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Big-T & the Bada-Bings

Ode to an Ape
The Legacy of King Kong

by A. Jacob Hiebert

He was a seething, raging, rampaging giant, a hairy beast who struck terror in the hearts of moviegoers nationwide. His name was King Kong, and this year marks the 65th anniversary of the release of the RKO monster horror masterpiece that was one of the most famous American movies ever made.

Images ©1933 Turner Home Entertainment Group
King Kong is the grand-daddy of all monster movies and was so well made and well written that you can watch it again and again and always find something new. It was a special effects tour de force in it's day, costing well over $500,000 to produce (a whole lot of dough back in 1933) and taking more than two years to make. Kong began a tradition of high-budget, high tech suspense thrillers that are still popular today. But more than a spectacle to behold, King Kong is also a tense, psycho-sexual drama and a disturbing, dream-like exploration of the human soul.

The film revolves around an eccentric movie producer named Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong), who hears of a place called Skull Island, where a giant creature, "neither man nor beast," is said to exist. He hires a ship and a crew and sets sail, hoping to capture the creature on film. Just before their departure, Denham finds Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) hungry and desperate on the mean streets of New York and convinces her to be his leading lady. Onboard the ship, Darrow falls in love with first mate Jack Driscol (Bruce Cabot), but when they reach the Skull Island, she is kidnapped by the natives and sacrificed to their god, the incredible Kong. Kong falls in love with Darrow and takes her back to his treacherous lair. In hot pursuit of the young maiden, Driscol, Denham and a dozen others encounter a whole slew of terrifying beasts who also inhabit the island. They rescue Darrow, capture Kong, and decide to salvage the journey by bringing the great ape back to Manhattan and putting him on display. But things go awry when, on opening night, Kong breaks loose and runs amok, going on a killing spree and carrying Darrow to the top of the Empire State Building before he is shot down and falls to his death.

It's hard to imagine, but King Kong was considered one hell of a scary film when it was first released. Moviegoers were stunned by scenes of the mighty Kong biting off people's heads and trampling them to death in stop-action animated sequences that, for the time, were startlingly realistic. So shocking was some of the footage, that a few people in test audiences walked out in disgust, or because they were physically ill. Executive producer David O. Selznick decided to remove five scenes from the movie that were thought to be too much for many viewers. There is a legend in Hollywood that the five scenes still exist on celluloid, and many Kong-o-philes dream of a day when a new, uncut version of King Kong will be released.

Although viewers were frightened, they were not frightened away. Upon its release, King Kong played 10 times a day in two New York City theaters, the Roxy and Radio City Music Hall. It broke world records for attendance and grossed more than $89,000 in it's first four days, which was crazy money at a time when a ticket set you back some 15 cents. Not until the release of Star Wars would another high-tech movie affect audiences so profoundly.

Besides being a sensational story, the Kong narrative is both thoughtful and ingenious. Watch closely and you will find intriguing duelisms hinging on the plot. Darrow and the Monkey are like the yin and yang of a great psychic drama. He is massive, hard and irrepressible, while she is small, soft and irresistible. Kong's mysterious island home is set off against Manhattan in the throes of the Great Depression. Both are dark, dangerous places, but one is a bastion of primitive savagery and the other the very throne of modern civilization. In Kong's domain, Darrow is in bondage. In Darrow's New York, Kong is enslaved.

Images ©1933 Turner Home Entertainment Group
But one the most significant features of King Kong is that the Great Ape has a character that is decidedly human. Director Merian C. Cooper, on the advise of screenwriter Ruth Rose, emphasized the tragedy of unrequited love in Kong's predicament, and made the monster sympathetic as well as terrifying. At the end of the story, when Kong finds himself trapped atop the Empire State Building, he appears overcome by a deep sadness, as though he understands that he is about to die. He touches an open wound over his heart and looks at the blood thoughtfully. Then he gently puts Darrow down in a safe place, seems to say goodbye to her, and, like a brave warrior, takes one last stab at his enemy before plummeting to his tragic end. (Perhaps the most poignant aspect of the film is that this captivating swan song was not performed by an actor, but rather created by an animator with a puppet made of foam rubber and rabbit fur.)

Many actors who portrayed monsters in the '30s and '40s owed much to the great ape for showing how the most horrific creatures can reflect a bit or our own humanity back at us. When Boris Karloff portrayed the Frankenstein monster, viewers were sympathetic to the beast's hideous fate. The same could be said for Lon Chaney's Werewolf and Charles Laughton's Hunchback of Notre Dame. All of these movie monsters had more substance to them, more soul, and a significant dose of pathos, thanks to one giant, delinquent gorilla.

Alas, the legacy of the all-too-human Kong is slowly withering away. Today's movie monsters are decidedly inhuman. From the creature in Alien, to the extraterrestrials in Independence Day, the contemporary monster reflects a new kind of neurosis. Today, we conjure up blank-faced, zombie-like, impartial killers to match the malaise of soulless modernity. Back in '33, as society recovered from Victorian hypocrisies and wrestled with its love of demon rum, a fascination with war and the stupidity of societal inequities, the passionate Kong served as a symbol of the most repressed and feared aspects of the human consciousness. Righteous and stampeding desire may well be what people feared most in the Thirties. Certainly, this same fear led some people to believe that swing was 'the devil's music.' Today, we like to think that we have successfully integrated passion and desire into our collective psyche, but in truth, we still live in an emotionally repressed society. For this reason, King Kong still speaks to us, and we can still recognize, in Kong, the beast within.


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