Reel Classic: King Kong (1933)



As far as monster movies go, there is one that everybody knows. That movie, of course, is King Kong. Featuring then-ground-breaking stop-motion animation and a unique love story between a giant ape and a blonde woman, it conquered cinemas at the time, and frightened and fascinated moviegoers everywhere. Yes, the heavily CGI-exposed audiences of modern times will roll their eyes at King Kong‘s slow and clunky stop-motion effects, but back then, it was the bee’s knees and was another major step towards the development of special effects in Hollywood films. There really was nothing quite like it.

King Kong was the product of filmmakers Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, a pair of visionaries who took their product to RKO Pictures after a series of failures to pitch the project to other studios. Thankfully, RKO took in the film and production began. Cooper and Schoedsack were in business. The film follows the exploits of an eccentric movie director, Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong), who has managed to get hold of a mysterious map to Skull Island. Feeling this is the perfect location to film his next epic, the director hires a ship and its crew to set sail to the mysterious location as well as a beautiful blonde actress, Ann Darrow (Fay Wray), to star in his film. Little does he suspect that in pursuing this location, he puts Darrow’s life at risk, at the mercy of the king of the island, Kong, which then prompts himself and the crew to pursue the captive actress across its jungles, encountering prehistoric dinosaurs and other threats along the way. But of course, it is not really the plot of this famous monster flick that is most memorable; it’s the animation that truly steals the show.

Annex - Wray, Fay (King Kong)_13

King Kong‘s visual success was thanks to “the American pioneer in stop-motion animation”, Willis O’Brien, the chief technician for the film. O’Brien was so-called because of his creative input that revolutionised stop-motion animation forever. His process would further be replicated in films like Mighty Joe Young. His revolutionising of this brand of animation is evident in that the titular character of Kong looked and felt like a real gorilla, as he moves throughout his home of Skull Island. His facial expressions are also painstakingly animated, giving him a dose of humanity that makes him far from being a ‘big, dumb ape’. It shows his love for Ann and his desire to protect her, allowing the audience to feel empathy for him when he eventually succumbs to his ill fate at the bottom of the Empire State Building.

Likewise, the dinosaurs are given a dose of life and act in the manner expected of them. They move like the slow but threatening predators they are. Remember that this was a time way before Jurassic Park was even conceptualised, making this a pretty impressive feat. Willis O’Brien actually visited museums to get the look of the prehistoric creatures right and believable. To visualise the epic fights between Kong and his prehistoric adversaries, he watched wrestling matches. Indeed, this shows why O’Brien is renowned amongst people of his field for being detailed in his approach. It’s a strength that clearly worked in his favour for King Kong. He was essentially responsible for bringing Cooper and Schoedsack’s vision to life. And boy, did he do it.

king kong 1933

The legacy of this monster movie classic has extended right into the modern age. There have been many reiterations of it, including a direct sequel, Son of Kong, a couple of Japanese adaptations, a 1970’s remake and its failed sequel, and a 2005 remake by Peter Jackson. The latter is arguably the better of what has followed, with breathtaking CGI and a more developed relationship between Kong and Ann. It’s just a shame it developed characters that the audience just didn’t care about (I’m looking at you, Jimmy). But I digress. Because Cooper and Schoedsack’s masterful original is a true piece of historic cinema, with a legacy that has not only inspired remakes and rehashes of the King Kong story, but also a legion of monster movies in its wake. It is and forever will be one of the best monster classics to hit the silver screen. If you haven’t already seen it, now would be a great time to do so.

– N.F.