“What Are You Doing Here?”: The Odd Romance of King Kong

by Corbett Treece

JACK. Say, I guess I love you.
ANN. Why, Jack! You hate women!
JACK. Yeah, I know. But you aren’t women.

Act I of King Kong (1933) presents a love story between a man so resistant to his own romance plot that he repeatedly speaks to his partner of how much he loathes her presence, and a woman who wins him over through emotional fragility and infectious optimism. And as with all great romances, it begins with the woman getting smacked in the face. And then yelled at for it.

Their romance is an oddity, dominating the first act, but easily forgotten—three scenes in a film in which the woman is mainly remembered for screaming, and the man is barely remembered at all. “There’s a love story in King Kong?” people ask me.

Their first scene together serves also as their introduction to one another. It opens with Lieutenant Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot), first mate of the Venture, standing on the upper deck, shouting commands to the sailors below, as Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) approaches beside him to observe the commotion. “Hurry this line forward. Forward, you farmer, and up here!” he shouts, as he gestures suddenly and extravagantly to his left, flinging his arm full out and backhanding Ann square in the jaw. “What are you doin’ up here?” he grunts at her.

Ann Darrow and Jack Driscoll aboard the  Venture  just after Jack smacks Ann in the face.

Ann Darrow and Jack Driscoll aboard the Venture just after Jack smacks Ann in the face.

“I just wanted to see!” Ann says defensively, yet cheerily, her eyes wide with excitement. “Oh, you just wanted to see?” he mocks. Jack grumbles an apology, of a sort. His harrumphing is constant throughout this scene; he grumbles, he grunts, he sneers, he scowls. He does not, however, introduce himself. “You’re that girl Denham picked up last night, aren’t you?”  

“Yes,” she says. Then, cheery, excited, eyes wide with hope, with wonder—her energy mirrors his and flips it, she is as joyful as he is grumpy, as optimistic as he is cynical—she says, “I think this is awfully exciting! I’ve never been on a ship before!” Jack responds, gruffly, “Well I’ve never been on one with a woman before.” He’s looking over the side, down at the men she’s interrupted him from berating. He barely looks at her.

Ann’s spirits flag. She’ll rally, but she just wants everything to be so nice, and this is not nice. “I guess you don’t think much of women on ships, do you?” she asks. He does not hesitate for a second: “No, they’re a nuisance” he blurts out, turning to look at her. “Well… I’ll try not to be,” she says, sweetly, honestly, and hopefully, like a child afraid of being yelled at—I’ll be a good girl, a sweet girl. I promise.

“You’ve been in the way already!” he snaps.

All of their conversations go something like this, but with a bit more softening from Jack each time. A very tiny bit. Their next scene takes place six weeks into the voyage, and resumes the topic of the inappropriateness of her presence, with Jack arguing “this is no place for a girl…. [Your] just being around’s trouble.... Women just can’t help being a bother. Made that way, I guess.

Ann Darrow and Jack Driscoll, Women on Ships 2, King Kong 1933.png
"Women just can't help being a bother."

"Women just can't help being a bother."

Following this scene, a landing party including Jack, Ann, Carl Denham, and the skipper of the Venture row to the shore of Skull Island, where Ann’s safety is threatened. Ann hangs on Jack’s arm throughout the scene, and he shields her with his body. Back on the ship, their love plot is cemented:

JACK. When I think what might’ve happened today…. See, if anything had happened to you—

ANN. —well then you wouldn’t be bothered with having a woman on board (chuckles).

JACK, crossly. Don’t laugh! I’m scared for you! I’m sorta, (softens)…well I’m scared of ya, too. Ann…uh…I uh…uh…. Say (brightens), I guess I love you.

ANN, pleased, surprised. Why Jack! You hate women!

JACK. Yeah, I know. But you aren’t women. Say, uh, Ann…. I don’t suppose…uh…I mean…well…you don’t feel anything like that for me…do ya?

(Ann makes no verbal response. They kiss.)

It is an incredibly uncinematic and unromantic love scene. His declaration of love is made on the heels of insults, not only to her, but to her entire gender. Ann is clearly hurt and saddened that this man, despite all her efforts to minimize her impact on the voyage, still considers her a burden, brought along against his better advice, a delicate prop that must be guarded and cared for—unnecessary, bothersome and dangerous. And yet he comes to realize that his reactions are born of fear, perhaps of women in general, certainly of her in particular. Then quite suddenly and earnestly, but with no seeming epiphany, he concludes his aversions, his repulsions, must be love.

Driscoll behaves like a child just now realizing that he teases the girl he likes. And this realization in no way reverses his unbearable misogyny. In fact he still celebrates it. Ann is simply given a pass, excluded from the burden of being an ambassador for her gender. Oh women, yes, they’re still just the worst. But I guess you’re ok.

Ann Darrow and Jack Driscoll aboard Venture-10

Also, Jack’s bare efficiency stands in contrast with Ann’s starry-eyed optimism. She seems the sort who would dream of grand romantic gestures, and he certainly not the sort to provide them. His announcement of his feelings is awkward, ineloquent, and unceremonious. She doesn’t so much enthusiastically respond as she acquiesces, her body language implying weakening, not excitement.

