King Kong - the Original

'Twas Beauty Killed the Beast

King Kong
King Kong. RKO PIctures

It's hard to be the first, the biggest, the best. Just ask the original King Kong. He's a legend, but by the time younger audiences finally see the 1933 classic movie, it can be a disappointment.

Brilliant innovation is often imitated and ultimately exceeded over the years, becoming high camp. In 1933, no one had ever seen anything as spectacular as King Kong, but the special effects that were groundbreaking in their day seem cartoonishly crude now.

Even so, King Kong is still a great story, and a must-see for any fan of classic movie fantasyscience fiction, and adventure. Rrrowr!

The Plot

Movie maker and adventurer Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) is embarking on a mysterious sea voyage for his next big movie, but he can't get any actresses to take the risk. Lucky for him it's the Great Depression, and gorgeous young women are starving on the street. He finds and feeds Ann Darrow (Fay Wray), promises to respect her virtue, and off she goes, the only girl on a ship bound for parts unknown.

Stalwart first mate Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot), doesn't want a dame aboard, but of course, he's drawn to Ann. And it doesn't hurt when Denham shoots some provocative screen tests of Ann in a racy, pre-code "beauty and the beast" costume.

Far out to sea, Denham reveals that he's looking for the uncharted Skull Island, where a monster named "Kong" is rumored to reign.

Sure enough, the island (done in a gorgeous old matte painting) emerges from a mysterious fog, with the natives about to offer a young girl to Kong in a spectacular ritual.

The arrival of the crew ruins the sacrifice, but the chief notices the "golden woman" (blonde Ann) and figures Kong would like her better anyway.

This leads to a thrilling abduction from the ship, the iconic scene of Ann tethered to the posts as a screaming sacrifice, and the arrival of the beast himself.

Now, for the good stuff! The crew chases after Kong to rescue Ann, fighting off various dinosaurs on the way. Kong fights off all kinds of prehistoric creatures who see Ann as an appetizer and literally shakes off the pursuing crewmen as they try to cross a massive log bridge.

Suffice it to say that after a lot of titanic battles, dead crewmen, and squashed villagers, Kong is subdued by superior technology (a "gas bomb") and carted off to Broadway to be exhibited as the Eighth Wonder of the World. The rest is cinematic history.

The Cast of 'King Kong'

Fay Wray became one of the original Hollywood "scream queens," although she detested the term. The pretty blonde made many films in America and England, but her destiny was decided the moment she first squirmed in Kong's mammoth paw. (Her autobiography was titled On the Other Hand.)

Armstrong is serviceable as Denham, never showing a moment's remorse or lack of confidence despite the fact that he's directly responsible for dozens of deaths and utter mayhem on Skull Island and the streets of New York.

Cabot is almost comically heroic in his neatly pressed shirts, striking manly poses. The ship's captain (Frank Reicher) does well with just a few lines, but the rest of the cast serves mostly as props for the real stars: Kong and his sparring partners, from a T-Rex to the biplanes buzzing the Empire State Building.

The Special Effects

Kong was an "animatronic" movie star before the word was minted, and while stop-motion animation had been done, no one had ever pulled it off on the scale of King Kong - especially on a shoestring budget. Early stop-motion genius Willis O'Brien also did a superb job with the dinosaurs, animating them so accurately that he anticipated future scientific discoveries about the way real dinosaurs moved. In 1933, audiences hadn't seen many gorillas, even in zoos, and nothing like a giant ape twisting the neck of a T-Rex until the blood gooped out.

They'd never seen a brontosaurus chomping on crew members, a "giant" iguana scaling a miniature set or any of the other tricks that would become commonplace in years to come.

So what if Kong keeps changing size in relation to the world? If his fur ripples oddly in the skyscraper scenes (marked by fingertips as he was posed for each shot)? So what if Kong's big, bare paw is clearly mechanical as he plucks off bits of Ann's dress? Crude by today's lights, these special effects were all new, big and sensational in 1933. The low-budget fantasy was a gargantuan hit and a huge money-maker.

The Backstory

Some of ​​King Kong's juicier moments were censored for its 1938 re-release after the Hays Production Code had gone into effect. The scene of the besotted ape partially undressing Ann and tickling her was deemed too risqué. Scenes of Kong squishing helpless villagers into the mud, eating various people and throwing a woman to her death were thought too violent.

There's disagreement over why a scene of crew members being eaten by a giant crab and a huge spider was deleted. Some say it was cut for reasons of pacing; others because a test audience found it too gruesome. The scene was restored in the 2005 remake by Kong aficionado and Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson.

'King Kong' - The Bottom Line

While it may seem melodramatic, even cheesy today, King Kong was a work of enormous creativity, vision and huge ambition in 1933. It taps into the enduring themes of the primitive world versus civilization, art and exploitation, fear, desire and sexual taboos. It retells the ancient tale of beauty and the beast on a literally gigantic scale.

It's a must if only for its fame and its place in film history. It's a pretty good movie, too.