King Kong (1933)

king kong
Fay Wray in Hand

'King Kong' is a classic part adventure, part romance, part horror film made in 1933, co-directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack and starring Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong and Bruce Cabot. The movie has become one of the most famous of Hollywood pictures and the gorilla itself and his last stand on top of the Empire State Building has become one of cinema's most enduring and iconic images.

The movie occupies a unique niche, being in parts an adventure story, also a tragic love story about a hopeless passion, and part horror movie. It is noteworthy for its innovative musical score by Max Steiner which forms an integral part of the film and helped to make it a resounding success. In 1991, 'King Kong' was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress. In 2007 it was ranked at number 41 on its list of the 100 greatest movies of all time by the American Film Institute.

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The basic plot is a timeless one and it is carefully created and brilliantly structured. Carl Denham, a documentary filmmaker, played by Robert Armstrong, organises an expedition to a mysterious Pacific island, hoping to discover and capture a unique animal. He hires Ann Darrow, played by Fay Wray, to accompany him. Their destination is Skull Island and en route the first mate of the ship, Jack Driscoll, played by Bruce Cabot, falls in love with Ann.

At the island they find various prehistoric creatures and a gigantic ape called Kong which they succeed in capturing and bringing back to New York. Kong has formed a hopeless passion for Ann which leads to his escape and to the unforgettable final scenes when he is hunted down.

The basic themes of the movie can be said to be doomed passion, and the clash between the modern world and that of the primitive forces of nature, and are eloquently summed up in the final scenes with Kong and Wray on top of the Empire State Building.

The final scene is deservedly iconic and is unforgettable - by now we are firmly on Kong's side. When he plunges, mortally wounded, to the street, Denham delivers his famous epitaph: "It wasn't the airplanes, it was beauty killed the beast."

When Fay Wray died in August 2004, the lights of the Empire State Building were dimmed for 15 minutes in her memory.


Merian Caldwell Cooper was a World War I aviator and adventurer who first saw movies being made on an expedition to the Dutch East Indies. He teamed up with Ernest Schoedsack in 1925, under contract to Paramount on the documentary dramas 'Grass' and 'Chang' which combined real action with staged sequences. After seeing gorillas in the wild Cooper came up with the idea of a movie about a large wild ape. He was brought from Paramount to RKO by producer, David Selznick, and he assigned British writer Edgar Wallace to draft a screenplay.

Wallace produced a draft but within weeks of arriving in Hollywood, he died of pneumonia. Cooper did not use Wallace's draft but kept his promise to keep Wallace's name in the movie's credits.

Cooper turned to Ruth Rose, the wife of Ernest Schoedsack, who worked on the script with RKO writer, James Ashmore Creelman. Various working titles were used including "The Beast" (the original title of Wallace's draft), "The Eighth Wonder", "The Ape", "King Ape" and "Kong". Selznick like "Kong" but thought it sounded too oriental so he added "King".

Technical Innovation
The special effects used - stop-motion animation and rear projection - were state-of-the-art and contribute hugely to the success of the film. Cooper was influenced by the 1925 film 'The Lost World', which used animation and models by Willis O'Brien and Marcel Delgado. For 'King Kong', O'Brien and Delgado built a series of Kong models, including an 18-inch version for long shots, as well as a full size hand, foot and face. The 18-inch model was had a metal mesh skeleton, with a mixture of rubber and foam for the muscle structure and rabbit fur for hair. The models had to have their skins removed each night so that the hinges on their limbs could be tightened.

Animation was a minutely detailed process with the models shot one frame at a time, with tiny adjustments between each shot. The battle between Kong and the pterodactyl took seven weeks to film.

King Kong's roar was a combination of a lion's and a tiger's roar run backwards at slow speed.

Cooper and Selznick agreed that the female lead should be blonde to achieve maximum contrast with the gorilla's dark fur and Dorothy Jordan, Frances Lee, Jean Harlow and Ginger Rogers were considered, but the role was finally given to Fay Wray who wore a blonde wig in the film.

Bruce Cabot won his first starring role after meeting Cooper when Cabot was working as a doorman at a Hollywood club.

Cooper and Schoedsack cast themselves as the flyers whose plane brings down Kong at the film's end.

The landmark score by Max Steiner illuminates the action perfectly. Nothing like it had been heard before and many critics at the time and since, have attributed much of the film's success to the Steiner score.


Cooper became RKO production chief in February, 1933, when Selznick left for MGM. Cooper promoted 'King Kong' extensively and after its general release in April, 1933, it made $1.9 million in worldwide rentals, with a profit of $650,000. The movie is credited with saving RKO from bankruptcy.

Main Cast

Fay Wray ... Ann Darrow
Robert Armstrong ... Carl Denham
Bruce Cabot ... John Driscoll
Frank Reicher ... Captain Englehorn
Sam Hardy ... Charles Weston
Noble Johnson ... Native Chief
Steve Clemente ... Witch King (as Steve Clemento)
James Flavin ... Second Mate Briggs


Director ... Merian C. Cooper, Ernest B. Schoedsack
Producer ... Merian C. Cooper, Ernest B. Schoedsack
Production Company ... RKO Radio Pictures
Story ... Edgar Wallace, Merian C. Cooper
Screenplay ... James Creelman, Ruth Rose
Format ... B & W
Music Score ... Max Steiner
Cinematography ... Eddie Linden, J.O. Taylor, Vernon Walker
Release date(s) ... March 2, 1933
Running time ... 105 minutes

Academy Awards

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