For my first movie review, I am taking on the king of them all – King Kong (1933). This is the king, see what I did there, of all monster movies and set the bar for what was to come. This movie used innovative techniques such as glass paintings, miniature sets, rear projection, traveling mattes, full-scale articulated creatures, and stop-motion photography to layer the action.   When this movie was shown in 1933, the audiences had never seen anything like it.
This movie has been remade many times, 1976, 2005, 2017, and many variations of the story. Although some are visually striking, none has matched the original. If I say King Kong and you think of the 1976 or the 2005 version, or even the 2017 version, you clearly have never seen a good copy of the 1933 version. I’m talking about the 1933 real King Kong, the one with bi-planes and Fay Wray.
This is an American-made film in the monster/adventure genre. It was never nominated for an Oscar.
Oddly this film had two directors both of which were uncredited. The first, Merian C. Cooper, is better known as a producer for at least 5 John Wayne films including Fort Apache (1948), 3 Godfathers (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), Rio Grande (1950), The Quiet Man (1952), and The Searchers (1956). He was clearly one of John Ford‘s favorite producer to work with. If not the best of the films mentioned above, and it may be the best, one of the most interesting of these is The Searchers (1956) which is loosely based on the search for Cynthia Parker, a kidnapped white woman who became the mother of the last Comanche chief, Quanah Parker.
Cooper was born in Jacksonville, Florida in 1893. Cooper entered the U.S. Naval Academy and should have graduated in 1915. However, he left in his senior year. In 1916, he joined the Georgia National Guard in order to get on the punitive expedition to Mexico which had the sole goal of capturing Pancho Villa.
In 1920, Cooper volunteered as a pilot in the American Kosciuszko Squadron to support Poland in their fight against the Soviet Union in the Polish–Soviet War (February 1919 – March 1921). Wait, did we know about this? How could they squeeze a war between World War I and World War II and not mention it during 18 years of education?
Anyway, during the fighting, Cooper was shot down and spent 9 months in a Soviet POW camp before escaping. Some places state this is where he met Ernest B. Schoedsack and other say while serving in World War I. I don’t know if they are considering this an extension of World War I because of the closeness in time.
Cooper made many films such as The Most Dangerous Game (1932), King Kong (1933), Blind Adventure (1933), The Son of Kong (1933), The Fugitive (1947) and Mighty Joe Young (1949). However, everybody just wants to talk about King Kong (1933).
Cooper claimed had a strange dream about a giant ape destroying New York City and wrote it down when he awoke. He took this dream and turned it into the screenplay and the creative vision for King Kong (1933).
While Cooper kept many of the secrets of Kong to himself, he personally bragged about removing a scene where spiders ate the sailors that fell of the log Kong rocked back and forth. He said audiences could not get past the spiders and it stopped the movie cold.
Cooper died in 1973 at the age 79. He has a star on the Hollywood walk of fame but they misspelled his name as Mariam.
The second director was Ernest B. Schoedsack. Schoedsack was born in Iowa in 1893. Schoedsack is best known for Mighty Joe Young (1949), another ape flick, and the sequel to King Kong (1933), The Son of Kong (1933).
Schoedsack began as a cameraman for Keystone of the Keystone Cops fame. In World War I, he served in the Signal Corps. He worked as a journalist and relief worker following the war. Eventually, he went to work with his Army buddy, Merian C. Cooper making documentaries for Paramount working on Grass: A Nation’s Battle for Life (1925) and Chang: A Drama of the Wilderness (1927). During this time, Schoedsack met his future wife and was married. The tale of Kong is somewhat autobiographical for the two men that were filming in exotic locations.
Schoedsack went solo for a time and worked for RKO from 1932 to 1935 directing documentaries. When he began working with Cooper on King Kong (1933) he was initially uncredited.
Schoedsack didn’t direct a lot of films before World War II but one of note is Dr. Cyclops (1940). During World War II, he injured his eye testing photographic equipment at high altitude. The only movie he directed after the war was the ape flick Mighty Joe Young (1949). Schoedsack died in 1979.
