It is quite obvious why King Kong made it to the list. With at least two major remakes and a score of spin offs it is one of the most referred to monster films ever and it is also one of the few pre-1940 movies I knew before going into this project.
Seeing it now for the second time in this process there are a number of other features besides sheer reputation that I note explains its status.
The horror element is striking. The island the expedition goes to is just packed with monsters. Everything you can imagine that may come big and with teeth is there: Giant gorilla, serpents, T-Rex, Nessie, lizards, pteranodons and lots more. I later learned that a number of deleted scenes about doubled the number of monsters. All these creatures are vicious killers and we get to see it all. People are getting eaten, trampled, thrown away and torn apart with lots of screaming and panicked expressions. The only thing lacking to match a modern equivalent are some gory entrails. Frankly I was surprised that it was possible to go to this length in 1933 and even I, a jaded movie viewer of the 21st century am getting my cup full.
Another daring move is the sexual references. Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) is included on the boat ride by producer Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) to give his films some sex and we get our money’s worth. She is the classic Damsel in Distress, but more than that. The scene where Fay Wray is tied to the alter as an offering to King Kong is undisguised bondage sex with Kong representing the big, strong masculine force dehumanized into a monster and Wray is the captured feminine element waiting to be taken. Adding her fear and screams sends this right into an Amsterdam dungeon. Later when Kong starts taking off her clothes with a clearly lustful expression we get an extra measure. Again, come on, this is 1933!
Finally King Kong clearly broke new ground in the special effects area. While by today’s standards the stop motion animation and rear projection looks primitive and crude this is a big step up from its contemporaries. Compare for a second the bat in Dracula with T-Rex in King Kong. You get my point?
Yet all this said what strikes me about King Kong is how incredibly stupid it also is.
That goes for so many levels.
On the larger scale we have the entire premise for the story. An expedition heads off to an exotic destination, not for science or the general expansion of knowledge (well, maybe a marginal presence at discovering new things), but for commercial gain, simply to make some cool pictures that will sell tickets. Something with dangerous animals and maybe hostile natives. The girl Denham finds is brought along for this very purpose as it works well at the box office with a screaming woman in peril. This is something I cannot fault the movie for, but is a combination of the age and human/western folly in general. A typical National Geographic tv show is based on much the same premise.
Denham got all he wanted, but not on film. Plan B is to bring home the monster. That just must go wrong. That gorilla has absolutely no business in the city at all, chains or not. Lots of monster movies later we of course no that that is a very bad idea, but man have brought home spectacles throughout history so, well, why not?
The foolishness becomes more specific when it comes to the dialogue and story elements themselves. A few examples:
1. The captain of the ship speaks the local language of the island, although he has never been there before and the island has been isolated for hundreds or thousands of years.
2. Driscoll (Bruce Cabott) suggest using a plane to fly by Empire State building to pick up Ann. I know these are slow, old planes, but even at 100 km/h he would be ripping her apart if he actually caught her
3. The island is stuffed with mega fauna from several incompatible geologic periods. The dinosaurs cover the better part of the Jurassic and Cretaceous period while a primate like a gorilla (not to mention a giant one) would only emerge at the earliest in the Miocene, certainly the later part of the Tertiary period. It is like the Flintstones, matching dinos and Stone Age man. Talking of mega fauna, on small islands mega fauna becomes really small, not really big. There is nothing “dwarf” about any of the animals on this island.
4. Where is Mrs. King Kong? Or his siblings? Is he really the last of a proud race? If so, the expedition is right on time to kill off the last of a species.
5. The sheer arrogance of the expedition toward the “primitives” or the fauna of the island. Some scenes remind me of South Park: “It is coming right for us – bang bang!”. The fauna is there to be killed or exploited, not to be marveled at.
The hunt for King Kong and captive Ann costs the lives of 12 sailors, but since both Driscoll and Denham survive it is a success and the 12 victims are hardly missed. Any other expedition costing the lives of so many members would be immediately called off, instead the sorry remains of the expedition endeavors to capture Kong. Fortunately Kong’s rampage through the village only kills off natives and maybe a few more henchmen so, no worries, and the villagers are probably happy enough getting rid of their god.
Watching King Kong for me is an alternation between marveling at the technique, guts and imagination that went into it and shaking my head in misery over the shortcomings of this film. Let us just say that it is a terrible film that impressed me much.