King Kong was a landmark American monster film, directed and produced by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack. The screenplay by James Ashmore Creelman and Ruth Rose further developed from the idea conceived by Cooper and also Edgar Wallace.
It stars Fay Wray, Bruce Cabot, and Robert Armstrong, and opened in New York City on March 2, 1933, to rave reviews. The film was noted for its pioneering special effects by Willis O’Brien. It was the first significant feature film to star an animated character and also made actress Fay Wray an international star.
King Kong was invented by this guy named Merian C. Cooper. He was born in Jacksonville, Fla., and went on to become a globetrotting adventurer, a war hero, and a really colorful guy.
Cooper came back to the US after the war and became a reporter for a while. Then he eventually became an explorer, joined an explorer team, and went around the world to all sorts of exotic places. He and his partner, a guy named Ernest Schoedsack, started to make documentary films of these travels and that’s how he got into filmmaking. And then he also ended up going into aviation when commercial aviation was in its infancy.
Cooper suddenly got this idea that he’d like to make a natural drama about an ape that fights a Komodo dragon. That was his initial concept. And he decided to make it a gorilla because he thought gorillas had more personality than baboons did.
Cooper ended up becoming RKO Pictures head David O. Selznick’s assistant in the early 1930s. Selznick was an American film producer, screenwriter, and film studio executive. He is best known for producing Gone with the Wind (1939) and Rebecca (1940), both of which earned him an Academy Award for Best Picture.
Willis O’Brien was the man who pioneered stop-motion animation as a feature-film technique. He had worked on a film in the 1920s called The Lost World. It’s about explorers who go to a South American plateau and discover dinosaurs. They bring them back to London. One dinosaur escapes and causes havoc. It was based on the story by Arthur Conan Doyle. O’Brien had since been hired along with the director to do a sequel called Creation and that deal was at RKO where Cooper worked.
Cooper looked at the project and didn’t think it was very interesting dramatically. But he loved O’Brien’s techniques. He probably then started to think that stop-motion might be the way to do his gorilla movie without having to spend a lot of money and travel around the world. Cooper was probably inspired by the dinosaur model tests that O’Brien had created for Creation and thought ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to have the gorilla fight the dinosaurs? That would be better than a Komodo dragon.’ And that’s where Kong became gigantic.
The plot is about a film crew that travels to a tropical island for an exotic location shoot and discovers a colossal ape who falls for their blonde starlet. Director Carl Denham (played by Robert Armstrong) leads the film crew to a remote, uncharted Pacific island in search of the legendary Kong, a gigantic ape. After the island’s inhabitants abandon actress Ann Darrow (Wray) to Kong, Denham and his crew pursue the beast through the dinosaur-infested jungle. They eventually capture Kong and take him to New York as a sideshow attraction, with disastrous results.
“King Kong” defies such limited expectations because it was so ahead of its time. Willis O’Brien created impressive effects that were not only technically brilliant but also highly imaginative in terms of cinematic action. The pace of the film is both fast and quite fluid. Max Steiner’s music adds a fantastic atmosphere (it also helped lay down some of the basic rules of motion pictures scoring).
After the RKO board approved the production of a test reel, Marcel Delgado constructed Kong (or the “Giant Terror Gorilla” as he was then known) per designs and directions from Cooper and O’Brien on a one-inch-equals-one-foot scale to simulate a gorilla 18 feet tall.
Four models were built: two jointed 18-inch aluminum, foam rubber, latex, and rabbit fur models (to be rotated during filming), one jointed 24-inch model of the same materials for the New York scenes, and a small model of lead and fur for the climactic plummeting-down-the-Empire-State-Building shot.
The stop-motion cinematography, along with rear-screen projections, matte paintings, and mixtures of real actors and miniature animated dolls merges to make astounding action sequences completely believable.
“King Kong” was a film that was way ahead of its time, and it remains one of the greatest films of all time. It is the original summer blockbuster movie. A massive spectacle of cutting edge special effects for the time and a wild story, it set the bar for Universal Pictures and kickstarted a legacy.
The 1933 film had a big-screen release in 1956 when the average movie ticket cost 59 cents in the U.S. The story of the giant gorilla-like creature who’s dragged into our world continues to fascinate moviemakers. It was remade in 1976, starring Jessica Lange in her first movie role, and again in 2005 by filmmaker Peter Jackson. Kong: Skull Island came out in 2017, and Godzilla vs. Kong is set to come out in 2021.
King Kong in King Kong (1933)
- The 1933 King Kong film isn't just another monster picture, it is one of the original monster pictures.
- Great pacing, groundbreaking special effects, and a ton of action make for an entertaining experience.
- The story, like Frankenstein and Dracula, has taken on the significance of a modern folk tale, layered with obvious moralizing and as familiar as personal history.