King Kong (1933)

(plot discussed in detail)

Saw King Kong again after--ten? twelve?--years, and better still, recorded it. Crummy VHS copy, but that's better than staring wistfully at the Netflix link to the Jessica Lange remake.

What can I say? It's a thriller, built to tell its story as fast as possible. The first few scenes are there to do nothing except hammer home several plot points: that the expedition's destination is "mysterious," that the crew is "tough," and that they're armed with rifles and plenty of "gas grenades." Only the scenes with actress Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) really stand out (almost in contrast)--that haunting fog-shrouded moment when she reaches out for an apple (is she stealing it or buying it?), and the extended scene where, decked out in her Beauty costume, she receives instructions from film director Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) to look terrified, so terrified that she can't scream, and if she covered her eyes maybe she can let one out. She covers her eyes; she screams (as only Fay Wray could); and then (delicious, delicious touch) First Mate Jack Driscoll (tough guy Bruce Cabot) flinches, not out of fear, but out of fear for her (two character details, one an important plot development, revealed in a single moment).

I love it that when on Skull Island they gradually learn that the native ritual they stumble into is a wedding, the girl in the middle is the bride, and left it at that; I love it that Ann keeps saying she's glad to be on the trip, that she's glad Driscoll couldn't keep her on the boat, and when she finally is the star of the night, abducted by the natives and offered to their god, the look on her face is as much pleasurable thrill as it is terror. Kong's subtext is kidnap and rape (and wild, bestial (and interracial) sex), and that's what gives much of what happens its lurid charge (that was the mistake of the remake; it put everything in romantic soft-focus). This was a big family hit back in the '30s, right? Can you imagine all the young boys (wonder if it was as popular with girls?) being exposed to stuff like this?

And when the monsters finally come out--okay, forget that herbivores shouldn't just charge without provocation (I'm looking at you, Stegosaurus), but Kong's battles with the various animals are actually well-thought-out sequences. When he faces off with the T-Rex, it's two wide-stanced wrestlers angling for the best hold, the T-Rex trying to reach with his long neck over Kong's thick back with his razor teeth, Kong continually trying to push the Rex off-balance by grabbing at one of his powerful feet (at one point he uses a judo throw) and landing bone-crunching punches; he finally uses his definitive advantage--his arms--and climbs on the Rex's back, and--did I mention how violent this movie is?--rips his jaws apart. Less elaborate but even more ingenious is how he deals with the whiplike Plesiosaurus--by cracking him like a whip.

And of course, there's that little after-battle detail we all love Kong for--cradling his conquest in his arms, examining their limp necks for signs of life, he drops the corpse, beats a tattoo on his chest and roars his triumph and approval. "I am Kong! Hear me roar!" he is undoubtedly saying, but he could as easily be saying "This is the life! Man, this is the life!"

Then there's his private session with Ann--it isn't just that he sniffs her clothes, he tickles her and she can't help but respond, kicking out her shapely legs; to top it off, he sniffs his fingers after tickling her (Kong has a scent fetish). Did I mention wondering how all the boys in the audience must be taking all this?

Finally there's the finale atop the Empire State: Ann is at the base of the domed top (this was before they attached the TV antenna), and Kong is hanging on to the dirigible docking post, puzzled at why he's so hurt. He picks up Ann; puts her down, then looks (the ambiguity is thrilling) like he's nuzzling her, almost affectionately; if you  hadn't been conquered by his frowning at all the blood on his chest, you must have succumbed to this (either that or you just ain't looking). It's perfect that Ann never reciprocates, never returns his affections; this is Kong's tragedy, not hers (Jessica Lang is a pretty good actress, but that her character can grow to love a monster like that is not just a huge stretch of credibility, it's soft-headed). 

His final gesture just before he falls--why, he's hamming it up, raising his arm in the air like Caruso about to sing his final aria, or Hamlet about to take a bow. Cut to a long shot of a patently fake dummy plummeting to its death. That it looks fake is immaterial; you need that plummet, because that's exactly what you feel like doing in response to Kong's fate; that sexist, brutal, murderous bastard has committed the final crime of stealing your heart.

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