Directors: Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack
Production: RKO Radio Pictures Inc.; black and white, 35mm; running time: 100 minutes. Released 2 March 1933, Radio City Music Hall and RKO Roxy Theatre, New York. Re-released 1938 with a few scenes censored. Filmed 1932–33 in RKO Studios and backlots, also in San Pedro Harbor and Shrine Auditorium, Los Angeles. Cost: $670,000.
Producers: Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack with David O. Selznick as executive producer; screenplay: James Creelman and Ruth Rose, from a story by Merian C. Cooper and Edgar Wallace based on an idea conceived by Cooper; photography: Edward Linden, Vernon L. Walker, and J. O. Taylor; optical photography: Linwood C. Dunn and William Ulm; editor: Ted Cheesman; sound recordist: E. A. Wolcott; sound effects: Murray Spivack; production technicians: Mario Larrinaga and Byron L. Crabbe; art directors: Archie S. Marshek and Walter Daniels; art direction supervisor: Van Nest Polglase; music: Max Steiner; chief technician: Willis H. O'Brien; special effects: Harry Redmond Jr.; Williams Matte supervision: Frank Williams; technical artwork: Juan Larrinaga, Zachary Hoag, and Victor Delgado; projection process: Sydney Saunders; costume designer: Walter Plunkett; King Kong modellist: Marcel Delgado.
Cast: Fay Wray (Ann Darrow); Bruce Cabot (Jack Driscoll); Sam Hardy (Weston); James Flavin (2nd mate); Victor Wong (Charley); Paul Porcasi (Fruit vendor); Dick Curtis (Crewman); Robert Armstrong (Carl Denham); Frank Reicher (Captain Englehorn); Noble Johnson (Native chief); Steve Clemento (Witch king); Roscoe Ates (Press photographer); Leroy Mason (Theater patron).
McBride, Joseph, Persistence of Vision, Madison, Wisconsin, 1968.
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Gottesman, Ronald, and Harry M. Geduld, editors, The Girl in theHairy Paw, New York, 1976.
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Wray, Fay, On the Other Hand: A Life Story, New York, 1989.
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Kennedy, X. J., "Who Killed King Kong," in Dissent (New York), Spring 1960.
Boullet, Jean, "Willis O'Brien; or, The Birth of a Film from Design to Still," in Midi-Minuit Fantastique (Paris), October-November 1962.
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Behlmer, Rudy, "Merian C. Cooper," in Films in Review (New York), January 1966.
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Peary, G., "A Speculation: The Historicity of King Kong," in JumpCut (Chicago), November-December 1974.
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Rosen, D. N., "Race, Sex, and Rebellion," in Jump Cut (Chicago), March-April 1975.
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Dunn, L. G., "Creating Film Magic for the Original King Kong," in American Cinematographer (Los Angeles), January 1977.
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"The Making of the Original King Kong," in American Cinematographer (Los Angeles), January 1977.
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Fiedel, R., "Sound Track: And the Beast Goes On," in AmericanFilm (Washington, D.C.), March 1977.
Broeske, Pat J., in Magill's Survey of Cinema 2, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1980.
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Mandrell, P. R., and George E. Turner, in American Cinematographer (Los Angeles), August 1983.
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MacQueen, Scott, "Old King Kong Gets Face Lift," in AmericanCinematographer (Hollywood), vol. 70, no. 1, January 1989.
Snead, J., "Spectatorship and Capture in King Kong: The Guilty Look," in Critical Quarterly, vol. 33, no. 1, 1991.
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Few films can compete with the longevity of King Kong. The film is as popular today, on television and in revival theaters, as it first was in its initial release in 1933. Ironically, the film's contemporary setting of 1933 has now made it a period piece, though the ideas and themes have never aged.
The story was conceived by producer/director Merian C. Cooper and inspired by his trips to Africa and Southeast Asia to shoot documentary films. Cooper imagined setting a primitive giant ape against the civilization of a modern New York City. This vision was eventually realized on the screen with the aid and collaboration of special visual effects artist and innovator, Willis H. O'Brien.
The special visual techniques developed for King Kong were numerous. One of the more important technical advances was the development of a safe (cellulose-acetate) rear-projection screen by Sidney Saunders. Although earlier films had used a more primitive glass rear-projection screen (which, if accidently broken, could cause serious injuries to actors and crew), the cellulose-acetate screen allowed King Kong to be the first film to use large-scale rear projection. Another innovation was the invention and use of the optical printer by Vernon Walker and Linwood Dunn. The optical printer presented a new way of combining optical mattes that was superior to the old, and more complex, Dunning process. The enormous amount of matte work in the film (used to combine the special effects with the live action) would not have been feasible without the help of the printer.