Fay Wray played the lovely Ann Darrow, the girl that made the big ape lose his bananas. She is wearing a blonde wig in this movie rather than showing her dark hair. It was the only way she would standout against Kong’s fur. Fay Wray was born near Alberta, Canada in 1907. When she was very young her family moved to Arizona and then to California before breaking apart. As a result of the divorce Fay was raised in poverty. However, by the age of 16 Wray was obtaining bit parts in films.
Some films like Gasoline Love (1923) were so bad it would take years for her to get another part. She made The Coast Patrol (1925), another poor film but it did get her noticed. Wray made four films in 1926 and only three in 1927.
Around this time, natural selection was taking place in Hollywood and actors and actresses that didn’t have vocal talent were being weeded out by the onset of talkies. This was no problem for Wray. One of her better films was The Most Dangerous Game (1932). In 1933, she made 11 films, including Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933), Ann Carver’s Profession (1933), and The Vampire Bat (1933). However, she is mostly known for King Kong (1933).
Wray made 11 films in 1934. Can you name one? The best are Once to Every Woman (1934), Viva Villa! (1934), and Alias Bulldog Drummond (1935). Suddenly work became harder to find. After she made Not a Ladies’ Man (1942), Wray was not in another film until Treasure of the Golden Condor (1953). She was given some real dogs to star in through the 1950s. One notable Film Noir that stands out is Crime of Passion (1957).
Wray made her last appearance on television in 1980 and died in 2004. This great talent was never really given a chance to see how good she could be.
Wray stated that director Cooper said he would cast her with the tallest dark-haired leading man in Hollywood. Wray though he was talking about Clark Gable. Of course, he was refereeing to the 25-foot tall ape.
Robert Armstrong played the role of director and filmmaker Carl Denham. Armstrong was born in Michigan in 1890. The family movie to Washington on the way to find gold in Alaska but stopped short. When World War I broke out, Armstrong severed in the infantry.
Following the war, Armstrong attended the University of Washington but left shortly before graduation to work in a theater troop run by James Gleason. They worked all over the country and in 1926, Armstrong was spotted by a talent scout while acting in a play. His first film was in 1927 and he made nine more in 1928. He took his friend James Gleason along for the ride. When sound was common in movies, Armstrong became a big star, because he could say his lines in a rapid-fire style with a strong voice.
In 1932, Armstrong met Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack and he went to work for RKO. The two directors turned out films that were made under Kong-like conditions. Armstrong was in The Most Dangerous Game (1932) and this was followed by King Kong (1933), and then The Son of Kong (1933). Next, the director had Armstrong in a romance, Blind Adventure (1933). He was offered better roles such as Palooka (1934), ‘G’ Men (1935), Man of Conquest (1939), My Favorite Spy (1942), Blood on the Sun (1945), and finally, Mighty Joe Young (1949).
With film work slowing, Armstrong turned to television in the 1950s. Armstrong died in 1973.
The love interest for Wray, not counting the big ape, is John Driscoll played by Bruce Cabot. Cabot had a career that lasted over 30 years, mostly playing tough guys. He also managed to appear in The Son of Kong (1933) and Mighty Joe Young (1949).
You all know Bruce Cabot whether you know it or not. From King Kong (1933) to The Last of the Mohicans (1936), Cabot was on the star track. Somehow, he got derailed and moved from a leading man to a sidekick role.
Bruce Cabot was cast as the heel in many movies during the 1930s. He played a mobster in Let ’em Have It (1935) and the revengeful Magua in The Last of the Mohicans (1936). This was not the only time he played a Native American. He was cast as Indian tracker Sam Sharpnose in Big Jake (1971) and delivered great lines like “I don’t hunt Indians.”
Bruce Cabot joined the Army Air Corp and worked in intelligence during World War II. At least a part of his job involved smuggling gold from the Middle East.
