A strong argument could be made for King Kong being the most influential movie ever made. Kong’s progeny includes Mighty Joe Young, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, Godzilla, Ray Harryhausen films, Star Wars, Jurassic Park, Lord of the Rings, Avatar, many of the character-driven stop motion creations of the past ninety years, and dozens of authorized and unauthorized spin-offs, sequels, remakes, and rip-offs. The film inspired dozens, if not hundreds of directors, special effects artists, sound effects creators, composers, and film creators of all kinds, who have in turn inspired the next generation of filmmakers, and they the next. It is the first special-effects driven blockbuster of the sound era; a genre-crossing spectacular that introduced the world to some of cinema’s most iconic imagery and sound, the screen’s first true Scream Queen, and one of the all-time great gods and monsters of film history.
King Kong is many things: a monster movie, a romance, a prehistoric fantasy, a film about filmmaking, a social drama dealing with class divides during the Depression, but above all, it is an adventure story. Action and adventure was the lifeblood of Kong’s creator, Merian C. Cooper, and the character of Carl Denham is largely based upon him. While serving as a fighter pilot in World War I, Cooper met a kindred spirit in Ernest B. Schoedsack, who shot a great deal of documentary battle footage during the War. After returning home, the two joined forces shooting nature documentaries for RKO, which they called “natural dramas.” In shooting these films, both men would place themselves in great danger to get the most exciting shots. After creating two particularly renowned documentaries, Cooper began dreaming up an adventure film centered around a long-held obsession with gorillas. He envisioned a giant ape battling prehistoric lizards, eventually layering in aspects of swashbuckling romance and the Beauty and the Beast fairy tale.
Novelist Edgar Wallace was given first crack at writing the script, but it would go through two more drafts, one by James Ashmore Creelman and another by Ernest Schoedsack’s wife Ruth Rose before Cooper was satisfied. By this time, he had already cast the leads, Robert Armstrong as Carl Denham, Bruce Cabot as Jack Driscoll, and most important of all Fay Wray as Ann Darrow. As the script was being developed, Cooper pondered ways in which the special effects could be achieved. First he considered bringing actual gorillas to the island of Komodo to fight the giant Komodo Dragon lizards native to the island. Thankfully that idea was immediately ruled out by Schoedsack and the RKO brass including studio head David O. Selznick. He also considered men in ape and dinosaur costumes. Then Cooper visited the set of a picture in development at the studio titled Creation. It was there that Cooper met special effects wizard Willis H. O’Brien.
O’Brien had developed a style of animation using models, later dubbed stop-motion animation, in the 1910s and had sold several short films to Thomas Edison’s distribution company. He later created lifelike dinosaurs for the 1925 silent film adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, which was a sensation in its day. Soon after Cooper met O’Brien, production on Creation was scrapped and many elements of that film transferred over to Kong. Practically all of the dinosaurs that appear in the film were originally designed and fabricated for Creation as were many of the Skull Island settings. In fact, several elements of King Kong were built upon frameworks that appeared in previous films including the Cooper-Schoedsack documentaries Grass: A Nation’s Battle for Life (1925) and Chang: A Drama of the Wilderness (1927) as well as their narrative adventure film The Most Dangerous Game (1932).
The exception is Kong himself and several special effects innovations created by Willis O’Brien and his small team that included sculptor Marcel Delgado, cinematographer Frank D. Williams, and artists Harry Redmond Sr. and Jr. The various techniques used in the film redefined special effects for decades with most of them still being used in some form all the way up to the digital revolution sixty years after the release of King Kong. Not only did the film blaze new trails in stop-motion animation but revolutionized the process by combining it with live action in the same shot. This was achieved through a variety of techniques including rear projection, optical printing, traveling mattes, and multi-pass techniques in which the same piece of film is passed through the camera multiple times to capture various aspects of the shot. O’Brien and team not only created the remarkable animated figures but the sets they inhabit. The jungle sets in particular are still beautiful to behold, created through a combination of miniatures, matte paintings on glass in the foregrounds, and on canvas in the backgrounds. The result is a lush, three-dimensional environment that feels remarkably real, even in such a stylized form. All these elements combine into one of the few films of the 1930s that can still elicit the response “how did they do that?” from its audience.
Giving these visuals another layer of reality is Kong’s truly innovative use of sound. Murray Spivack knew he could not simply use existing stock sounds for Kong and the various other inhabitants of Skull Island. Much like Ben Burtt would for Star Wars and Jurassic Park decades later, Spivack sought out environmental sounds, then combined and manipulated them into what became the voices of these creatures. For example, a slowed down tiger roar played backward combined with a lion’s roar slowed and played forward became the basis for Kong’s mighty roar. He then added his own voice filtered through a megaphone to add another layer to the great gorilla’s voice. Spivack also worked closely with the film’s composer, Max Steiner, as the two understood that the combination of sound effects and music would create a dimension of reality and emotional weight when combined effectively.
