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King Kong
Kong onstage

King Kong

1933. RKO. Produced and Directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack. Script by James A. Creelman and Ruth Rose. Special effects by Willis O'Brien. With Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong, Bruce Cabot

I had forgotten that King Kong is the story of a movie project gone awry. People remember the main character, Carl Denham, as some sort of deranged hunter/explorer, but in fact he's a filmmaker. He sets off after the legendary Kong with camera, crew and actress in tow. He even has the outlines of a script, which he pitches as follows: "The Beast was a tough guy. He could lick the world. But when he saw Beauty, she got him. He forgot his wisdom, and the little fellows licked him." The movie that Denham describes is pretty much the movie we see; he's told the story of King Kong.

King Kong divides neatly into two parts: going after Kong and bringing him back to New York. The two halves bear a kind of mirror- image relationship to one another. You could compare them to making and then showing a movie—the creation and subsequent exhibition of a phenomenon. In the first half, Denham envisions Kong and invents a vehicle for him (Beauty and the Beast). He decides how viewers should react to him (he rehearses Ann—and us: "You're amazed. Your eyes open wider. It's horrible, Ann, but you can't look away. . . Scream, Ann, cry. . ."). Only then does he find and capture the beast. The second part of the film has Kong packaged up and presented to the public (who think they've come to see a movie). Ultimately, after a couple of nasty moments, Kong meets the heart-tugging fate that Dehman had spun out for him. In a sense, King Kong incorporates its own creation.

Even if you don't know that Cooper and Schoedsack were themselves intrepid documentary filmmakers and that their previous hit was a somewhat fictionalized true-life adventure called Chang (it was about a tiger), it's hard to miss the reflexive undertones of King Kong. Watching, seeing, and photographing recur as motifs, and not just in the script. Visually there is a great deal of fog, of darkness, of things glimpsed but not quite seen. The characters complain that they can't see anything, and—for surprisingly long stretches— neither can we. In one creepy, memorable shot a shadowy creature rises for a moment from a lagoon and quickly disappears, leaving us wondering what it was we saw. The whole strategy of the movie's special effects is to hint at something monstrous, then tease us with not-quite-comprehensible flashes, obscured by fog or foliage, and only reveal the thing whole after we've created it in our own minds. This, I think, is an important source of the film's memorable, mythic power, and for me a confirmation that special effects work better in evocative black & white than in literal color.

Often, characters in the movie stand in the for audience, reacting in terror to something they are watching. There's Ann Darrow who, as mentioned above, demonstrates how we're supposed to react to Kong (long before we, or she, even get a sight of him). There are the numerous back-projection shots, where characters in the foreground cringe and scream in front of what is, quite obviously, a moving picture of a rampaging monster, in a sort of parody of a horror-movie spectator. And once Kong gets to New York, his most frightening manifestations are when he peers at people from within the rectangular frame of a window--a movie within the movie. Is Kong an animal or a movie prop? (The usher at his New York debut tells a confused customer, "This is not a motion picture, madam. It's more in the line of a personal appearance.") Is Ann Darrow a character in the movie or a spectator like us? Does Carl Denham's Beauty-and-the-Beast movie self-destruct, or does it become a big hit under the name King Kong? There's no schematic answer, but the movie does seem to fold back in on itself like a Moebius strip.

One suggestive detail: the giant ape is always called Kong. "King Kong" is his stage name. This name is used only twice--it appears on the theater marquee announcing the creature's appearance in New York, and it appears in the opening credits of the movie itself. Kongis a horrible but noble wild creature; "King Kong" is a highly ballyhooed, laboriously constructed, brilliantly-presented phenomenon. The movie, if we take its title to heart, is about the latter, not the former.



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copyright ©2005 Barbara Bernstein