Bruce Cabot auditioned for the role of The Ringo Kid in Stagecoach (1939). John Wayne was eventually cast in the John Ford western and became one of the most important actors in Hollywood. Bruce Cabot was reduced to supporting roles from then on out. This clearly illustrated the main point of On Any Given Sunday (1999) when Al Pacino gives the life is a game of inches speech. When the Duke and Bruce Cabot were cast in Angel and the Badman (1937) they became drinking buddies and continued this both on and off-screen. Bruce Cabot was in at least 10 movies with John Wayne.
Cabot became a regular feature in most John Wayne movies such as Angel and the Badman (1947), The Comancheros (1961), Hatari! (1962), McLintock! (1963), In Harm’s Way (1965), The War Wagon (1967), The Green Berets (1968), Hellfighters (1969), The Undefeated (1969), Chisum (1970), and Big Jake (1971), a movie that has more quotable lines than an episode of “Game of Thrones.”
Bruce Cabot did make some good movies without John Wayne which include King Kong (1933), Let ’em Have It (1935), The Last of the Mohicans (1936), Prisoner of Shark Island (1936), and Cat Ballou (1965).
Cabot died at the age of 68 from cancer.
Frank Reicher played ship Capt. Englehorn. Reacher was born in Bavaria, Germany on December 2, 1875. Hey, I was born in Bavaria, Germany on Dec. 2nd. But a different year. He started working in German theater, moved to London theater, and finally to the US in1899. In the US he continued his stage work, moving to Hollywood in 1915 where he acted and directed.
From 1921 to 1926 he left film and returned to stage work. He came back to Hollywood and through the 1930s worked in a lot of anti-Nazi film as well as horror. With over 200 film credits, he is still best known for playing the ship captain in King Kong (1933) and his role in The Son of Kong (1933).
Two Universal horror films that are of note are The Mummy’s Tomb (1942) and its sequel, The Mummy’s Ghost (1944). Director Reginald Le Borg, being interviewed in 1989 said that during the filming of the sequel, Lon Chaney Jr. go a little too far into character and almost chocked Reicher to death.
Reicher retired from acting in 1951. He died in 1965
The native Chief was played by Noble Johnson, great name. Johnson was a childhood friend of Lon Chaney, star of Phantom of the Opera (1925) and father of the best Wolf Man ever. Johnson was an African American that had a great career playing bit parts and side characters of various races. His roles include Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1923), The Thief of Baghdad (1924), and The Mummy (1932).
A Mexican actor, Steve Clemente, a.k.a. Clemento played the Witch King or as we would know it witch doctor. He also reprised this role in The Son of Kong (1933).
The great Native American Olympian Jim Thorpe was uncredited as theater goer in Kong’s New York debut.
Sailor Vincent was a welterweight boxer with 54 wins, 25 loses, and 24 ties. That’s a lot of ties. He became an actor and a stuntman. In this movie, he was uncredited as a member of the ship crew.
Victor Wong played a small uncredited role as Charlie the Chinese cook. Wong was born in California in 1906. His first important role was in King Kong (1933). The directors like him so much he brought back for The Son of Kong (1933). Other movies include bits in War Correspondent (1932), Lost Horizon (1937), and The Phantom Submarine (1940). He made a career playing these bit parts and died in 1972.
The movie begins with a fake “Old Arabian Proverb”:
And the Prophet said:
And lo, the beast looked upon the face of beauty.
And it stayed its hand from killing.
And from that day, it was as one dead.
The year is 1933 and the country is in the throes of the Great Depression. Film maker Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) is waiting on a ship in New York harbor. He has an exotic destination in mind for his next film but he is having trouble getting a leading lady. Denham has the ship and film crews ready to sail. Ship Capt. Englehorn (Frank Reicher) wants to know why they have gas bombs. Denham is only concerned with getting to his destination before the monsoon, a destination he is keeping secret from everyone. However, his regular talent agent Charles Weston (Sam Hardy) refuses to provide him with a female actor for fear of their safety. The first mate John Driscoll (Bruce Cabot) comes in and he is a cranky guy. The slightly shifty Denham has also checked every other agent in town as well. Finally, Denham decides he wants it done right, so he personally goes to search for a lead actress.
