Let’s Talk About… ‘King Kong’ (1933)

Film #30 in FilmExodus’ AFI 100 Movies

Every week FilmExodus does a review/analysis of a different cinematic masterpiece from AFI’s 100 Movies 2007 updated list. For a complete overview and how you can participate, click here.

While adapting Hacksaw Ridge, director Mel Gibson made a conscience to omit large parts of Desmond Doss’s story. Not because they were unconfirmed or found to be fraudulent, on the contrary, Doss committed so many extraordinary acts of heroism, that Gibson believed no one would believe them all. The man lead a life that was the definition of unbelievable.

If Doss’s story was unbelievable, there is no word in the English language to adequately describe the life of Merian C. Cooper. Remember those old Dos Equis commercials that involved a suave as hell older gentleman that did a bunch of meme generating shit and then was declared “The most interesting man in the world?” That’s Merian C. Cooper.

There no way to list his accomplishments without it sounding like a cliche origin story of the world’s lamest action hero but I assure you, everything listed is absolutely true.

  • Fought in both World wars
  • Served with General Pershing, who led an expedition against Pancho Villa
  • Spent 9 months in a German POW camp
  • Fought alongside the Flying Tigers
  • Escaped a Polish POW camp
  • Had an affair with a Polish spy
  • Was part of General Douglas MacArthur’s party aboard the USS Missouri for the Japanese surrender

Somehow, with all those things listed (and all the things that aren’t), he still managed to find time to direct one of the most influential films ever made: King Kong.

Apparently he wasn’t content in merely being “the most interesting man in the world” but also wanted to be one of the most important as well.

The making of Kong is almost as unbelievable as the man who created it. While studying a tribe of Baboons on the set of his previous film The Four Feathers, Cooper envisioned a scenario where large groups of African gorillas would battle against a bank (who the fuck came up with these ridiculous names for animal groups? Was there a vote? Would vote for this or any of them?) Komodo dragons.

He later decided to focus on one giant lizard fighting gorilla instead of a group and inadvertently created Hollywood’s modus operandi–“Bigger is always better.” I would bitch but King Kong is incredible and although the man has been dead for over 40 years, I’m still afraid of him.

After creating a rough outline, Cooper took the project to Paramount but they rejected it deeming it not cost effective. To their credit, this was during the great depression where having 100 dollars was enough to put you in the 1%, so spending 650,000 (14 million in today money and like a Gazillion in their money) was a risky endeavor.

After making four successful films for  RKO, the studio head honcho David O. Selznick decided to give Cooper carte blanche to make whatever he wanted and he knew immediately what he wanted to do.

An adaptation of The Most Dangerous Game.

Cooper brought on his old collaborator Ernest B. Schoedsack to direct and the two promptly got to work on the script and the casting. They hired Robert Armstrong and Fay Wray as the two leads and once construction got started on the huge jungle set, Cooper was pulled away to work on the studios out of control project Creation.

Pay attention to all of these elements (the actors, the jungle set, the special effects creator of Creation.) I don’t want to spoil what happens, but they might all be important in a minute.

Creation was the pet project of special effects guru Willis O’Brien. It was about two men who, through either time travel shenanigans or some sort of plot magic, encounter prehistoric beasts. Cooper hated it. He thought the story was boring and convinced the studio to shit can it.

He did however, love the stop motion effects. He realized, that with the jungle set he already had, plus the effects O’Brien created, he could finally make that giant ape movie he conceived all those years ago.

Cooper, ever the economist, realized the most frugal and time saving way to make the film, would be to have Schoedsack direct the actors and for him to focus more on the effects. Since they had just worked with Wray and Armstrong on their previous film, Schoedsack decided to bring them back for Kong.

He also brought on his wife Ruth Rose to polish up the script after the numerous re-writes. She streamlined everything, including a sub plot involving a boat of scaled convicts, lots of exposition, how Kong gets to New York (spoilers) and injected the three leads with autobiographical characteristics, I.E., Denham being more like Cooper, Driscoll a stand in for her husband and making Ann Darrow more like herself.

Cooper loved the additions and with all the elements finally in place, production on King Kong was underway.

There is no King Kong without Cooper or Schoedsack. Their contributions to the film is unquestionable but the lion’s share of credit goes to the special effects crew most notably Willis O’Brien’s (Buzz Gibson and a young Ray Harryhausen) stop motion work, the matte painters Henry Hillinck, Mario Larrinaga and Byron C. Crabbé, and the cinematographer Carroll H. Dunning, who created a brand new process of realistically blending live action with matte paintings and stop motion work.

