The “Citizen Kane” of monster movies: King Kong (1933)

In the grand old year of 2020, it seems that there isn’t much left to say about King Kong that hasn’t already been said. 

The “Citizen Kane” of monster movies has a timeless quality to it—the film is a certifiable masterpiece, no doubt about it.  Like Metropolis (1927), Jaws (1975), and Jurassic Park (1993), Kong still retains enough movie magic to hypnotize modern audiences and I suspect it always will.  Truly, what can someone like me say about a classic like Kong that you haven’t heard elsewhere?

The story is, by now, familiar, and a lengthy summary is likely unnecessary—but, for those who have been living in a persistent vegetative state for about a century, I will offer a brief Reader’s Digest version of events:

Thrill-seeking movie-maker Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) charters a ship to “Skull Island,” an as-yet unexplored land mass in the middle of the ocean.  When he encounters unemployed actress Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) stealing fruit from a street produce stand, Denham comes to admire her pluckiness and offers her a job as the leading lady in his film.  Together, Darrow and Denham board The Venture, and meet the crew—including the intrepid first mate, Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot). 

Upon their arrival at Skull Island, the crew (including Driscoll), Denham, and Darrow make contact with the indigenous tribe, but are driven off after interrupting a ceremony meant to appease the island’s god known only as “Kong.”  The party makes their way back to the boat, and that night, Darrow is kidnapped from The Venture by the islanders to be offered to Kong as his bride. 

What follows is the crew’s trek through the jungle to rescue Darrow, who is often placed in perilous situations due to the island’s man-eating fauna.  To protect Darrow, Kong fights with an Allosaurus (Kong breaks the carnivore’s jaw in an incredible display of stop-motion mastery) and a sea serpent.  The audience gets to witness the deaths of each member of the rescue party who made it beyond the ceremonial gates, save for the named characters of Driscoll and Denham (the only survivors of the rescue party).  Eventually, Driscoll catches up to Kong and Darrow atop Kong’s mountain perch, and rescues Darrow while Kong is distracted by a hungry Pteranodon. 

The two make it back to the village, where Denham, The Venture’s captain, and those sailors who did not go on the rescue mission are waiting.  Moments later, Kong bursts through the ceremonial gates like the Kool-Aid Man.  He eats a couple of islanders, crushes a couple more under foot, virtually lays waste to the tiny village, and then is put to sleep by the tranquilizer bombs Denham brought with him on the ship—just in case. 

Days later, Denham is ready to display Kong to the public as “the Eighth Wonder of the World.”  He invites Driscoll and Darrow, now engaged, to the show, and they accept.  The curtain is pulled, and Kong is displayed on stage and in chains. 

Darrow becomes uneasy due to Kong’s roaring and constant pulling at the chains, and Driscoll moves to comfort her.  Due to a combination of flash bulbs from the reporters and a misreading of Driscoll’s sudden movements as threatening to Darrow, Kong literally and figuratively goes ape and breaks his chains.  Driscoll takes Darrow to safety, and Kong escapes.  Denham pursues Kong as Kong runs amok in New York, looking for Darrow. 

After destroying a train full of people and dropping a blonde he mistakes for Darrow from her apartment window to her death, Kong eventually finds Darrow.  Kong kidnaps Darrow from her apartment through her window, makes his way to the highest point in the city (the Empire State Building), and climbs it, thinking it a suitable substitute for his old mountain perch.  Denham and the authorities call in fighter pilots to deal with Kong while Driscoll rushes up to the top of the building to rescue Darrow once again.  Driscoll succeeds in rescuing Darrow while the fighter planes distract Kong by shooting him. 

After taking several hits, Kong succumbs to his wounds and falls from the building to the street below.  As the authorities muse over the effectiveness of the fighter planes in killing Kong, Denham remarks, “It wasn’t the planes.  It was beauty killed the beast.”

So ends the epic that is King Kong

Calling Kong the “Citizen Kane” of monster movies is no example of hyperbole, my friends. While Citizen Kane (1941) set the standard for visual narrative and is technically impressive in its own right, Kong offered polished special effects (among which is stop-motion animation, an art in and of itself), stunning set pieces (like the jungle set that was also used in 1932’s The Most Dangerous Game), and a story that has a little bit of something for everyone: romance, comedy, action, drama. And it did so almost a decade before Orson Welles released his masterpiece.

Even the acting is top notch. Though only a puppet, Kong (often considered to have been “portrayed” by Willis O’Brien as stop-motion puppeteer) lends emotional gravitas to the film in a way that’s both somewhat shocking and strangely poignant. Bruce Cabot is superb as the courageous hero John “Jack” Driscoll. Robert Armstrong brings both hard-nosed determination and a good deal of heart to movie mogul/adventurer Carl Denham. And Fay Wray’s…uh, acting talents as Ann Darrow are quite…voluptuous.

