An adventure film like no other. The original version of King Kong created an instant impact on release that has been felt in the industry almost 90 years later. Nearly every film that contains monsters on the rampage owes a huge debt to this great picture.
King Kong had a hugely successful opening on March 2, 1933, at the Radio Music Hall and RKO Roxy in New York City. The official world premiere of King Kong took place at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre on March 23 and the demand for tickets was such that all the screenings that week were sold out. These may have been difficult economic times but King Kong proved to be a much-needed tonic for the depression-weary American cinemagoers.
Grossing $90,000 on its opening weekend, the biggest opening for a picture at the time, the success of King Kong is often credited for saving RKO Pictures from the threat of bankruptcy.
However, King Kong was more than a box office and a critical triumph. It boasts a lasting legacy because the movie seems forever present. It was re-released, remade twice, rebooted, and spawned several lucrative sequels.
The Story Begins
King Kong begins with Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong), a renowned filmmaker who was known for his wildlife on-location pictures, chartering Captain Englehorn’s The Venture ship for his new jungle project but he has yet to secure a beautiful actress to star in the lead role.
As he searches the streets of depression-hit New York City for the lead actress, Denham notices a starving young lady who is caught stealing from a fruit stand. Denham helps her avoid trouble but then realizes that he has just found the lead for his new picture.
The young lady, named Ann Darrow (Fay Wray), reveals a bit about herself to Denham in the tea shop, and in turn, Denham convinces her to join him on his sea voyage for “the adventure of a lifetime”. If she accepts the job, Denham promises to lift her out of obscurity.
As the ship sails off, Ann meets the first mate Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot), who is offish to her queries but it does not take long for them to become close.
Denham finally reveals the destination to Englehorn (Frank Reicher) and Jack Driscoll when he describes a mysterious island with a large mountain that is shaped like a Skull. Denham tells them that the island is not found in maps and then talks of the legend of the mythical ape monster that lives behind a large ancient wall.
They arrive at the mysterious Skull Island and the crew members go ashore to investigate the island. They come across a strange ceremony where the islanders are sacrificing a young woman to become the “Bride of Kong”. Carl Denham spots an opportunity to film the event but they interrupt the ceremony. The hostile native chief (Noble Johnson)approaches.
Englehorn understands their language and moves forward to translate to the approaching native chief. Seeing Ann, The Native Chief offers to trade six of his women for the “Golden Woman”. Ann is frightened and Jack warns Carl to get her out of this mess. Englehorn refuses the offer from the Native Chief and the crew slowly backs away.
Later that night, Jack tells Ann that he loves her. However, the island natives sneak aboard the ship to kidnap Ann.
The crew soon could hear a lot of noise and ceremony on the island. They also realize that Ann is missing. They arm themselves with weapons and make their way ashore.
Meanwhile, the island natives take Ann through the giant gate towards an altar at the other side of the large wall as a sacrifice for Kong. They await his arrival.
After the Native Chief rings the gong, an eerie silence follows before the giant gorilla-like monster makes his entrance, clenches the terrified Ann from the altar, and roars back at the natives.
The crew arrives but they are too late. Driscoll witnesses the monster take Ann into the darkness of the jungle. They decide to follow the monster and so, the adventure to rescue Ann begins.
King Kong was not the first fantasy monster adventure movie ever made. There were others, most notably the silent 1925 epic The Lost World which had been the big monster movie until King Kong came along.
But King Kong was different. What sets it apart from its predecessors is that is a splendid old-fashioned adventure story presented on a grand scale. Brilliantly directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schodsack, King Kong contains effective suspense sequences and conveys a genuine sense of wonder.
The screenplay by James Ashmore Creelman and Ruth Rose was developed from a story by Cooper and writer Edgar Wallace. Merian C. Cooper was always fascinated with gorillas. As a boy, Cooper enjoyed reading Paul Du Chaillu’s 1861 book Explorations and Adventures in Equatorial Africa. Paul Du Chaillu is regarded as the first modern European outsider to confirm the existence of gorillas.
