“’Twas Beauty killed the beast”—one of the all-time greatest final lines in film history came from this 1933 classic directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack. Considered a fantasy/adventure film, this low-budget, B-movie revolutionized the way filmmakers looked at special-effects and the use of model work. In addition, these same technical innovations, such as 18 inch miniature models, stop-action animation, and rear projection, helped break every box-office record and saved RKO from bankruptcy. Truly a visual spectacle, it’s difficult to believe this was shot in a studio.
I suspect Madame Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve rolled over in her grave when she learned that the male lead in her classic 1740 tale about a beauty and her beast would be played by none other than a giant gorilla. Se La Vie, Madame, don’t be angry with screenwriters James Ashmore Creelman and Ruth Rose for putting a new twist to an old story—it worked.
It’s 1932 and the Depression is raging—you’d think director Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) wouldn’t have any trouble finding an actress to star in his picture. The problem, it seems, is most actresses would rather starve than travel on a boat to an undisclosed location for an indeterminate amount of time. So, like any good director he hits the streets looking for his potential leading lady. He finds her (Faye Wray) trying to steal an apple and rescues her from an angry fruit vendor. And, then, without a cue, she faints in his arms. Well, Carl, is there any better qualification for a leading lady than the ability to faint? Eureka, she’s perfect! After getting a good meal into her and convincing her that he wants her to star in his picture not in his bedroom, Carl has his female lead, Ann Darrow.
On what soon seems like an endless voyage to the South Pacific, Ann finds herself the only woman on the boat. She soon meets the ship’s first mate, Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot, but the role was first offered to Joel McCrea). He, and the other crewmembers for that matter, don’t like Ann being on board…something about women being bad luck for boats. Evidently he can see into the future, because when he sees Ann playing with the crew’s pet monkey (why do all ships have pet monkeys?) he makes a comment about beauty and the beast.
Somewhere in the middle of the trip, Denham informs a flabbergasted Captain Englehorn (Frank Reicher) that they are to travel southwest. According to his secret map (where was his decoder ring?), there is an uncharted island that can only be reached through a reef that is surrounded by extremely tall precipices, and then, once you get there you have to get through some pesky, massive wall. After setting the course, Denham turns to prepping Ann for her performance and does some preliminary camera shots. Perhaps Ann should have been a bit curious as to why he wanted her to practice blood-curdling screams.
Later, as the fog rolls in, the ship finds itself looking up at Skull Mountain and hearing the sound of drums and chanting. Having arrived at their ominous destination, a small party (loaded with a whole bunch of weapons) makes their way ashore. There, they find a “colossal” stone wall. They also see, and hear, natives dressed as gorillas chanting, “Kong, Kong” and dancing around what one can only assume is a human sacrifice. Denham views this as a Kodak moment and starts filming, which, in turn, causes he and his party to be noticed by the natives. Somehow Captain Englehorn knows their language (right) and explains that they’ve come in peace. This does not pacify the angry tribal leader, but he does broker a deal for Ann—six of his women for one golden woman. No deal, and the crew returns to the ship to regroup. Here, Jack shows concern for Ann’s safety and they share a kiss.
Ah, but those pesky natives don’t want to take no for an answer and decide to stealthily row out to the ship and capture the golden woman. After procuring their prize, they return to the island and prepare her as a sacrifice. Back at the ship, when Ann can’t be located but a native bracelet can, the crew sends out a rescue party. Meanwhile, the natives have opened the gate and tied Ann to the top of an altar. After securing her to her bridal chamber, they hurry back and lock the gate and then ring a gong. This evidently is a signal to Kong, because the next thing we hear are primal animal noises coming from the jungle. And, then, we see him: a giant ape/gorilla. This is one of those first images you just don’t forget. On cue, Ann starts screaming bloody murder and gains the attention of Kong. When he releases her from the altar, she faints, which makes it even easier to pick her up and carry her off into the jungle.
This is perhaps the best part of the film. The jungle scenes and the beasts held within this primordial world are just spectacular. Half the armed rescue party guards the gate while the other half pursue Ann and the beast’s giant footprints into the jungle. When they come upon a stegosaurus their bullets are no match for its protective armor. Good thing they brought bombs with them! After disposing of this creature, they hear Kong making his way through a swamp and quickly construct a raft to cross the ominous-looking swamp. Here they meet a brontosaurus, which overturns their raft and throws them into the murky swamp. Lunch is had by the brontosaurus, but a few men do escape. The violence of this scene is captivating. I especially liked when the creature eats one man head first. Hearing his pursuers, Kong places Ann in a tree and goes to find the rescue party. As the men are crossing along a log bridge Kong rips it up from the ground and shakes it, sending the men into a deep gorge and to their deaths. Miraculously (it is a film), Jack is the only man to make it across the bridge and he attempts to hide in some sort of vine thing. When Kong tries to grab him, Jack uses his knife to defend himself from Kong and to cut another vine that is occupied by a giant lizard. When Ann starts screaming again (yes, she does stop from time to time), Kong goes to gather her up and finds another dinosaur about to eat his golden woman. Oh, no you didn’t! Now, it’s time for a Battle Royale between Kong and the tyrannosaurus rex. This battle uses very impressive stop-action animation. The ferocious battle (I won’t describe it, you have to see it) ends when Kong rips open the jaws of his enemy and then beats his chest triumphantly. Having saved his golden woman, he gathers Ann from the tree and heads further into the jungle.
