King Kong (1933) starring Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong
To be clear, this is the original King Kong movie — not the 1976 remake, or the more recent remake by Peter Jackson. Both remakes are enjoyable in their own right — although I strongly prefer Jackson’s — but this is the original, a movie that is still watched more than 80 years after it’s original release. There are good reasons for that.
Something that science fiction writer and editor John Campbell said, (paraphrasing) is that people must care about the characters, robot, alien, or other, or the story falls flat. In King Kong, we do care about the central characters.
The audience feels for, and cares about, the young actress (Fay Wray) that Kong kidnaps on his island home, the young seaman who loves her and risks all to rescue her (Bruce Cabot), the producer who wants to bring Kong back to civilization and make a fortune with him (Robert Armstrong), and King Kong himself, who is stolen from his island home, where he was happy — and worshipped by the native tribesmen that he protected from the island’s dangers. And much of Kong’s appeal is due to one man, who never shows up on screen — Willis O’Brien.
Willis O’Brien was one of the pioneers in the art of stop motion photography, and he painstakingly brought Kong to life on the screen — and imbued Kong with enough character that the audience roots for the giant ape fighting prehistoric snakes and dinosaurs on his island, feels bad for him when he’s captured, and grieve when the creature is killed by authorities in New York City when he escapes and causes mass damage in the strange city where he never wanted to come.
Editorial review of King Kong, courtesy of Amazon.com
In the classic adventure that made her a star, Fay Wray plays the beautiful woman who conquers the savage heart of a giant ape. Traveling to an uncharted South Pacific island with an adventurer following tales of a God-Ape, Ann Darrow (Wray) is captured by the island’s natives to serve as a human sacrifice to Kong. But when Kong, a giant ape, sees Darrow, it is overcome with love–and eventually captured by the adventurers. Taken to New York and put on display, Kong breaks free and pursues Darrow through New York in one of the most famous scenes ever filmed.
Trivia for King Kong
- The success of this film is often credited for saving RKO from bankruptcy.
- The trees and plants in the background on the stop-motion animation sets were a combination of metal models and real plants. One day during filming, a flower on the miniature set bloomed without anyone noticing. The error in continuity was not noticed until the film was developed and shown. While Kong moved, a time-lapse effect showed the flower coming into full bloom, and an entire day of animation was lost.
- Both director Merian C. Cooper and producer Ernest B. Schoedsack had been wrestlers, and they acted out the fighting moves for the battle between the T-Rex and Kong in the effects studio, before the animators shot the scene.
- The character of Carl Denham was inspired by the film’s director, Merian C. Cooper. Both Robert Armstrong, who portrayed Carl Denham, and Cooper died on consecutive days, 4/20/73 and 4/21/73.
- The whole idea allegedly originated when co-director/co-producer Merian C. Cooper had a dream about a massive gorilla attacking New York City.
- This film–along with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) and Laurel & Hardy movies–were thought to be Adolf Hitler’s favorites. In his 2013 book, “The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact With Hitler“, Harvard scholar Ben Urwand documents how Georg Gyssling, the Nazi Party’s special consul assigned to monitor Hollywood films, thought this scary monster ape movie might possibly be ‘an attack on the nerves of the German people’, but there are other examples (M (1931) being a notable example) where Nazi leaders privately liked and consumed works of art they censored in public.
- Jean Harlow refused the lead part.
- Willis H. O’Brien never liked the giant head bust of Kong, which he thought had limited dramatic possibilities.
- As a child, Merian C. Cooper lived close to an elevated train which kept him awake at night when it clattered across the tracks. This was the inspiration for the scene where Kong destroys an elevated train.
- Merian C. Cooper was partially inspired by W. Douglas Burden, who brought the world’s first captive Komodo dragons to the Bronx Zoo in 1926. Cooper was intrigued how the once mythic, massive predators quickly perished once caged and displayed for the public.
- For the scenes of Ann in Kong’s hand, the hand was attached to a crane and raised ten feet. First a technician put her in the hand and closed the fingers around her. Then the hand was lifted for filming. She would later say her terror in those scenes was real. The more she struggled, the looser the hand’s grip grew. When she thought she was about to fall, she had to signal Merian C. Cooper to stop filming.
- Special effects genius Willis H. O’Brien, who earlier used stop-motion animation of dinosaur models in The Lost World (1925), had created several dinosaur models for his unfinished production Creation (1931). Producer Merian C. Cooper sold the idea for this film to RKO executives in New York by showing them a test sequence using O’Brien’s models. The executives were stunned, never having seen anything like it, and green-lighted production. O’Brien also used many of his “Creation” models in this film, including the T-Rex and the pteranodon (giant flying creature).
- Merian C. Cooper filmed the actors, then Willis H. O’Brien projected the image one frame at a time on a screen behind the models. That’s how they filmed Kong’s removal of Ann’s clothing. Originally, Cooper had wires attached to her clothes to pull them off her body. The model’s movements were then matched to hers. Unfortunately, O’Brien and Cooper forgot to patent their approach, thereby losing a fortune.
- Close-ups of the pilots and gunners of the planes that attack Kong were shot in the studio with mock-up planes. The flight commander is director Merian C. Cooper and his observer is producer Ernest B. Schoedsack.