Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: In honor of his upcoming title fight against Godzilla, we’re looking back on the most significant starring vehicles for the Eighth Wonder Of The World, the giant ape to rule them all, King Kong.
What’s the single most influential movie ever made? There are countless possible answers to that question, none of them objectively correct: Intolerance, Metropolis, Citizen Kane, Jaws, on and on. With Hollywood having shifted almost exclusively to big-budget, F/X-dominated action/sci-fi tentpoles, however, the original King Kong looks more and more like the granddaddy of them all. Admittedly, there are even earlier examples of the form; Kong itself was heavily inspired by (and crafted by some of the wizards as) 1925’s silent dinosaur adventure The Lost World, for example. But it was arguably the first movie that truly synthesized various elements of cinematic spectacle—everything that the movies could do, in the analog age, to make viewers’ eyes widen, jaws drop, pulses quicken—and sustained that rush for virtually the entire length of a feature, at the expense of everything else.
Not that the giant ape shows up right away, mind you. Like Jaws’ great white, Kong is strategically withheld for a while, as the film introduces its three major players: Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong), a film director famous for his recklessness in seeking real-world thrills to capture on celluloid; Ann Darrow (Fay Wray), the woman he selects to be the star of his next picture after randomly encountering her on the street; and Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot), first mate of the Venture, upon which Denham and his own crew sail to an island so mysterious that it doesn’t appear on any official map. King Kong’s cagily sedate first third consists largely of breezy Depression-era banter, establishing Denham as a man who’ll take any risk to get the footage he wants and developing an amusingly blunt romance between Ann and Jack. “Say, I guess I love you,” Jack eventually blurts out, apropos of nothing in particular. “Why, Jack!” she protests. “You hate women!” His deathless reply: “Yeah, I know. But you aren’t ‘women’.”
Kong begs to differ. The movie abruptly kicks into wowza! mode shortly after the Venture arrives at Skull Island, as natives—or early Hollywood’s racist idea of natives, anyway—kidnap Ann (whose blond hair amazes them) and substitute her for their planned human sacrifice. An astonishing cavalcade of violence follows, as Kong proceeds to kill the entire rescue party, excepting only Denham and Jack, while also doing battle with multiple dinosaurs that inhabit the island. Nearly a century later, the stop-motion creatures and rear-projection landscapes no longer fool the eye as seamlessly as they once did, but that doesn’t make King Kong’s relentless action sequences any less exciting. (Some credit also goes to Max Steiner’s rousing score, a landmark in the field.) The Hays Code hadn’t yet been adopted in 1933, allowing for more genuine horror than one might imagine could have been possible at the time; much of the carnage wound up being cut just a year or two later, and was only rediscovered in the late ’60s. The most notorious sequence, in which giant spiders feast on men Kong has shaken loose from a log into a ravine, has never been found, though Peter Jackson created an approximation based on what little exists.
For those who’ve only seen the subsequent remakes, it may be surprising to discover that no emotional bond ever develops between Ann and Kong in the original film. The beast is obsessed with the beauty, but Wray famously screams her way through the entire ordeal, never developing an iota of sympathy for her simian captor. Yet there’s still something poignant about the climactic aerial attack, as Kong, standing atop the Empire State Building, gets riddled with bullets and eventually plummets to his death. Maybe it’s the suggestion that he breaks free from his chains on the Broadway stage because he mistakenly thinks that photographers snapping their flash bulbs are attacking Ann, or maybe it’s just that the size of the Empire State Building makes Kong look more vulnerable, less imposing. Either way, a franchise was born—Son Of Kong would hit theaters less than a year later—and a thrill-ride approach to cinema was solidified. As Holly Hunter’s character says (more sardonically) in Broadcast News: “Well, you’re lucky you love it—you’re gonna get a lot more just like it.”
Availability: King Kong is currently streaming on HBO Max. It’s also available for digital rental and purchase from Amazon, Google Play, Apple, YouTube, Microsoft, Redbox, Fandango Now, DirecTV, and VUDU.