There are few movies that have become as integral to the history of cinema, as iconic and legendary, as King Kong. Images like Kong’s ascent of the Empire State Building at the film’s climax have become indelible icons of American cinema, up there with the final scene of Casablanca. It’s no surprise then , given the film’s massive influence, that Kong has been a semi-regular fixture at cinemas ever since, appearing in remakes of the original movie as well as spin-offs and sequels. That small pantheon is about to gain a new member in Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ Skull Island, a new take on the Kong mythos that transplants cinema’s favorite ape to the 1970s. With Skull Island‘s release approaching, what better time is there to revisit the entire Kong franchise? And that’s just what we’ll be doing, in a four part series that explores the history of King Kong’s live-action appearances. We’ve got a lot of ground to cover, given that the franchise spans seven (soon to be eight) movies, so let’s get started.
King Kong (1933) Dir. Merian C. Cooper & Ernest B. Schoedsack
The original King Kong is one of those films that really needs no introduction. It was a massive commercial success, busting blocks a good 42 years before Jaws properly coined the term. It was a massive moment in the field of special effects, a technical wonder the likes of which hadn’t been seen before, and one which would go on to inspire a whole generation of effects artists. It’s become a pop-culture institution, parodied by The Simpsons and countless others, and referenced in everything from Metal Gear Solid 2 to The Muppets. But why? Why is this 84 year old movie about a giant monkey and the woman he loves, or at least loves carrying around, considered one of the institutions of American film?
A huge part of it, probably the most important part, is the effects. Kong wasn’t the first film to make extensive use of stop-motion animation – in fact you can see films that mix live-action and stop-motion animation as from early as 1912 – but what made Kong so remarkable was how it mixed a number of tools and styles to blur the line between live-action performances and stop-motion, miniatures and primitive animatronics. Obviously the stop-motion models by Willis O’Brien and his team are amazing in their complexity and range of movement, but just as impressive are some of the tricks used to make it seem like the models are sharing space and interacting with real actors. In one sequence, live-action footage of Faye Wray being held by a full-scale Kong arm is imposed into the same frame as a stop-motion model of Kong. The footage of Wray was filmed first, then projected into a screen behind a stop-motion model, which was manipulated while the film was moved forward, frame by frame. Thanks to the camera angles, you can’t see the seam where the model ends and the real footage begins, so the effect is startlingly lifelike, all things considered. The film is full of similar shots and sequences that combine various effects techniques in ingenious ways.
Of course, the effects in King Kong look primitive by today’s standards, but when you approach the film with an open mind and start to consider how certain shots and sequences must have been made, you can see a level of craft and ingenuity on display that can still impress all these years later. There’s no shortage of talking points when it comes to the effects in King Kong, and if the actual content of the effects doesn’t impress you, the legacy it left behind should. This film inspired pretty much every massive name in special effects, from Stan Winston to Eiji Tsuburaya. It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to say that without Kong, modern special effects would be far different.
One aspect of the film that gets significantly less attention than the effects is the score. Listening to it today, King Kong‘s score doesn’t sound all that remarkable, but in its day it was a game-changer. Kong‘s score is actually the first major American talkie to have a feature-length score, the first to use recurring musical themes or leitmotif, and the first to use a full 46-piece orchestra. It brought film scores to a new level, one where music works with the film and accentuates it, rather than just being plopped on top.
You may be noticing a recurring theme here, that you really have to take King Kong in its proper context to get the full effect. It’s a product of its time, to the bone. Nowhere does this feel more apparent than in some of the film’s politics, especially when it comes to gender. The underlying theme of King Kong is, arguably, women as a disruptive force. From the opening quote of “And lo, the beast looked upon the face of beauty. And it stayed its hand from killing. And from that day, it was as one dead,” to the continual insistence by the film’s lead characters that having women around is a liability (an insistence that never really goes corrected or countered), to the famous final line of “Twas beauty killed the beast,” King Kong could very easily be read as a film with a rather low opinion of women. And that’s not even getting into the film’s treatment of race, which is a whole other can of worms.
Son of Kong (1933) dir Ernest B. Schoedsack
How do you follow up a movie like King Kong? The correct answer is that you don’t, but that didn’t stop them from trying. Son of Kong was released a mere 9 months after its predecessor, and made for less than half the budget of the original. With those kinds of limitations placed on it, it’s no wonder that it’s an inferior film, but what’s a wonder is that it’s not terrible – just forgettable.
Stars Faye Wray and Bruce Cabot didn’t return for the sequel, leaving Robert Armstrong’s Carl Denham and Frank Reicher’s Captain Englehorn as the only familiar faces. After Kong’s destructive rampage at the climax of the first film, Denham is being sued by just about everyone in New York, forcing him to skip town and go into the shipping business with Englehorn. The two eventually find themselves back on Skull Island in search of a fictitious (or is it?) treasure, joined by a duplicitous captain named Helstrom and a singer named Hilda. In addition to the expected dinosaurs, they find a 12-foot Kong on the island, who they surmise to be Kong’s son.
It’s obvious fairly quickly that Son of Kong is fully aware of the fact that it won’t surpass its predecessor. The effects are few and far between, and the film feels more like a jungle/naval adventure in which a giant ape eventually plays a small role than an actual Kong film. There’s more of a focus on comedy and character here, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Robert Armstrong actually carries the film rather well, and you could make the case for Helen Mack actually being a more charming leading lady than Faye Wray.
When things start to get more familiar in the last half hour, the difference in budget becomes even more apparent. The original Kong‘s big action scenes were, as we’ve already discussed, some of the most amazing ever put to film. The action was visceral and brutal, brought to live with smooth and elaborate stop-motion, often cunningly combined with other techniques. By contrast, the sequel’s action scenes are quicker, simpler, and brought to life with more jerky, low-frame-rate stop-motion. They aren’t terrible; they just frequently look more like something you’d see in a Rankin-Bass movie than a feature film.
Son of Kong is a cash grab, make absolutely no mistake about that, and there’s a reason you probably haven’t heard of it. Beyond being completely eclipsed by its predecessor in most regards, there’s just nothing that stands out – not the effects, not the acting, not the writing. But at the same time, it’s essentially harmless, and even occasionally kinda fun in a low-energy sort of way, which is probably the best the film could have hoped for.
Next time, we’ll be looking at Kong’s appearances in two Kaiju films produced by Toho studios, and directed by Godzilla director Ishiro Honda.