Where Spivack’s sound effects bring a great deal of verisimilitude to the film, Steiner’s musical score gives King Kong its soul. The score for Kong is in many ways the first modern film score, utilizing leitmotifs, variations on these themes to underscore the emotion, and precise synchronization to the image. Leitmotifs were originally developed by Richard Wagner for his epic operas; they are short themes assigned to various characters to offer recognition, announce traits, and evoke feelings toward them. It is a technique that has been used throughout film history perhaps to greatest effect by composers such as John Williams who wrote famous themes for the shark in Jaws, Darth Vader, Superman, E.T., and Indiana Jones, among others. Steiner created several for King Kong, but the most recognizable are for Kong and Ann. The variations on these themes then evoke the gradual change in their relationship and ultimately underscores the sadness of Kong’s downfall. The score was much more precise in its relationship to the image than previous film scores with some cues acting like sound effects such as the steps of the Chieftan’s feet on Skull Island and Kong smashing the sides of the elevated train in New York.
Another iconic sound, Fay Wray’s unforgettable scream, was heard for the first time in a horror thriller in 1932’s Dr. X, and for the first time in a Cooper-Schoedsack film in The Most Dangerous Game that same year. But in Kong, her status as Scream Queen was crystallized. A natural brunette, Wray felt that it would make sense to go blonde for the role, to stand out against her primate co-star, and chose her own wig for Ann. This in itself became iconic, and generations of blonde Scream Queens and final girls were born. During the time that Wray was making Kong, she made four other thrillers that further cemented her Scream Queen legacy. Besides the two already mentioned, she also appeared in The Mystery of the Wax Museum and The Vampire Bat in 1933. Such a schedule was possible because of the special effects on King Kong as breaks in the shooting of approximately five weeks at a time were taken in order to create the effects and make sure they were working, enough time for actors to take on other projects in the meantime.
Of all these five films, none became so iconic as Kong and Fay Wray spent her life enjoying, fighting against, and eventually embracing this fact. All told, she made about 100 films, with her famous scream used as a sound effect in dozens more, but all of them were overshadowed by King Kong for decades and likely for all time. During one of his many appearances as host of the Oscars in the 1990s, Billy Crystal spoke with Wray backstage and reportedly said, “I just love your movie,” to which she replied with the answer she gave to many who said something similar, “which one?” Of course, having spent many years in Kong’s shadow, she knew very well which one, and in her later years came to terms with that fact. Only recently have some of her other films been restored to their former glory and made more available to film fans. When she was first cast in the role of Ann Darrow, Merian C. Cooper told her that she was going to have “the tallest, darkest leading man in Hollywood.” Having become quite fond of Cary Grant while doing a play with him in New York, Wray had her hopes set high. Cooper then showed her drawings of who would be one of the greatest movie stars of all time.
Kong himself truly is the film’s greatest milestone. He is the first central character of a film that is completely created through special effects, but also a fully realized character. When we first meet him forty-five minutes into this one hour-forty-five-minute movie, he is a god, a king, and a monster. Like Ann, we are afraid of him and what he might do. As the film goes on, we soon realize that there is more to this animal than meets the eye. He becomes Ann’s protector, fighting off a Tyrannosaurus Rex, a Elasmosaurus, and a Pterodactyl to save her; he expresses great curiosity about her and his environment; and ultimately we feel great empathy for him. These kinds of feelings had been evoked for monsters before—Lon Chaney’s Phantom of the Opera (1925) and Boris Karloff’s creature in Frankenstein (1931) certainly did, but these were great actors in makeup. Here, we feel for what is, in reality, an 18-inch model.
Of course, not every element of King Kong holds up today. Its racial attitudes are not exactly enlightened and Driscoll’s opinions about women are almost comical in their outlandishness. As the years have gone by, the seams in the effects show more than they once did, but the emotions remain. There is something about the animated performance that feels so real, even through the jerky motions inherent to stop motion of the era and the bristling of the rabbit fur covering Kong’s armature caused by Willis O’Brien’s manipulation of the model. Somehow, none of that matters while watching the film. What matters is what we feel as the airplanes (the pilot and gunner that deliver the fatal blow played by Cooper and Schoedsack themselves) bear down on Kong, the blood that flows from his wounds, the last longing look he gives to Ann before setting her gently on the ledge of the building as he succumbs to his wounds, and falls. We feel the pang of sadness and loss. Some of us may even weep at his downfall. Even after ninety years, reactions like these remain, and that is the magic and power of King Kong.
In Bride of Frankenstein, Dr. Pretorius, played by the inimitable Ernest Thesiger, raises his glass and proposes a toast to Colin Clive’s Henry Frankenstein—“to a new world of Gods and Monsters.” I invite you to join me in exploring this world, focusing on horror films from the dawn of the Universal Monster movies in 1931 to the collapse of the studio system and the rise of the new Hollywood rebels in the late 1960’s. With this period as our focus, and occasional ventures beyond, we will explore this magnificent world of classic horror. So, I raise my glass to you and invite you to join me in the toast.