AfInity: King Kong
By Kim Hollis
September 18, 2009
Well...not really. In the many years since I embraced the film as a youngster, so many advances have been made in the film technology that this early version of King Kong feels quaint and sometimes amusing. That's not to say I can't see how it would have been tremendously impacting on audiences who had never seen anything like it before. I've experienced that kind of movie in my lifetime, and it's an unforgettable, special feeling to be sure. But because there have been numerous movie versions of King Kong in the years since then, it's a bit difficult to watch the original without a jaded eye.
Still, the movie does a number of things surprisingly well, particularly considering its age. While I remembered it as a creature feature, it's really more of an action adventure. In that sense, King Kong succeeds. The movie begins with movie director Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) discussing his newest project with the skipper and first mate of a boat that will be taking him to the filming location. He's very mysterious about what the trip will entail, and is primarily concerned with finding a girl to appear in the picture, as he's been told that his previous movies have lacked the romance angle that reels audiences in.
Denham discovers his ingénue living on the street. Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) is a pale, beautiful girl who's thrilled to have an opportunity to make a little money and have an adventure along the way. The men on the ship, including First Mate Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot), grumble that it's inappropriate to have a woman onboard due to all the dangers, but she's sunny and bright, charming to one and all. Finally, once the ship reaches a certain point, Denham reveals to the skipper and his crew where he intends for the ship to go. The director has gotten wind of a mysterious island where a mythical creature named Kong may live. He hopes to film the beast, with Ann serving to offer the movie some humanity.
They arrive at the island, where the natives are performing a "marriage ceremony" between one of their women and Kong. When they see Ann, however, they immediately decide that the beast would be much more satisfied with the "golden woman". They kidnap her and offer her up to Kong, and then the real adventure begins.
Those who have seen Peter Jackson's 2005 remake of the film probably remember that interminable boat ride to Skull Island. It seemed like it went on forever (and then the scenes on Skull Island itself took another infinity). The original King Kong suffers from no such dullness or overindulgence. Though it does take a little while for the ship to arrive at skull island, the scenes on the boat flow nicely, giving us some brilliant touches of character development and planting the seeds for future branching of the plot. Once they arrive at the island, things escalate quite a bit, with both the men and Kong himself fighting a menagerie of monsters until Kong is captured and taken back to New York City.
The acting in the film ranges from over-the-top (Armstrong) to okay (Cabot) to really quite charming (Wray). We realize that the movie's really about the monster, but we do spend a lot of time with these people while we wait to get to the fireworks factory, so it's important that they entertain us. Cabot's Driscoll seems a little stiff and surly until he finds himself falling for Ann, at which point we start to really root for him - silly white dress shoes and all.
As for set pieces, they're a bit primitive, but that's to be expected given the time frame we're looking at. What really matters is the creature effects. Are they believable? Would they be good enough to scare an audience? If reviews from that time are any indication, they weren't all that realistic even by 1933 standards. People found Kong to be robotic and stiff, and it only suffers all the more today after having seen Peter Jackson's carefully crafted, emotional ape. Additionally, there's no connection between the 1933 Ann and Kong. She's scared of him and never wants to see him again. I have to say I much prefer the 2005 story, where the actress becomes attached and emotionally involved with the ape.
Another small problem for more modern audiences is that those of us who have taken a science class will know that some of the vicious monsters onscreen are actually dinosaurs that were peaceful herbivores, like triceratops, brontosaurus and stegosaurus. It's kind of silly watching them chomp down on humans knowing that they would much rather have preferred eating a tree.
So, by the time I finished watching King Kong, I realized that it was in fact a little silly. It certainly wasn't scary (what was seven-year-old me thinking?). And yet, it's a pretty solid little adventure movie, with a really interesting performance from Wray. It set the stage for other action films - and other monster movies - to follow, and is deserving of its place on the AFI list as a groundbreaking movie with new ideas and effects. So what if it's a little cheesy by today's standards?
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