King Kong at 90 Years – Warner Archive Collection

Kong in King Kong. Courtesy of Warner Bros.

The recent Warner Archive Blu-ray might not say anything on the packaging but King Kong recently marked its 90th anniversary.

“No, it wasn’t the airplanes. It was Beauty that killed the Beast.” – Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong)

The gist of the film is that Kong is captured from Skull Island and brought to New York City where the he wrecks havoc while setting his eyes on Ann Darrow (Fay Wray). A filmmaker, Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong), is chartering Captain Englehorn’s (Frank Reicher) ship for his newest project. Denham has been having problems with hiring an actress to star in his new mysterious production but manages to find Darrow. After coming aboard the ship, Englehorn’s first mate, Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot), falls in love with her. All of this is before King Kong enters the picture, let alone Denham revealing the true nature of his new film! Regardless, it was quite the adventure for a film in 1933.

Willis O’Brien’s stop-motion animation and visual effects were pioneering for its time. He uses a process that was able to combine animation with live-action actors. Put it this way: this film is worth having a documentary that runs two and a half hours long. I don’t know if the 2005 remake needed to be that long but that’s another story for another day. In any event, the film premiered prior to the Production Code taking full force in dictating what can and cannot be in films. As a result, scenes would later be cut because of the PCA but they would later be restored in 1970 after being lost for many years. It wasn’t until 2005 in which the film got a much-needed restoration. All in all, the film now runs 104 minutes with an overture starting things off.

But as impressive as the film’s visual effects are, we cannot ignore the contributions of Max Steiner. Steiner creates themes for both Kong and Ann Darrow, sometimes combining them to give the film its own romantic mood. Meanwhile, he also uses the film’s score as a way of creating sound effects. It’s a technique that is referred to as Mickey Mousing because the music is being synced with the action on screen. Because of how Steiner scores the film, it builds up a level of sympathy for Kong. We’re rooting for him as the planes are shooting nonstop while he’s at the top of the Empire State Building. Of course, his death is a devastation and even more so because Max Steiner is one of the greatest film composers of all time.

I’ve seen clips of King Kong through the years but again, the visual effects are very impressive for a 1933 feature film. I certainly cannot state this enough. Have I said it too much yet? Anyway, the Empire State Building set piece is one of the most memorable scenes in all of film history. Watch for another piece detailing the Empire State Building’s history in film really soon. I’ll have more on its museum and the King Kong exhibit on the second floor in the days to come. To think that if Merian C. Cooper hadn’t heard an airplane motor while leaving the office, he would have never glanced over at a nearby skyscraper and conceived an idea for the film–mainly Kong being shot down by the airplanes.

King Kong might seem dated because of the 1930s visual effects but the pioneering effects are a primary reason why this film is a classic and still discussed today. It’s worth bringing home on Blu-ray if you’ve yet to do so.

Bonus Features

  • Commentary by Ray Harryhausen & Ken Ralston with Fay Wray and Merian C. Cooper
  • RKO Production 601: The Making of Kong, The Eighth Wonder of the World
    • The Origins of King Kong
    • Willis O’Brien and Creation
    • Cameras Roll on Kong, The Eighth Wonder
    • A Milestone in Visual Effects
    • Passion, Sound and Fury
    • The Mystery of the Lost Spider Pit Sequence
    • King Kong’s Legacy
  • The Lost Spider Pit Sequence
  • Creation Test Footage with Commentary by Ray Harryhausen
  • I’m King Kong! The Exploits of Merian C. Cooper
  • Theatrical Trailer

DIRECTORS: Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Shoedsack
SCREENWRITERS: James A. Creelman and Ruth Rose
CAST: Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong, Bruce Cabot, Frank Reicher, Sam Hardy, Noble Johnson, Steve Clemento, James Flavin

RKO Radio Pictures released King Kong in theaters on March 2, 1933. Grade: 5/5

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Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.