King Kong (1933)

“Cover your eyes and scream, Ann — scream for your life!”

Synopsis:
Intrepid director Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) hires a destitute woman named Ann (Fay Wray) to travel with him to Skull Island, where he hopes to encounter and film a mythic creature known as Kong. Ann falls in love with the ship’s first mate Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot), who ends up rescuing her when she’s captured by Kong. Will Denham’s plan to bring Kong back to New York and display him as the 8th Wonder of the World be successful, or put Ann at risk once more?

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary refers to this cult classic by co-directors Merian Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack as “the greatest of all horror films,” and notes the “masterly special effects… contributed by Willis O’Brien”, as well as composer Max Steiner’s understanding that “the film should be scored like a silent film.” The bulk of Peary’s GFTFF review — excerpted from his essay in the first Cult Movies book — focuses on his interpretation of Kong as “a manifestation of Denham’s subconscious”, with “Denham conjur[ing] up Kong as a surrogate to battle Driscoll for Ann’s love and to perform ‘sexually’ (their trip up the world’s largest phallic symbol) with her when he has never been willing (or able) to have a sexual encounter himself.” He posits that “although young and virile, Denham has traveled the world with an all-male crew to avoid intimate liasions”, and the “Kong is Denham’s female-lusting side — his alter ego.”

In Alternate Oscars, Peary names King Kong the best film of the year, referring to it as “the greatest, most popular, most entertaining, most influential, and most fascinating horror-fantasy film ever made.” He writes that it is a “brilliantly imaginative, thrilling adventure film with awesome special effects/stop-motion animation…; a splendid, emotion-manipulating… score; exciting monsters; amazing scenes of destruction and other classic sequences, including Kong’s death; and enjoyable performances by Armstrong, Cabot, and the sexy Fay Wray, the best screamer in Hollywood.” He asserts that “it can [be] — and is — enjoyed for being marvelous, escapist entertainment. But to have become such a part of the American psyche, it had to have been much more. It interests us so much because it exists on so many levels” — and he then moves on to the psycho-sexual analysis described above.

Personally, I’m more an admirer than a fan of this groundbreaking film, which certainly deserves acknowledgement and kudos on numerous technical fronts. The 159 minute documentary RKO Production 601: The Making of ‘Kong, the Eighth Wonder of the World’ is must-see for all film fanatics, simply to learn more about how and why this movie was revolutionary in so many ways. The creativity and innovation put into filming an emotive stop-motion beast on fantastical sets alongside live actors at this early stage in cinematic history can’t be understated, as much as it may seem simplistic and relatively straight-forward to modern audiences used to CGI. However, I’m not enamored by King Kong‘s narrative, which not only presents native Africans as a monolithic group of fear-driven ritualists, but places a disenfranchised and vulnerable young woman at the center of all risks and adventures (to be had exclusively by men). While she primarily screams (and boy, does she scream — time and time again), I will say I’m impressed by Wray’s ability to imbue her character with vivacity and authenticity; we genuinely believe she’s experiencing everything we see on screen.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fay Wray as Ann
  • Fine cinematography and sets

  • Willis O’Brien’s groundbreaking special effects
  • Max Steiner’s score

Must See?
Yes, of course, as a cult classic.

Categories

(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

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3 Responses to “King Kong (1933)”

  1. King Kong (1933) isn’t a cult classic, but a bona fide cinema classic celebrated by all critics.

    The 1976 remake is a cult classic; a film generally ignored or not liked by the critical mainstream but championed by a significant majority.

  2. A no-brainer must-see. This is pretty much a staple of ‘Cinema 101’, whether you’re a film fanatic or not. My guess would be that most people who like movies at all – and who pay attention to the classics – have seen it. Myself – I think, all these years later, it still holds up rather well.

    There’s not much else to add about a film like this. For me, it’s one of those that played on tv *constantly* when I was a kid. ~like, every time we turned around, it was being shown again.

    What I didn’t know at that time was that we were always shown a print that had been cut – not to allow time for commercials (as was often the case) but because some things had been censored. It actually wasn’t until just a few years ago that I finally saw a restored print that included more violence, etc. (Information re: what was restored can be found through a Google search – or just watch the currently available DVD and see for yourself.)

  3. Obviously a must see.

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