King Kong (1933 film)

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King Kong
Theatrical poster
Directed by Merian C. Cooper
Ernest B. Schoedsack
Produced by Merian C. Cooper
Ernest B. Schoedsack
David O. Selznick (executive)
Screenplay by James Ashmore Creelman
Ruth Rose
Story by Merian C. Cooper
Edgar Wallace
Starring Fay Wray
Bruce Cabot
Robert Armstrong
Music by Max Steiner
Cinematography Eddie Linden
J.O. Taylor
Vernon Walker
Edited by Ted Cheesman
Distributed by Radio Pictures
Release dates
  • March 2, 1933 (1933-03-02)
Running time
125 minutes (rough cut)
100 minutes (theatrical release)
104 minutes (with overture)
Country United States
Language English
Budget $672,000[1]
($12 million adjusted for inflation)
Box office $2.8 million[1]
($51 million adjusted for inflation)

King Kong is a 1933 American Pre-Code monster film[2] directed and produced by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack. The screenplay by James Ashmore Creelman and Ruth Rose was from an idea conceived by Cooper and Edgar Wallace. It stars Fay Wray, Bruce Cabot and Robert Armstrong, and opened in New York City on March 2, 1933, to rave reviews. It has been ranked by movie site Rotten Tomatoes as Greatest horror film of all time

The film tells of a gigantic, prehistoric, island-dwelling ape called Kong who dies in an attempt to possess a beautiful young woman. King Kong is especially noted for its stop-motion animation by Willis O'Brien and a groundbreaking musical score by Max Steiner. In 1991 it was deemed "culturally, historically and aesthetically significant" by the Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry. It has been remade twice: in 1976 and in 2005.


In New York Harbor, Carl Denham, famous for making wildlife films in remote and exotic locations, charters Captain Englehorn's ship Venture for his new project, but he is unable to secure an actress for a female role he reluctantly added. Denham searches the streets of New York for a suitable woman. He meets penniless Ann Darrow and convinces her to join him for the adventure of a lifetime. The Venture quickly gets underway. The surly first mate, Jack Driscoll, gradually falls in love with Ann. After weeks of secrecy, Denham finally tells Englehorn and Driscoll that their destination is Skull Island, an uncharted island shown on a map in Denham's possession. Denham speaks of something monstrous there, a legendary entity known only as "Kong".

When they find the island and anchor off its shore, they can see a native village, separated from the rest of the island by an enormous stone wall. A landing party, including the filming crew and Ann, witnesses a group of natives about to sacrifice a young maiden as the "bride of Kong". The intruders are spotted and the native chief angrily stops the ceremony. When he sees the blond Ann, he offers to trade six of his women for the "golden woman". They rebuff him and return to the Venture.

That night, a band of natives kidnap Ann from the ship and conduct her through a huge wooden gate in the wall. Tied to an altar, she is offered to Kong, who turns out to be a giant gorilla-like ape. Kong carries her off into the jungle as the alerted Venture crew arrives. They open the gate and Denham, Driscoll and some volunteers enter the jungle in hopes of rescuing Ann. They discover that there are other giant creatures on the island, including dinosaurs. A Stegosaurus charges them and they kill it. When they raft across a swamp, a Brontosaurus capsizes their supplies and kills some men. Fleeing through the jungle, they soon meet Kong, who tries to stop them from crossing a ravine by shaking them off a fallen tree that bridges it. Only Driscoll and Denham, on opposite sides, survive.

A Tyrannosaurus threatens Ann, but Kong kills it after a colossal battle. Driscoll continues to shadow Kong and Ann while Denham returns to the village for more ammunition. Upon arriving in Kong's lair in a mountain cave, Ann is menaced by a snake-like Elasmosaurus, which Kong wrestles and kills. While Kong is distracted killing a Pteranodon that tried to fly away with Ann, Driscoll reaches her and they climb down a vine dangling from a cliff ledge. When Kong notices and starts pulling them back up, they let go and fall unharmed into the water below. They run through the jungle and back to the village, where Denham, Englehorn and the surviving crewmen are waiting. Kong, following, breaks open the gate and murderously rampages through the village. On shore, Denham, now determined to bring Kong back alive, knocks him unconscious with a gas bomb.

