#43 King Kong (1933)
With state of the art special effects, a terrible script, and some of the hammiest dialogue ever, King Kong is the original Hollywood blockbuster. It’s the great granddaddy to the colossal summer spectacles that Hollywood loses money on each summer, the kinds of movies that less discerning viewers actually go the theater to see but more criminally-minded and technologically savvy viewers illegally download. You know, like Transformers and everything else Michael Bay puts out. And most of the movies starring Tom Cruise lately. Those ones that are definitely movies in the sense that they’re up there on a screen and there’s stuff happening, kinda. And maybe someone said something but mainly- WHOA! did you see that thing punch that other thing until it exploded against that building?!
So is it fair to blame King Kong for all the terrible movies around today? No, I don’t think that’s fair. However it is fair to blame King Kong for the remakes if you don’t like them (1976, 2005), those Kong B-movie type sequels like King Kong Lives with Linda Hamilton (although they look like a lot of fun) and of course for the Donkey Kong Rap.
1933 must have been a bad year for film plots. In the same way that Duck Soup‘s plot worked only insomuch as it provided an excuse for the Marx Brothers to assault us with comedy, King Kong’s story is also not a good one, but it does its job well enough to provide a vehicle for a dazzling array of special effects and visual excitement. I don’t think it’s possible for anyone reading this to be unfamiliar with King Kong, but here’s the mandatory synopsis.
Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) makes movies for a living. He goes into the wild and films animals doing wild animal things in their natural habitat, but he needs something to jazz it up a bit. He hears about this island where there’s this great big ape that’s making a name for himself on the Jungle Circuit, and convinces a down-on-her luck actress/shoplifter Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) to be the monster’s new leading lady. So they go there and have a lot of adventures, and Denham approaches Kong about being in his film, but Kong explains to the director that it’s an insult that a seasoned performer such as himself should audition for the role alongside a load of rookie dinosaurs and primitive island natives. Anyway, Kong auditions and literally chews up his competition. He convinces Denham that this project is better suited for the stage than the silver screen, and offers to revise the project for him. Denham reads Kong’s notes and is positively blown away by what he reads. He agrees to take Kong to New York and give him his own show on Broadway.
Kong is loving it at first; he can’t believe his luck. He’s living the dream in New York, his own show is debuting, his name is in lights. It all goes wrong at opening night, however. While Kong is delivering a very emotional third act monologue (which he wrote for himself to perform), former “supporting artist” Ann Darrow misses her cue and cluelessly enters stage right, ruining everything. To make matters worse, the crowd seem to love her and start taking photographs of her, flash bulbs igniting the darkened theater until the entire room appears to be glowing, burning in worship for that stupid blonde flapper. The witless floozy has ruined everything for Kong. The ape goes off book and improvises a thrilling finale that includes climbing buildings, screaming, snatching people from the sidewalks and putting them in his mouth and then just sort of looking around with his big old googly eyes, snorting cocaine off of hookers’ asses, abducting sleeping women from their beds and hurling them from the height of skyscrapers to their certain death, and screeching “Do you know who I am? Do you know WHO I AM?!” to innocent passersby. After a bit of light murder Kong is shot to death and falls from the top of the Empire State Building.
Despite the silly plot King Kong manages to pull off an impressive sleight of hand: the monster scares us while simultaneously causing us to sympathize with it. Of course the film’s special effects wouldn’t frighten even the smallest, bedwetting child of our sophisticated modern era but in its time Kong was the goods. And he’s brought to life with every available visual trick in cinema’s bag. An impressive feat. When Kong falls to his death, we feel for him although he’s been attempting to kill and has killed many of our heros throughout the film. It’s not unlike Frankenstein in that way: the “monster” that is meant to terrify us, that is so unlike us, gradually is revealed to be a creature behaving in the same ways a human would were he in a similar situation. The inhuman is more humane than the human, and is victimized by the human. Kong spells this out for the audience without a trace of subtlety, with its heavy handed message of “beauty killing the beast.”
So there you have it. King Kong supplied me with some very long laughs as well. Every time Kong picked up a native islander or a Manhattan islander and stuffed it in his mouth and then just sort of looked around, I lost it. We’re to assume that he chews these people up, which would make him a bloodthirsty monster, but his jaws never move. The result is Kong standing there wearing what amounts to an ear-to-ear grin and his big stupid eyes darting around, with some poor sucker screaming their heads off while perfectly safe in his teeth there. Good stuff.
But the funniest moment doubles as the dumbest decision I’ve ever seen in a movie. While Denham’s men are wandering about Kong’s island they encounter all manner of beasts and dinosaurs. They eventually come across this rabid brontosaurus lake monster that has a taste for men, I guess. It gets the jump on them in the lake, springing and picking off a few of them after tipping their transport over. The men run for cover in the jungle. One of the men, the brightest man in the entire party, gets a great idea. “Where should I hide from this long-necked 30-foot beast?” he asks himself in this moment of supreme terror. To my everlasting delight he climbs the nearest tree, so the terrible lizard needs not trouble himself in gobbling him up. For my money, this is the worst decision in the history of movies. If you’ve seen worse, please let me know. I value a good laugh over the need to be right.