In the first of two posts, Mr Moth examines the enduring legacy of Hollywood’s greatest monster, King Kong.
Myth creation doesn’t come easily to Hollywood. Oh, sure, legend. Hollywood legends are ten a penny, it’s practically a legend factory. But myth is harder, and usually it falls back on the myths of earlier civilisations. Ray Harryhausen, as we shall see, became a Hollywood legend though his interpretations of Greco-Roman mythology. Movies return time and again to the same ancient wells, or to the safe springs of modern literature. A nakedly commercial artform is by necessity cautious, unwilling to risk spending the money it takes to produce a film on untested ambition.
Some get through. George Lucas, by dint of being at the right place in the right time, basically assembled a very cheap labour force of hippies, weirdos and Alec Guinness and created a myth on the cheap, though time will tell if it is myth enough to withstand being retold. Ishirō Honda’s Godzilla became a myth told and retold because it caught the mood of a damaged nation. And then, to get to my point, there’s Kong. Join me as I venture into the heart of this dark story. Like the heroes of this myth, we have a long journey ahead of us but have no fear – there will be monkeys.
King Kong (1933, Cooper/Schoedsack)
Made in 1933, the early years of the Talkie, King Kong remains a spellbinding film. The simple motor that drives the plot is the ambition of one Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong), movie producer and adventurer. It’s unclear for the first third of the film exactly what he’s after (assuming you managed to get this far without knowing anything about the film), but once Kong appears it is Denham’s single-mindedness that brings him to New York and his eagerness to show off his giant acquisition that leads to the final rampage.
That’s not what you take home with you, though. What you take is the love story, the simple tragedy of Ann Darrow and King Kong; the beautiful woman and the ape the size of a terraced house who loves her. And, in the end, maybe she loved him too. The knowledge they share that this can never be causes him to literally give up everything and leads to the indelible final line – “’Twas beauty killed the beast”. The Arabian proverb at the start, incidentally, is pure invention by producer/director Merian C Cooper.
OK, so there’s a lot to be uncomfortable about in the story – made as colonialism was taking a breather before plunging the world into war again, the Dark Continent natives being bribed with trinkets and the blonde white woman as ultimate prize for the untamed beast make difficult viewing for a modern audience. It’s also surprisingly racy for a PG; people are munched on-screen, dropped to their deaths and blimey there’s even a nipple. In 1933! The Hays Code was in place but mostly ignored by this time, and some of the more excessive moments were trimmed in later releases. These were restored in the last decade or so.
In 2010 I was fortunate enough to see King Kong on the big screen at the BFI with Ray Harryhausen in attendance. He described seeing the movie in 1933, and how contemporary magazines used guesswork to show how the film was made, because stop-motion was an unknown technology. “There are books about that now” he said, and I nodded because I spent a good amount of my childhood reading such books. My dad’s copy of The Making of King Kong, for example, showed me that the real magic of King Kong came from seeing behind the magic. I wished I could have seen the giant mechanical head used on set and to promote the film (it took three people to operate and was wildly off-scale, but it was expressive and menacing), revelled in the knowledge that Cooper and co-director Ernest Schoedsack flew the biplane that took Kong down and hoped that someone, somewhere, had footage of the lost “spider pit” sequence. They didn’t, of course. It really is lost. Maybe it was never made. OH WAIT WHAT’S THIS?
Oh, it’s just a recreation by Peter Jackson. Good though, innit?
Son of Kong (1933, Schoedsack)
Blurted out like an awkward joke after a captivating shaggy dog story, Son of Kong was released just nine months after the original movie. It hardly needs saying that it is a shameless attempt to capitalise on the success of Kong, an attempt to expand the myth, and equally it’s barely worth mentioning that it is quite terrible.
Having said that, it’s not entirely without merit. Robert Armstrong is just about the only cast member to return – just him, Frank Reicher as the ship’s captain and Victor Wong as, um, “Chinese Cook”.
Armstrong does well as a down-on-his-luck Denham now moved to the foreground as romantic lead. Escaping creditors, he ends up on a wild goose chase for “The Treasure of Kong Island” (nb not Skull Island?) with treacherous John Marston and new leading lady Helen Mack. Mack is a sparkier presence than Wray, and her chemistry with the likeable Armstrong is a real positive for Son of Kong. The first half hour of the film fizzes with the same energy as the previous film; arguably more, given the murder, duplicity and even a fun class war subtext. This latter comes to a head when the crew of the ship throw their officers out into the boat, including their treacherous leader, dismissing them as “bourgeois”.
And then there’s Kong Jr. Introduced without fanfare, he is a much less imposing, more buffoonish figure than his father. He is smaller, more broadly animated; at one point he even shrugs to the camera. Once the film reaches the island, it literally loses the plot and wanders aimlessly from set piece to set piece with Kong Jr bumbling around as a compliant helper monkey, more in love with Denham than anything. The commentary on class could have saved this if anybody had noticed what was happening in the script, but instead the last part of the film goes for easy laughs and pointless adventure-movie non-sequiturs. A lost classic? No, just a lost opportunity.
Mighty Joe Young (1949, Schoedsack)
Cooper and Schoedsack reunite with Kong screenwriter Ruth Rose over fifteen years on to retread the idea of a giant gorilla in thrall to a beautiful young woman. This manages to combine the humour of Son of Kong with the peril and even menace of King Kong to satisfying effect, even if it never reaches the heights of its illustrious forbear.
In a twist on Kong’s story, the love between giant gorilla Joe and beautiful dame Jill is strictly fraternal. Adopted as a baby, he has grown up (and up and up) as part of a human family. When Max O’Hara (Armstrong again, in a near-reprise of Carl Denham but with more of a fatherly twinkle) and his gang of cowboys arrive near the Young ranch in Africa to lasso lions (honestly), they attract the attention of Joe Young. Joe Young, one might complain, is hardly the name of a giant gorilla, but other than “King Kong” what is? If you’re not going to call him Kong, he may as well be “Dennis Stephens”.
Brought to vivid, charismatic life by Ray Harryhausen, the film’s big strength is Joe. The lead romantic couple, one half of whom spends the entire film in pigtails, the other in full cowboy regalia, are fairly bland so it’s a relief whenever Joe appears. Sometimes snarling, sometimes startled, sometimes amused, sometimes straight up drunk, his face tells you everything he feels. One of his appearances actually took my breath away – in 2014, watching it on a 5” phone screen, it was genuinely surprising, clever and audacious. There is a moment, late in the film, where he gets a bit of down time in the middle of a car chase and simply sits, drumming his fingers. A pointless moment, sure, but a beautiful one.
Although the film makes no reference whatsoever to King Kong, his giant footprints are all over Mighty Joe Young. In the same way Denham’s exploitation of Kong did, so O’Hara’s use of Joe and Jill Young in an increasingly-degrading nightclub show acts as a satire of the Hollywood meat grinder. Wide-eyed ingénues and naive brutes in one end; drunks, cynics and corpses out the other. Only a selfless act can redeem you here – O’Hara saves Joe from a firing squad, Joe rescues children from a burning orphanage – and Joe survives only by returning to the wild country from which he came.
“Am I dreaming? Or did I see a gorilla? And a beautiful dame?”
When Mighty Joe Young ends, so too does the first age of King Kong. Schoesdack, Cooper and Rose interrogate the concept of the giant gorilla and beautiful woman from various angles – as a savage epic, as a knockabout comedy, as a platonic caper. They perhaps had no idea what they were doing in creating a figure like Kong, that their films were the starting point for a myth. It would take another generation before the myth was ready to be told again. I’ll be back tomorrow to take you through the rest of the story.