Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) is a film director, planning to make a moving picture on Skull Island, a mysterious land in uncharted waters, to which Denham has obtained a map, but he is short one lead actress. Scouring New York he finds penniless Ann Darrow (Fay Wray), and convinces her to take part before whisking her away and setting sail along with first mate Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot) and a large crew. On the way to the island, the crew become wary of the legend of the great Kong, a mythical beast who, upon arrival, turns out to be a giant gorilla worshipped and rightfully feared by the native tribesman on the island. When the natives kidnap Ann – blondes being something of a rarity to them – and offer her up to the beast, he takes her back to his lair, prompting Jack, Carl and the rest of the crew to attempt a rescue mission.
I recently watched all three major movie versions of King Kong for a Lambcast show that will drop soon, I hope (I’m having a busy few weeks). I’ve loved Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake for almost a decade (I didn’t see it in the cinema) but had never gotten around to either the 1976 version or this original. It turns out I’d been wise to avoid the 70s edition, which removes the dinosaurs and replaces them with a snake and superfluous romantic nonsense, but this version from 1933 turned out to be a treat. It was recommended for me to watch by David Brook of Blueprint: Review, who also joined me on the podcast, and I can see why he recommended it, and I can also see where a great deal of the inspiration for the 2005 version came from. It’s a version I’m very familiar with, but I feel the next time I watch it will be with a renewed appreciation for how well it referenced this original.
As for this version, I went in with high expectations but was also a little apprehensive that it might look, well, a bit shit. I’m not well versed in the visual effects available in the 1930s, but I was more than impressed with the stop-motion accomplishments surrounding Kong and the various beasts he battles. In particular, when he interacts with humans the effects were fascinating. I loved how he would carry a stop-motion Ann-Darrow-doll whilst moving but, when he put her down, there’s a very subtle cut to a living Fay Wray jumping from the Kong hand. Stop motion in general is something that I’ve always appreciated, although this was my first dabbling with the work of Ray Harryhausen, who was an assistant on the effects here. I deeply need to watch some more of Harryhausen’s work, and I look forward to doing so.
A lot of the dialogue has a sign-of-the-times feel to it, especially that involving Ann (“Holy mackerel! Do you think I want a woman around?”, “Women just can’t help being a bother”) and the relationship that develops between her and Jack. Some of their dialogue is lifted out directly and used as part of the film-within-a-film in Peter Jackson’s remake, where it’s not exactly discussed fondly. However this didn’t detract from my enjoyment, although the scene where Kong tries to undress Ann like he’s peeling a banana was a bit odd, as was when he poked and prodded her, then smelled his finger. That’s all I’m going to say about that.
Pacing-wise this obviously moves a lot more briskly than the ’05 version, given that it’s half the length, but it manages to pack in more monsters for Kong to encounter, so much so that the middle half of the film feels like one fight after another after another, having to save Ann from dinosaurs and winged creatures and some kind of snake monster with legs. The humans also take on a couple of prehistoric problems too, which led to the most dated-looking effect after they successfully take down a stegosaurus. Moving around it looks like the kind of footage you might take at a comically oversized theme park, like from Honey I Shrunk the Kids, but it’s fine for the day it was made.
I still prefer the most recent remake, but that’s mainly due to the advanced visual effects, Andy Serkis’ portrayal of Kong and my generally being more familiar with it, but fans of that should definitely seek out the original too, if only to give credit where it is due. Just avoid the ’76 version like a ship should avoid giant pointy rocks.
Choose Film 8/10