#77. King Kong (1933)

This doesn’t have anything to do with the movie so forgive me if I get off topic for a minute but I was reminded here, by the Overture at the start of the movie, of when I saw Quentin Tarantino’s Hateful Eight, the three-hour roadshow version, which I know I mentioned in my Jazz Singer essay but I don’t think I mentioned that, when I left the theater after Hateful Eight, I couldn’t decide if I liked it or not. I went to see the shorter digital cut a few days later, on the afternoon of New Years Eve, and I was alone all that day but it wasn’t such a bummer because I was like a quarter of the way into a big writing project that was going really well, and I worked on it in good spirits at a bar before the showing. So I went to the movie in a good mood and, even after this shorter version, still couldn’t tell if I liked it. Then that evening, alone at the house, I did start to feel pretty lonely. Watched the NYE festivities on TV and cried at auld lang syne. My folks called to wish a happy new year. They were at an apartment on the beach with my brother and his girlfriend. My mom lives there by herself now. When my dad came home a few days later with a ton of his clothes in a trash bag and some story about my mom wanting to stay behind, I thought nothing of it.

Anyway. King Kong starts with an overture, like I said; typical 1930s adventure music. I got a kick out of listening to it and imagining the sort of audience that was sitting in the theater, hearing this for the first time, back in 1933. So that part was charming.

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What wasn’t charming was how the captain of the ship, John (Bruce Cabot), talks to Anne (Faye Wray), who’s accompanying this team of filmmakers (and heavily-armed sailors) to a remote island where a “movin’ pitcha” is fixin’ to get made about the natives who live there. She’s told that she’s a nuisance in more than one way, on more than one occasion, and then is promptly seduced by that same hateful sailor and agrees to his proposal of marriage. It’s baffling, and hard to overlook when you’re trying to enjoy the action – of which there’s a surprisingly huge and engaging amount.

Tarantino comes to mind again for how he illuminated (for me, at least) the whole slavery subtext of King Kong during the card game that’s played in Inglourious Basterds. It sounded really insightful before I’d seen the original Kong, to hear that the kidnapping and exploitation of Kong is a metaphor for slavery, but now that I’ve seen the movie I realize the subtext isn’t very sub. The metaphor, 85 years later, feels pretty blatant. But the movie also doesn’t seem to address the natives of Skull Island with much respect. I’ve read that this sort of depiction of Natives as like the keepers of a cosmic secret, as shamen who commune with the dead, is analogous to the depiction of Easterners as like snaggle-toothed mystics (as we see in D.W. Griffith’s Broken Blossoms). Such a depiction uses the person not as a human character but as an instrument for a narrative wherein a white Westerner shows their winning colors in contrast to the native’s barbarity.

kong gif 1 A discussion about problematic representation in movies from the 1930s is exhausting because you can find grievous offense in almost every single one, so I try to avoid addressing it (lest I exhaust an important discourse), but I think that if you wanted to collect five or six of the first 100 titles on this List for the sake of studying cultural or racial or gender stereotyping in Old Hollywood (not to mention xenophobia) King Kong would be one of the most interesting titles to study. This, Broken Blossoms, Birth of a Nation. Maybe She Done Him Wrong, for how it addresses female sexuality and how the only black character, an aloof and servile maid, endures from her employer, our hero, a huge amount of insult and abuse that clearly isn’t meant to blemish that hero’s status in the audience’s eyes. The camera lavishes no less love on Mae West in that role for all of her fucked up mistreatment of the maid. Pandora’s Box would be a cool platform for studying gender politics. The presence of black characters in I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang is brief, but powerful.

Back to King Kong: it’s the sort of FX extravaganza that action blockbusters have apparently always been, and a lot of those effects are still pretty impressive. The stop-motion fights between Kong and a dinosaur is masterfully done and still delightful to watch, if no longer quite so riveting as it was at the time (although is it even still riveting when we see a top-dollar CGI rendition of that kinda fight? Did nobody yawn during Kong: Skull Island?). I’d only ever seen stop-motion used in subsequent movies, and never as meticulously rendered as it is here. So even if we look at it now as more of an arts and crafts project than as the FX spectacle it was to the original audience, the labor and artistry that went into the designs are still worth admiring.

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