Chained and shackled, Kong is presented to a Broadway theater audience as "Kong, the Eighth Wonder of the World". Ann and Jack are brought on stage to join him, followed by an invited group of press photographers. Kong, believing that the ensuing flash photography is an attack, breaks loose as the audience flees in terror. Ann is whisked away to a hotel room on a high floor, but Kong, scaling the building, soon finds her. Carrying her in his hand, he rampages through the city. He wrecks a crowded elevated train and ultimately climbs up the Empire State Building. At its top, he is met by four military Curtiss Helldivers. Kong sets Ann down and battles the planes, managing to down one of them, but he finally succumbs to their gunfire and falls to his death. Ann and Jack are reunited. Denham arrives and pushes through a crowd surrounding Kong's body in the street. When a policeman remarks that the planes got him, Denham tells him, "Oh, no, it wasn't the airplanes. It was Beauty killed the Beast."



An articulated skeleton of the Brontosaurus used in the film.

Before King Kong hit the silver screen, a long tradition of jungle films existed, and, whether drama or documentary, such films generally adhered to a narrative pattern that followed an explorer or scientist into the jungle to test a theory only to discover some monstrous aberration in the undergrowth.(see Stark Mad) In such films, scientific knowledge could be turned topsy-turvy at any time and it was this that provided the genre with its vitality, appeal, and endurance.[3]

In the early 20th century, few zoos had primate exhibits so there was popular demand to see them on film. At the turn of the 20th century, the Lumière Brothers sent film documentarians to places westerners had never seen, and Georges Méliès utilized trick photography in film fantasies that prefigured that in King Kong. Jungle films were launched in the United States in 1913 with Beasts in the Jungle, a film that mixed live actors with lions, a tiger, and other animals. The film's popularity spawned similar pictures, including a few about "ape men" and gorillas. In 1918, Elmo Lincoln starred in Tarzan of the Apes,[3] and, in 1925, The Lost World made movie history with special effects by Willis O'Brien and a crew that later would work on King Kong.[4] William S. Campbell specialized in monkey-themed films with Monkey Stuff and Jazz Monkey in 1919, with Prohibition Monkey following in 1920. Kong producer Schoedsack had earlier monkey experience directing Chang in 1927 (also with Cooper) and Rango in 1931, both of which prominently featured monkeys in authentic jungle settings. Capitalizing on this trend, "Congo Pictures" released the hoax documentary Ingagi in 1930, advertising the film as "an authentic incontestable celluloid document showing the sacrifice of a living woman to mammoth gorillas." Ingagi was an unabashed black exploitation film, immediately running afoul of the Hollywood code of ethics, as it implicitly depicted black women having sex with gorillas, and baby offspring that looked more ape than human.[5] The film was an immediate hit, and by some estimates it was one of the highest grossing movies of the 1930s at over $4 million. Although producer Merian C. Cooper never listed Ingagi among his influences for King Kong, it's long been held that RKO green-lighted Kong because of the bottom-line example of Ingagi and the formula that "gorillas plus sexy women in peril equals enormous profits".[6]




Cooper's fascination with gorillas began with his boyhood reading of Paul Du Chaillu's Explorations and Adventures in Equatorial Africa (1861) and was furthered in 1929 by studying a tribe of baboons in Africa while filming The Four Feathers. After reading W. Douglas Burden's The Dragon Lizards of Komodo, he fashioned a scenario depicting African gorillas battling Komodo dragons intercut with artificial stand-ins for joint shots. He then narrowed the dramatis personae to one ferocious, lizard-battling gorilla (rather than a group) and included a lone woman on expedition to appease those critics who belabored him for neglecting romance in his films. A remote island would be the setting and the gorilla would be dealt a spectacular death in New York City.[7]

