1933’s King Kong is heralded as a masterpiece. Kong has directly begotten two official remakes, sequels, foreign off-shoots, multiple animated series and 82 years of merchandise. Kong has spawned countless children; if a story features a big monster wreaking havoc, Kong is the source. Turner Classic Movies uses Kong imagery in advertising material on a regular basis. Rotten Tomatoes currently holds the film at 92% Fresh while IMDB rates it a conservative 8.0. King Kong is in the National Film Registry, holds its place in the AFI, and is preserved in the Library of Congress. Simply put, King Kong is an icon.
Yet, King Kong is not above criticism. The film takes massive leaps in logic—Why did the natives build a Kong-sized door on their anti-Kong wall? It ignores all logistical questions—How’d they get the ape to New York? It poo-poo’s any concern for consistency—Kong is 18 feet tall on Skull Island, 25 feet tall in Manhattan, and towers at 50 feet while swatting planes atop the Empire State Building. The dialogue is ham-fisted, the performances range from wooden to cartoonish, and (lest we forget the film is being dissected in 2015) the film includes multiple racial stereotypes for which “cringe-worthy” is an understatement.
These flaws do not go unnoticed by many a film critic, and while the film literati has never questioned King Kong’s status, there is an undertone of embarrassment at enjoying Kong. David Thompson, in his delightful collection of essays Have You Seen It, ultimately sums up Kong as “Eternal proof that sometimes America can make a trash movie that might have moved Lear.” Roger Ebert qualifies that “On good days I consider Citizen Kane the seminal film of the sound era, but on bad days it is King Kong. No less than Pauline Kael notes “It was very good, very fun cinema, but one thing it was not was emotionally involving.” All three reviews generously bandy the word “naive” as an apt description. The general tone of all these reviews is: “Hey, I can’t tell you why, but the thing works!”
Despite these dismissals, rewatching King Kong, opened my eyes to how well written and directed a film it is. Yes, the dialogue is clunky, but it always serves a narrative function, and the staccato delivery makes the expository elements go by with ease. The exposition itself is vague enough to make the fantastical elements reasonable without creating dangling threads. Furthermore, the character-based dialogue does establish character: winsome naif, fast talking showman, world-weary sailor, et al.; we know who these people are, and the actions of the characters do not contradict their presentation.
The naivety the script is accused of also seems reductive, if not insulting. The first ten minutes of the film, concerning producer Carl Denham’s quest to find a starlet, proves the validity of the film. There is a meta-quality to Denham’s gripes about needing to find a girl because “the public insists on romance!”, as if trying to say, “Look, I’d be happy to get to the giant ape fighting dinosaurs, but you want characters, fine!” When Denham’s obvious choices are exhausted (casting agent failure), Denham goes to the streets, where the film does not ignore The Great Depression—Denham first looks for an ingénue at women’s shelters, among the lines of the downtrodden waiting for free soup. The potential actress he eventually finds, Ann Darrow, is nearly beaten or arrested for trying to steal an apple, then passes out from hunger and exhaustion. When Denham buys her a meal and offers her a job, she initially balks, but Denham cuts her off explaining that he’s “on the level.”
If one takes a moment to examine this opening, it is apparent how much work was put into the film, how much effort it took to create something of a realistic environment to launch a story of a giant ape. King Kong could have opened with Ann walking up the gangplank and telling Denham how happy she is to have a part in his next movie. It could have opened mid-sea voyage with all players in position. Instead, it opens with Denham’s complaints about plot contrivances for an audience, establishes an understanding of the problems of 1933, especially the special kind of hell that being a young, single woman with no job during an economic collapse would be. It also establishes Denham’s character, as a resourceful man of action, possessing a sense of fairness. This is not naïve, early sound filmmaking. It’s a thoughtful, sophisticated work.
In terms of direction, the film does not falter in making sure, either through editing or dialogue, that we know where the players are at all times. When Driscoll is attempting to save Ann from Kong, the audience is constantly made aware of where Driscoll is in relation to the ape. We are also made aware of where Denham is, where the sailors are, and where the natives are. When Kong rampages through New York, radio reports keep us aware of where he’s going. Despite multiple elements in any given scene, the audience is constantly reminded where all the action is happening, and to where all the players involved are oriented in relation to the action.