The first time I saw these scenes, I wanted to wring his neck. And I wanted her to run, screaming—which of course she does, and for the rest of the movie. But once I’d have said she was running from the wrong dumb ape. More recently, I find this forced and halting romance between Jack and Ann is one of the most innocent, honest, and humorous romances in classic cinema. And maybe it’s because I’m older, or more cynical, or less idealistic. Or maybe it’s because I now know the following:

One. These scenes were written by a woman. Perhaps this shouldn’t be as astounding to me as it is, but it’s 1933, and Hollywood, and it’s also an action-adventure tale. So, yes, it is surprising, and it does cause me to be a bit more forgiving.

Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack

Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack

Two. The screenwriter, Ruth Rose, was married to the co-director Ernest B. Schoedsack, upon whom she generally based the character. She’d met Schoedsack in 1926 while she was working as an historian on a New York Zoological Society expedition to the Galapagos Islands. He was hired as the cinematographer. Rose and Schoedsack married that year, and she traveled with Merian C. Cooper and Schoedsack on several expeditions after that, including to film Chang (1927) in Thailand. She was hired by Cooper to do a rewrite of the script for King Kong after he had fired the previous screenwriter, whose dialog he found flowery and pretentious, and whose pacing he found slow, plodding, and overly expository. Cooper asked Rose to “give the script the feel of” one of their expeditions. Her treatment fixed many plot and pacing problems, is responsible for setting up all the major plot points in the first act, and aligns the characters of Denham and Driscoll to Cooper and Schoedsack—their mannerisms, their characteristics, their essences. Ruth Rose makes Carl Denham a filmic counterpart to Merian C. Cooper, and makes a Jack Driscoll a stand-in for her husband, Ernest Schoedsack. They know it, their friends know it, production knows it, wardrobe knows it, and history knows it.

Merian C. Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack during filming of  The Four Feathers

Merian C. Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack during filming of The Four Feathers

And three. A woman named Marguerite Harrison, (American heiress, socialite, journalist, and postwar spy for America in Germany, Russia and Japan), had accompanied Cooper and Schoedsack on an earlier expedition to make the film Grass (1925) in Turkey (then Angora) and Iran. Marguerite Harrison was fifty-percent financial backer of the documentary, and was featured as an on-screen journalist.

Marguerite Harrison with Bakhtiari Men during filming of  Grass .

Marguerite Harrison with Bakhtiari Men during filming of Grass.

They followed and filmed the arduous annual migration of the Bakhtiari tribe and their herds to better seasonal pastureland, across the Karun River and the Zagros mountains. And despite Harrison’s financial stake in the project, Schoedsack would say years later in a taped interview:

Women didn’t belong [on those trips]. She did everything she did not to make any trouble … but women being women, she can’t help it. She’s got to have her private tent and her stuff. And half the money, what little we had, had to be spent on taking her along, and she didn’t contribute a damn thing, for my part. We’re out in front working, and this poor fellow had to neglect his tribe and everything else to see that this goddamned woman wasn’t bothered. (“I’m King Kong!: The Exploits of Merian C. Cooper”)

Marguerite Harrison with Bakhtiari Men in snow during filming of  Grass

Marguerite Harrison with Bakhtiari Men in snow during filming of Grass

One can only imagine Ruth Rose, both before and after she became Mrs. Schoedsack, in the Galapagos, in Thailand, wherever else she traveled with them, had heard more than one iteration of these sentiments that so closely mirror Jack Driscoll’s spoken to Anne Darrow aboard the Venture. It doesn’t seem likely he’d keep these thoughts to himself, even around the woman he married.

So on a merely functional level, these scenes establish a romance plot that drives the man to fight to save the woman. The film simply requires a love story because being a pretty blonde woman does not sufficiently warrant rescue from certain doom. Someone has to love her to make her life matter. Or, perhaps mirroring the uncompleted project Carl Denham set off to film in the first place, the studios insisted on a romance plot. So if you’re writing a romance that really just needs to exist, but that doesn’t really matter, that will fade into the background entirely, why not write your own? And if it means you can get in a few jabs at your husband in the process—his vocal misogyny and likely ineptitude at romance—even better. It’s a perfect revenge for all those times she must have had to listen to his criticisms of women, of how much trouble we all are, of what a burden we are to take along, needing our own rooms to sleep and change in, needing our own toilets to use, needing protection so we don’t get raped all the time. So many needs. Sigh.

I like to think Ruth Rose gets the last laugh. But…and I really don’t want to do this, but there’s something else…. Deep breath.

Ok, right after that kiss, Ann is kidnapped by some RKO backlot extras in highly offensive feathered headgear and gorilla shrugs. She’s offered as bride-sacrifice to a giant missing-link ape-monster, and Jack and much of the crew of the Venture go traipsing around the prehistoric jungle to rescue her from the ape who does not want to let her go. A dozen members of the party are killed, a few more species of dinosaurs likely become extinct, a village is destroyed, villagers and sailors are chomped and squashed and drowned in puddles, and Kong is gassed and captured. He’s dragged back to New York, displayed in chains, goes all ape-crazy when he thinks Ann is in danger again, and destroys midtown trying to recover her. Many more people die and Kong himself is killed, and Ann is at the center of all of this mayhem, so…. (Sighs again.) I suppose this proves that women are trouble, and that she probably shouldn’t have been brought along. That maybe “women just can’t help being a bother.”

Made that way. I guess.