King Kong (1933) - The Eighth Wonder of the World
The most famous monster movie of them all, King Kong premiered in New York in March 1933, it was directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, and written by Ruth Rose and James Ashmore Creelman from a story by Cooper and Edgar Wallace.
The film tells of an expedition to Skull Island in the Indian Ocean. On board the S.S Venture is Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) who is to star in a film directed by Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong). During the voyage, Ann falls in love with First Mate Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot). They reach the island and spot a native ceremony taking place in front of a great wall stretching across the island. Later that night, natives climb aboard the Venture and kidnap Ann. They prepare her as a sacrifice to Kong, a huge gorilla-like creature. Kong arrives and sees Ann tied to the altar, he takes her to his mountain lair.
Denham, Driscoll and the crew set out to rescue Ann. They are attacked by prehistoric animals and many crew members are killed. Driscoll rescues Ann from Kong's lair and they race back to the great wall pursued by Kong. Smashing through the massive gates of the wall, Kong destroys the native village in his search for Ann. He is finally subdued by gas bombs. Denham returns to New York with the unconscious Kong in tow.
Kong is chained and exhibited on a New York stage as “The Eighth Wonder of the World”. The flash from the press photographers disturbs Kong and he breaks loose and goes on the rampage, he finds Ann and climbs to the top of the Empire State Building. Attacked by a squadron of biplanes Kong dies in a hail of machine gun fire. Ann is reunited with Driscoll. Below on the street, Denham makes his way through the gathered crowd to look upon the fallen Kong. A police lieutenant says to him, "Well Denham, the airplanes got him." The film ends with Denham's reply, "No, it wasn't the airplanes... It was Beauty killed the Beast."
Robert Armstrong and Fay Wray, who had appeared in Cooper’s The Most Dangerous Game were brought on board, along with Bruce Cabot and Frank Reicher as Captain Engelhorn. Cooper promised Fay that she would appear with the tallest darkest leading man in Hollywood, she thought he meant Clark Gable until Cooper showed her a picture of Kong climbing the Empire State Building.
In the 1930’s Fay was labelled Hollywood’s “scream queen”, she recorded all her screams for Kong in one afternoon session during post production. When Fay Wray died in 2004 aged 96, the lights of the Empire State Building were dimmed for 15 minutes in honour of her memory.
Special effects supervisor Willis O'Brien was previously noted for his groundbreaking stop motion work on the 1925 film The Lost World, animating many varieties of dinosaurs for the film adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel.
A huge bust of Kong's head and shoulders was made of wood, cloth, rubber and bearskin, it was operated by three men who controlled the mouth and facial expressions. This was needed for close-ups of Kong grinning or biting people. The bust was moved from set to set on a flatcar. Its scale and features did not really match the stop motion models and, if fully realized, Kong would have stood thirty to forty feet tall.
The Great Wall was originally part of the Temple of Jerusalem set for Cecil B. DeMille's The King of Kings (1927). For King Kong it was dressed up with massive gates, a gong, and primitive carvings.
The wall was later reused in The Garden of Allah (1936) and finally redressed, set on fire and torn down during the burning of Atlanta sequence in Gone with the Wind (1939).
Principal photography on King Kong wrapped in October 1932. In December 1932 to January 1933, the actors were called back to film the process shots which were mostly rear-screen projections. Many of the scenes featuring Fay in Kongs giant hand were filmed at this time. Kong's roars and grunts were created by mixing and distorting the recorded roars of zoo lions.
King Kong was a resounding success and a sequel was quickly put into production, The Son of Kong was released later that same year, Robert Armstrong reprised his role as Carl Denham and it was directed by Schoedsack. With a smaller budget and a comedic tone, the film was just over an hour long, it was only a modest success.
King Kong was re-released for the first time in 1938 and several scenes were censored due to stricter censorship laws, removed were scenes showing Kong tearing off Fays clothing and sniffing his fingers. Kong biting and stomping on people were also cut. It was successfully re-released in 1942, 1946, 1952, and 1956.
King Kong was remade by producer Dino De Laurentiis in 1976, a big budget film directed by John Guillermin and utilizing a man in an expensive gorilla suit (Rick Baker). The film starred Jeff Bridges and Jessica Lange. It was successful and won an Oscar for visual effects. In 1986 a sequel to the 1976 film was released, titled King Kong Lives and also directed by John Guillermin. The reviews were scathing and audiences stayed away.
Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson was a huge fan of the original 1933 movie and filmed his version of King Kong in 2005, produced on a mega budget with state of the art visual effects, the film starred Naomi Watts and Jack Black. Kong was created using photo-real CGI and the film was over 3 hours long. It was one of the big successes of the year and won an Oscar for visual effects.
The Critics on King Kong (1933) –
"The most spectacular film since the talkies and a masterpiece of technical ingenuity that marks a milestone in the development of the screen." (Picturegoer)
“A sensational thrilling flight of fancy, an unforgettable picture, a living monument to the story-telling genius of Edgar Wallace and a sterling tribute to the brilliance of the Radio stars, directors and technicians.” (Kine Weekly)
“Highly imaginative and super-goofy... It takes a couple of reels for Kong to be believed, and until then it doesn’t grip. But after the audience becomes used to the machine-like movements and other mechanical flaws in the gigantic animals on view, and become accustomed to the phoney atmosphere, they may commence to feel the power.” (Variety)
“King Kong , if not a film either for children or the sophisticated, is an astonishing technical tour de force and it marks a distinct advance on anything in the same tradition which has yet been attempted.” (The Times)
“Still simply the best monster film ever; an island of exotic make-believe, lapped on all sides by absurdity but whose characters keep their feet dry by a steadfast and resolutely unfacetious approach to their material.” (Financial Times, 1976)
“A taut and exciting script and stunning special effects which have still to be surpassed make this the definitive monster movie. The climax is an acknowledged milestone in cinema history. Max Steiner's eerie score and first-rate editing contribute to a picture that is well-nigh faultless, including as it does moments of comedy, tension, terror and pathos." (Alan Frank)
“The masterstroke was, of course, to delay the great ape’s entrance by a shipboard sequence of such humorous banality and risible dialogue that Kong can emerge unchallenged as the most fully realized character in the film.” (Wally Hammond, Time Out)