Welcome to another Wildcard Wednesday! This month’s Pre-Code is…
King Kong (1933)
A film crew discovers the “eighth wonder of the world,” a giant prehistoric ape, and brings him back to New York, where he wreaks havoc. Starring Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong, Bruce Cabot, and King Kong. Screenplay by James Creelman and Ruth Rose. From an idea conceived by Merian C. Cooper and Edgar Wallace. Directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack. Produced and distributed by RKO Radio Pictures.
“Carl Denham is a producer and director of adventure films specializing in remote and exotic locations… He hires a ship and with the star of his film, Ann Darrell, sets off to Skull Island where there supposedly lives a large ape known as Kong. The island itself is divided and the giant primate lives behind a great wall. When the local islanders kidnap Ann to offer her as a sacrifice, Denham and John Driscoll set off to rescue her. It’s obvious that Kong is fascinated with Ann and means her no harm but Dehnam gasses the beast and transports it to New York where he puts it on display. When it manages to escape, it terrorizes the city, climbing to the top of the Empire State building where it must confront air force planes trying to shoot it down.” (This summary is adapted from one that comes courtesy of IMDb.)
What can I say about this classic that hasn’t already been said? It’s one of the handful of Pre-Code films whose reputation exceeds the bounds of its era. That is, it’s a Pre-Code film not known for being a Pre-Code. So, what interested me about covering this film here was being able to examine exactly how much it embodies the cinematic particulars of the Pre-Code genre… But I must admit to being slightly out of my element — if you’ve noticed, this is the first horror/thriller/monster flick I’ve discussed. This has been intentional; not because I don’t typically enjoy them (they’re not my favorite, but I do have fun when they’re well done, like King Kong is), but because these genre films are often antithetical to the anthropological study of Pre-Codes that we do here — you know, the idea that these pictures offer a more honest and era-specific reflection of humanity’s joys and sorrows than those from most other times. For instead of purporting to show the way things are, this genre is knowingly fantastical… So, King Kong exceeds the bounds of the Pre-Code… but does it exceed its creature feature trap?
The answer is “no.” This is a film you watch for the extended monster sequences, all leading up to the famous climactic scene with Kong himself on top of the Empire State building. And there’s no getting around the fact that this picture is rather sleepy until the titular primate makes his first appearance. Yes, Fay Wray is lovely, Max Steiner’s score is gorgeous, and the tension is palpable… but there really is no good reason to watch the film except to see the iconic, oft-discussed final scene. For this reason, my Pre-Code based study of King Kong leaves me wanting — for this isn’t a film designed to showcase era-specific elements, and if you go in with that singular interest, you’re bound to be disappointed. Fortunately… I’ve seen this one before and knew this going in, so I could adjust my expectations accordingly, and instead recognize the Pre-Code stuff for what it was — and indeed, there have been cuts over the years due to the graphic nature of the violence and a few moments of sexual suggestiveness (between “beauty” and “the beast”) that wouldn’t have been filmed two years later. So, King Kong IS a Pre-Code…
Ultimately, though, the picture, as we expected from the start, is not dripping in its Pre-Code-ian values, which is perhaps why, along with its genre interests, it isn’t often associated with the genre… even though it should be, for its very premise, predicated on nothing more than the eponymous monster and the terror it inspires, is an apt synthesis of a huge and viable catalogue of films from the early 1930s. These types of movies were common and popular, and if they don’t reflect contemporary society and sexual politics the way, say, The Divorcee or Baby Face does, they reflect the interests of the movie-going public of the time. In this way, the anthropological Pre-Code appeal of King Kong is more than what’s on the screen; it’s who was viewing the screen — an audience that turned this film into an instantly profitable hit and were fascinated enough to ensure that it would become a cult classic. Thus, King Kong ends up being a reflection of its era after all, even though its genre particulars overwhelm its Pre-Code premise and overshadow the subtle elements that do reinforce its period trappings. Accordingly, while I can’t call it an Essential for lovers of Pre-Code films exclusively, I recommend it as a worthy example of the time… and a classic, memorable film in its own deserved right.
Come back next week for another Wildcard post! And tune in Tuesday for more sitcom fun!