The original 1933 version of King Kong is the one that started it all, or at least you can say it’s the one that would influence many generations of filmmakers despite the fact it was made in the early 20th century. By now the effects are dated, but somehow it still works. It is the ultimate adventure story: a ship finds an island with an ominous name populated by restless natives, dinosaurs, giant bugs, and the world’s biggest gorilla. Without King Kong you don’t have Godzilla, Jurassic Park (What do they have in there? King Kong?), and of course the 2005 Peter Jackson remake.
Speaking of the remake, since we live in an age where hit movies are redone every year, this is another case where I had not seen the original first. I saw the Peter Jackson version on the big screen, as you should, in the holiday season in Quebec City without having the black and white Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B Shoedsack version. That being said, I still knew where Jackson was going. The story has been around for so long and referenced so many times in pop culture that just about everyone knows the plot. The ship gets on the island, Kong snatches the girl, the crew captures Kong, takes him to New York, Kong escapes, and then it’s time to climb the Empire State Building. And yet, when the 1933 version was playing on TV a few months after the remake I still wanted to see it. Just because you know how the ride is going to end, it doesn’t you shouldn’t climb.
The first thing I noticed is how faithful Jackson was to the original story. It is essentially the same story only it is much longer, with deeper character development, and of course with special effects that are 1000 times better.
Fay Wray, in a role that would define her career, plays starving New York actress Ann Darrow who accepts to play in the latest film by Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong). Denham is famous for shooting on location and for his latest project he is pushing the envelope by taking his crew to an uncharted island that is home to a mysterious creature.
The 1933 romance is quite old-fashioned, played between Ann and the ship’s first mate Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot). Driscoll is a sea dog who doesn’t believe in having women on board, but of course by the time the ship has reached the island his cold heart begins to melt. On Skull Island you have the obligatory natives who believe in human sacrifices in order to placate the hunger of Kong, the king of the island. One look at Ann and they believe they have found a way to avoid sacrificing their own this time around.
A surprising difference between this version and the latest is that here the natives are somewhat treated with humour. The crew approaches them casually without fear, and Captain Englehorn (Frank Reicher) can conveniently talk to them and learn about their human sacrifices. After politely declining to give away Ann, they walk away with Denham whistling as though he was off for a stroll in the park.
The movie’s real star is of course King Kong himself, here brought to life thanks to a combination of stop-motion animation and models. There were no computers back then, so everything from Kong’s arms to the smallest dinosaur had to be hand crafted. Nowadays a 10-year-old kid could tell you when the actors are shooting at the dinosaurs they are aiming at a green screen, or the version of a green screen back then.
As old as the effects look, Kong and the rest of the beasts still look great. Seeing him atop of the Empire State Building being attacked by those airplanes is as memorable as ever and deserves its place in the history of cinema. The effects crew who made him did not only build King Kong, they created the template for the future.
One caveat though: the monster in this version is only an animal. Throughout the film he grabs Darrow and plays with her as though she was an interesting toy for him to play with. In Jackson’s version Ann and Kong have more of an emotional connection, with her seeing how lonely he has become on his island and even feeling sadness during his final hour. The filmmakers from the 1930s would probably find this strange, but in the 21st century we like our monsters to have personality and even a touch of humanity.