There Goes Tokyo: King Kong (1933)


This is probably going to be a controversial entry – both because some fans might object to me including King Kong (1933) on a kaiju movie review column, and because others might take umbrage with my unvarnished opinion on the movie. So let’s address these complaints head on: first, this column, There Goes Tokyo, isn’t technically a kaiju movie review column. It’s a giant monster story review column, and any story that features a giant monster in a prominent role is considered fair game. Second, while I’m going to be very critical of this beloved cinema classic, I want everyone to know that I do consider it a classic. I also think it’s a deeply flawed film, but a classic nonetheless. In the parlance of our times, I would call King Kong (1933) a problematic fave. It’s a movie that is saved from its own racism, misogyny, and overall lazy/bad writing by some phenomenal special effects and a pair of incredibly interesting characters. It doesn’t hold up as well as so many movie critics think it does, but it does merit beneath its many faults.

I will also admit that I have a chip on my shoulder about this film. As a lover of monster fiction, I’ve read a lot of books where critics talk about monster movies, many of which rate the films in question. King Kong (1933) always gets glowing reviews. Godzilla (1954), by contrast, gets almost unanimous disdain. Only in recent years have movie critics realized the artistic value of the 1954 Godzilla, while few if any seem to admit that King Kong is anything less than artistic perfection. And believe me – King Kong is FAR from perfection. King Kong has problems. It is loaded with racism and sexism, but even ignoring the march of cultural progress since its debut, the fact remains that it’s a very shallow story that is only made memorable by its special effects. It is neither well written nor well-acted for the most part, shining only when the monsters are on screen. So many movies have been called out as garbage for hewing to this same standard, so I feel no guilt for giving King Kong a slight ribbing for the same faults.

King Kong opens with what is purportedly an old Arabian proverb: “And lo, the beast looked upon the face of beauty. And it stayed its hand from killing. And from that day, it was as one dead.” This proverb was made up entirely for the film, and sets up the motif that the movie pretends is a very deep theme: that the toughest brute can be made weak by falling in love. Many critics have claimed this “theme” is profound, but I feel it’s kind of hollow, obvious, and, y’know, a dramatic over simplification of things, but to each their own.

We are then introduced to the protagonist of the movie, Carl Denham, in a fairly unusual way: two incredibly minor characters discuss him on a dock. One of them pitches Carl’s character to the audience: “Carl Denham – if he wants a picture of a lion, he just goes up to it and says ‘look pleasant.’” In short, Carl is a risk taking movie maker who ain’t afraid of nothin’. It’s a well-known fact that Denham is based on Merian C. Cooper, the director of the movie who also penned the rough story concept. With this in mind, the praise Denham gets throughout his introduction – even the parts of it that are a little backhanded – feel just a bit different: “[Denham has] a reputation for recklessness that can’t be glossed over,” “Everyone knows there’s only one Carl Denham,” et cetera et cetera we get it Merian you’re hot shit.

Tellingly, Carl Denham is the most well-developed character in this movie.

Carl Denham wants to take a woman on his film, which the other men scoff at because Denham’s film shoots are far too masculine and dangerous for a mere woman. When asked why he wants a woman for the movie, Denham barks, “Do you think I want to haul a woman around?… The public, bless ‘em, wants to have a pretty face to look at…. I go out and sweat blood to make a good picture, and the critics say ‘if this movie had a girl it would gross twice as much.’” Knowing that Denham is based on Cooper, and that Denham basically thinks women and a romance plotline is something you throw into a movie for money at the expense of art, makes this scene very funny and very infuriating at the same time, especially once we finally meet this movie’s female lead. The disdain for women in this, the first scene of the film, is very telling.

It’s also telling that King Kong is the only Merian C. Cooper movie that most people who aren’t film scholars can name.

After a bit of searching, Carl finds our female lead, Ann Darrow, as she desperately tries to steal an apple to eat. He exploits her poor state of affairs to get her to work on his movie: “It’s money, adventure, and fame! It’s the thrill of a lifetime and a long sea voyage!” At first Ann assumes he means she’d be his prostitute, which Denham promptly clears up, and Jesus fucking Christ King Kong people are going think I just made a crude joke here instead of relating what actually happened in you.