Cooper took his concept to Paramount Studios in the first years of the Great Depression but executives shied away from a project that sent film crews on costly shoots to Africa and Komodo. In 1931, David O. Selznick brought Cooper to RKO as his executive assistant, and, to sweeten the deal, promised him he could make his own films. Cooper began immediately developing The Most Dangerous Game, a story about a big game hunter, and hired his friend and former film partner, Ernest Schoedsack, to direct. A huge jungle stage set was built, with Robert Armstrong and Fay Wray as the stars. Once the film was underway, Cooper turned his attention to the studio's big-budget-out-of-control fantasy, Creation, a story about a group of travelers shipwrecked on an island of dinosaurs. The film employed special effects wizard Willis O'Brien.[8]

When Cooper screened O'Brien's stop-motion Creation footage, he was unimpressed, but realized he could economically make his gorilla picture by scrapping the Komodo dragons and costly location shoots for O'Brien's animated dinosaurs and the studio's existing jungle set. It was at this time Cooper probably cast his gorilla as a giant named Kong, and planned to have him die at the Empire State Building. The RKO board was wary about the project, but gave its approval after Cooper organized a presentation with Wray, Armstrong, and Cabot, and O'Brien's model dinosaurs. In his executive capacity, Cooper ordered the Creation production shelved, and put its crew to work on Kong.[9]


Cooper assigned recently hired RKO screenwriter and best-selling British mystery/adventure writer Edgar Wallace the job of writing a screenplay and a novel based on his gorilla fantasy. Cooper understood the commercial appeal of Wallace's name and planned to publicize the film as being "based on the novel by Edgar Wallace". Wallace conferred with Cooper and O'Brien (who contributed, among other things, the "Ann's dress" scene) and began work on January 1, 1932. He completed a rough draft called The Beast on January 5, 1932. Cooper thought the draft needed considerable work but Wallace died on February 10, 1932 just after beginning revisions.[3][10] Cooper insisted however that Wallace died having written "not one bloody word," and that he gave the writer a screen credit simply because as producer he had promised him one.[11]

Cooper called in James A. Creelman (who was working on the script of The Most Dangerous Game at the time) and the two men worked together on several drafts under the title The Eighth Wonder. Some details from Wallace's rough draft were dropped, notably his boatload of escaped convicts. Wallace's Danby Denham character, a big game hunter, became film director Carl Denham. His Shirley became Ann Darrow and her lover-convict John became Jack Driscoll. The 'beauty and the beast' angle was first developed at this time. Kong's escape was switched from Madison Square Garden to Yankee Stadium and (finally) to a Broadway theater. Cute moments involving the gorilla in Wallace's draft were cut because Cooper wanted Kong hard and tough in the belief that his fall would be all the more awesome and tragic.[10]

Time constraints forced Creelman to temporarily drop The Eighth Wonder and devote his time to the Game script. RKO staff writer Horace McCoy was called in to work with Cooper, and it was he who introduced the island natives, a giant wall, and the sacrificial maidens into the plot. When Creelman returned to the script full-time, he hated McCoy's 'mythic elements', believing the script already had too many over-the-top concepts, but Cooper insisted on keeping them in. RKO head Selznick and his executives wanted Kong introduced earlier in the film (believing the audience would grow bored waiting for his appearance), but Cooper persuaded them that a suspenseful build-up would make Kong's entrance all the more exciting.[12]

Cooper felt Creelman's final draft was slow-paced, too full of flowery dialogue, weighted-down with long scenes of exposition,[12] and written on a scale that would have been prohibitively expensive to film.[11] Writer Ruth Rose (Mrs. Ernest Schoedsack) was brought in to clean things up and, although she had never written a screenplay, undertook the task with a complete understanding of Cooper's style. She streamlined the script and tightened the action. Rather than explaining how Kong would be transported to New York, for example, she simply cut from the island to the theater. She incorporated autobiographical elements into the script with Cooper mirrored in the Denham character, her husband Schoedsack in the tough but tender Driscoll character, and herself in struggling actress Ann Darrow. She rewrote the dialogue to give it some zip and created the film's entire opening chunk showing Denham plucking Ann from the streets of New York. Cooper was delighted with Rose's script, approving the newly retitled Kong for production.[13] Cooper and Schoedsack decided to co-direct scenes but their styles were different (Cooper was slow and meticulous, Schoedsack brisk) and they finally agreed to work separately, with Cooper overseeing O'Brien's miniature work and directing the special effects sequences, and Schoedsack directing the dialogue scenes.[14]