Although stop-motion animation had been used previously in other films (such as O'Brien's The Lost World in 1925), King Kong was the first feature film to use stop-motion to create a continuous character. The model of King Kong was constructed by artist Marcel Delgado out of metal, rubber, cotton and rabbit fur, yet it was truly an "actor." He could express emotions and react logically to the situation around him.
The making of King Kong also presented a problem in the area of sound effects. Kong had to sound believable, yet unlike any other creature on earth. The sound department at RKO, headed by Murray Spivak, ran dozens of new and innovative experiments to create the right soundtrack. Kong's roar was a combination of lion and tiger sounds slowed down and played backwards. The music is still another example of the film's originality. Many films in the early 1930s used classical music as background accompaniment. King Kong was one of the first films for which an entire score was created. Composer Max Steiner carefully plotted out each scene in the film so that he could synchronize his music with the action.
The technical innovations found in King Kong are not the only reasons for its success; every good film must start with a good story. King Kong has a universal appeal, making it one of the most popular and well-known American films.
—Linda J. Obalil
One of the classic monster movies of all time, the 1933 production of King Kong is best remembered for the dramatic scenes of a giant ape climbing the recently erected Empire State Building and batting away airplanes with Ann Darrow in his grasp, though she is universally remembered not with that character's name, but as the real-life actress who portrayed her, blonde scream queen Fay Wray. That image of Kong and Wray atop a New York skyscraper, along with Dorothy on the Yellow Brick Road and Scarlett returning to the ruins of Tara, ranks among the iconic film scenes of the pre-World War II era. A popular sensation in its day, King Kong failed to win a single Academy Award nomination, yet has outlived most of its contemporaries to achieve the stature of a twentieth-century myth.
A modern variation on Beauty and the Beast, the screenplay was credited to popular pulp writer Edgar Wallace, though King Kong was the brainchild of documentary film pioneer Meriam C. Cooper and his partner in adventurous filmmaking, Ernest Schoedsack. The film's effects, groundbreaking in their day, were the handiwork of stop-motion animator Willis H. O'Brien, whose efforts on the silent film version of Doyle's The Lost World had laid the groundwork for King Kong. Promising Fay Wray "the tallest, darkest leading man in Hollywood," Cooper and Schoedsack cast her as Ann Darrow, the petite object of Kong's affection. Rounding out the cast were Robert Armstrong as headstrong filmmaker, Carl Denham (modeled after Cooper), and Bruce Cabot as the rugged seaman who falls for Darrow even before Kong does. Kong himself was in actuality a small model. O'Brien's genius was that movie-goers not only believed Kong was a giant, but also that he had a soul.
Like other "jungle" movies of the period, King Kong delineates a clash between the "civilized" and the "primitive." Denham's "bring 'em back alive" expedition to remote Skull Island uncovers a living prehistoric world populated by local natives and—on the other side of their great wall—dinosaurs, pterodactyls, and Kong himself. The islanders kidnap Ann to offer her as a bride for the giant gorilla, prompting a struggle in which many men die in the attempt to rescue her from her fate. Eventually Kong is subdued and taken to Manhattan, where Denham exploits the great beast as "The Eighth Wonder of the World." But the love-smitten Kong escapes, rampages across Manhattan, recaptures Ann, and ends up atop the Empire State Building, only to plummet to his death in a dramatic air assault. Denham's rueful obituary: "It wasn't the airplanes—it was beauty that killed the beast."
All of this thrill-packed hokum was made convincing by O'Brien's effects, aided by skillful art direction—Skull Island was a mythical landscape straight out of Gustave Doré—the optical printing of Linwood Dunn, the sound effects of Murray Spivak and, above all, the almost wall-to-wall musical score by Max Steiner. It has been suggested that Depression-era audiences took a particularly vicarious delight in seeing Kong lay waste to the buildings and subway trains of the cold-hearted Manhattan. King Kong has remained a staple of late-night television and in film festivals, chiefly because O'Brien endowed his great brute with an uncanny personality that evoked sympathy from audiences.
King Kong spawned a modestly budgeted, inferior sequel, Son of Kong (1933). O'Brien also worked on one more giant ape movie, Mighty Joe Young (1949), aided by his young protege, Ray Harryhausen, who went on to make many successful screen fantasies of his own, such as The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (1958) and Jason and the Argonauts (1963), all of which carry echoes of King Kong. In truth, there is something of the big hairy ape in every giant-monster movie that has followed in his pawprints, from Japan's Godzilla (1955) to Spielberg's Jurassic Park (1992) and, of course, in the successful 1976 remake King Kong. But no other creature feature seems to have quite caught the public imagination as the original King Kong.
