in college, my film professor said that if any one of us wanted an automatic A in the class, all we had to do was to present him with a thirty second stop motion film. Of the brave souls that attempted it, most gave up after ten seconds or so, because that shit is difficult and time-consuming. Although King Kong doesn’t look like a real live gorilla, he is a lovingly made piece of art, and you have to at least appreciate the craftsmanship.
There’s this little moment after Kong kills the T-Rex where he’s inquisitively playing with the dinosaur’s jaw, opening and closing it like a toddler trying to figure out how something works.
As obnoxiously painstaking as stop motion animation is, someone still decided to add that in. These are the little things that humanize King Kong and make the film more than just a monster kidnapping a pretty girl.
Luckily, the brave crew of the SS Foolhardy Moron manages to rescue Fay Wray and capture King Kong. And, unfortunately, here is where I have to start calling bullshit. Because as much as I’m willing to accept the magical island where dinosaurs and giant mythical gorilla monsters coexist, I can’t get past how they bring Kong to New York. The aforementioned giant gorilla monster could break through a thirty-story wall that had been bolted shut, but they still thought it would be a good idea to take him on a rinky dink boat from the Indian Ocean to Manhattan. I don’t believe that the boat was physically large enough to fit Kong in it, let alone keep him incapacitated for the long journey. Yes, they had all that knock out gas, but how can you use that on a boat without killing the entire crew? If this took place in any sane universe, they all would have died horrible deaths like the good Lord intended.
And call me crazy, but I can't imagine the city of New York allowing a private citizen bringing a giant killer monkey into Midtown. Those jerks give me a hard time when I bring my cat on the subway, and he doesn't have half the body count that Kong does.
But despite these misgivings, it's easy to see why King Kong was such a huge hit and why people still talk about it today. The special effects are fantastic considering the time period, and while the acting isn't particularly engaging, nor is the story line anything outside the ordinary for the typical monster flick, in King Kong they have managed to create something special: a beast that may not be sympathetic, but is shockingly human.
Until next time, I leave you with this: