Directed by Merian C. Cooper & Ernest B. Schoedsack
Inducted to the National Film Registry in 1991
I first watched it in or around December 2005
What It’s About:
A headstrong filmmaker, a starving actress, and ship full of crewmen travel to a mysterious island in hopes of creating a film with the mythical creature that lives there, but they get more than they bargained for.
My experience with the film:
I initially watched this around the time that the 2005 Peter Jackson remake of King Kong came out. I’m fairly sure that I watched it before going to see the remake, but I’m definitely sure that I picked it up from my local library (which I reminisced heavily about in this entry) to do so. I remember that my feelings about it were something along the lines of “it was probably really impressive when it came out, but it looks pretty silly by today’s standards, and it’s kinda boring.”
Then, I rewatched it for a second time a little over a year ago (largely because I knew it was an influential film, and because my taste in movies has changed significantly since 2005, so I expected to get more out of it.) However, I was surprised to find that my feelings were relatively unchanged.
Despite my fairly recent rewatch, I decided to go ahead and watch it again in order to write this entry to coincide with the release of the film Godzilla vs. Kong. I still thought that the effects looked dated, but this time, I kept myself engaged by trying to figure out exactly how the images that I saw were created. Obviously, many of the shots were just straight-up “claymation”/stop-motion animation. Others were obviously actors in front of a screen with an animated sequence in the background. But what about the more intricate scenes? I realized there were several scenes that were much more complicated than that—scenes where characters transitioned back and forth between real people and clay models in the blink of an eye, and scenes where live actors couldn’t merely be standing in front of a screen. How did they create those shots? I still thought that many of the visuals looked obviously fake/silly, but I suddenly found myself interested in learning how those scenes were made.
My post-watch custom of watching the Blu-ray special features and doing some light internet research produced a treasure trove of results. There is way too much for me to sum up here, so I definitely recommend the resources below (especially the making-of documentary included on the Blu-ray), but here is an attempt to describe their process:
Many of the more intricate scenes involved several panes of glass with paintings on them that would be spaced a few feet apart in between the camera and the miniature “set” where the stop motion scenes were filmed (this was done to create a sense of depth in the scenery). They also integrated small movie screens into these sets where they could project one or more live action sequences into the set so that you could have the interaction between the animated characters and the live actors. It was wild. Seriously, watch the documentary on the Blu-ray.
It turns out that they straight-up invented many of these processes, which would go on to change the way visual effects were used in film. This film (and its eventual box office success) proved to Hollywood execs that you could have a special-effects-driven, visual spectacle blockbuster. It literally paved the way for all future flashy blockbusters, from Star Wars, to Jurassic Park, to Lord of the Rings, to Avengers.
And if that wasn’t impressive enough, that wasn’t the only major thing that King Kong contributed to blockbusters, or even films in general. Prior to this, American-made films used their score mostly just as background music to add a little flavor to the film (keep in mind that they were only a few years removed from the silent era, where music had to be either played live or from a recording in the theater showing the film). Max Steiner, the composer for the film, decided to use his score to contribute to the storytelling of the film, so he created musical themes for each character, and often had the music reflect what was happening on screen. That may sound pretty obvious now, but it was revolutionary back then. Moving forward, this was a huge influence on the way that music was used in film. It paved the way for the composers who would give us the memorable film scores that we love, like Bernard Herrman, John Williams, and Hans Zimmer. Are you in love with the exciting John Williams music that opens every Star Wars film, and the way each major character in those films is associated with their own piece of music? You can thank King Kong for that. Do you love the sense of excitement and adventure that you feel every time the Pirates of the Caribbean theme begins to play? You can thank King Kong for that as well. As a massive fan of film scores (they’re easily one of my favorite aspects of filmmaking), I never realized how much I was indebted to King Kong.
However, there’s yet another essential aspect of blockbusters that you can thank King Kong for—unnecessary sequels. King Kong was such a massive box office hit when it came out that they immediately rushed a sequel into production, Son of Kong, which came out only 9 months after the release of the original. Like many blockbuster sequels meant to capitalize on the popularity of the original, it was a critical flop.
I know I just mentioned this in my last entry, but I’m realizing more and more just how much learning about a film adds to my appreciation and enjoyment of it. In preparation for writing these entries, I often try to watch the film’s commentary (when there is one available), and it was no different this time. I do that partially to learn more about the film, but it’s also largely to give me a chance to watch the film a second time and look for all the things I learned about during my background research. As I watched the commentary for King Kong, after learning everything that I mentioned above and a whole lot more, I was much more impressed with the film. Even if the special effects don’t look particularly real, once you know how they were made, they’re incredibly impressive to watch. If I’m going to get on my soapbox for a moment, I suppose this is also a good reason to argue for the continued existence of behind-the-scenes features that are so common on physical media. Films are so much more interesting when you learn about their production history than when you just watch them blindly. It was watching the bonus materials with the Lord of the Rings extended editions back in the early 2000s that really ignited my love of film, and it’s by continuing to watch special features and learn about each film’s history that my love continues to grow with each entry that I write.
King Kong (1933) is available to stream on the services listed here: https://www.justwatch.com/us/movie/king-kong-1933
To learn more about the history and significance of this film, I recommend the following resources:
- The Blu-ray pictured above has an extensive multi-part documentary about the creation of the film and its continuing influence, which includes interviews with several modern directors, including Peter Jackson (director of the 2005 King Kong remake, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and other films.) That documentary also includes a segment where Peter Jackson—and some of the 2005 King Kong crew—attempt to recreate lost footage from the original film, using only techniques and technology available in the 1930s. The Blu-ray also has a documentary about the life of one of the film’s directors, a theatrical trailer, and a commentary featuring legendary visual effects artists Ray Harryhausen and Ken Ralston. Technically, if you want to purchase the Blu-ray all by itself, it appears to be out of print and quite expensive on Amazon (at current time of writing), HOWEVER, it is also available in this rather affordable (at current time of writing) four film Blu-ray collection (which is how I picked it up.)
- The official essay from the NFR about King Kong: https://www.loc.gov/static/programs/national-film-preservation-board/documents/king%20kong.pdf
- The entry for King Kong on the The Horse’s Head, another blog dedicated to the NFR films: https://thehorseshead.blog/2018/11/16/288-king-kong-1933/
- The original 1933 review from The New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/1933/03/03/archives/a-fantastic-film-in-which-a-monstrous-ape-uses-automobiles-for.html
- A more critical review from Variety, which shows that even in 1933, some people weren’t impressed by the special effects: https://variety.com/1933/film/reviews/king-kong-2-1200410783/
- A 2002 review from Roger Ebert: https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-king-kong-1933
- A YouTube review of King Kong: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9PZ9gbij0Kc
- “Black Nerd Comedy” watches and discusses King Kong for the first time: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mUHQxYUhu1A
- A discussion of the history of King Kong: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HOfnPnfp3aw
- Another video essay, this time about the trope of the “monster boyfriend” in cinema, including King Kong: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YesMWAxqJ60
- A 2011 re-airing of a 1999 audio story from NPR about the making of King Kong: https://www.npr.org/transcripts/138953014
- The Wikipedia page for King Kong: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/King_Kong_(1933_film)
For the complete list of films in the National Film Registry, including information on how you can view each film, and links to every entry that I have written, please see my NFR Directory.