The image of Kong and his beloved atop the skyscraper has been continually copied in horror movies, parodied in cartoons, comic books, and countless television commercials. For a period in the 1980s, a pop shrine to the gorilla's memory was created when a giant inflated model of King Kong was hung near the top the Empire State Building. Still, the original black-and-white film has lost none of its power to enthrall. Modern digital technology may have outstripped O'Brien's hands-on puppetry, but it has not replaced the charm and humanity that every great fairy tale requires and which King Kong displays in abundance.
Goldner, Orville and George E. Turner. The Making of King Kong. New York, Ballantine, 1976.
Gottesman, Ronald, and Harry Geduld. The Girl in the Hairy Paw: King Kong as Myth, Movie and Monster. New York, Avon, 1976.
Harryhausen, Ray. Film Fantasy Scrapbook. 2nd Ed. South Brunswick, New Jersey, A. S. Barnes, 1974.
King Kong (1933) is one of the most famous of all horror-fantasy-adventure films, combining imaginative technical wizardry with good old-fashioned thrills and an unusual and appealing "Beauty and the Beast" story. Decades before the development of computerized special effects, King Kong featured a masterfully conceived and remarkably believable title character—an ape, who during the course of the story is innocently attracted not to a fellow primate but to a pretty young woman.
King Kong is the saga of Carl Denham (played by Robert Armstrong, 1890–1973), a willful filmmaker who heads off to tiny, exotic Skull Island to shoot his latest movie. In his company are Ann Darrow (Fay Wray, 1907–), his pretty lead actress, and Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot, 1904–1972), the rugged first mate on board the ship on which the moviemakers are traveling. Upon their arrival, they encounter Kong, the king of the island, a giant ape who takes a liking to Ann. After battling various dinosaurs, Kong eventually is captured and transported to New York City, where he is billed as the "Eighth Wonder of the World" and put on display. Upon thinking that Ann is in danger as photographers' flashbulbs pop in her face, Kong breaks free and goes on a rampage. In the celebrated final sequence, the ape scales the then recently erected Empire State Building (see entry under 1930s—The Way We Lived in volume 2). Kong is shot at by machine guns positioned in airplanes. Finally, he falls and plunges to his death.
King Kong was directed by Merian C. Cooper (1893–1973) and Ernest B. Schoedsack (1893–1979), who first worked together as documentary filmmakers before going on to produce and direct fiction features. However, its most significant creative contribution came from Willis O'Brien (1886–1962), a model-animation and special-effects genius. O'Brien initially experimented with on-screen special effects in 1914. He developed the technique of stop-motion animation, which he first employed in The Lost World (1925), an adventure film featuring prehistoric monsters. King Kong was his next feature film and his most celebrated work. The ape actually is a small model, whose movement is achieved by manipulating it slightly, photographing it, and moving it again.
King Kong was immediately followed by an inferior sequel, The Son of Kong (1933). Decades later, a series of contrived monster movies appeared: King Kong vs. Godzilla (1963), King Kong Escapes (1968), and King Kong Lives (1986). A heavily promoted remake, also titled King Kong (1976), proved disappointing. Modern-day special effects techniques, such as those employed by Steven Spielberg (1947–) in Jurassic Park (1993; see entry under 1990s—Print Culture in volume 5) and The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997), may have made Willis O'Brien's shot-by-shot stop-motion animation obsolete, but they have not replaced the magic and wonder of King Kong.
For More Information
Goldner, Orville and George E. Turner. The Making of King Kong: The Story Behind a Film Classic. New York: Ballantine Books, 1976.
King Kong.http://history.acusd.edu/gen/filmnotes/kingkong.html (accessed February 7, 2002).
King Kong (film). RKO Radio Pictures, 1933.
King Kong: The Eighth Wonder of the World.http://www.aboyd.com/kong/index.html (accessed February 7, 2002).
Thorne, Ian. King Kong. Mankato, MN: Crestwood House, 1977.
King Kong ★★★★ 1933
The original beauty and the beast film classic tells the story of Kong, a giant ape captured in Africa by filmmaker Carl Denham (Armstrong) and brought to New York as a sideshow attraction. Kong falls for starlet Ann (Wray), escapes from his captors, and rampages through the city, ending up on top of the newly built Empire State Building. Moody Steiner score adds color, and Willis O'Brien's stop-motion animation still holds up well. Scenes were cut during the 1938 re-release because of the Hays production code, including one where a curious Kong strips Wray of her clothes. Remade numerous times with various theme derivations. 105m/B VHS, DVD . Fay Wray, Bruce Cabot, Robert Armstrong, Frank Reicher, Noble Johnson, Sam Hardy, James Flavin, Ernest B. Schoedsack, Merian C. Cooper; D: Ernest B. Schoedsack, Merian C. Cooper; W: James A. Creelman, Ruth Rose, Edgar Wallace; C: Edward Linden, J.O. Taylor, Vernon Walker; M: Max Steiner. AFI ‘98: Top 100, Natl. Film Reg. ‘91.