After looking around in the poorer parts of town, he sees the starving Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) trying to steal an apple. When she gets caught he buys her out of trouble. She faints from lack of food. He takes her to a small diner where he feeds her and pitches his adventure. She’s no dummy and she agrees to take the deal only after she recognizes Denham.
The ship Venture leaves New York Harbor at sunrise. Driscoll is a mean guy and he swings his hand wrapping Ann on the chin. He thinks women should not be on ships. The ship travels for six weeks towards its mysterious terminus. Ann is happy to be travelling and spends time looking at the view and making friends with Charlie the Chinese cook (Victor Wong). Over time Driscoll and Ann become a little closer. But not too much.
There is a small monkey on the ship that is very friendly with Ann. When Denham walks up and sees Ann with the monkey, her remarks, beauty and the beast. Denham sends Ann to dress in the costumes. Driscoll says he is worried about Ann. Denham says he has enough trouble without a shipboard romance. He also foreshadows saying a big hardboiled egg gets a look at a pretty face and he cracks up and goes sappy. Denham then lays out the plot for the live action movie. It big tough guy sees beauty and loses it all.
Driscoll and Denham get called up to Capt. Englehorn because they have reached the location, near Sumatra, where Denham will reveal their destination. Denham produces a map showing an uncharted island that he picked up from another sailor. One the map Denham shows, there is a small channel through the reef, a village on a sand spit, a large wall, and Skull Mountain. Like a man of his time, he doesn’t give the people living there credit for building the wall. He also mentions Kong and Capt. Englehorn is aware of the myth.
Later Denham meets with Ann who is wearing a dress called the beauty and the beast dress. Denham practices filming Ann. In response to a question from Ann, Denham says he does all of the camera work himself since an operator let him down. Denham has Ann pretend to look up and be horrified by something she sees. On cue she lets out a blood curdling scream. Driscoll is worried about what she is really going to see.
The Venture slowly moves through the fog. Englehorn, Driscoll, Denham, and Ann waiting on the deck as a sailor takes soundings. They hear drums and think it is breakers until Denham sets them right.
In the morning, Skull Island and wall can clearly be seen from the moored ship. Englehorn, Driscoll, Denham, and Ann and a dozen men go ashore. They bring the camera, rifles, and the gas bombs.
As they get closer it is clear that the part of the island where the village is located is very small and most of the island is behind the wall. It is clear that the natives have canoes, so why they didn’t leave the island for a more ape friendly place?
The landing party makes it to the island and are not seen by the villagers. The group moves to the back of the village and still don’t see anyone. They get a good view of the wall and Driscoll mentions seeing Ankur Wat. They hear the natives chanting and the group moves forward. They hear the word Kong. Denham peaks through the bushes and sees most of the villagers watching men in gorilla suits dancing in front of the gate.
I want to stop hear and talk about the wall and gate. The wall seems to be about 100 feet tall and is built to keep a 24-foot tall climbing ape out. The original movie posters said the ape was 60 feet tall. They also added a 25-foot tall gate so they could place their lunar inspired sacrifices when a 6-foot gate would have done. Why make a gate big enough for Kong to get out?
The dancing gorillas are moving around a scared maiden wearing flowers as the powerful chief (Noble Johnson) looks on. Denham starts filming and it is not long before they are spotted. Denham has everyone come out and show themselves rather than run.
Capt. Englehorn can speak a little of their language. The chief demands they leave. Englehorn ask what is happening and the chief replies that the young girl is the bride of Kong. The witch doctor or medicine man (Steve Clemento) runs forward to the chief and says the ceremony is spoiled by the presence of outsiders.
The chief, the witch doctor, and some spear bearers come forward but Denham holds his ground. The chief say golden woman, describing Ann with her blonde hair. He wants to buy her as a gift for Kong. He will trade 6 of his women for Ann. As Denham’s instruction they say they will come back in the morning to make friends. They retreat to the Venture, but act cool while doing it.
That night Ann, unable to sleep, is hanging around on the ship deck. Driscoll is worried about Ann and admits to her that he loves her. They get all kissy face but Driscoll is called to bridge by the captain.
