King Kong is a landmark black-and-white adventure film about a gigantic gorilla named "Kong" and how he is captured from a remote lost prehistoric island and brought to civilization against his will. The film was made by RKO and was originally written for the screen by Ruth Rose and James Ashmore Creelman, based on a concept by Merian C. Cooper. A major on-screen credit for Edgar Wallace, sharing the story with Cooper, was unearned, as Wallace became ill soon after his arrival in Hollywood and died without writing a word, but Cooper had promised him credit. A novelization of the screenplay actually appeared in 1932, a year before the film, adapted by Delos W. Lovelace, and contains descriptions of scenes not present in the movie.
The film was directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, starred Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong and Bruce Cabot, and is notable for Willis O'Brien's ground-breaking stop-motion animation, Max Steiner's musical score and Fay Wray's performance as the ape's love interest. King Kong premiered in New York City on March 2, 1933 at Radio City Music Hall.
They set sail aboard the Venture, an old tramp steamer that travels for weeks in the direction of Indonesia, where Denham claims they will be shooting. Despite his ongoing declarations that women have no place on board ships, the ship's first mate Jack Driscoll is obviously becoming attracted to Ann. Denham takes note of the situation and informs Driscoll he has enough trouble without the complications of a seagoing love affair. Driscoll sneers at the suggestion, reminding Denham of his toughness in past adventures. Denham's reply outlines the theme of both the movie he is making and the one in which he is a character: "The Beast was a tough guy too. He could lick the world, but when he saw Beauty, she got him. He went soft. He forgot his wisdom and the little fellas licked him."
After maintaining secrecy throughout the trip, Denham finally tells Driscoll and Captain Englehorn that they're searching for an uncharted island. Denham says that the skipper of a freighter gave him the only map that shows its location, having received it in turn from a native of the island who had been swept out to sea. Denham then describes something monstrous connected to the island, a legendary entity known to the islanders as "Kong".
As the Venture creeps through the fog surrounding the island, the crew hear drums in the distance. Finally arriving at the island's shore, they see a native village perched on a peninsula, cut off from the bulk of the island by an enormous wall. A landing party, including the filmmaker and his leading lady, goes ashore and encounters the natives, who are about to hand over a girl to Kong as a ritual sacrifice. Although Denham, Englehorn, Jack and Ann are hiding behind foliage, the native chief spots them and approaches the troop. Captain Englehorn is able to understand the native speech, and at Denham's urging makes friendly overtures to the chief. When he gets a clear look at Ann, the chief begins speaking with great energy. Englehorn translates this as "look at the golden woman!" The chief proposes to swap six native women for Ann, an offer Denham delicately declines as he and his party edge away from the scene, assuring the chief that they will return tomorrow to get better acquainted. Back on the Venture, Jack and Ann openly express their love for each another. When Jack is called away to the captain's quarters, a stealthy contingent of natives captures Ann, takes her back to the wall and presents her to Kong in an elaborate ceremony. Kong soon emerges from the jungle and he is revealed to be a giant gorilla. The Venture crew returns to the village and takes control of the wall; the other half of the crew then go after Kong, encountering an enraged Stegosaur and a territorial Brontosaur.
Up ahead in a jungle clearing, Kong places Ann in a high cleft of a dead upright tree. He then goes back and confronts his pursuers as they are walking along the top of an enormous fallen tree trunk over a deep ravine. Kong quickly shakes them all off into the ravine, except for one man still holding on, but Kong finally throws the entire tree with the man into the ravine, with only Driscoll and Denham escaping the same fate. Driscoll, who had grabbed some vines and ascended the chasm, continues the chase while Denham returns to the village. Meanwhile, a Tyrannosaur wanders through the forest and approaches a terrified Ann, whose screams alert Kong, who rushes back and confronts the Tyrannosaur. The violent fight between the two titans ends when Kong pries open the dinosaur's jaw until it breaks. Kong takes Ann up to his mountain lair, where a plesiosaur emerges from a bubbling swamp and tries to strangle Kong, who kills it with ease. Kong then inspects his blonde prize and begins to caress her, tearing off pieces of her clothing and tickling her. Jack interrupts the proceedings by knocking over a boulder. When the gorilla leaves Ann to investigate the noise, a pterosaur swoops from the sky and clutches Ann in its talons. A final fight ensues and the pterodactyl is strangled and is sent tumbling down the cliff face. While Kong is distracted, Jack rescues Ann and takes her back to the native village. Kong chases them, breaks through the large door of the wall and rampages through the village, killing many of the natives. Denham hurls a gas bomb, knocking Kong out, whereupon he exults in the opportunity to take the giant back to New York: "He's always been King of his world. But we'll teach him fear! We're millionaires, boys! I'll share it with all of you! Why, in a few months, his name will be up in lights on Broadway! Kong! The Eighth Wonder of the World!"
