Beauty and the beast: Looking back at 1933’s King Kong
Ivan Radford | On 29, Mar 2021
“It wasn’t the airplanes. It was beauty killed the beast.” Those are the iconic words that close out 1933’s King Kong – and not only gave us one of cinema’s most definitive fabled monster movie romances, but also ushered in the era of sound movie blockbusters.
Directed by Merian C Cooper and Ernest Scheodsack, the remarkable feat of big scale B-movie filmmaking was the archetypical special effects adventure, a disaster movie and creature feature wrestled into one. Its DNA can be found in Jaws, Jurassic Park and all other manner of kaiju flicks, and that influential, imaginative legacy makes it a joyous thing to behold.
The story is simplicity itself: a film director, Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong), charters a boat and takes its crew to a mythical remote island in the Pacific, where he tracks down a legendary ape – and plans to use it to make a hit movie. Along for the ride is Ann Darrow (Fay Wray), cast by Denham with the kind of on-the-spot movie magic luck that actually cast Bruce Cabot in the movie – after he was spotted as a doorman in an LA club – as a sailor who falls in love with Darrow and decides to save her from the beast.
Because yes, Kong whisks away Ann, after falling in love with her. And that’s what leads him to escape once he’s been dragged back to New York by Denham, and drives him to run away with Ann in his palm and climb the Empire State Building. And the rest, as they say, is history.
There’s certainly something of history about it, with the way that the script portrays the islanders in the opening half as primitive and savage. That Kong only finds himself smitten by a white American, after countless sacrificial offerings from the island’s population is about as overtly racist as cinema gets – even as the film portrays Westerners as greedy and deliberately misunderstanding of the monster, only enraging Kong compared to a civilisation that reveres it.
What has stood the test of time, though, are the wonderful visual effects, which animate the model of a giant ape, covered in rippling fur, with all the scale and character of Godzilla’s man-in-a-rubber-suit. Not only that but they give us a giant reptile and a T-Rex to boot, and pit them against each other in a stop-motion fight. Whether he’s clambering up skyscrapers or swatting planes that fly in on string with casual strength, Kong comes to life with an almost childlike charisma – part naivety, part curiosity, part fear – that instantly makes him a hero to root for, even as the silver screen casts him as a trailblazing tragic figure.
King Kong (1933) is available on BBC iPlayer until March 2022