Creature Features in Review: King Kong (1933)
I am going to assume you’ve seen this film so spoilers will abound. If you haven’t, for the love of God, go. Go now.
Well, now. Here we are again.
Last time, it was Bride of Frankenstein (check out THAT review here). Sure, Thomas, I’ll cover Bride’, thinking quick watch through of Frankenstein and the sequel, then 1500 words, bish bash bosh, job done. Then that sinking feeling, as I realized how ludicrously good Bride was, how much I’d have to say, would want to say, just how big the world of existing essays, books and criticism must already be.
You might have thought I’d have learned something from that.
So, King Kong. In my defense, I had seen it before, and more in my defense, it had been well over a decade. So, my memory was simply that it was bloody brilliant, absurdly good for a movie made in 1933, a cracking, action packed monster movie with some bonus pathos and what have you.
And, you know, that wasn’t wrong, per se. Watching it again for this, I was forcibly struck by how sophisticated so much of the effects work was. The combination of stop frame and huge model work, for example, is incredibly impressive, as are the moments where the stop frame interacts with filmed actors at certain points (even if with modern eyes it’s painfully clear when the actor becomes a stop frame version of themselves, there’s still a certain not-quite-sure-how-they-did-that thrill to the transitions). Kong himself is glorious, especially in mid shot, fighting a T-Rex or giant snake. The giant model face isn’t quite as expressive or mobile as the stop frame equivalent, but it’s for the most part intelligently used for short close ups and is especially brilliant when he has some poor islander or explorer being used as a chew toy.
Similarly, Skull Island is as spectacular as I remembered. Bathed in the ethereal, slightly hazy black and white glow (my DVD copy of the movie was clearly a straight lift from the film stock, preserving even the cue marks signaling the need to swap reels), the island really does feel like a visitation to The Past. The giant wall, the extensive, gorgeous hand painted backgrounds, the cunning use of rear projection to show dinosaurs and explorers on camera together and the mighty, thunderous score, all combine to brilliant effect, creating a viewing experience that is utterly captivating. King Kong is a class act all the way.
Similarly, the acting is superb throughout, with special props going to the indefatigable Fay Wray, who has the absolutely thankless task of screaming in peril from basically the 30-minute mark to the close, with little pause for breath, but who nonetheless brings incredible depth, humanity, and interiority to her character. Her acting in her first big scene, when filmmaker Denham makes his pitch, is especially brilliant, her desperation and hunger warring with common sense and fear, her vulnerability genuinely heartbreaking. It packs an extra wallop when you consider that the Great Depression was both a current and ongoing event at the time the film was made, with many young actresses no doubt facing real world choices every bit as stark as Ann Darrow’s dilemma.
That’s a layer of sophistication the movie exhibits that had completely passed me by on prior viewings, actually. I’m so used to movie depictions of The Great Depression (The Sting being the example that immediately springs to mind, a movie I love unconditionally) that the contemporaneous nature of the film passed me by. And yet King Kong is, in part, a pretty pointed social commentary on the economics of that time – how people sought to escape from the crushing misery of the day to day by visiting movie theaters and getting blissed out on Hollywood. When you think about the essential amorality of filmmaker Carl Denham in King Kong, and the ultimate fate of the theatregoers eager to see the ‘8th wonder of the world’… well, let’s just say there was a to-me entirely unexpected level of anxiety and self-criticism from Hollywood that was both pointed and kind of thrilling. I mean, I was expecting – eagerly anticipating, even – the fifty-foot gorilla going ape. A movie displaying insecurity about the role of mass entertainment in the midsts of financial upheaval and social misery? That was a welcome and crunchy surprise.
There were other surprises that were less welcome. And here, I am going to wimp out by simply observing the painfully obvious; namely, that a movie that was made in the 1930’s and that depicts an island of ‘natives’ with brown skin contains racial politics that could charitably be described as ‘problematic’. I am both acknowledging and skipping that not because I don’t think it matters, or doesn’t deserve discussion, but because minds far superior to mine have already engaged with the subject with far more knowledge and insight than I could hope to bring, and you should go to Pop Matters and READ their article, and then read Angry Bitch Blog on the subject, and then Inverse’s take, and don’t forget this bit of commentary. All I will say here is obvious; it’s there, and it’s ugly. And if you feel a discussion of Kong that doesn’t engage with the racial politics of the movie is woefully incomplete, you’re right, and I’m sorry, but I also know when a subject is too big for me, both in terms of concepts and word counts.
I think it’s worth taking just a quick look at the Kong-as-boy thing, though.
And let’s just start by observing that Kong clearly is male. It’s not just the name – though there is that – but his performative chest-beating displays are lifted directly from the behavior of the male silverbacks he’s modeled on. And let us further observe that this fifty-foot ape is, therefore, genetically speaking, a very close relative indeed.
Again, in full awareness that I’m dislocating my hip in order to sidestep the huuuuuuuge racial implications and encoding of the giant ape falling for a white woman, having previously eaten all the brown women he was offered (because, fucking yuck, let’s not), what we have here, therefore, is a love story. A violent, inarticulate, hugely powerful male is drawn to kidnap, then preserve and protect a small, vulnerable beautiful female from a hostile world.