Finally, there is Kong himself. Much has been made of Willis O’Brien’s astounding stop-motion work for the film, mostly because it’s perfect. What is most impressive, and oft tossed off, is how O’Brien makes Kong a character, and how his character is consistent and integral to the story. When Driscoll rescues Ann, Kong is distracted, playing with/examining the pterodactyl he just killed. The reason Kong is playing with his downed opponent? That’s what he does. How do we know this? Because he did it earlier in the film—twice. Furthermore, his first battle, with the tyrannosaurus (where this trend begins) isn’t just special effect masturbation; the T-rex’s corpse is what puts Driscoll back on Kong’s trail.
In the modern remakes of King Kong (in 1976 and 2005), an emphasis is placed on the tragedy that is the fall of Kong. The audience is being hit over the head that they must feel sympathy with the ape; in the 1933 version, you were allowed to make up your own mind—any feelings of sympathy are due to the fact that Kong feels real.
The magic of King Kong is not limited to it being an exceptionally, deceptively well-made film (though that should be enough to satisfy). The movie manages the seemingly contradictory task of making a story so simple that it allows all sorts of interpretation to seep into its cracks, the simplest example being the love story.
There are those that, in order to put King Kong on a pedestal, classify Kong as a tragic love story, and, sure, it is that. Kong falls in love, yet it is a love that can never be realized. Yet, it is also a heroic love story about a nobody sailor, who despite two rather impressive suitors in competition (Denham and the ape), wins out in the end. It’s also a puritanical love story: thematically Bruce Cabot’s John Driscoll whisks Fay Wray’s Ann Darrow away from the dizzying corruption of big-city stardom, literally bringing her back down to earth, presumably to live the simple life.
But wait! It’s more than a love story. Kong is the immigrant story, subversively cynical, suggesting those not of Anglo-Saxon descent are doomed to be hammered down by those in power. The metaphor of Kong as a compact history of black-white relations in America has been well dissected (a Google search of “King Kong race” came back with seven million results, though both homonyms and porn make up fair chunks of that), and others can do it justice far better than this WASP-dork author can ever hope to. Kong is the story of man against the elements, Carl Denham has a Faustian narrative, Kong is the dragon of a medieval romance, Kong represents the folly of man. The interpretations of Kong are limitless. The naivety of Kong is no flaw; it is a clean vessel to fill with the ideas of its audience.
King Kong is, on the surface, a fantasy-horror film, a classification decided solely due to the titular character and his Skull Island playmates. For beyond the trappings of gods and monsters, the structure of Kong flows into any number of film genres. As Kong was in production at RKO studios, Warner Brothers had perfected its celebrated gangster films, a genre that was predicated on an inversion of the American Dream: a small-time hood gains entry into organized crime, through will, ambition and violence. This hood rises in the ranks until he becomes an urban Caesar, only to be done in by his own hubris, set down by society in a hail of gunfire, ultimately left in a puddle of blood and filth in an urban gutter. Meanwhile, Kong emigrates from an uncharted island, through power and unstoppable strength demolishes Fifth Avenue, makes his roost in the tallest building in the world, until he is laid low by a hail a gunfire, falling from his perch to the gutters of New York. In the decade post-Kong, RKO would produce scores of films later to be classified as Film Noir—and while noir has many story-roads, a common one, exemplified by Double Indemnity and Out of the Past, is the narrative of the man led to his own destruction by his insatiable lust, easily a valid interpretation of Kong’s motivation.
In a tight 110 minutes, King Kong has scenes of jungle adventure rivaling (and arguably outdoing) anything in MGM’s Tarzan series; has Radio City sequences of men in top hats and tails, giving the film the glamour of the classic Hollywood musical; has scenes of nautical danger and an analog ship monkey kept in chains; has a show-biz story arc for producer Carl Denham, Ann Darrow and Kong that has bare-bones similarities to A Star is Born—all while managing to have a monster as memorable as any creature on the Universal backlot. Hollywood has had no shortage of brilliant directors that have made sharp, witty, heartfelt cinema—King Kong may not rank among the cinema cognoscenti as matching the work of Ernst Lubitsch, but what King Kong has in 110 minutes shows more originality, more understanding of plot mechanics, and has more depth than most directors have in their career.
Beyond the ape, beyond the Empire State Building, beyond Skull Island dinosaurs, King Kong takes flaws and makes them strengths, it takes the fantastic and gives it grounding, and it takes simplicity and makes it so perfect that all that can be seen is its simplicity.