Most adult men are just shells designed to contain twelve-year-old boys.
Why else would someone who should have better things to do with his time be bothering about the 1933 Hollywood film King Kong? I’ve probably seen thousands of movies since my first encounter with Kong, including the classics of world cinema: the Bergmans, Fellinis, and Kurosowas. Citizen Kane comes seeping out of my pores.
What, then, is different about King Kong?
You needn’t have seen the original film to know who or what he is, just as you don’t have to read Shakespeare to know about Hamlet. These figures are both part of our cultural DNA. But I’ve lived with the great ape a lot longer than I have with the indecisive Dane. I remember watching King Kong again and again on the Million Dollar Movie. (If you’re not old enough to remember the Million Dollar Movie, showing the same film every night for a week and repeating it all weekend long, I’ve probably lost you already.) It must have been those innumerable initial viewings which burned King Kong’s images into my brain so that even now, from the depths of my subconscious, I can still summon its steaming jungles. What do those jungles represent, anyway, but a kind of psychological place through which monsters of the id creep, stomp, and slither? Isn’t this where most twelve-year old boys spend their time?
Movies can record the customs and habits of a particular time and place more vividly than almost any other art form. They are the roadmaps of a culture. Sometimes I like to imagine King Kong’s first audiences as they sat in Radio City Music Hall. Were they thrilled by the fast-moving adventure and the spectacular effects--things never before seen on the screen? Or did they pause a moment to reflect on the underlying meanings and symbolism which have become clear to us in retrospect? This is very much a film of depression-era America. It opens in a realistic New York setting, with Ann Darrow passing out from hunger as she tries to pocket an apple from a surly fruit peddler. Later, when Kong is being exhibited in a jazzy, Art Deco Manhattan theatre, it is a show for high society swells in furs and tails who ride up in their limos. Did audiences react to the sight of these two very real but very different New Yorks? Were they aware of the racial implications of the black Kong being brought in chains from his jungle kingdom? Could they sense the erotic subtext at work (and I don’t mean between Ann Darrow and her big lug of a sailor)? If you haven’t seen King Kong for many years, you might have missed the amazing scene where Kong tenderly and curiously peels off Ann’s clothes and then quizzically sniffs her scent on his fingers. (Here Kong seems to represent the muddled and impossible longings of most adolescent males.) Since it is clear from the start that he has designs on Ann above and beyond mere snack food, is it a coincidence that the film’s iconic conclusion is set on the Empire State building, one of the world’s most imposing phallic symbols?
It is unlikely that the filmmakers had any of this in mind. The producer repeatedly warned not to look for any racial, political, or sexual symbolism in his giant ape. This denial, however, does not invalidate or make reductive any other interpretations, as they all grow organically from the story as presented.
Cursed with a librarian’s curiosity (and a constant need to measure the real world against the contents of the NYPL catalogue), I executed a keyword search for “King Kong” and was surprised to come up with a grand total of 361 results! That a fictitious character (and not even a human one) from an almost eighty-year old movie could permeate the NYPL catalogue to such an extent offers some clue to the status of King Kong in our culture.
Just a quick glance at some of these results shows DVDs of the 1933 movie and of Kong’s later incarnations.
A random sampling of books available at the library includes the following:
Tracking King Kong: A Hollywood Icon in World Culture, an academic study of the film’s international cultural impact, considering questions of race, gender, and audience response.
Books which have nothing to do with King Kong at all, despite appropriating his name for other, symbolic ends, such a sociological study, King Kong on 4th Street: families and the violence of poverty on the Lower East Side, and King Kong Theory, a feminist work labeled “a Manifesto for Women Who Can’t or Won’t Obey the Rules.”
A satirical 2004 novel titled My Side, by King Kong, as told to Walter Wager.
There are also various novelizations of the film, including the original, written by Delos W. Lovelace. No, this was not a pseudonym for Faulkner or Fitzgerald, slumming in Hollywood, but a popular writer charged with creating a novel based on preliminary drafts of the original script, to be published a year before the film was released. That a strictly commercial enterprise should be republished by Modern Library so many years after the fact is an indication that--although the story parallels the film practically on a scene by scene basis--this slightly fleshed-out version can stand alone as a rollicking adventure tale, 1930s vintage. It carries you along in much the same way that Carl Denham coaches his female lead:
“Look up! Slowly, slowly. You are calm, you see nothing yet. Look higher. Higher. There. Now you see it. You are amazed. You can’t believe your senses. Your eyes open wider. Wider. It’s horrible. But you are fascinated. You can’t look away. You can’t move. What is it? You’re helpless, helpless. But you can scream! There’s your one hope. If you can scream! But you can’t. Your throat is paralyzed. Try to scream, Ann. Perhaps, if you didn’t see, you could do it. If your eyes were turned away. You can’t turn them away, but you can cover them, Ann. Throw your arm across your eyes, Ann. And scream, Ann! Scream for your life!”
