Movie Review: KING KONG (1933)

Posted review in tribute to the anniversary of Fay Wray’s death today (August 8th)

Movie Reviews

Director: Merian C. Cooper, Ernest B. Schoedsack
Starring: Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong, Bruce Cabot, Frank Reicher, Sam Hardy, Noble Johnson, Steve Clemente, James Flavin
Review by Kevin Johnson

An eccentric director, a beautiful actress, and a hearty ship of brave crew members find and capture a huge beast on a mysterious island, who escapes and runs amuck in New York.


Given the opportunity here to write my first review, I pondered for quite a while on the direction I wanted to start. A good friend of mine had always prodded me to discuss my favorite monster movies; embarrassingly, I have yet to see any. So why not begin this venture by viewing the classic monster-horror films of days past? Sure, the special effects back in the years not dated 2000 and before may be obviously superficial, but one can’t fault that beyond the anachronistic movie magic of the time.

One can’t help but begin with the American staple monster film King Kong. The classic “man vs. beast” story has been retold, re-visioned, and re-watched in so many variations that even children only familiar with “Donkey Kong” can divulge the plotline. The most notable version, Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake, pushes the boundaries of special effects and computerized graphics (and arguably, the audiences patience) in a three-hour epic. In similar fashion, 1933’s King Kong did the same for 1933 sensibilities; redefining how visually effective films could be. Also, saving RKO Pictures from bankruptcy ain’t half bad, either.

1933 was a tough time to produce a high-budget film like this; a massive depression sweeping the nation doesn’t guarantee a strong box office performance; and while entertainment does tend to flourish in recessions, there’s a line that even the most fervent escapists won’t cross when deciding between “movies” and “eating.” It was a risk to be sure; and yet, producers Cooper, Schoedsack, and David O. Selznick decided to put a huge stake into the film anyway. It was a successful gamble; it garnered 90,000 its opening weekend, the biggest opening ever at the time.

The violence was not to be ignored back then, however; re-releases of the film were forced to cut such scenes, as well as the scantily visions of a number of Fay Wray’s scenes; for example, a curious Kong undresses her while curiously scanning her body. I supposed in 1933, this whipped the male audience into a frenzy; but by 1934, the Hayes Code was in full force, and editors were obliged to turn that kind of thing down. I have to agree here, if only because the scene struck me odd; why wouldn’t Kong strip only some of the clothes and not all of them? He’s a giant beast; why would he care? T’was better cutting the scene entirely.Watching King Kong now, I can’t help but be hugely impressed by not only the use of animatronics, stop-motion animation, and clever projection/camera tricks (all credited to special effect wizard Willis O’Brien and cinematographers Edward Linden, J.O. Taylor, and Vernon Walker), but violent and risqué imagery throughout. From the shoot-out with the stegosaurus and the brutal eating of a shipmate by the undersea creature, to the two violent Kong battles with various dinosaurs, even I cringed and viscerally reacted when the T-Rex muzzle was snapped apart, or a lengthy dino-creature is slammed down hard against the ground, like a whip.

Still, I loved this film. It’s exciting and logically sound; even the director, who in the remake is obsessed to the point of crazy, is a lot more subdued and sane here. He still sports his illusions of grandeur, but his risks are taken only at the logical points. In other words, he runs and fights when he has to, and gets greedy only when they crew is in a relatively safe position. The acting is the perfect over-dramatic style that the 1930s and 1940s were known for, and, let’s be honest here; Wray’s scream is just as iconic as Leigh’s scream in Psycho.

King Kong is a thrill a minute; from the introduction of the Kong tribe to the chaotic chase in New York, King Kong keeps its exhilarating pace throughout. A powerful polemic on the depiction of “civilization” and the tendency to view nature and other cultures with a incredulous, haughty eye, Kong seeks to humble us, making it crystal clear of the human’s place against the overwhelming odds of what nature can throw at us. An excellent film that still holds up today.

By WILDsound Festival

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