Quietly, a canoe with some of the natives comes alongside the ship. They quietly grab Ann and take her back to the island.
Denham see torches in the distant village. Driscoll goes back on deck and Ann is missing. Charlie the cook finds a native neckless and they realize Ann has been kidnapped. The crew loads up with weapons and heads for the island.
In the village, they have Ann on the alter outside of the gate. They are drumming and waving torches. The wooden bolt on the oversized gate is removed. Just outside of the gate are two columns where they tie the struggling Ann. She is left outside as the giant gate is closed. The natives line the top of the wall, waiting for the show. They ring a giant gong.
Growling, giant steps, and breaking branches are heard. Finally, at almost halfway through the movie the giant gorilla, Kong is revealed. Ann screams in terror. Kong unties one of her hands and Ann falls free from the alter. Kong picks her up and growls for the crowd as they yell their approval.
The ship crew, with Driscoll in the lead, make it to the village. At the gate Driscoll sees the giant Ape carrying Ann. They unbolt the gate. Capt. Englehorn stays with half the men at the gate while Denham, Driscoll, and the other half follow Kong’s trail, which consist of broken trees and giant footprints.
They are charged by a Stegosaurus but the beat it with gas bombs and bullets. This is a great use of rear projection to put the actors with the stop motion animal. They then come to a swamp. Driscoll has them build a raft to get across. In the middle of the swamp, they are set upon by an Apatosaurus that tips their raft. They save some of the gas bombs. This vegetarian dino kills a few of the men. The behemoth chases them from the swamp onto land. One guy trips and then climbs a tree ending right at mouth height before he is eaten.
Ahead Kong crosses a big log over a ravine. He places Ann in the top of a tree and catches the men as they are crossing the log. Driscoll goes down a vine and hides in a cave. Kong shakes the other off the log before dropping the whole log into the ravine to kill the last. Originally the men that fell into the ravine were attacked by giant spiders and other things. However, this freaks out test audiences out and it was removed.
As Kong tries to reach Driscoll, some kind of creature is crawling up a vine to attack but Driscoll cuts the vine. A Tyrannosaurs Rex approaches Ann and she begins to scream. Kong leaves Driscoll and goes to protect Ann. Kong and the T-Rex get to fighting and at first it goes bad for Kong. During the fight Ann’s tree is knocked over and she is pinned under it. Kong jumps on the T-Rex’s back like a monkey and rips its jaws apart killing the beast. When Kong turns back to Ann she screams thinking she is going to be eaten.
Driscoll climbs back up on the Kong side. On the other side Denham is still alive. Denham goes back for help while Driscoll continues the chase of Kong. Denham makes it back to Capt. Englehorn. The gate crew has driven the natives away with gun fire. The group decides to head out at dawn with more gas bombs.
Kong takes Ann to his lair inside of Skull Mountain. He puts her on a ledge and a Plesiosaurus comes after her. Kong makes quick work of the clinging creature. Driscoll has made it to the cave as well and watches from behind a rock.
Kong takes Ann through one of the eyes on Skull Mountain to an outside ledge. He beats his chest because he is proud of his days’ work. Ann passes out. Kong takes the passed out girl and begins taking her clothes off. No No.
Driscoll knocks over a rock and Kong leaves Ann to investigate. Outside a Pteranodon grabs Ann but Kong arrives in time to kill it. Why can’t you hear a Pteranodon go to the bathroom? Because the p is silent.
Sorry. Driscoll races up and escapes with Ann down the cliff face. The fall into the water. Driscoll and Ann make it back before the other group heads out. Denham wants to capture Kong. Everyone else is not so enthusiastic. Kong makes this irrelevant when he attacks the gate. The natives come out to help hold the gate. Kong snaps the bolt and breaks through. Everyone scatters. Kong crushes a few stragglers as well as killing some spear guys on a platform. He whips out a few more stragglers including grinding one guy into the mud.
