Even before King Kong, jungle films in which scientists went into the dark underbelly and emerged not unscathed were a popular genre. A big reason why was that primates didn’t live in captivity at the time, so Tarzan films and The Lost World did big business.
Producer Ernest B. Schoedsack — and actual director of the humans in this movie — had earlier experience in these types of movies by making Chang: A Drama of the Wilderness and Rango.
There was also Ingagi, a movie that was a fake documentary about human sacrifice fifty years before Cannibal Holocaust. It’s also a completely reprehensible film that features black women making love to gorillas and giving birth to ape babies, which many today would find horrifying, but audiences spent $4 million ($63 million in today’s dollars).
King Kong isn’t as problematic, but it also recognized that when you put a sexy white woman into jungle peril, audiences are going to spend money.
The real start of King Kong was two years earlier, when David O. Selznick brought Merian C. Cooper to RKO as his executive assistant and told him that he could start making his own movies. He started with Schoedsack directing The Most Dangerous Game — a movie that continually gets remade in different forms to this day — and built a giant jungle set to make that movie (along with hiring Robert Armstrong and Fay Wray, who would play Carl Denham and Ann Darrow).
Cooper was also supposed to make Creation, a story of adventurers on an island of dinosaurs, with stop motion special effects master Willis O’Brien. Once he saw the test footage, he realized that all of the costly locations and dangerous real Komodo dragons could be scrapped and King Kong could be made in a single room. Creation was shelved and the big ape was on his way.
Cooper gave the writing job to best-selling British mystery/adventure writer Edgar Wallace — yes, the man responsible for the creation of the giallo — who turned in one draft before he died. That said, having the claim “based on the novel by Edgar Wallace” could mean even more box office.
After several rewrites, Schoedsack’s wife Ruth Rose (who also wrote Son of Kong, the 1935 adaption of She and Mighty Joe Young) finished the story, understanding exactly what Cooper wanted and basing the character of Denham on him, Driscoll on her husband and heroine Ann Darrow on herself.
Kong took eight months to make, so much time that nearly every actor had time to make another movie at the same time (and Wray made two, Dr. X and Mystery of the Wax Museum). To save more money*, the set from The Most Dangerous Game was used for all the jungle scenes and because the script was still being written — they had to hurry up and shoot before the set was taken down — a lot of that dialogue is improvised.
When you watch this movie, understand that its effects were as groundbreaking** — and time-consuming and money-burning — as today’s most advanced CGI. For example, there’s one scene where Fay Wray watches Kong battle the T. Rex. She had to sit in a tree for twenty-two straight hours of shooting to ensure that that scene looked perfect.
This movie even broke ground when it came to music. King Kong had the first feature-length musical score — instead of just background music — written for an American talkie film. It had a 46-piece orchestra and was also the first movie that would have three separate audio tracks for sound effects, dialogue and music. And to show how penny-pinching RKO was, Cooper paid for that entire soundtrack all out of his own pocket to the tune of $50,000***.
This wasn’t just a movie. It was an event. Premiere showings had seventeen acts before the movie even began, with troupes of African American dancers performing rituals and dances to get audiences even more frenzied for the appearance of Kong.
It’s still amazing how frightening moments of this movie are in 2021. In 1933, people had to be losing their minds. That also led to plenty of censorship, with scenes of a dinosaur mauling the crew members, Kong undressing Ann and sniffing his fingers and Kong dropped a woman who he mistakes for Ann to her death were all eventually cut from the film. There were also several instances of self-censorship, with a series of monsters, insects and spiders earing crew members and Kong battling a tentacled creature cut by RKO****.
As a kid, I watched this movie at least once a year. The WOR Holiday Film Festival always worked like this:
- King Kong
- Son of Kong
- Mighty Joe Young
The Day After Thanksgiving
I was fascinated and frightened by Kong, keeping a special issue of Famous Monsters in a back room of the house, afraid to even look at the picture of Kong’s face, sure that he could come out of the magazine and pull me inside his world, bringing me to Skull Island. Now that I’m older, I wish that that had actually happened.
*There was even more recycling, as the wall behind Kong on Skull Island was taken from Cecil B. DeMille’s The King of Kings, which was used as part of Atlanta burning within Gone with the Wind.
**This is also the first movie to feature rear projection special effects.
***To be fair, RKO eventually paid him back.
****These scenes were found in Philadelphia in 1969 and added back in. In 2005, a 4K scan of the film added the best possible versions of this censored footage.