Directors: Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack (Uncredited)
Writers: James Creelman and Ruth Rose
Cast: Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong, Bruce Cabot, Frank Reicher, Sam Hardy, Noble Johnson, Steve Clemento, James Flavin, and King Kong
Composer: Max Steiner
Release Date: 4/7/1933
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Having recruited Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) to star in his latest picture, film producer Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) embarks on a voyage to Skull Island, unsure of what to expect. Upon arrival, Denham and his shipmates—John Driscoll (Bruce Cabot), Capt. Englehorn (Frank Reicher), and several others—encounter a giant, aggressive ape known as Kong (later nicknamed “The Eighth Wonder of the World”). When Kong kidnaps Ann—presented as a sacrifice by the island natives—and returns with her to the jungle, Driscoll and his crewmates are forced to battle many incredible, albeit extremely dangerous, creatures while searching for their female passenger.
A “modern” retelling of Beauty and the Beast, King Kong should be viewed by monster buffs and classic movie fans alike. Especially commendable are the contributions of Willis H. O’Brien, whose stop-motion cinematography would inspire numerous filmmakers (e.g. Ray Harryhausen) in the years following 1933.
Despite remaining absent until the halfway mark, Kong is made into a mysterious, nightmarish figure by the rumors and speculation of Denham, Englehorn, and members of the Venture crew—a rare case of expository dialogue effectively building and maintaining suspense. As the characters approach Skull Island, a creepy, impenetrable fog layer serves to embody the unknown essence of Kong, still considered a thing of legend at this point in the story. Also praiseworthy is the haunting score of Max Steiner, which, when coupled with the aforementioned use of fog, establishes an eerie atmosphere leading into the introduction of Kong himself.
While terrorizing New York City later in the narrative, Kong will undoubtedly perturb those of a claustrophobic nature. Possibly the most horrifying scene ever showcased in a giant monster movie, Kong’s train assault preys upon a primal fear shared by all humans: to be trapped by a predatory animal. A similar effect is induced by Kong’s theater rampage, during which crowd members are trampled by one another while attempting to escape—a brilliant, surreal, and terrifying use of the fish-out-of-water trope.
King Kong is marred by wooden performances and one-dimensional protagonists. A lack of character development becomes particularly problematic during the Skull Island sequences; specifically, viewers are given no reason to root for Denham, Driscoll, or any of the Venture crewmen as they struggle to protect themselves from dinosaurs, giant lizards, and other remnants of a prehistoric era.
By endowing Kong with human features, director Merian C. Cooper succeeded in crafting a beast with whom the audience can sympathize—a defining aspect of almost every classic monster movie. It should be noted, however, that Kong never hesitates to attack, often viciously, anyone foolish or unfortunate enough to stand in his way. As a result of this, Kong—like Frankenstein’s monster and the Gill Man—evokes compassion only in small doses; and certainly not to the detriment of his fearsome characteristics. (The same cannot be said of Peter Jackson’s Kong, whose anthropomorphic qualities are overplayed to the point of sappiness.)
For blending adventure/fantasy themes with commentary on the human condition, King Kong earns its reputation as the greatest giant monster film ever made. Notably, Kong’s enslavement, escape, and iconic demise atop the Empire State Building make a chilling statement, however subtle, on the human tendency to both exploit and despise that which cannot be explained by conventional science.
Overall Quality: 10/10
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