The print might be a bit rusty in spots, and the effects might look rather creaky to modern eyes, but this 86-year-old movie still has a great deal to say, to a generation obsessed with 4G WiMAX, i-devices and 4K 5.1 16:9 HD, about the value and pace of change. Significantly, it also arrived around fifteen months before the adoption of the Hays Code, and it shows. The 1933 King Kong is up there with Citizen Kane and Casablanca as one of the genuine classics of Hollywood cinema.
We all know the story, of course. Robert Armstrong is Carl Denham, a wildlife documentary filmmaker who wants to photograph dinosaurs, but who is being persuaded to cast a girl in his next picture. Turned down by all the agents in town, he picks Ann Darrow off the streets the night before the Venture is due to set sail for the mysterious Skull Island, and Denham’s “greatest picture in the world.” Nobody knows what to expect when they get there, and Ann doesn’t have time to pack any underwear. Upon arriving, the crew are confronted by the indigenous common or garden natives, who steal aboard the Venture in the dark of night (“Crazy black man been here!” observes Charlie, the stereotypical Chinaman cook), intending to sacrifice Ann to their enormous pet ape. It’s Beauty and the Beast; we’ve been here countless times before, and will be so again.
But what the subsequent trips to Skull Island have missed, are the layers of commentary that Merian C. Cooper provides. Made just as the moving pictures were starting to really threaten Broadway’s theatrical dominance, Cooper sets his climax in a cinema doubling as a playhouse, complete with a “personal appearance” from the eponymous Kong. The insinuation could hardly be more obvious; if it’s spectacle you want, the film says, then there’s only one place to get it. And Cooper fills his film with an outrageous amount of spectacle, the giant ape being just the movie poster taster for all the weird creatures and Indiana Jones style derring-do he gets up on screen.
King Kong is also suffused in every frame with the kind of thoughtful compositions, imagination and creativity that Orson Welles would bring to his magnum opus at the end of the decade. It’s an achievement that Peter Jackson – for all his excessive efforts – couldn’t even begin to replicate. It’s 100 minutes of pure cinema, made before such a thing even existed – truly a pioneering work of art. It is also the film that made Fay Wray one of cinema’s true icons, still a household name nearly a century later. Remembered for her screams as much as her performance, and for her varying states of arousal throughout the better part of the running time, the scene in which Kong strips her half-naked is still improbably erotic and her demonstration of terror aboard ship gives Meg Ryan’s Sally a run for her money.
It’s a film that works on multiple levels, as simple but thrilling entertainment, as a satire of the changing times or even as a work of eroticism. And it’s an achievement every bit as towering as its title character.
Special Features: Merian C. Cooper Trailer gallery / Commentary (with Ray Harryhausen, Ken Ralston, Merian C. Cooper and Fay Wray)
KING KONG (1933): SPECIAL EDITION / CERT: PG / DIRECTOR: MERIAN C. COOPER, ERNEST B. SCHOEDSTACK / SCREENPLAY: JAMES CREELMAN, RUTH ROYCE, STORY BY EDGAR WALLACE, MERIAN C. COOPER / STARRING: FAY WRAY, ROBERT ARMSTRONG, BRUCE CABOT / RELEASE DATE: 6TH MARCH