Kong Retrospective: King Kong 1933

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Apr 27, 2017, 3:34 PM EDT (Updated)

This week will see the release of the latest King Kong film, Kong: Skull Island. With Gorilla Grodd on The Flash, a third Planet of the Apes coming this year and Kong himself appearing in over a dozen films since 1933, you might ask yourself: "What's the fascination with apes and gorillas in science fiction?"

So this week we're taking a look back at some of Kong's greatest (and not-so-greatest) hits to understand the beast and why we beauties have maintained a dedication to him for so long.

And we'll start with the movie that gave us our first glimpse at the Eighth Wonder of the World: 1933's King Kong.

The original King Kong boasts a few firsts: It was the first film to be released in both of New York City's largest theaters and sell out four days straight, the first film to ever see a re-release and the first to ever have a commentary track on laserdisc.

Doesn't sound as impressive as you thought it would, does it?

The truth is what makes King Kong so great isn't what it was the first at, but what it was the best at. King Kong was an amalgam of new, great ideas and designs that had previously been pioneered but didn't all exist together until Kong.


King Kong was not the first feature-length movie to have its own full musical score, but it was one of the first. The composer, Max Steiner, is considered to be one of the fathers of film scoring, and King Kong was the achievement that made him a name.

What makes Steiner's work stand out is the incorporation of the score to build a very specific, clear intention. With each step of the aborigine chief toward our heroes, Steiner struck a louder chord to reinforce the oncoming danger.

Steiner was inspired by Kong, saying the film "was made for music. It was the kind of film that allowed you to do anything and everything, from weird chords and dissonances to pretty melodies." And if you doubt the scope of the inspiration, consider that he utilized a whopping 80-piece orchestra for the score, a tactic virtually unheard of at the time.


Why was Max Steiner so inspired by King Kong? The visuals! What's so amazing about those visuals is that they very nearly never existed. Kong's producer, Merian C. Cooper, had originally intended to have a man play Kong in a gorilla suit and mask. And the dinosaurs on Skull Island were very nearly Komodo Dragons.

Thankfully, something better caught Cooper's eye: stop-motion animation. Willis O'Brien was a pioneer for the art of stop-motion animating. In 1925, he worked on The Lost World, defining how people imagined dinosaurs for decades. He was even commissioned by Thomas Alva Edison to continue that work.

But not every O'Brien story is a happy one. Sometimes his work would be seen as "too boring." Films he'd dedicated countless hours to would be cut up and used in different films without providing the credit O'Brien deserved.

For every cloud there is a silver lining, and in the case of King Kong, it was the job of a lifetime. Cooper scooped up the rights to some of O'Brien's dinosaur work, incorporating it into Skull Island's already foreboding set pieces. Cooper also commissioned O'Brien to create Kong himself, yet another accompishment which would go on to define O'Brien's career.

Even one of the supposed flaws of Kong as a stop-motion design, that his fur was in constant motion from the animating process, was seen as something impressive and even life-like by audiences.

So while King Kong might not have been the first stop-motion film, Kong himself, combined with Cooper's vision of a giant gorilla climbing the Empire State Building and Steiner's stunning score, created an overall impact that had never been felt by audiences before.


Before Carrie Fisher was a script doctor extraordinaire, Ruth Rose put pen to paper and made King Kong into the fast-paced, thrilling adventure it was. Rose may not have been the first woman to write a screenplay, nor the first to tackle sympathetic monsters (hi, Mary Shelley), but no woman before her had tackled both to such success.

Previous to Rose's involvement, James Ashmore Creelman had crafted a much slower vision of King Kong, one that likely would never have inspired the work of O'Brien or Steiner. It was Rose who gave Carl Denham and Jack Driscoll their personalities, which guided so much of the energy of the picture.

"Oh, no. It wasn't the airplanes. It was Beauty killed the Beast," perhaps, Kong's most famous line, was written by Ruth Rose. Frankly, it probably didn't hurt to have a woman pen a script that would pitch Fay Wray's Ann Darrow as someone who could sympathize with a giant gorilla. After all, without Ann, how would we ever have sympathized with Kong ourselves?


Movies with tons of talent are a dime a dozen these days, but that doesn't remove the risk of mediocrity. In fact, we'll talk about that when we get to the 1970s King Kong. But the original King Kong isn't just a good movie for 1933 -- it's a good movie, period.

King Kong fortified what spectacle moviemaking could be, but more importantly, King Kong set the standard that spectacle is nothing without substance. Steiner's score is powerful, Rose's script tight, and O'Brien's stop-motion work awe-inspiring, but it's the cumulative effect that makes the whole production worthwhile. It's those small moments between Fay Wray and Bruce Cabot without a stitch of special effects that give us a reason to care about what happens next.

Okay, and yes, a giant gorilla climbing the Empire State Building is still exactly as iconic now as it was over 80 years ago. There's a reason, after all, King Kong has remained so iconic in the landscape of science fiction motion pictures.

All of which is to say that, with Kong: Skull Island on the very near horizon, now is that perfect time to see how King Kong got his start.

And when you're done with that, we'll talk about the less successful (but no less intersting) King Kong 1976!