Fay Wray[edit]
Fay Wray (1933)

Fay Wray played bit parts in Hollywood until cast as the lead in Erich von Stroheim's 1928 silent film, The Wedding March. She met Kong co-directors Cooper and Schoedsack when cast as Ethne Eustace in The Four Feathers in 1929. Cooper cast her in 1932 as Eve Trowbridge in The Most Dangerous Game.[15]

After the RKO board approved the Kong test, Cooper decided a blonde would provide contrast to the gorilla's dark pelt. Dorothy Jordan, Jean Harlow, and Ginger Rogers were considered, but the role finally went to Wray who wore a blonde wig in the film and was inspired more by Cooper's enthusiasm than the script to accept the role. According to her autobiography, On the Other Hand, Wray recounts that Cooper had told her he planned to star her opposite the "tallest, darkest leading man in Hollywood". She assumed he meant Clark Gable until he showed her a picture of Kong climbing the Empire State Building.[15]

On the film's 50th anniversary in 1983, one New York theater held a Fay Wray scream-alike contest in its lobby,[16] and, two days after her death on August 8, 2004, the lights of the Empire State Building were dimmed for 15 minutes in her memory.[17]

Robert Armstrong and Bruce Cabot[edit]
Armstrong portrait

Michigan native and veteran Broadway and silent film character actor Robert Armstrong played Wray's alcoholic brother in The Most Dangerous Game and, during filming, became a member of the Cooper-Schoedsack inner circle. He was a shoo-in as Denham when Kong was cast.[15] The film's romantic angle (rather than its jungle or animal angle) was played-up after animal films fared poorly at the box office in the early months of 1933. One exhibitor displayed a promotional still of Wray swooning in Armstrong's arms with the caption, "Their Hearts Stood Still...For There Stood Kong! A Love Story of Today That Spans the Ages!". Although the film's romantic subplot belongs to Cabot and Wray, established star Armstrong was chosen for the ad rather than the unknown Cabot.[18] Months later, Armstrong again played Carl Denham in Kong's sequel, The Son of Kong (1933).[19]

New Mexico native Jacques De Bujac was signed by Selznick as a contract player, given the name Bruce Cabot, and met Cooper when auditioning for The Most Dangerous Game. He almost walked out of his Kong audition (mistakenly believing he was trying out as a stunt double for Joel McCrea) but was convinced otherwise and received the role of Jack Driscoll, his first starring role.[20] He was an inexperienced actor and described his participation in Kong as standing in the right place, doing what he was told, and collecting a paycheck.[21]

Other players[edit]

German-born Broadway veteran and silent film director Frank Reicher was cast as Captain Englehorn of the SS Venture, Victor Wong as the ship's cook Charlie, James Flavin as Second Mate Briggs, and a host of stuntmen and bit players as the ship's crew. Noble Johnson and Steve Clemente were members of the Cooper-Schoedsack inner circle and cast as the Native Chief and the Witch Doctor respectively while Etta McDaniel played mother of a child she rescues from Kong's rampage. Sam Hardy was cast as a theatrical agent and Sandra Shaw (later Mrs. Gary Cooper) was cast as the New York woman Kong drops to the street from the hotel ledge. Cooper, who was shot down in World War I in an Airco DH.4 and made a prisoner of war by the Germans, and who later flew with the Kosciuszko Squadron, played the airplane pilot and Schoedsack the machine gunner in uncredited roles in the film's final scenes.[22]


Two Western Lowland Gorillas at Ueno Zoo displaying prominent belly and buttocks. Kong modelers would streamline the armature's torso to minimize the comical and awkward aspects of the gorilla's physique.