Here’s the thing: Carl Denham is legitimately a great character. He’s well-acted, gets funny lines, and has more than one dimension to him. Ann Darrow, however, is pretty shallow. She’s basically written as “dumb, naïve idiot who makes trouble because she’s stupid and a woman, but hey she’s pretty.” Ann has three modes: naïve optimism, morose desperation, and manic terror. She is content to be lead around by the men around her, taking their word as gospel and panicking when she is left without their aid. In this film, Ann Darrow is a flat, static character. She doesn’t grow or change, she simply smiles and/or screams as she is transferred from one male character’s possession to the next. I don’t blame Fay Wray for it – she does her best with what she’s given, but what she’s given could be given to a lamp and work just as well.

Once on board the ship, Ann proves the movie’s theory that women are an obstacle that weighs strong men down by managing to interfere with a sailor’s duties just by standing slightly near him. Specifically, Jack Driscoll, our male romantic lead, accidentally slaps Ann while she’s observing him give orders. This is, of course, her fault, which he states and she struggles to deny. He then promptly chews her out for standing near him and being a woman on a ship, and this description I’ve just written is in no way an exaggeration, nor is it ever significantly challenged by the script. Given that the movie shows her stupidly being in the way by just… existing, we’re apparently supposed to agree with him. My point is that this movie is kinda sorta very incredibly definitely horribly misogynistic.

Luckily we then cut to Charlie the Chinese cook, and the movie switches from horrible sexism to horrible racism as he talks in a broken dialect that’s one step shy of Fu Manchu style yellow peril racism.

Luckily, his appearance is followed by another conversation between Ann and Jack where Jack tells her that a woman just being around is trouble, allowing us to switch from uncomfortable racism back to uncomfortable sexism. Our dashing lead says, “Women can’t help being a bother. Made that way I guess.” But hey, he’s crushing on her so it’s ok, right?

Fortunately for Ann, there is one creature on the ship that actually enjoys her presence without a caveat: Iggy, the crew’s inexplicable pet monkey. She likes him back, and this is a very clumsy example of foreshadowing, complete with Denham literally pointing that out. To paraphrase: “Beauty and the Beast! It’s the motiff we’re going to keep talking about to trick generations of nostalgic film critics into thinking this movie is deeper than other creature features!”

To the movie’s credit, it’s not just apes this “theme” applies to, as Denham also points out that Jack Driscoll’s antagonistic interactions with Ann also show the “beauty and the beast” motif: “Some big hard-boiled egg looks at a pretty face and bang, he goes all sappy!” The parallel is definitely there, although it’s a great deal clumsier than the filmmakers seem to think it is, as both Jack and Kong are kind of despicable, while Ann Darrow’s “beauty” is of the vapid brainless sort. King Kong’s intended message is that women turn tough, intelligent men into idiots. That’s the theme. That’s our take away.

It truly puts Godzilla to shame.

In the next scene, Carl gives us the exposition for Skull Island when arguing with the captain about where they’re headed. It’s one of the good moments for the film’s writing, as the description of the island and Kong himself has a properly mythic feel. Perhaps, as Denham noted, the filmmakers’ hearts were more in the “giant monster in a lost world” plot than the “asshole sailor likes vapid woman” plot. According to Denham, Kong is something “neither beast nor man,” establishing our monster is more than just a large animal (an important distinction when you want to argue a monster is a character, since most academics don’t cotton to the idea that normal animals can be characters without explicit anthropomorphization). Denham goes on to say Kong is “something no white man has seen,” an important line that ties King Kong to the many Imperial Gothic Horror stories that preceded it. The idea that monsters and other supernatural terrors still lurk in regions that Western civilization hasn’t fully explored is common in a lot of late Victorian and early 20th century horror stories, with books like Heart of Darkness providing a literary precedent for our humble giant ape movie. It also has some racist connotations, of course, and the rest of the movie doesn’t do anything to help in that regard.

Later, Carl Denham and Ann practice filming. Denham gives an anecdote about a time he was trying to shoot footage of a charging rhino only to lose the shot because his cameraman panicked and ran: “Damn fool, I was right there with a rifle.” It’s a fun moment that sums up his character pretty well, particularly his tendency to set up dangerous situations and resolve them in the most needlessly violent way possible. It’s probably supposed to make him charming and masculine – a great adventurer and all that – but, as later adaptations have point out, it really just makes him look like an unhinged monster with no regard for the well being of others. He then gives Ann Darrow the direction that is probably 90% of what Cooper actually told Fay Wray, which can be summed up as “look at something, get terrified, and scream for your life.” Jack, looking on, worries about what Denham actually expects Ann to see, showing that the big lug is falling for her and beauty and the beast and bla bla bla look this romance plot is terrible.

