King Kong is heralded as masterpiece. Kong has directly begat two official remakes, sequels, foreign off-shoots, reimaginings, multiple animated series and 85 years of merchandise. King Kong has spawned countless children; If a story features a big monster wreaking havoc, Kong is the source. Turner Classic Movies uses Kong imagery in advertising material on a regular basis. Rotten Tomatoes currently holds the film at 92% fresh while IMDB rates it a conservative 8.0. King Kong is in the National Film Registry, holds its place in the AFI, and is preserved in the Library of Congress. King Kong is an icon.
Yet, King Kong is not above criticism. The film takes massive leaps in logic: Why did the natives build a Kong-sized door on their anti-Kong wall? It ignores all logistics: How’d Carl Denham and company get the ape to New York? It poo-poo’s any concern for consistency: Kong is 18 feet tall on Skull Island, 25 feet tall in Manhattan, and towers at 50 feet while swatting planes atop the Empire State Building. The dialogue is ham-fisted, the performances range from wooden to cartoonish, and (lest we forget a film is being dissected in 2018) King Kong includes multiple racial stereotypes for which the word “cringe-worthy” is an understatement.
These flaws do not go unnoticed by many a film critic, and while the film literati has never questioned King Kong’s status, there is an undertone of embarrassment at enjoying the movie. David Thompson, in his delightful collection of essays, Have You Seen It, ultimately sums up Kong as “Eternal proof that sometimes America can make a trash movie that might have moved Lear.” Roger Ebert qualifies that “On good days I consider Citizen Kane the seminal film of the sound era, but on bad days it is King Kong.” No less than Pauline Kael notes, “It was very good, very fun cinema, but one thing it was not was emotionally involving.” All three reviews generously bandy the word “naive” as an apt description. The general tone of all these reviews is: “Hey, I can’t tell you why, but the thing works!”
Despite these dismissals, a recent viewing of King Kong opened my eyes to how well-written and directed it is. The dialogue is clunky, but it always serves a narrative function, and the staccato delivery makes the expository elements go by with ease. The exposition itself is vague enough to make the fantastical elements reasonable without creating dangling threads. Furthermore, the character-based dialogue does establish character: Ann Darrow is the winsome naif, Carl Denham is the fast-talking showman, John Driscoll is the world-weary sailor, and so on. The audience knows who these people are, and the actions of the characters do not contradict their presentation.
The criticism of naivety is reductive, if not insulting. The first ten minutes of the film, wherein producer Carl Denham attempts to discover a starlet, proves the sophistication of the film. There is a meta-quality to Denham’s gripes about needing to find a girl because “the public insists on romance!”, as if the movie wants to relay, “Look, I’d be happy to get to the giant ape fighting dinosaurs, but you want characters, fine!” When Denham’s obvious choices (casting agents) are exhausted , Denham goes to the streets, where the film openly acknowledges The Great Depression- Denham first looks for an ingénue at women’s shelters, among the lines of the downtrodden waiting for free soup. The potential actress he eventually finds, Ann Darrow, is nearly beaten for trying to steal an apple, then passes out from hunger. When Denham buys her a meal and offers her a job, she initially balks, but Denham cuts her off explaining that he’s “on the level.”
If one takes a moment to examine this opening, it is apparent how much work was put into the script, how much effort it took to create something of a realistic environment to launch a story of a giant ape. King Kong could have opened with Ann walking up the gangplank of the ship and telling Denham how happy she is to have a part in his next movie. It could have opened mid-sea voyage with all players in position. Instead, it opens with Denham’s complaints about plot contrivances for an audience, establishes an understanding of the problems of 1933, and points out the special kind of hell that being a young, single woman with no job during an economic collapse would be. It also establishes Denham’s character, as a resourceful man of action, who possesses a sense of fairness, cynicism, enthusiasm and showmanship. This not naïve, early sound filmmaking, it’s a thoughtful, intelligent work.
On direction, King Kong does not falter in making sure, either through editing or dialogue, that we know where the players are at all times. When Driscoll traverses Skull Island in an attempt to save Ann from Kong, the audience is constantly made aware of where Driscoll is in relation to the ape. We are also made aware of where Denham is, where the sailors are, and where the island natives are. When Kong rampages through New York, radio reports keep us aware of where he’s going. Despite multiple elements in any given scene, the audience is constantly reminded where all the action is happening, and where all the players are in relation to the action.
