Such sexism. (“Women can’t help being a bother.”) Such racism. (Those silly pagan villagers and their human sacrifices.) And yet, such magic. King Kong casts so primal a spell that it seems essential to excuse its dated transgressions. This is the stuff – good and bad, ugly and gorgeous – of which the movies are made.
Co-directors Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack envisioned the tragic tale of the fallen gorilla as a rather leaden melodrama – “It was beauty killed the beast,” pronounces maniacal movie director Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) at the end. All the interesting stuff is roiling beneath the surface: the way Kong is a stand-in for victims of modern colonialism, an era that would soon come to an end; the way the movie depicts brute nature succumbing to human hubris, though only after we’ve paid a price; the way the picture stokes primitive sexual politics even before Kong appears (notice the panic with which the American sailors are roused to action when they discover their “golden woman” has been kidnapped by natives).
In short, King Kong is throbbing with metaphorical implications. The riveting, stop-motion battle between the great ape and a T. Rex is just a bonus.
This is the stuff – good and bad, ugly and gorgeous – of which the movies are made.
That’s not to underestimate the special effects. The stop-motion work by Willis O’Brien is a marvel – then, for its pioneering of the cinematically possible; now, for its hand-crafted elegance and rickety charm. Even in 1933, O’Brien knew what so many of today’s effects engineers can’t grasp: emotion matters. Notice the time and care given to the early scene of Kong fainting after being assaulted by gas bombs on the island. And later, that fateful pause at the top of the Empire State Building before he tumbles to his death. No opera diva has had a more elegant farewell.
King Kong offers so many other pleasures, including a glorious Fay Wray (adventurous when she needs to be, but also more than up to the picture’s considerable fainting demands). There is also some insider showbiz fun. On the eve of the voyage to find Kong, Denham proclaims to his movie press agent, “They’ll have to think up a lot of new adjectives when I get back.”