At the beach, Denham throws gas bombs knocking Kong out. He then says “He’s always been King of his world. But we’ll teach him fear! We’re millionaires, boys! I’ll share it with all of you! Why, in a few months, his name will be up in lights on Broadway! Kong! The Eighth Wonder of the World!”
Skipping all the technical details of getting Kong back, the next scene is in New York at the unveiling of the Eighth Wonder of the World. The crowd does not know what it is. Driscoll and Ann are dressed in fancy clothes. The press guys pick up the beauty and the beast angle. He reveals Kong on stage chained. Denham brings out Ann and tells that she is engaged to Driscoll. Kong watches from above. Denham calls the press forward and they begin snapping flash photographs of Ann. As the ape growls, Denham says the chains are chrome steel.
It’s a different song with Kong breaks his chains. Driscoll and Ann flee while Kong goes on a rampage look for Ann. Kong bites people, climbs building, picks up a woman and drops her when he sees it’s not Ann.
Driscoll and Ann go into a hotel room and sit by a window where Kong can see in. He knocks out Driscoll and grabs Ann. Kong makes his way across the city. At one point he derails an elevated train. He kills it like it was a prehistoric animal trying to harm Ann.
Finally, Kong finds the highest spot in town, which at the time was the Empire State Building. He still has Ann in one hand. Driscoll and Denham call for airplanes. Four Curtiss Helldiver biplanes approach the building. Kong places Ann on the deck and the planes begin to attack using their machine guns. One plane gets too close and he swats it down, in what is a real applause line for the underdog.
Kong is taking a lot of fire and is bleeding badly. Kong picks ups Ann for one last look before putting her back down. Still being shot, Kong lets go of his grip and falls to his death. Driscoll makes it to Ann.
Denham pushes through the police line and a cop says “Well Denham, the airplanes got him.” Denham replies “Oh no, it wasn’t the airplanes, it was beauty that killed the beast.
The special effects artist was Willis O’Brien. While his work was groundbreaking and set the standards for the future, unfortunately, he is probably best remembered for working with Ray Harryhausen on Mighty Joe Young (1949). Harryhausen went on to do the effects for Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956), The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958), Jason and the Argonauts (1963) and Clash of the Titans (1981).
Quoting Cinefex.com – “There are many details about the production of ‘King Kong’ that are not available at present for publication … For whenever you ask Merian C. Cooper or his associates a question that trespasses on their secret processes, they invariably reply, ‘It was all done with mirrors.’” O’Brien and crew could make 25-feet of stop motion per day which represents about 20-seconds of film time.
Many people have maligned this movie bestowing hidden means to the tale. One in particular, states that Kong represent the plight of the African-Americans, brought to this country in chains and exploited by Anglos. Goldner and Turner make it clear, that Kong was no darker than any gorilla, O’Brein gave the ape its expressive face borrowing from his own, Cooper and Schoedsack gave its adventure, and actual experience by Steve Clemente contributed to the story. Clemente was a Yaqui Indian and had a knife throwing act in vaudeville. When he needed an assistant, he searched out a hungry woman, just as Denham did in the beginning of this film.
In the bi-plane scene, Directors, Cooper and Schoedsack were filmed attacking the beast. Over 70 years later in his over-hyped version of King Kong (2005), Peter Jackson cast himself and make-up man Rick Baker in the same scene. Generally, the folks that recognized Jackson though it was the coolest thing ever never realizing that there is nothing new under the sun.
This movie saved RKO from bankruptcy and in a way saved all of the great films to follow.
World-Famous Short Summary – Country boy goes to town and falls for a big-city girl. Things end badly for the boy.
I hope you enjoyed today’s show. You can find connections to social media and email on my site at classicmovierev.com. There are links in the podcast show notes as well. Remember this show is completely free and independent. All I ask is that you jump over to iTunes and give me a review. It really helps the show get found.
Beware the moors
 The Making of King Kong, 1976, Orville Goldner and George E. Turner, Ballantine Books, New York.
 The Making of King Kong, 1976, Orville Goldner and George E. Turner, Ballantine Books, New York.