Of course, there is Kong, himself. Much has been made of Willis O’Brien’s astounding stop-motion work for the film, mostly because it’s perfect. What is most impressive, and oft-tossed off, is how O’Brien makes Kong a character, and how his character is consistent and integral to the story. When Driscoll finally rescues Ann, Kong is distracted, playing with/examining the pterodactyl he just killed. The reason Kong is playing with his downed opponent? Kong is childlike, and that’s what he does. How does the audience know this? Because he did it earlier in the film- twice: Kong plays with the tyrannosaurus’ jaw after besting the dinosaur in combat, and also plays with the dead serpent in Kong’s cave. When Driscoll rescues Ann, the audience can accept that Kong is easily distracted. Furthermore, Kong’s battle with the T-Rex isn’t just special effect masturbation; the dinosaur’s corpse is what puts Driscoll back on Kong’s trail. In the modern remakes of King Kong (in 1976 and 2005), an emphasis is placed on the tragedy that is the fall of Kong. The audience is hit over the head being told that they must feel sympathy with the ape; in the 1933 version, the audience is allowed to make up its own mind— any feelings of sympathy the audience may have are due to the fact that Kong feels real.
The magic of King Kong is not limited to it being an exceptionally, deceptively well-crafted film (though that should be enough to satisfy). The movie manages the seemingly contradictory task of making a story so simple that it allows all sorts of interpretation to seep into its cracks. For example, the love story:
There are those that, in order to put King Kong on a pedestal, classify Kong as a tragic love story. Kong falls in love, yet it is a love that can never be realized. It is also a heroic love story about a nobody sailor who falls for a beautiful actress; despite the actress having two rather impressive suitors in competition for her affection (Denham and the ape), the nobody wins out in the end. It’s also a puritanical love story: thematically Bruce Cabot’s John Driscoll whisks Fay Wray’s Ann Darrow away from the dizzying corruption of big city stardom, literally brings her back down to earth, presumably to live the simple life. Three ways to qualify the romance, one film.
But wait! It’s more than a love story. King Kong is the immigrant story, subversively cynical, as it suggests those not of Anglo-Saxon descent are doomed to be hammered down by America’s power structure. The metaphor of Kong as a compact history of black-white relations in America has been well-dissected (a Google search of “King Kong race” came back with seven million results), and others can do it justice far better than this WASP-dork author can ever hope to. Kong is story of man against the elements, Carl Denham has a Faustian narrative, Kong is the dragon of a medieval romance, Kong is represents the folly of man. The interpretations of Kong are limitless. The naivety of King Kong is no flaw, it is a clean vessel to fill with the ideas of its audience.
King Kong is, on the surface, a fantasy-horror film, a classification decided solely due to the title character and his Skull Island playmates. Beyond the trappings of gods and monsters, the structure of Kong flows into any number of film genres. As Kong was in production at RKO studios, Warner Brothers had perfected its celebrated gangster films, a genre that was predicated on an inversion of the American Dream: A small-time hood gains entry into organized crime, through will, ambition and violence. This thug rises in the ranks until he becomes an urban Caesar, only to be done in by his own hubris, set down by society in a hail of gunfire, ultimately left in a puddle of blood and filth in an urban gutter. Kong emigrates from an uncharted island, through power and unstoppable strength demolishes fifth avenue, makes his roost in the tallest building in the world, until he laid low by a hail a gunfire, falling from his perch to the gutters of New York. In the decade post-Kong, RKO would produce scores of films later to be classified as Film Noir, and while noir has many story-roads, a common one, exemplified by Double Indeminity and Out of The Past, is the narrative of a protagonist led to his/her own destruction by insatiable lust, easily a valid interpretation of Kong’s motivation and downfall. In a tight 110 minutes, King Kong has scenes of jungle adventure rivaling anything in MGM’s Tarzan series. There are Radio City Music Hall scenes of with men in top hats and tails, which gives the movie the glamour of the classic Hollywood musical. There are scenes of nautical danger, there is a show-biz story arc for producer Carl Denham, Ann Darrow and Kong that has bare-bones similarities to A Star is Born. This multi-genre stew exists while the film features a monster as memorable as any creature on the Universal backlot. Hollywood has had no shortage of brilliant directors that have made sharp, witty, heartfelt cinema- among the cinema cognoscenti, King Kong does not sit with the oeuvre of Ernst Lubitsch, but what King Kong has in 110 minutes shows more originality, more understanding of plot mechanics and has more depth than most directors have in their career.
Beyond the giant ape, beyond the Empire State Building, beyond Skull Island dinosaurs, King Kong has a specific clarity. The movie’s “flaws” are secret strengths. King Kong takes the fantastic and gives it grounding. Directors Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack disguised a multi-layered examination of capitalism, colonialism, show business, and race as a monster movie. They dressed up complexity as simplicity and did it so perfectly, audiences and critics see only the simple. It is almost a pity, except that even as a simple fantasy film, King Kong is a triumph, and the image of Kong on top the then-tallest building in the world has been imprinted on popular culture for close to a century.