The next scene begins with those very words in lights on a theater marquee. Along with hundreds of curious New Yorkers, Denham, Driscoll and Ann are in evening wear for the gala event. The curtain lifts, and Denham presents a subdued and manacled Kong to the stunned audience. All goes well until photographers, using the blinding flashbulbs of the era, begin snapping shots of Ann and Jack, who is now her fiancé. Under the impression that the flashbulbs are attacking Ann, Kong breaks free of his bonds and escapes from the theater. He rampages through the city streets, destroying an elevated train and killing several citizens.
Kong finds Ann and carries her to the top of the Empire State Building. The military dispatches four Curtiss Falcon airplanes to destroy Kong. Once Kong notices the planes are heading towards him, the ape gently sets Ann down on the building's observation deck and climbs atop the dirigible mooring mast, trying to fend off the attackers. When one ventures too close, he manages to swat it down, but in the end is mortally wounded by machine-gun fire and plummets to his death in the street below. Denham picks his way to the front of the crowd, where a cop remarks "Well Denham, the airplanes got him." Denham replies, "It wasn't the airplanes. It was beauty killed the beast."
In the early 20th century, few zoos had primate exhibits so there was popular demand to see them on film. William S. Campbell specialized in monkey-themed films with Monkey Stuff and Jazz Monkey in 1919, with Prohibition Monkey following in 1920. Kong producer Schoedsack had earlier monkey experience directing Chang in 1927 (also with Cooper) and Rango in 1931, both of which prominently featured monkeys in authentic jungle settings.
Capitalizing on this trend, "Congo Pictures" released the hoax documentary Ingagi in 1930, advertising the film as "an authentic incontestable celluloid document showing the sacrifice of a living woman to mammoth gorillas." Ingagi was an unabashed black exploitation film, immediately running afoul of the Hollywood code of ethics, as it implicitly depicted black women having sex with gorillas, and baby offspring that looked more ape than human. The film was an immediate hit, and by some estimates it was one of the highest grossing movies of the 1930s at over $4 million. Although producer Merian C. Cooper never listed Ingagi among his influences for King Kong, it's long been held that RKO green-lighted Kong because of the bottom-line example of Ingagi and the formula that "gorillas plus sexy women in peril equals enormous profits".
Paul du Chaillu's travel narrative Explorations and Adventures in Equatorial Africa (1861) was a favorite of Cooper's when he was a child. The gorilla chase scene in the book was yet another inspiration for the film.
The biggest influence on Kong was, in many ways, the 1931 film project Creation, being developed by Willis O'Brien. Until Cooper, in his capacity as an RKO executive, screened its test footage, he had great doubts that he could make his gorilla picture. O'Brien's techniques were the answer, and Cooper ordered that production shelved and put its crew to work on his own.
The giant gate used in the 1933 movie was burned along with other old studio sets for the burning of Atlanta scene in Gone with the Wind. The gate was originally constructed for the 1927 Biblical epic The King of Kings. It can also be seen in the Bela Lugosi serial The Return of Chandu.
Some jungle scenes were filmed on the same sound stage set as those in The Most Dangerous Game, which was filmed during the day King Kong was being shot at night, and also featured Fay Wray and Robert Armstrong in prominent roles. Other jungle sequences were filmed on Catalina Island. One of the several original metal armatures used to bring Kong to life, as well as other original props from the 1933 film, can be seen in the book It Came From Bob's Basement, a reference to long-time prop collector Bob Burns, who lives in Los Angeles. One armature was on display in London until a few years ago in the now-closed Museum of the Moving Image. Peter Jackson, bought all the original Kong dinosaur armatures from Forrest J Ackerman.