After the RKO board approved the production of a test reel, Marcel Delgado constructed Kong (or the "Giant Terror Gorilla" as he was then known) per designs and directions from Cooper and O'Brien on a one-inch-equals-one-foot scale to simulate a gorilla 18 feet tall. Four models were built: two jointed 18-inch aluminum, foam rubber, latex, and rabbit fur models (to be rotated during filming), one jointed 24-inch model of the same materials for the New York scenes, and a small model of lead and fur for the tumbling-down-the-Empire-State-Building scene. Kong's torso was streamlined to eliminate the comical appearance of the real world gorilla's prominent belly and buttocks. His lips, eyebrows, and nose were fashioned of rubber, his eyes of glass, and his facial expressions controlled by thin, bendable wires threaded through holes drilled in his aluminum skull. During filming, Kong's rubber skin dried out quickly under studio lights, making it necessary to replace it often and completely rebuild his facial features.[23]

The stop-motion animated King Kong, battling a Curtiss Helldiver on top of the Empire State Building

A huge bust of Kong's head, neck, and upper chest was made of wood, cloth, rubber, and bearskin by Delgado, E. B. Gibson, and Fred Reefe. Inside the structure, metal levers, hinges, and an air compressor were operated by three men to control the mouth and facial expressions. Its fangs were 10 inches in length and its eyeballs 12 inches in diameter. The bust was moved from set to set on a flatcar. Its scale matched none of the models and, if fully realized, Kong would have stood thirty to forty feet tall.[24]

Two versions of Kong's right hand and arm were constructed of steel, sponge rubber, rubber, and bearskin. The first hand was nonarticulated, mounted on a crane, and operated by grips for the scene in which Kong grabs at Driscoll in the cave. The other hand and arm had articulated fingers, was mounted on a lever to elevate it, and was used in the several scenes in which Kong grasps Ann. A nonarticulated leg was created of materials similar to the hands, mounted on a crane, and used to stomp on Kong's victims.[25]

Charles R. Knight's Tyrannosaurus in the American Museum of Natural History, on which the large theropod of the film was based[26]

The dinosaurs were made by Delgado in the same fashion as Kong and based on Charles R. Knight's murals in the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. All the armatures were manufacted in the RKO machine shop. Materials used were cotton, foam rubber, latex sheeting, and liquid latex. Football bladders were placed inside some models to simulate breathing. A scale of one-inch-equals-one-foot was employed and models ranged from 18 inches to 3 feet in length. Several of the models were originally built for Creation and sometimes two or three models were built of individual species. Prolonged exposure to studio lights wreaked havoc with the latex skin so John Cerasoli carved wooden duplicates of each model to be used as stand-ins for test shoots and lineups. He carved wooden models of Ann, Driscoll, and other human characters. Models of the Venture, railway cars, and war planes were built.[27]

Special effects[edit]

King Kong is well known for its groundbreaking use of special effects, such as the use of stop-motion animation, matte painting, rear projection and miniatures which were all conceived before the digital age.

All creatures of Skull Island were brought to life through the use of stop-motion animation by Willis O’Brien and his assistant animator, Buzz Dixon. The stop-motion animation scenes were painstaking and difficult to achieve and complete, because the special effects crew realized that they couldn’t stop, because it would make the movements of the creatures seem inconsistent and the lighting wouldn’t have the same intensity over the days. A device called the surface gauge was used in order to keep track of the stop-motion animation performance. The iconic fight between Kong and the T-Rex took seven weeks to be completed. O’Brien’s protegé, Ray Harryhausen, who would work with him on several movies and become one of the most prominent stop-motion animators in Hollywood, stated that O’Brien’s second wife noticed that there was so much of her husband in Kong.

The backdrop of the island seen when the Venture crew arrives, was painted in glass by matte painters Henry Hillinck, Mario Larrinaga and Byron C. Crabbé. The scene was then composed. The backgrounds of the scenes in the jungle (a miniature set) were also painted in glass to give it the feeling of being a deep and dense jungle.

Promotional image featuring Kong battling the Tyrannosaurus.

The most difficult achievement in accomplishing the special effects of the movie was how to make live-action footage interact with stop-motion animation in order to make the interaction between the humans and the creatures of the island work and seem believable. A time where film technology was limited, the compositive shots were achieved in camera. The most simple in-camera effects were achieved by exposing part of the frame than running the same piece of the film through the camera again by exposing the other part of the frame with a different image. On the other hand, the most complex shots where the live-action actors interacted with the stop-motion animation were achieved with two processes: the Dunning and Williams process, in order to produce the effect of a travelling matte. The Dunning process, invented by cinematographer Carroll H. Dunning, was a process that employs the use of blue and yellow lighting, filtered and photographed into black-and-white film. The Bipacking was used for these types of effects. With it, the special effects crew could combine two strips of different film at the same time, creating the final compositive shot in the camera. It was used in the scene where one of the military planes crashes down of the Empire State Building, the scene where natives are running through the foreground, while Kong is fighting other natives at the scalfel.

