The original “King Kong” is one of the greatest motion pictures in the history of cinema. If you’re not on board with that opinion, you haven’t seen it on a big screen. Now you can. A 4K restoration is playing in theaters across the country on March 15 as part of the TCM Big Screen Classics series. Boston-area theaters include the Fenway, Showplace ICON, and Assembly Row. Visit www.fathomevents.com for locations and times.
Unleashed upon an unsuspecting public on March 22, 1933, “King Kong” tells the story of Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong), a director of wildlife films who has caught wind of a mythical creature on a distant island that he intends to get on camera. Or as he excitedly puts it to a theatrical agent, “I’m going out to make the greatest picture in the world, something that nobody’s ever seen or heard of. They’ll have to think up a lot of new adjectives when I come back.”
But it was the actual co-directors, Merian Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack, who had already built up a reputation for making adventure films, including “Chang: A Drama of the Wilderness” (1927), who made this film about making a film.
“King Kong” starts in Depression-era New York, where excitable, ambitious Denham signs feisty, hapless actress Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) to star in his film. He also hires a ship and a crew, and sets out for an uncharted island in the East Indies. They go ashore, carrying guns and gas bombs with “enough trichloride in them to put a herd of hippos to sleep.” Denham, crew, and Darrow stumble upon a native tribe’s sacrificial rite. Made a replacement sacrifice, Darrow is offered up to the big ape Kong, and Kong carries her off. Denham and square-jawed first mate Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot) try to rescue her, crew members are attacked by dinosaurs, and Kong is overcome (remember those gas bombs?) and brought back to New York. Then all hell breaks loose.
The film is a spectacle, with groundbreaking visual effects, combining matte paintings, rear-screen projection, split screens, animated puppets, and both full-size people and 5-inch dolls. On top of that, there’s believable and sometimes quite funny dialogue; plausible if a bit overwrought acting; superb cinematography, which captures the rhythms of the big city, the enormity of the jungle sets, and the spirit of Gustave Doré’s fantastical paintings; and a brilliant score by Max Steiner that ranges from tender to quietly foreboding to explosively Wagnerian.
A March 27, 1933, Boston Globe review said, “The picture is excellent, probably the best film of this type that has ever been made.” The film was a box office hit, has been rereleased six times, was placed on the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry, in 1991, and remains as exciting as it was almost nine decades ago.
Ray Morton, author of “King Kong: The History of a Movie Icon, From Fay Wray to Peter Jackson,” first saw the film on television in 1972, when he was 8, and has lost track of how many times he has watched it since.
He can rattle off the alternate titles before it was called “King Kong,” including “The Eighth Wonder,” “The Beast,” and “Kong,” adding, “I think it was unofficially referred to as ‘Production 601’ for a while at the studio.”
Having read all five drafts of the script, he can also address the differences among them.
“Edgar Wallace wrote the first one,” Morton said. “In his draft, Kong was discovered on an island by a bunch of prisoners and regular people who survived a shipwreck. Kong just kind of came out of the jungle, grabbed the girl, and ran off. There were no natives or village or wall. There were some dinosaurs, but not as many as in the film. He always climbed to the top of the Empire State Building, but in the original draft he was killed by a lightning strike, not a biplane. It was in the later [drafts], by James Creelman and Ruth Rose, when the wall and the natives came in, as well as the biplanes.”
So why should “King Kong” be seen on a big screen with a good sound system in a room filled with people? Because the visuals are stunning, the magnificent score complements and drives the action, and it’s fun to get caught up in the breathtaking pace of it along with a crowd.
And so much of it is so entertaining. You could make a comparison of the film’s assorted screams. The first high-pitched one, by Fay Wray, happens when Denham coaches Darrow to “scream for your life” while making test shots of her on the ship. Her second, much more intense one is when she first sees Kong. Then there are the deeper ones by the sailors who are being chased through the jungle by a dinosaur and are later thrown into a ravine by Kong (all of the male screams were emitted by the film’s sound designer, Murray Spivack). Wray offers up more varied screams as she meets with peril after peril on the island, whole crowds of New Yorkers let go with them when Kong escapes into the city streets, and there’s a major tonal difference between the scream of an unlucky woman whom Kong plucks from a hotel room bed and Wray’s when Kong again catches up to her.
A favorite scene of fans of both “King Kong” and pro wrestling is when Kong goes up against a Tyrannosaurus that’s threatening Darrow. It’s not just that the filmmakers have choreographed a grappling match that could have taken place in Madison Square Garden. The extraordinary sequence is made all the more realistic through animating a tiny, realistic doll of Wray in a tree that’s in front of a projected visual of the two creatures battling. They, in turn, are backed by matte paintings of the jungle.
Aside from many more similar scenes, there’s the restoration of a few that were once cut to meet Production Code standards — Kong comically tickling and removing some clothing from Wray, Kong furiously stomping and chewing on natives — and, of course, the stop-motion wizardry of the film’s “chief technician” Willis H. O’Brien, who brought Kong to life.
But the reason the film remains so popular isn’t because of its effects or action. It’s because of its pathos, of its story about this huge, lonely creature being charmed by this woman. Although it’s often described as a variation on “Beauty and the Beast,” Morton dismisses that.
“That story is about seeing the true person underneath the beast,” he said. “This is more like a Hercules story. Kong falls for the girl, and then gets killed because of it. That’s why we love the movie.”
∗ Merian Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack have cameos as the pilot and gunner who shoot down Kong.
∗ The 75-foot wall on the island was originally used in Cecil B. DeMille’s “The King of Kings.” It was later used in “Gone With the Wind” and was burned down for that film.
∗ When Fay Wray died in 2004, age 96, the lights in the Empire State Building were dimmed for 15 minutes in her honor.
∗ After the cacophonous Steiner score is heard in the opening credits, there is no music in the film until the 25-minute mark, when the ship approaches the island.
∗ Kong is supposed to be about 25 feet tall. There were three different-size models used: an 18-inch, a 24-inch and, for the fall from the Empire State Building, a 5-inch.
Ed Symkus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.