Now, the movie itself draws an explicit parallel here between this situation and the story of Beauty and the Beast – indeed, it makes what looks suspiciously like a post-modern joke to that effect on the boat, with Denham fully saying out loud, apparently to himself ‘Say! I’m developing a theme here!’. But the film that I found myself going back to was Bride Of Frankenstein.
Because Kong, like The Monster, is, well, a monster. Powerful. Inarticulate. Angry. Violence-prone. Strong, yet vulnerable. Lonely.
That’s the real kicker, for me – the factor that gives both such amazing cinematic power and resonance. The innocence. Kong is innocent. Not good, you understand: he kidnaps women, seems to enjoy a spot of mortal combat rather too much, and certainly chews people to death, even if he doesn’t eat them. Like the other Monster, his anger is swift to rise and terrible to behold.
At the same time, he’s still innocent. In Kong’s case, he’s unarguably a product of his environment. In an ecosystem as hostile and violent as Skull Island, only the most ruthless and strong can possibly survive. Kong’s aggression and violence may be terrifying, but they are also understandable necessary survival mechanisms. He may have that considerable ape intelligence, but he’s still, as we’d understand it, a ‘dumb animal’.
Like the monster, we are invited to both fear Kong, but also pity him – perhaps even love him. It’s fundamentally Not His Fault, after all – he’s taken from a place where he belongs to a world he cannot hope to understand. Again, sidestepping the imagery of the chains (not enough yuck in the world, there), we’ve got the same notion seen in ‘Bride..’ of ‘civilisation’ colliding with a more primal force.
And this is where, I think, things get fundamentally fucked up. Because Kong is a monster. He kills indiscriminately, his obsession with Ann Darrow is the worst kind of stalker/woman as object behavior, and he appears to enjoy destruction and violence for its own sake. These are monstrous behaviors. Add in the whole fifty feet tall thing, and, well…
None of us would remotely dig having Kong in our town, and if he was coming down the street, the vast majority of us wouldn’t want the RSPCA (or ASPCA for my transatlantic friends). No, we’d want the army and a fucking bazooka.
But he’s not on our street. He’s on the screen. And there, knowing what we know about his history, safe in the knowledge that we’re not going to become Kong popcorn, we can feel for him. We can empathize with his pain. We can rationalize his obsession, forgive his violence. He’s a dumb animal. He doesn’t know any better. He’s been hurt and he’s lashing out. It’s the only behavior he understands.
And when the planes finally take him down, some of us may even weep.
I usually do.
And, you know, that’s okay, because he is an animal. If we take the fiction seriously, it’s not surprising to feel that way. But it is, also, undeniably unsettling. Kong’s behavior, his effect, is terrible, terrifying, horrendous. Yet he is innocent. As with that other monster, it’s the tension between those two facts that elicits such strong emotions, such powerful pathos.
Still, I can’t help feel like there’s a parable here, albeit not the one intended by the filmmakers. Because looked at as a list of traits, Kong is pretty much textbook toxic masculinity (yes, I know he’s an ape). And you can feel the racist barely-subtext tugging again if you note that the message seems to be that these traits are innate, a product of environment, and that ‘civilisation’ is ultimately to blame for transforming the environment to such an extent that these natural instincts no longer have relevance, have become destructive.
And, you know, fuck that, basically.
I think by far the more interesting read is to note that, yes, Kong has these horrible traits, but we as an audience can see them and still empathize with him, still feel sadness at his treatment and his passing. In the same way as we do for the Universal Monster, and interestingly, in a way that far fewer of us can for the real life, human monsters that share these traits.
Because, of course, Kong is innocent.
That’s the aspect of the movie that still gnaws away at my mind, the dichotomy that elevates this from merely brilliant period popcorn to something… ah, hell, we’ve come this far. Let us just call it art, shall we?
Kit Power lives in the UK and writes fiction that lurks at the boundaries of the horror, fantasy, and thriller genres, trying to bum a smoke or hitch a ride from the unwary. In his secret alter ego of Kit Gonzo, he also performs as front man (and occasionally blogs) for death cult and popular beat combo The Disciples Of Gonzo. He is the published author of such works as, GodBomb!, Lifeline, and has contributed to numerous anthologies, including The Black Room Manuscripts, Widowmakers, and upcoming Easter Eggs and Bunny Boilers.
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This entry was posted on May 4, 2017 by Thomas S Flowers. It was filed under History, Horror, Movies, Reviews and was tagged with 1933, black and white, Bruce Cabot, classic monster movies, Classics, Creature Feature, creature features, Creature Features in Review, Ernest B. Schoedsack, Fay Wray, film, Frank Reicher, Gonzo, greatest movies, Guest author, Horror, horror reviews, King Kong, Kit Power, Merian C. Cooper, monster movies, monsters, movie reviews, Reviews, Robert Armstrong, social commentary, Top Ten.