Finally we get to Skull Island, and our “heroes” come upon the Skull Islanders as they prepare a sacrifice to Kong. If you thought Charlie the Chinese cook was bad, then hoo boy are you in for an unpleasant awakening as our movie plunges face first into a metric fuckton of racism. It’s a scene that has not aged well. Denham tries to sneak a shot of the ceremony before the islanders spot him and the other sailors, and of course doing this results in the islanders spotting him and the other sailors. Ironically, the Skull Islanders are a lot more fun to watch than most of our white characters. There’s a moment where the chief is walking down some stairs set to dramatic music and one Skull Islander kid doesn’t realize everyone’s getting out of his way, only for his mom to drag him back into the crowd just seconds before the chief descends the stairs. It’s funny.

The confrontation is tense, partly because Denham’s group violated the ceremony by their interruption, partly because Denham treats negotiations with an air of contempt and snarkiness, and partly because the Skull Islanders decide Ann Darrow would make a good sacrifice for Kong and literally try to buy her. “They want the golden woman.” It’s uh… I mean I don’t know what to say beyond “Jesus Christ that’s racist and awful.” I could go into the layers of it – the idea that all native cultures view women as objects, or that black men view white women as inherently more valuable than black women (in this case literally calling her “gold”), et cetera – but I think it can just be summed up as “what the fucking hell 1933?”

Jack is suddenly obsessed with Ann’s safety, and tells her not to trust Denham as much as she does. He even asks her what she would do if Denham risked her life, and Ann at least gets to make a fun quip: “Then you wouldn’t be bothered by having a woman on board.” It is the one and only time the movie gives anyone shit for treating Ann like an object (unless you count the biplanes shooting down Kong), and even then it is such a fucking softball hit. It is even promptly undercut by 1. the fact that Ann, being a stupid woman (according to the movie’s view of women), is making light of a dire situation, and 2. the fact that this scene immediately starts up the forced romance between Jack and Ann. Jack’s oh so romantic proposal – a core part of a story arc that, lest you forget, is the primary reason many prominent film critics think this movie is a masterpiece while Godzilla is garbage – goes as follows: “I’m scared for you. I’m sort of scared of you too. Say… I guess I love you.”

Truly, no man has made women swoon like this since Mr. Collins’s proposal in Pride and Prejudice.

Ann, being an idiot, of course reciprocates Jack’s clumsy and ill-conceived infatuation, and sits alone in gleeful love while Jack leaves to do Important Man Business. While mooning over Driscoll’s love confession – you know, how women do – Ann is kidnapped by the Skull Islanders. Nobody notices at first, but eventually they get what’s going on. Charlie the Chinese cook sums it up in a fashion that is racist to both himself and others: “Crazy black man been here!” I mean, given the time period and overall tone we’re lucky he didn’t drop an n-word instead, but still holy shit.

Luckily, Ann gets sacrificed to Kong, allowing our movie to shift from “overt and extreme racism and misogyny” to “fun monster adventures in the jungle with some subtle undertones of racism and misogyny.” The white men (and Charlie the Chinese cook) come to rescue her, and the Skull Islanders don’t do anything to stop them as they interrupt yet another religious ritual. Half of the men stay behind to guard the door while the other half look for Ann.

There’s a slightly exaggerated belief that this movie changed film forever by showing humans and fantastical monsters interacting in a way that had “never been seen before.” It’s technically false – The Lost World, a silent movie that also had stop motion dinosaurs interacting with live action humans using the special effects guru Willis O’Brien, predates King Kong by several years. However, The Lost World is nowhere near as complex in its special effects wizardry as King Kong, and as a result it’s almost rightfully overshadowed. King Kong’s integration of special effects and live action is still astounding to this day. The visuals it makes are beautiful and fantastical, and the sheer number of technical tricks they used to make these puppet dinosaurs seem like they’re sharing the screen with human beings is astounding. While the effects may no longer look “realistic,” they’re still a stunning display of story-telling ingenuity, the kind that you only find when a genius is experimenting and perfecting a new form of art for the first time. There’s a magic on display here that cannot be replicated, and I’d argue it is the one and only part of this movie that has aged like fine wine. These scenes are just as magical now as they were in 1933, and if anything have only grown more wondrous, surreal, and beautiful with age. The special effects of King Kong are rightfully lauded.