Merian C. Cooper would later create ideas about a large monstrous ape that fights lizards and tried to sell the concept to Paramount Pictures. It was in 1931 when Cooper became executive assistant to studio executive David O. Selznick that he was able to develop those ideas.
Cooper began to work on The Most Dangerous Game and hired Ernest B. Schoedsack to be the director. He also cast stellar talents such as Canadian actress Fay Wray, British stage and screen actor Leslie Banks, and American film actor Robert Armstrong.
As the production of The Most Dangerous Game went underway, Cooper began to focus on his huge fantasy project that would include employing the services of special effects animator Willis O’Brien (who had worked on The Lost World).
In the hope of saving money, Cooper instructed Austrian-born American composer Max Steiner to reuse music from other movies but Steiner felt that the movie needed an original score. In a test screening, the music was heralded as bringing the movie to life.
Cooper would again employ the services of Fay Wray and Robert Armstrong for the lead roles, along with American actors Bruce Cabot, Sam Hardy, and former film studio pioneer Noble Johnson (who was the co-creator of the first African-American film studio in American history).
Finished in six weeks, Steiner’s effectively bombastic score for King Kong was one of the first feature-length scores written and used in a Hollywood talkie film. The first full score for a talkie was also created by Steiner for Bird of Paradise, which was released in the previous year.
King Kong was the first to have a thematic score rather than just background music and was also the first film in history to use a 46-piece orchestra. King Kong was also the first film to be recorded on three separate tracks: dialogue, sound effects, and music.
The impressive sound effects are by sound engineer Murray Spivack, who created the Kong roar by mixing recorded growls of lions and tigers, played backward.
The stop-motion cinematography, along with the matte paintings and the rear-screen projections, looked astounding in 1933 and despite the advancements in special effects today still impresses. Special effects pioneer Willis O’Brien was able to give attention to detail to give his ape a personality, conveying fear, anger, sympathy, and pain. This all enables the audience to show respect for the monster as well as feel relieved at his eventual demise at the hands of WWI-style fight-biplanes at the summit of the Empire State Building.
The lead performances are striking. Robert Armstrong is perfectly cast as showman Denham and Bruce Cabot is the perfect as hardened hero Jack Driscoll, but the most memorable performance in the picture is from Fay Wray who conveys Ann with an innocence, vulnerability, and beauty that has rarely been matched on screen.
Despite the passing of time and changing attitudes, the original version of King Kong is still splendid entertainment that continues to garner praise from many younger film historians and has made a huge impact on the genre. Cinema owes so much to King Kong, which is simply the greatest Monster Adventure film ever made
ESSENTIAL READING: FAY WRAY AND ROBERT RISKIN: A HOLLYWOOD MEMOIR
(Please read the more detailed Classic Film Journal book review)
Fay Wray and Robert Riskin: A Hollywood Memoir is a critically acclaimed part-Hollywood memoir and part-Hollywood love story, but it is also an affectionate tribute by a proud daughter. There is so much detail about the early years of Hollywood along the way, including screenwriter Robert Riskin’s relationship with Frank Capra, actor Fay Wray’s involvement with the Screen Actors Guild, and her work with other notable Hollywood filmmakers.
The happiness that Robert and Fay would find together is recollected by their daughter with joy and a touch of melancholy.
Insightful, intelligent, and brilliantly written, Fay Wray and Robert Riskin: A Hollywood Memoir continues to receive huge critical acclaim and was nominated for “Best Biography” for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize.
Fay Wray and Robert Riskin: A Hollywood Memoir is not only a sensitively told love story and an honest account of two early leading lights of early cinema but is also a highly informative record of an important time in Hollywood’s history. This is the definitive book on the era.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Victoria Riskin is the daughter of acclaimed film actress Fay Wray and influential Oscar-winning screenwriter Robert Riskin.
Victoria is an acclaimed author, psychologist, television writer and producer, and human rights activist. She was president of the Writers Guild of America West and served for twelve years as a director of Human Rights Watch.
Victoria lives on Martha’s Vineyard with her husband, the writer David W. Rintels.
Fay Wray and Robert Riskin: A Hollywood Memoir
By Victoria Riskin
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Pantheon Books, New York/University Press of Kentucky (Paperback)
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