What of that original screenplay? Like most Hollywood projects, it seems to have passed from hand to hand, developing as it went along. The producer, Merian C. Cooper, planted the original seed--an image of a gorilla battling with a Komodo dragon--from which the film was grown. The popular mystery writer, Edgar Wallace, contributed an early draft that had little to do with the finished product, although he received a principal credit. Several screenwriters sketched in different visions and concepts. One of the most fascinating databases available onsite at the library (especially for movie buffs) is American Film Scripts Online, which features shooting scripts of almost a thousand films, among them King Kong. For anyone reared on monster magazines, the great mystery of King Kong is the spider pit episode, which was cut from the original film because it was allegedly so horrifying that it brought the fast pace of the action to a halt. When Kong shakes the sailors from the log, they tumble into a deep ravine and are not seen again. What becomes of them? All that survives of this scene is a sketch, one evocative still, and this tantalizing section of the script:
EXT. RAVINE BOTTOM - LONG SHOT - DAY
The men at the bottom of the ravine are attacked by giant insects who come out of caves and fissures to eat them.
EXT. RAVINE BOTTOM - CLOSE UP - DAY
The surprised face of a sailor lying in the mud as he sees this.
EXT. RAVINE BOTTOM - CLOSE UP - DAY
Face of another sailor staring up in horror from the mud.
EXT. RAVINE BOTTOM - CLOSE UP - DAY
Face of a third sailor in the mud, horrified as he sees---
EXT. RAVINE BOTTOM - MEDIUM SHOT - DAY
An insect with octopus arms takes a man. (Projection)
I did not see the 2005 remake when it was released, and I still have no interest in slogging through all three computer-generated hours of it, but recently a minor tide of curiosity swept over me and I went to You Tube to get some idea of what I might have missed, particularly in regard to that elusive sequence. Now, I don’t imagine the sight of people being devoured by giant insects would be easy to watch no matter what decade you were watching it in, but this twenty-first century clip was so over-the-top, gratuitously repulsive, I didn’t even reach the end of it.
Everyone has different capacities for what he or she can stand to watch in a movie. In the late thirties, some violent bits of the original film were snipped out so as not to offend a more puritanical America--scenes of Kong munching on natives and stomping them into the mud--and these did not get restored until 1972. While I’ve never found Kong particularly frightening, the one scene which has always unnerved me is the one in which Kong peers into the bedroom window of a sleeping woman, reaches in to pluck her screaming into the open air, holds her suspended upside down above the street far below, and then, realizing it is not Ann Darrow, opens his fingers to let her plummet to her death. This moment inhabits an uncomfortable psychic realm where nightmares and reality intersect and never fails to draw an emotional response from me.
The poetry of King Kong is in the pioneering special effects. A book like The Making of King Kong can teach us how an 18 inch latex model covered in rabbit fur could be placed in a miniature tabletop jungle and moved ever so slightly, an arm, a leg, a lip drawn back in a snarl, an eyebrow quizzically raised, fraction by fraction, one frame of film at a time, to give the illusion of movement. It can not really explain how one man, Willis O’Brien, who executed most of the stop-motion animation, practically creating the art as he went along, was able to impress so much of his own soul and personality into this little doll-like thing. It seems even now a kind of alchemy.
What’s that you say? You’ve seen King Kong and thought the effects were jerky, clunky, even laughable. You thought the 2005 remake was cool, though, with the best special effects an arsenal of computers and millions of dollars could produce, and you even enjoyed it when the giant worm ate that guy’s head. Also, when all is said and done, you really have no interest in what a 1933 audience might have thought or felt, or what their distant world must have been like, or how their escapist fantasies defined them.
If you find that the dreams and fires of first youth are gone, and the past is a door you’re happy to have shut behind you, it’s not likely that the 1933 King Kong is for you.
[Illustrations from The Making of King Kong]