The shoot lasted a whopping eight months which had so much downtime, that actress Fay Wray completed two other films while waiting for it to be completed. After numerous reshoots and an extensive editing session (which we’ll get to in a minute), King Kong was finally finished and debuted at Grauman’s Chinese theater on March 2, 1933 to rave reviews and lines around the block.

The film Paramount once dismissed as being economically risky turned out to be one of the most profitable of the 30’s. And it’s all thanks to O’Brien and his shitty ass Creation script.

Or maybe it’s all thanks to the monkey. I have no idea how the transitive property of responsibility works.

 

Fun Facts/Trivia

I mentioned above that there was about 20 minutes removed from the final cut. The most well known of these deleted scenes, is the infamous “Spider pit” scene. For years it was believed to have been lost and rumors quickly spread that it was cut because it was too frightening. Although the scene would probably be harrowing for 30’s audiences, the truth of the matter is, it was cut for pacing issues. Peter Jackson would eventually remake the scene for his 2005 version.

 

The massive wall and gate (that’s used in the film to contain Kong) were destroyed in 1939 for Gone With The Winds burning of Atlanta sequence.

Universal Studios once sued Nintendo, alleging Donkey Kong violated their trademark of King Kong. The lawsuit ultimately failed.

The films popularity is so strong, it not only got a sequel but has created a mini universe of remakes and knock offs, including:

 

Son of Kong (1933)

 

King Kong vs Godzilla (1962)

 

King Kong Escapes (1967)

 

The King Kong Show (1966-1969)

 

King Kong (1976)

 

King Kong Lives (1986)

 

King Kong (2005)

 

Kong: Skull Island (2017)

 

With the upcoming 2020 release of Godzilla vs Kong on the horizon, The great ape has never been more popular. I guess you could say that, Kong is king.

I waited this entire review to make that joke. It was worth it.

 

  • Sailor Monsoon

    It’s not bad

  • I really like King Kong 1976-
    My sister and I had a 2 hour delay due to snow one day years ago.
    We got to watch the last 2/3rds of it before having to leave.
    Jeff Bridges is an action star, man!
    Charles Grodin is so EEEEEVIL

  • Sailor Monsoon

    It’s truly a masterpiece that’s never aged.
    Yes the effects looks outdated to modern audiences and the acting is, well it was the 30’s (plus the depiction of the natives could be handled better) but all of that takes a backseat to its sense of wonder.
    There’s not many films since that have come close to capturing its magic

  • Sailor Monsoon

    This version flies by.
    It’s entire runtime is over before the 2005 one ever reaches the island.
    That’s not a joke.
    But i do like the 05 one

  • 🎅Poppity🌟

    I had seen clips of this film but I decided to watch this today in anticipation of your review. In all honesty, this is one of the most rawly graphic and scary movies that I have ever seen. There is no innuendo. If a person is going to die, they are going to have their head ripped off of their body chewed to death, amongst other ways. King Kong has no pity for anyone except for Ann.There is quite a moment of tension when he is ripping her dress off. Kong’s hand movements might even suggest that he was sexually fondling her in some way. Or, perhaps I’ve just got my usual gutter mind working overtime.

    From the way you describe Merian C. Cooper, I can only think that the character of Carl Denham was modelled after him in some way. Denham, the director who only thinks of the most beyond belief, never before seen attraction and getting it at any price, making everything larger than life. I nearly admired Denham after the African tribe escapade but lost it all once they went back to the city. The guy loved playing with fire.

    Obviously, you can see that the real actors were filmed on separate stages and that the beasts are fake. It was 1933 for Heaven’s sake. What impresses me is the level of detail they had back then and the guts Cooper had to shoot really intense scenes. Wray and Cabot earned my respect the moment they had to jump from the rope. They remained serious in their highly non-glamorous roles. This definitely deserves it’s place on the AFI 100 list.

  • King Alvarez

    I’ll take the 1933 over the 2005 any day.

  • Excellent review of King Kong. One of your finest. I knew a rough outline of the making of this film but now I know the full story. Hollywood truly was a remarkable time in those early decades.

    I really need to watch the 2005 remake again. And probably this 1933 version for once.

  • This isn’t Nashville.

    Wait a minute…