I was reticent about including Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s King Kong in this series. True, we’ve already shown the filmmakers’ classic documentary, Grass (1925), but, in the eight intervening years, the filmmakers seem (at least superficially) to have moved in a very different direction. Chang (1927) retained the trappings of actuality, but was far more manipulative. In the words of scholar Erik Barnouw, much of the film “must have been part of Hollywood pre-planning, along with pretentious subtitled dialogue.” Their three fiction features prior to Kong were not without merit, but the big guy brought something entirely new to the cinema.
Willis O’Brien (1886–1962) was a San Francisco newspaper cartoonist and sculptor who helped develop the art of stop-motion animation. As early as 1914, he was playing with dinosaurs, but he finally made his mark with the adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World (1925). Without his special effects genius, King Kong would be unimaginable. (Later on, Ray Harryhausen became O’Brien’s assistant, and he, George Pal, and many others are part of O’Brien’s legacy.)
It is hard to imagine what it must have been like to see Kong straddling the recently built Empire State Building while sitting amongst a sold-out audience in the even newer Radio City Music Hall. It is hard to identify a more iconic image in the history of the movies.
Cooper and Schoedsack tried to cash in on their great success with Son of Kong (1933) and Mighty Joe Young (1949). Progenies of the two filmmakers have done inferior remakes and all manner of imitations. In Japan, Godzilla has laid claim (and lots of eggs) to miles of celluloid, including a confrontation with Kong himself. During the “Atomic Age,” films like The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953; dinosaur) and Them! (1954; giant ants) wreaked destructive terrorism on civilization, reinforcing the Kongian theory that size matters. All of this art was made possible by the big guy.
Getting back to the question of how far Cooper and Schoedsack had strayed from their origins, Grass was a documentary on the epic annual migration of Persian nomads in their perennial struggles with the perils of the natural world. Kong, fictional puppet though he was, nonetheless portrayed a natural creature, surviving on an isolated island until brought to New York by the Barnumesque Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong)—who was modeled at Cooper’s insistence on himself.
Universal’s horror film cycle (Frankenstein, Dracula, The Mummy, etc.) was immensely popular at the time, but none of these films had the currency of King Kong. For Cooper, Schoedsack, and their audience, World War I—with its devastation of French and other population centers—was a recent memory. New forms of warfare like aerial bombardment were a reality, and as with the “Atomic Age” or today, people had good reason to be fearful of the future. The foolish unleashing of Kong in New York, the development of nuclear weapons, and the “bring ‘em on” bravado toward terrorists are all cut from the same hubristic cloth. Would that all we had to worry about now was a miniature model ape. Well, actually there is something else looming on the horizon that we have to fear: word comes from Australia that Global Creatures is planning a musical version of King Kong for Broadway. We can only hope that there are still a few Curtis O2C-2 biplanes that can fly.
A side note: The Museum’s annual To Save and Project program begins this week. If you have never seen it, a restored print of Luchino Visconti’s Il Gattopardo (The Leopard), one of the most beautiful films ever made, is being shown on Friday, October 15, and Saturday, October 16.