Fay Wray - Ann Darrow
Robert Armstrong - Carl Denham
Bruce Cabot - Jack Driscoll
Frank Reicher - Captain Englehorn
Sam Hardy - Charles Weston
Merian C. Cooper - pilot
Ernest B. Schoedsack - machine-gunner
Merian C. Cooper - Director
Ernest Schoedsack - Director
David O. Selznick - Producer
Ruth Rose - Screenwriter
Eddie Linden - Cinematographer
Willis O'Brien - Special Effects
Max Steiner - Score
Merian C. Cooper, a Florida-born flier, soldier of fortune and journalist, had joined forces with an ex-Keystone Comedy cameraman named Ernest B. Schoedsack to create the American documentary. Their Grass (1925) and Chang (1927) are classics of authentic adventure--yet it is through their fantastic fiction of King Kong (1933) that they will be ever remembered in cinema history.
Out of an uncharted, forgotten corner of the world, a monster . . . surviving seven million years of evolution . . . crashes into the haunts of civilization . . . on to the talking screen . . . to stagger the imagination of man!
Those words in the souvenir program hardly prepared audiences for the film that was about to unreel. "The Strangest Story Ever Conceived by Man!" . . . "The Greatest Film the World Will Ever See!" For once the catchlines were right. In the history of horror movies, indeed of movies, King Kong still towers above them all.
Edgar Wallace, whose play The Terror had been the first horror talkie, arrived from London on December 5, 1931. He had an eight-week contract with RKO to script a horror film. Three days later he wrote to his wife, "I am also doing a story of prehistoric life!" For inspiration they ran him Dracula ("Crude horror stuff, but I must say it raised my hair a little bit") and Murder by the Clock ("The actor was the very man I want for my horror story." (Irving Pichel, who directed Wallace's film, Before Dawn, in 1933 also played the part of Sandor in Dracula's Daughter, 1936).
Kong, the fifty-foot King of Skull Island, somewhere south-west of Sumatra, had in reality a bigger build-up than even the fifty mist-wreathed minutes that precede the shock of his first on-screen appearance. The movie was three years in the making, more if you include a pilot piece of prehistoric monster animation made for Harry O. Hoyt's abandoned project, Creation. This model work had been done by Willis O'Brien, man of The Lost World (1925), and it caught the eye of David O. Selznick, newly arrived at RKO as vice-president in charge of production. He showed the reel to Merian C. Cooper, who had already come up with an idea about an outsize ape. Instead of expensive location shooting, could Cooper construct his giant gorilla idea entirely in the studio, using animation?
Kong and the other models had to be separately photographed every time their position was changed a sixteenth of an inch. Said O'Brien, "We worked ten hours a day--the fight between Kong and the pterodactyl took seven weeks to film!" O'Brien had his work on The Lost World to guide him, but this time there was a brand-new problem. Since 1925 the movies had learned to talk: what did a prehistoric monster sound like?
Murray Spivak of RKO's sound department built forty noise-making instruments in all. For other monsters he recorded the growls of cougars, leopards and lions, reversing them to obtain previously unknown noises. His biggest problem, of course, was Kong. The type of sound made by a prehistoric ape would naturally relate to its present-day descendant, but a gorilla's growl was less than effective: Kong was fifty feet tall. Recording gorilla cries backwards at a slow speed was part of the answer, the rest was a specially built sound-box 25 feet square. This came in handy for hollow thumps when the great ape beat his chest. In addition, the classic film-score for King Kong, by Max Steiner, was one of the first ever completely composed for a Hollywood film.
Fay Wray was at RKO-Radio as the title role in Cooper's The Most Dangerous Game (1932) and was later summoned by the producer. "Mr Cooper said to me that he had an idea for a film in mind. The only thing he'd tell me was that I was going to have the tallest, darkest leading man in Hollywood. Naturally, I thought of Clark Gable." What she got was King Kong. When Kong reached to examine her curiously, peeling off what was left of her clothes, the half-minute scene took twenty-three hours to film. "They had a huge rubber arm with a steel cable inside large enough to hold me. The fingers were pressed around my waist and then, by leverage, they lifted me up into the air. All the close-ups were done that way. There was a tiny little doll model used for when King Kong was holding me. It was about three inches long. I couldn't tell the difference when I would go to see the day's work, it was blended that well."
King Kong had a monster premiere: it opened at the world's two largest theatres, the Radio City Music Hall and the Roxy in New York, simultaneously: the only picture ever to do so. Ten thousand seats packed for ten shows a day: for excapist entertainment there was clearly no Depression. King Kong came in at 650,000 dollars: it is still making money. When uleashed on television for the first time, one New York station ran it sixteen times in seven days.
Film producer-cum-explorer Robert Armstrong charters The Venture and steams off for Skull Island, armed with a map, a camera, and Fay Wray. The natives are unfriendly until they see her. Soon Fay finds herself chained to two pillars while a witch-doctor, accompanied by Max Steiner's magnificent music, chants: "Thy bride is here, O mighty one, great Kong!" Crashing down the overgrown undergrowth comes her hair husband, to bear Fay away to his primodial lair. Bruce Cabot braves many a monster before gassing the groom with grenades. The unconscious Kong is then shipped to America and exhibited as the Eighth Wonder of the World.
"He was a King and a God in the world he knew, but now he comes to civilization merely a captive, a show to gratify your curiosity." Dazzled by a thousand flashbulbs, Kong breaks his chains and rampages through New York. He finds his bride again and climbs to the top of the Empire State Building. Army planes swoop at him like mosquitoes, but their machine-guns do more than sting. Gently, the weakening King sets down his little Queen and falls, one hundred and two stories, to his death. His captor speaks his epitaph: "It was beauty killed the beast."
--DENIS GIFFORD, from A Pictorial History
of Horror Movies, 1973
A selection of King Kong films.
Find King Kong on eBay.com
A selection of King Kong in books.
A History of Horror
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