Somehow, Jack and Denham meet up—they are the only two surviving members of their group. Denham is sent back for reinforcements, while Jack is given the task of finding Ann and then signaling for help.
Meanwhile, Kong takes Ann to his humble abode: a cave atop Skull Mountain. The decorations include a very creepy snake-thingy, which tries to eat Ann when Kong leaves her for a moment. Oh, no you didn’t! Hearing yet more screaming (I wonder if they had earplugs on the island?), Kong remerges and has to teach snake-thingy how to treat guests. While being choked to death by the snake’s coils, Kong somehow manages to gather enough strength to bash the snake against a rock. With this household chore disposed of, Kong takes Ann to the balcony and shows her the view, where, you guessed it, she faints again. Watching his golden woman sleep, Kong examines his prize. When he hears a noise, Kong leaves Ann atop the cave while he goes to check inside. As Ann is trying to find a way to escape, a winged dinosaur (pterodactyl?) tries to snatch her up off the ledge. Kong returns just in time to save Ann, who is being lifted off the ground by the creature. As Kong is fighting the winged beast, Jack appears and grabs Ann and they start to climb down the very steep cliff via vine. After killing the beast, Kong is a bit miffed when he learns they are trying to escape. Seeing the vine, he tries to pull them back up the mountain, but this causes them to fall into the water at the foot of the mountain. The current pulls Jack and Ann downriver, which coincidentally, is in the direction of the village. They reunite with the crew and head toward the beach just in time to hear that a very angry Kong is at the gate. He breaks the giant door down and frantically searches for his golden woman, all the while destroying everything in his path. One native even finds himself being chewed to death by the beast. When Kong reaches the beach, Denham throws a gas bomb at him, which causes him to collapse, unconscious, to the ground. Denham then decides to take the beast as his pet and orders the crew back to the ship for chains. It would seem that such a beast would draw large ticket sales at an exhibit.
Back in New York City, Denham puts together a new Broadway spectacular: "KING KONG EIGHTH WONDER OF THE WORLD.” If someone was charging $20 a ticket in the Depression, whatever was behind the velvet curtain must be awesome! When the curtain goes up the audience is faced with a giant ape/gorilla chained to a steel contraption. Denham has Jack and Ann come on stage and relays their story to the crowd. When flashbulbs start going off (plus the fact that his golden woman is with that other guy), Kong becomes irate and begins to break free from his chains. Jack tries to take Ann out of the theater and into a nearby hotel before Kong can get to her, but the beast catches glimpse of them. As he makes his way through Manhattan he wreaks havoc. Hearing a screaming woman from the hotel, Kong believes he’s heard Ann’s mating call, and he starts to scale the building. Reaching into one room he finds a sleeping woman who isn’t Ann, so he drops her to her imminent death on the street below. Finally, he reaches his golden woman and carries her through Manhattan. He takes out an elevated train and a number of cars on his way to what he perceives as the tallest tree in this asphalt jungle—the Empire State Building.
And this sets the scene for one of the most iconic images in film history. With armed airplanes circling, Kong swats at them like they are flies. When bullets rip through his body, Kong knows it’s the end. He takes one final look at his beauty and puts her down on a ledge and then falls to his death. Of course, Jack shows up and rescues Ann from the ledge, but who really cares…Kong is dead!
Overall, an impressive display of special effects—especially when one considers this film was made in the early 1930s. In addition, the story was a clever retelling of the classic Beauty and the Beast story. Another fabulous thing about this film is Max Steiner’s musical score, which was the first feature-length score in an American sound picture. All of the special effects were matched to Steiner’s score, and this made the action sequences even more dramatic.
Oh, and for those of you who enjoy watching those cheesy science fiction monster films, it all started with King Kong. And, what about the Japanese? Where would they be without their Godzilla—a byproduct of what was created in an RKO studio in the 1930s. Often repeated with some questionable remakes, but never surpassed, King Kong is a true classic film.