King Kong (United States, 1933)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

"And lo, the beast looked upon the face of beauty.
And it stayed its hand from killing.
And from that day, it was as one dead."
- Old Arabian Proverb

When released in 1933, King Kong was greeted with unprecedented amazement. State-of-the-art visual effects, an entertaining story, and a touching ending combined to bequeath upon this film the coveted label of a "classic." It its era -- and, indeed, for decades after -- no monster movie (whether made in the U.S., Japan, or elsewhere) approached the lofty perch of this one. The title character, the creation of stop-motion effects wizard Willis O'Brien (mentor to Ray Harryhausen), captivated audiences and started a world-wide love affair with a giant ape.

It is no longer the 1930s, however. By today's slick standards, King Kong has aged, and it's debatable how kind the passage of years has been. Many rip-offs, one remake (Dino DeLaurentis' campy 1976 version), and films like Jurassic Park have come and gone. While the original King Kong still sits upon the throne of our memories, advances in technology and acting have dated aspects of the production. Still, in watching these old black-and-white images which were assembled with craftsmanship and care long before computers made this stuff easy, it's impossible not to feel some sense of awe at what was accomplished those many years ago. In many ways, Kong is still king.

The plot is reasonably straightforward -- not a bad thing for a monster movie. A film crew headed by Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) arrives at the mysterious Skull Island to do some location shooting for a new picture. However, the dark-skinned natives take a liking to Denham's leading lady, Ann Darrow (Fay Wray, in the role that immortalized her scream), and kidnap her as an offering to their god, Kong. Just as the cavalry, led by Denham and a hunky sailor named Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot), rushes in to save Ann, Kong - a 25-foot high ape (actually, his size varies throughout the film) - makes his appearance, snatching his prize from the altar and heading off into the jungle. Denham, Driscoll, and a search party set off in pursuit. Various encounters with Kong and a series of prehistoric relics decimate the group. In the meantime, we get to see battles between the giant ape and several dinosaurs. Eventually, Driscoll sneaks Ann away from Kong and, when the beast arrives at the natives' village to retrieve her, Denham uses sleeping gas to capture him.

Weeks later, a live show opens in New York City's Radio City Music Hall, with a chained Kong as the main attraction. He is, as the marquee proclaims, "The Eighth Wonder of the World." Despite Denham's best precautions, Kong breaks free on opening night, grabs Ann, wreaks havoc in the city, then climbs to the top of the Empire State Building. There, high atop New York, in one of cinema's most unforgettable moments, Kong fights a duel to the death with a group of biplanes.

The story stands up pretty well today. In fact, with the exception of a few "modernizing" changes, the basic frame was left intact for the 1976 Dino DeLaurentiis remake. Character development, on the other hand, is nonexistent. Strange as it might sound, Kong is the most thoroughly explored personality in the film. Driscoll and Ann are types (the dashing hero and the damsel in distress), and Denham isn't given much more depth (the ruthless movie maker who's actually not such a bad guy).

The acting is not among King Kong's strengths. What was acceptable in 1933 is barely adequate in comparison with the top performances of today. It's a challenge to accept any of the three leads as something other than an actor reciting lines. And, as for the actual words they are expected to say... How's this for dialogue: "Some big, hard-boiled egg gets a look at a pretty face and bang! - he cracks up and goes sappy." But perhaps such corniness is part of King Kong's enduring charm.

The ending is, of course, the best-known part of King Kong. The scene with Kong grasping the top of the Empire State Building with one hand while swiping futilely at the attacking bi-planes with the other makes a statement about man's indiscriminate destruction of nature on the path to technological mastery. Kong was king of Skull Island, but, on Manhattan Island, he is a rampaging nuisance to be dealt with. It's not so much beauty that killed the beast, as it is the inexorable march of progress. In the world of man, a mythical beast like Kong has no place.

On a purely techincal level, it's impossible to deny that King Kong's special effects are not as polished or jaw-droppingly amazing as those featured in Jurassic Park. But movies are not received exclusively on the basis of visual technique. Computers formed the monsters in Spielberg's dino-epic; everything in Kong was painstakingly manipulated by hand. Recognition of this makes viewing King Kong all the more special. The dinosaurs of the '90s look real; the creatures brought to life by Willis O'Brien's stop-motion look fantastical. It's possible to savor the craft that went into creating the 1933 film. By now, it has become a routine matter of maneuvering pixels.

Despite its various deficiencies and occasionally antiquated style, King Kong remains not only a milestone of movie-making, but a magical experience. Ultimately, the mystique of the film lies not so much in what it offers today, but what it has contributed during the course of the last six decades. Watching King Kong reminds us of what movies once were and what they have the potential to be, and that's something that Jurassic Park will never be able to do.

King Kong (United States, 1933)

Ranked #101 in Berardinelli's Top 100
Run Time: 1:45
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "NR" (Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1