It was also the first hit film to offer a life-like animated central character in any form. Much of what is done today with CGI animation has its conceptual roots in the stop motion animation that was pioneered in King Kong. Willis O'Brien, credited as "Chief Technician" on the film, has been lauded by later generations of film special effects artists as an outstanding genius of founder status.
At the end of the scene where Kong shakes the crew members off the log, he then goes after Driscoll, who is hiding in a small cave just under the ledge. The scene was shot using the miniature set, a mockup of Kong's hand and a rear-projected image of Driscoll in the cave. This is not the first known use of miniature rear projection, but it certainly is among the most famous of early attempts.
Many shots in King Kong featured optical effects by Linwood G. Dunn, who was RKO's optical technician for decades. Dunn did optical effects on Citizen Kane and the original Star Trek TV series, as well as hundreds of other films and shows. In the 1990s, Dunn co-invented an electronic 3-D system now used for micro-surgery in hospitals and in the military, as well as co-inventing a video projection system with better resolution than 35mm film that is used in modern cinemas.
During the film's original 1933 theatrical release, the climax was presented in Magnascope. This is where the screen opens up both vertically and horizontally. Cooper had wanted to wow the audience with the Empire State Building battle in a larger-than-life presentation. He had done this earlier for his earlier film Chang, during the climactic elephant stampede.
King Kong was released four times between 1933 and 1952. All of the releases saw the film cut for censorship purposes. Scenes of Kong chewing on people or stepping on them were cut, as was his peeling of Ann's dress. Many of these cuts were restored for the early 1970s theatrical re-release after it was found that a film editor had saved the trims. An uncensored print of much higher quality was discovered in the United Kingdom and was the print used to create the 2005 DVD, although it did go through much restoration before being transferred to the latest format.
Other than this cut scene, additional scenes were planned, some even partly shot but were never put into the final development:
The film received positive reviews on its first release, although Joe Bigelow of Variety claimed that the film was a good adventure if the viewer is "willing to suspend disbelief and after the audience becomes used to the machine-like movements and other mechanical flaws in the gigantic animals on view, and become accustomed to the phony atmosphere, they may commence to feel the power. The New York Times found it a fascinating adventure film: "Imagine a fifty-foot beast with a girl in one paw climbing up the outside of the Empire State Building, and after putting the girl on a ledge, clutching at airplanes, the pilots of which are pouring bullets from machine guns into the monster's body".
Susan Sontag, in her 1964 essay Notes on "Camp", includes the film as part of the canon of Camp. It should be noted, however, that this is not necessarily meant to denigrate the film; Sontag considers "Camp" a sensibility detached from content, and thus many works of high camp, even intentional camp, can be considered good and worthwhile art.
More recently, Roger Ebert wrote in his Great Films review that the effects are not up to modern standards, but "there is something ageless and primeval about King Kong that still somehow works.
King Kong currently holds an average score of 100% "Certified Fresh" based on 46 reviews on Rotten Tomatoes.
King Kong was re-released again in 1942 to great box office success. However, it was altered again by censors as various scenes were darkened to minimize gore. The film saw its most profitable release to date in 1952. Not only did it gross more money than any of its other releases, but it brought in more money than most new A-list pictures did that year. Due to this success, Warner Brothers was inspired to make a giant monster film of its own called The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms.
The film was released on DVD in 2005, having undergone an extreme restoration process by Warner Brothers. The source for the DVD material was a well-preserved nitrate copy of the film found in the United Kingdom; it also had all censored scenes intact and a new camera negative of the film was produced to replace the original, which had been destroyed.
Warner Home Video and Turner Entertainment have released the film in a two-disc special edition that has been released both with regular DVD packaging and in a Collector's Edition featuring both discs in a collectible tin which also includes a variety of other printed extras exclusive to the Collector's Edition. As of 2006, the US Special Edition has not been released in the United Kingdom, where only a single disc package can be purchased.
The film was also part of the film colorization controversy in the early 80s when it and other classic black and white films were colorized for television. In recent years, the colorized version has become highly prized among Kong collectors, despite the fact that the colorization is extremely poor, and there have even been bootleg DVD releases that have appeared on eBay. The colorized version is also available in a Region 2 box set containing the black and white version, the colorized version, King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962) and King Kong Escapes (1967).