With such a storied film as this, what can a neophyte film scholar in 2020 possibly offer?

Not much, sadly. Everything that needs to be said about this film has already been said–multiple times. Make no mistake: I love this film. My adoration for Kong and my admiration for the work of puppeteer Willis O’Brien cannot be overstated. I could spend one thousand words or more talking about how much I love this movie. I’ll spare you that, though, and offer instead some assorted trivia. This information has made the rounds, but is less frequently communicated to casual Kong fans and, thus, bears repeating here.

Kong’s Genesis: The Major Players

Though the plot summary is provided above, the real story of Kong starts with directors Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack.  Cooper and Schoedsack had worked together on films during the 1920s, and were known to be daredevil documentary-makers—especially Cooper, who once allowed himself to be chased up a tree by a Bengal tiger just to get the proper shot he needed.  In many ways, the intrepid character of Carl Denham was a sort of self-insertion for Cooper, Jack Driscoll was a rough analog for the more cool-headed Schoedsack, and Ann Darrow was a slight corollary for Rose Ruth, Schoedsack’s plucky wife who had accompanied Cooper and Schoedsack on many of their filmic adventures prior.

King Kong was Cooper’s dream film long before the name “King Kong” was even chosen.  Prior to pitching Kong to RKO, Cooper had been placed on an unfinished—and, frankly, doomed—dinosaur-centric film called Creation.  It was here that he met stop-motion animation pioneer Willis O’Brien.  O’Brien had previously worked on the successful silent film dinosaur spectacle that was The Lost World (1925), and so his talent was both proven and unquestionable.  Still, Cooper was not happy with how Creation was developing, and so he ultimately closed down the production.  Knowing that good resources—human and otherwise—are terrible things to waste, Cooper repurposed both O’Brien and many of O’Brien’s stop-motion puppets and models to make his tale of a big ape in a bigger city a reality. 

Though the RKO executives were wary of Cooper’s idea, they greenlit the project—and though Kong was in constant danger of becoming yet another unfinished film project, RKO never pulled the plug.  Cooper called Schoedsack for help with the directorial duties, and Schoedsack was more than happy to oblige.  British crime thriller author Edgar Wallace became attached to the project, and wrote the first draft of the script—but would be unable to contribute to any rewrites, as he died shortly after submitting that first draft to Cooper.  Though he contributed no revisions and very few of his ideas were used for the film, Wallace was given the film’s top writing credit, and was also named as author of the novelization.

The Novelization

Edgar Wallace may have received the top credit, but it was Delos W. Lovelace who penned the novelization of the film–or, more specifically, the novelization of the script of the film. As such, the novel follows the events of the film fairly closely, with a few exceptions:

  • The name of the ship our protagonists charter is called The Wanderer in the book. In the film, it is called The Venture. The Wanderer receives a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it deep cut background reference in 2017’s Kong: Skull Island.
  • The Wanderer’s cook, Lumpy, is introduced during the trip from New York to Skull Island (which is extended considerably in the novel). While Lumpy doesn’t appear at all in the 1933 film, the character plays a (relatively minor) role in the events of the 2005 Peter Jackson remake–where he is not only the ship’s cook, but also the ship’s dentist, barber, and doctor (for both humans and animals).
  • The novel describes the damage done to Kong’s lungs and heart by the fighter planes during his last stand atop the Empire State Building, resulting in labored breathing and desperate coughing. Instead of falling from the skyscraper due to weakness from his injuries, Kong throws himself to the ground.
  • The novelization features a description the rather infamous Spider Pit Sequence. What is the Spider Pit Sequence? I’m glad you asked.

The Spider Pit Sequence

Anyone who has followed me on this site knows that I have a bit of an obsession with lost media. So when I first discovered back in 2005 that Kong is “missing” a scene, I quickly ran to the Classic Horror Film Board to learn as much as I could about the contents of this scene.

The scene itself is pretty straightforward. It is said to take place after the sailors attempting to save Ann are tossed from a log bridge into a gaping chasm below by Kong. Surprisingly, many of the sailors survive this drop–but not for long, as they are soon beset by insectoid and arachnoid monstrosities intent on eating them alive (and these creatures do). The scene then shifts to another which is still in the film, where Kong is searching for the sole survivor Jack Driscoll as he hides in a crevice in the cliff wall, just before he himself is accosted by a two-legged lizard.

While the sequence doesn’t add much to the film besides acting as yet another gruesome reminder of the dangers of Skull Island, Willis O’Brien stated in interviews that he considered the sequence some of his best stop motion puppetry.

So, what happened to the scene? Why was it removed? How was it removed? Did it even exist at all (yes, that’s a question some have posed)? That, my friends, is a story for an article all by itself.

NEXT: The lost spider pit sequence

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