On the other hand, the Williams process, invented by cinematographer Frank D. Williams, was different from the Dunning process, and it didn’t require a system of colored lights and could be used for wider shots. It was used in the scene where Kong is shaking the sailors off the log and also in the scene where Kong pushes the gates open. The shots where the Williams process is used, were not achieved through the use of bipacking, but rather in the use of an optical printer (it was the first), a device that synchronized a projector with a camera, so that several strips of film could be combined to do a single composited image. Through the use of the optical printer, the special effects crew could film the foreground, the stop-motion animation, the live-action footage, and the background, and combine all of those elements into one single shot. The optical printers would continue to be used for films until the late 80’s, where eventually, with computers, creating a shot would be a lot easier.

Another technique that was used in combining live actors and stop-motion animation was the use of rear screens. The actor would have a translucent screen behind him where a projector, would project footage on the back of the translucent screen. The translucent screen was developed by Sidney Saunders and Fred Jackman, who received a Special Achievement Oscar. It was used on the scene where Kong and the T-Rex were fighting and Ann was watching. The stop-motion animation was shot first and then Fay Wray spent a twenty-two hour period sitting in a fake tree to witness the stop-motion animation battle, which was projected on the screen and the camera was filming Fay Wray witnessing to the projected stop-motion battle. She was sore for days after the process. It was also used in the scene where sailors of the Venture kill a Stegosaurus.

O’Brien and his special effects crew also devised a way to use rear projection in miniature sets. A tiny screen was built into the miniature and then live-action footage would be projected into it. A fan that pumped cool air was used in order to prevent the footage that was projected from melting or catching fire. This use of miniature rear projection was used in the scene where Kong is trying to grab Driscoll, who is hiding in a cave. The scene where Kong puts Ann in the top of a tree was achieved, from using a puppet in his hand to a projected footage of Ann sitting.

The scene where Kong fights the snake-like dinosaur in his lair was likely the biggest achievement in the special effects of the film, because all of the elements in it work together at the same time. The scene was achieved through the use of a miniature set, stop-motion animation for Kong, background matte paintings, real water, foreground rocks with bubbling mud, smoke and two miniature rear screen projections of Driscoll and Ann.

Live-action scenes[edit]

King Kong was filmed in several stages over an eight-month period. Some actors had so much time between their Kong periods, they worked other films. Cabot completed Road House and Wray appeared in the horror films Dr. X and Mystery of the Wax Museum. She estimated she worked ten weeks on Kong over its eight-month production.

In May–June 1932, Cooper directed the first live-action Kong scenes on the jungle set built for The Most Dangerous Game. Some of these scenes were incorporated into the test reel later exhibited for the RKO board. The script was still in revision when the jungle scenes were shot and much of the dialogue was improvised. The jungle set was scheduled to be struck after Game was completed so Cooper filmed all the other jungle scenes at this time. The last scene shot was that of Driscoll and Ann racing through the jungle to safety following their escape from Kong's lair.

In July 1932, the native village was readied while Schoedsack and his crew filmed establishing shots in the harbor of New York City. Curtiss F8C-5/O2C-1 Helldiver war planes taking off and in flight were filmed at a U.S. Naval airfield on Long Island. Views of New York City were filmed from the Empire State Building for backgrounds in the final scenes and architectural plans for the mooring mast were secured from the building's owners for a mock-up to be constructed on the Hollywood soundstage.[28]

King Kong views Ann on the limb of a tree

In August 1932, the island landing party scene and the gas bomb scene were filmed south of Los Angeles on a beach at San Pedro, California. All of the native village scenes were then filmed on the RKO-Pathé lot in Culver City with native huts recycled from Bird of Paradise (1932). The great wall in the island scenes was a hand-me-down from DeMille's The King of Kings (1927) and dressed up with massive gates, a gong, and primitive carvings. The scene of Ann being led through the gates to the sacrificial altar was filmed at night with hundreds of extras and 350 lights for illumination. A camera was mounted on a crane to follow Ann to the altar. The Culver City Fire Department was on hand to do their job should the set go up in flames from the many native torches used in the scene. The wall and gate were destroyed in 1939 for Gone With the Wind's sequence of the burning of Atlanta. Kong's rampage through the village was filmed (again, with hundreds of extras) and filming was completed with individual vignettes of mayhem and native panic.