The group stumbles upon a stegosaurus, which eventually charges them. They promptly bomb and shoot the shit out of him. As he lies twitching in pain, they shoot him again. He gets up to defend himself, and they shoot him again. Then, when they approach, Denham notices he’s still alive, and they shoot him point blank in the eye. It’s a somewhat Rasputinian death, and one of several moments that unintentionally makes our heroes look like absolute monsters. When Denham says, “If only I could bring back one of these alive!”, I struggle to keep from shouting, “You could if you didn’t needlessly murder them you asshole!”

Next our group approaches a swamp, where they are attacked by a carnivorous brontosaurus. It heroically kills many of the wicked invading white men, and escapes with its life and freedom. It is the hero we deserve. This scene of heroism is followed by another as Kong discovers our human characters trying to cross a chasm, having left Ann Darrow on top of a tree. The great ape heroically shakes the log, dropping our awful human characters into a pit to die. Unfortunately, both Jack Driscoll and Carl Denham survive.

Meanwhile, a T.rex shows up to menace Ann, whose screams in turn draw Kong’s attention away from Jack. This leads to one of the first monster fights in cinema, which is also one of the most badass. Kong and the T.rex beat the living hell out of each other with every trick their respective bodies have to offer. The T.rex snarls and gnashes his teeth while Kong socks him in the jaw. Kong tackles the T.rex like a wrestler, and the T.rex slashes at Kong with his powerful hind leg talons. The way the T.rex’s tail ripples back and forth in agitation is a particularly cool bit of body language – Willi O’Brien’s stop motion really adds personality to these monsters beyond the bare requirements of the script. It’s a testament to his puppetry that Kong has become such an icon. Also, contrary to later portrayals, the T.rex isn’t a pushover, and Kong wins by the skin of his teeth. He then plays with his dead foe’s jaws and it’s honestly pretty morbid. 1933 Kong is kinda terrifying, but this scene is nonetheless a great example of why he became such a beloved character. King Kong is more than just a force of conflict – he’s a character. He has motivations, emotions, expressions, and reactions. He is a living creature with thoughts and feelings, and this approach even extends – albeit to a lesser extent – to his monstrous costars. While Toho’s Godzilla films take this approach to monsters, i.e. treating them as characters, even father than King Kong does, it has to be noted that this movie established a precedent for it. It’s one of several things King Kong laid the groundwork for.

Denham and Jack, separated by the chasm of the spider pit, split up: Jack to follow Kong, Denham to get more help. Jack finds the rex, whose dead jaws ooze blood while prehistoric vultures pick at its flesh. It’s a gruesome detail that helps set the mood of Skull Island apart from the other locations in the movie – the ecosystem in Kong’s world is incredibly rich and alive, which has no doubt added to the appeal of this story.

Outside the jungle, Carl returns to rally the remaining sailors. Captain Englehorn has no hope for Jack or Ann’s survival, but Denham does – though he notes they have to wait till daylight to mount a rescue anyway. When asked about the Skull Islanders, Englehorn says the natives are avoiding them after the crew fired their guns a couple of times – a fact he’s very smug about, of course, and furthering the Gothic Horror notion that the terrors of the past (in this case, “uncivilized” natives) can be defeated with the tools of a “civilized” modern world. To further this theme, Denham tells everyone to prepare the gas bombs in case Kong shows up, planning to use an even more modern weapon to fell an even more ancient horror.

Kong ascends Skull Mountain, which is as mythic a home as one could hope for. Along the way he kills a sea serpent-ish plesiosaur. It’s thrilling, but rightfully overshadowed by the T.rex fight. Also, it should be noted that Kong must be an asshole because every monster wants to kill him on sight. Once on top of the mountain, Kong partially strips Ann a bit and sniffs her clothes, a scene that was cut form later showings of the movie. It’s fucked up. A pterosaur shows up to fight him, inadvertently providing a distraction while Ann and Jack escape via a convenient vine. After killing his flying foe, Kong realizes Ann has escaped and climbs down the mountain to recapture her.

