The story, which has become the basis of most of the later King Kong remakes, is simple. A down on her luck actress is hired by a somewhat sketchy film producer to star in an adventure film on a mysterious lost island that only he knows how to find. When they get there, they discover a lost world of savage natives and prehistoric animals ruled over by a legendary figure - King Kong. The natives capture the actress in order to sacrifice her to Kong but when he arrives, he is smitten with her and take her into his care, fighting all sort of creatures as her human love interest follows and attempts to free her. When he succeeds, they rush back to the boat with Kong in hot pursuit and the monstrous ape is captured and brought back to New York City to be exhibited as the 8th Wonder of the World. Opening night the beast escapes, gets the girl back and flees to highest structure he can find, in this case the Empire State Building where he is shot down by bi-planes and falls to his death.
Kong’s lasting popularity, I will argue, stems completely from his first film appearance. Not one of the re-boots comes close to the original. The monstrous ape is not so monstrous in the hands of legendary animator Willis O’Brien who infused a small puppet moved one frame at a time with such real emotion and personality that he became not an amazing special effect but as real as any human actor that has graced the silver screen.
The 1933 film started not just the legend of Kong but giant monster movies in general. This film developed a look and style of its own - partly from the limits of the era and partly from the incredible imagination of Willis O’Brien who not only animated Kong and the other creatures but did the matte paintings and overall design. Skull island is at once a real place and a fantasy world.
On release, this film was a blockbuster. No one had ever seen anything like it and they flocked to theatres for a decade… literally. The film was re-released in 1938, 1942 and again in 1952, a release that out paced not only the previous ones in profits but also most of the new movies released that year. Looking at the movie with modern eyes, it might be hard to imagine, but this was a terrifying and shocking motion picture, so much so it was censored for violence and sexual content after its debut. My Aunt Helen saw it back then and she often recounted to me how scared she was each time she saw it. It was her favourite film.
While the film’s effects are legendary, it was also the first film with a totally original music score. The sets of the film were also amazing and were used for another production, The Most Dangerous Game, filmed in tandem and using many of the same actors.
Is King Kong a perfect film?
Some might say it’s THE perfect film and it’s hard to argue it isn’t. In its favour is its longevity, the story is still being told and retold as recent as last week. It does have plenty of flaws, but even they are hard to criticize. Kong’s varying size throughout the running length is an often stated problem with the production - but is it? I would say no as the director Cooper deliberately changed the titular character’s height (to the chagrin of Willis O’Brien and the effects team who wanted it to be a real as possible) to match the content of the scene. On the island the great ape is smaller, more human, if that can be said of a monstrous monkey, and in the big city he is 3 times that size to avoid him looking small among the skyscrapers. Kong must look like the king of his surroundings at all times for him to work as a character and frankly, while watching the film you would be hard pressed to notice his leaps in grandeur. The film is just too compelling for the viewer to be distracted by anything but other than what is happening on the screen. The effects are dated, but also they are so stylized looking that Peter Jackson’s 2005 overly long and somewhat over the top remake tried to recreate the look and feel of the 30s version to sell the idea better to modern audiences. Yes, you can see where the animators fingers moved the fur on the puppet as it moves about and the dinosaur designs are out of date by today’s Jurassic Park standards (which are in turn now out of date as well) but it really doesn’t matter one bit. The acting is definitely from it’s time, but it is a style of acting we all accept and in many ways expect see in films. What makes this movie at least seem perfect is how it plays. We buy it all. When Kong breathes is last after falling from the Empire State Building, we feel it in our bones and even though Carl Dedham tells us it was beauty that killed the beast, we know it was us and our pride that brought him to his fate and if he was real today, the same thing would happen. The success of King Kong comes not just from it’s innovation but the universality of it’s story which is just as relatable today as it was almost 85 years ago.