Ernest B. Schoedsack and Merian C. Cooper’s 1933 film King Kong is shockingly fantastic! It is truly a masterpiece and exciting to watch no matter the time period. Everyone is aware of the film’s storyline whether they have seen it or not but that doesn’t subtract from the film’s ability to invoke genuine amazement and excitement. This 1930s film successfully stands against the test of time and that cements King Kong‘s position as the “8th wonder of the world!”
The Run Down
Our story begins in New York, where the filmmaker Carl Denham played by Robert Armstrong is looking for the star of his next film. Denham is famous for making wildlife films in remote an exotic locations and now he is chartering Captain Englehorn’s (Frank Reicher) ship for his new adventure! However, Denham is unable to find an actress to go on his expedition because he is reluctant to disclose where they will be going even to the crew. While wandering New York he discovers Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) and convinces her to be the star of his new film.
Once on board, he discloses to the crew that they are headed to an exotic and uncharted island with a skull-shaped mountain. At the start of their voyage one of the crew members, Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot) expresses extreme dislikes the idea of having a woman on board. His dislike of women on ships is understandable considering that sailors used to think that having a woman on aboard a ship bad luck, not to mention the distraction that she causes for the crew. Ironically, Driscoll and Darrow later fall in love with each other.
Once on Skull Island, the crew discovers that the locals us a giant wall that isolates them from the rest of the island out of fear for the beings on the other side of the gate. The native worship Kong as a deity and sacrifice a young woman named the “Bride of Kong” in order to pay him tribute. Unfortunately, the crew is spotted observing the ritual and have “ruined” their sacrifice according to the natives. However, it appears as though the time window in which the ritual is to be performed hasn’t closed yet. When the local’s chief sees that the Crew as a woman with them he asks for a trade. The chief is willing to give the men 6 of their own women for the single “golden woman.”
Considering the Afro-tribal ideas that inspired these fictional people this scene speaks volumes. The film is definitely a product of its time and this is only one of the blatant examples of racism within the film. Charlie the Cook is a Chinese character and the accent used for the portrayal seems highly authentic to the point that modern viewer might cringe. Although the actor who portrayed Charlie was of Asian descent, Victor Wong is very American so the cringe-worthy accent is understandable. It is also important to note that Wong didn’t even receive credit for his role in the film despite having a fair number of lines. In fact, it is his character that finds evidence that the natives had been on this ship and kidnapped Darrow…At least he got some proper credits come the sequel I guess.
“Crazy Black Man Been Here!”
– Charlie the Cook
Moving On to Unmasking the Magician
1930s racial issues aside what really made the film memorable was the grown breaking use of special effects on such a large scale. Special effects weren’t anything new at this time but Willis Harold O’Brien
was a true pioneer. O’Brien’s work revealed new possibilities for filmmaking and the visual language he innovated would later be seen in films such as Jaws
O’Brien’s use of stop-motion animation is clear and what he is most noted for in regards to the films special effects but he didn’t just stop there. The film also uses a traveling matting process, not unlike in The Invisible Man.
Images are filmed through panes of glass with parts of the film blacked out leaving some of the film underneath unexposed. The film was then rewound and used again using an inverse of the original matte so that only the previously unexposed sections of the film would capture the image. When played back two images which were captured at different times appear to exist in the same space. Using the traveling matte process the filmmakers were able to place our leading actress in the hands of a giant.
Four different puppets were used for Kong alone. Larger models were used as well to capture some imitation of realism. A giant ape hand was made so that Kong could convincingly garb Darrow from her room in New York after escape toward the end of the film, not to mention the Giant Kong Head. The film also uses miniatures, glass painting, and rear screen projection in tandem with one another to create a whole new world! Even though contemporary viewer and see the magician pulling the strings it doesn’t make it any less mesmerizing.
This adventure film is masterfully crafted and while some of the racial centered content may offend some viewers today the film still serves as a mirror into the past. The Skull Island natives are a primitive African people who worship a giant ape as their god, and if humans are made in the image of their gods then I’ll let you put two and two together. It is widely believed that the film is an allegory representing beliefs regarding interracial relationships and it’s not hard to see why.
Due to the fact, the natives’ worship Kong one could see Kong as a symbol representing Africans and Blacks. At the start of the film, Denham says that the only way to get people to see a film nowadays is to include a love story, audiences want romance no matter how exciting or great a story you have. While you could say that the romance between Driscoll and Darrow is our love story it wouldn’t be our only love story.
Denham later compares Kong and Ann Darrow to “Beauty & The Beast” which is more than telling. May I remind you that woman sacrificed to Kong is referred to as the “The Bride of Kong.” The way that Kong treats Darrow is interesting because the creature is savagely brutal yet with Ann Darrow, he is gentle and tender with her. Even when Kong rips off her clothes he seems to be acting out of curiosity and intrigue. It’s almost as tough Kong is lusting over Ann.
Many harshly criticize the film for displaying ethnic actors portray characters who are distasteful caricatures and its racialized allegory but the emphasis on this alone distracts away from the film’s true message. The Film mirrors the cultural fears regarding interracial couples. Slavery still cast a looming shadow over America even darker than the one it casts now. The master-slave dynamic and the rape of black women by their owners negatively affected the way interracial couples and were viewed post-slavery. When the situation is reversed the pictures gets even uglier considering that in same places during the 1930’s a black man even looking at a white woman could get him killed. Romantic partnerships were very dangerous at this time, and in that sense, it truly was “Beaty that Killed the Beast.”