Jack and Ann return to the rest of the crew, and Denham proposes capturing Kong after they gas him. Jack thinks this is a stupid and foolhardy plan, but Kong arrives before the argument can escalate, killing dozens of skull islanders in gruesome detail. He eats one, steps on another, and overall racks up a pretty impressive body count for a monster that’s generally considered lighthearted. There’s even a shot of a crying baby left in the rampage who’s only saved at the last moment – a rare intentional humanizing moment for the natives. This rampage is nowhere near as grim as, say, those in Godzilla (1954), but it’s still a lot darker than people give this movie credit for. Thankfully for the Skull Islanders, Kong gets knocked out, Denham proposes taking him to New York, and we smash cut to the big opening night of Kong’s theatrical debut in the USA before we have to consider how much havoc the ape just wrought.

After a few vaguely humorous bits where the patrons comment on their expectations for this whole “King Kong the 8th Wonder of the World” thing, the movie establishes where our three human heroes are in life post-Skull Island. Jack and Ann are a couple now, and along with Denham they praise each other for their heroism on the island. Ann praises Jack for saving her, Jack praises Denham for knocking out the ape, and Denham praises Ann for luring Kong out in the first place. Credit where it’s due, this establishes a nice bit of camaraderie between the characters and even presents just a tiny bit of change on their parts, even if it’s just in how they view each other. It’d be nice if the movie had done this more often before and after this scene, but still, it’s a good bit.

The nice moment is broken when we see Kong, broken and shackled on a stage for all to see. Things go from mildly depressing to outright horrifying when the press takes flash photography of Ann and Jack, who are going to be married now apparently. Kong, terrified that Ann is in danger, proceeds to break out of his chains and rampage through New York while Jack and Ann run for their lives. Like the Skull Island rampage, this scene is a lot more violent than most people remember. Kong chews up a man and spits him out for no readily apparent reason. He’s kind of a maniac.

Worse, Kong then steals a sleeping brunette from her apartment. Once he realizes she isn’t Ann, he drops her to her death. This grisly scene includes one of the most iconic shots of Kong – him staring through the window – that has been repeated a lot in parodies but rarely in other adaptations, perhaps because it’s legitimately terrifying and undercuts the idea of Kong being a “good” monster.

Second time is the charm, as Kong then shows up outside Ann’s window. In a legitimately clever moment of dramatic irony, Jack Driscoll tells Ann that the police will surely kill Kong while the ape is literally staring at him through the window. Jack tries to hit Kong’s hand with a chair and gets knocked out like a chump, allowing Kong to pick up Ann once more.

The next scene in Kong’s great rampage involves him derailing a train, and it’s yet another scene that’s more violent and disturbing than I think most people remember it being. It is also a scene that I’m pretty sure Godzilla homaged, as the King of the Monsters also derailed a train during his big city rampage. Kong has a harder time of it than his scaly counterpart, as he’s nowhere near as large, but he makes up for it by just beating the holy crap out of the train car while the passengers scream in utter terror.

Finally, Kong scales the Empire State Building, and Carl Denham is the first person to think of using airplanes out of all the people assembled to deal with the ape. The planes shoot Kong, and while he puts up a brave fight, they eventually do enough damage to kill him. Throughout the protracted battle we see Kong bleed more and more, grimacing in pain while his movements get slower and clumsier. Willis O’Brien gives the big ape a good deal of pathos, especially as he grabs Ann one last time to look at her, tenderly putting her down before he dies. No matter how brutish he is in this movie, one can’t deny the sadness of his demise as he finally falls from the building to his death. This is the scene that convinces people this movie has a brain, and it’s entirely because of the stop motion animation. Jack “saves” Ann once Kong is safely killed, while Denham reinforces the movie’s motif that masquerades as a deeper meaning: “Oh no, It wasn’t the airplanes. It was beauty killed the beast.” Whatever weight these sequences have is borrowed/leeched from the emotional punch provided by Willis O’Brien’s animation – in the end, Kong does the heavy lifting, and the human characters piggy back off of it to stardom.

King Kong (1933) is a deeply flawed film. Most of its characters are flat, offensive, irritating, or some mix of the three, and the majority of its dialogue is clunky and awkward at best. The charisma of Robert Armstrong’s performance as Carl Denham saves the first half of the picture from being unwatchable, while the sheer wonder of Willis O’Brien’s masterful stop motion effects makes the second half such a glory to behold that its flaws can be forgiven. King Kong himself gives a tour de force performance – a bizarre thing to say about a movie monster, sure, but one that is undeniable. This movie has many faults, but despite them it is still a classic and a masterpiece, and one of the greatest displays of the power special effects have to bring life to a story.

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