Meanwhile, the scene depicting a New York woman being dropped to her apparent death from a hotel window was filmed on the soundstage using the articulated hand. At the same time, a scene depicting poker players surprised by Kong's face peering through a window was filmed using the 'big head'; the scene was eventually dropped.[29] When filming was completed, a break was scheduled to finish the interior sets and to allow screenwriter Ruth Rose time to finish the script.

In September–October 1932, Schoedsack returned to the soundstage after completing the native village shoots in Culver City. The decks and cabins of the Venture were constructed and all the live-action shipboard scenes were then filmed. The New York scenes were filmed, including the scene of Ann being plucked from the streets by Denham and the diner scene. Following the interior scenes, Schoedsack returned to San Pedro and spent a day on a tramp steamer to film the Driscoll-slugs-Ann scene and various harbor atmosphere scenes. The Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles was rented for one day to film the on-stage scenes with Kong in chains and the backstage theater scenes following his escape.[30] Principal photography wrapped at the end of October 1932 with the Driscoll-rescues-Ann scene at the top of the Empire State Building. Schoedsack's work was completed and he headed to Syria to film outdoor scenes for Arabia, a project that was never completed.[31]

In December 1932 – January 1933, the actors were called back to film the optical effects shots which were mostly rear-screen projections. Technical problems inherent in the process made filming difficult and time-consuming. Wray spent most of a twenty-two-hour period sitting in a fake tree to witness the battle between Kong and a T. rex. She was sore for days after. Many of the scenes featuring Wray in the articulated hand were filmed at this time. In December, Cooper reshot the New York woman falling to her death scene. Stunt doubles were filmed for the water scenes depicting Driscoll and Ann escaping from Kong. A portion of the jungle set was reconstructed to film Denham snagging his sleeve on a branch during the pursuit scene. Originally, Denham ducked behind a bush to escape danger but this was later considered cowardly and the scene reshot. The final scene was originally staged on the top of the Empire State Building, but Cooper was dissatisfied and reshot the scene with Kong lying dead in the street and a crowd gathered about him.


King Kong was settled upon as the title, and the film cut from 125 to 100 minutes, with scenes that slowed the pace or diverted attention from Kong deleted. Probably the most infamous deleted scene was what later became known as the "Spider Pit Sequence", where a number of sailors from the Venture survived a fall into a ravine, only to be eaten alive by various large spiders, insects and other creatures. In a studio memo, Merian C. Cooper said that he cut the scene out himself because it "stopped the story". Aside from some still photographs and pre-production artwork, no trace of it has ever been found. Peter Jackson later did a reimagining of this scene for his King Kong movie, and he also shot another version of the scene for fun using stop-motion animation, which was included among the bonus features of the two-disc DVD of the 1933 original.[32]

Murray Spivack provided the sound effects for the film. Kong's roar was created by mixing the recorded roars of zoo lions and tigers and played backwards slowly. Spivak himself provided Kong's "love grunts" by grunting into a megaphone and playing it at a slow speed. For the ape's footsteps, Spivak stooped across a gravel-filled box with plungers wrapped in foam while the sounds of his chest beats were recorded by Spivak hitting his assistant (who had a microphone held to his back) in the chest with a drumstick. Spivak created the hisses and croaks of the dinosaurs with an air compressor for the former and his own vocals for the latter. Those of the Tyrannosaurus where additionally mixed in with a "panther" growl background recording. Bird squawks were used for the Pteranodon. Spivak also provided the screaming for the sailors. Fay Wray herself provided all her character's screams in a single recording session.[33]

For budget reasons, RKO decided not to have an original film score composed but directed composer Max Steiner to simply reuse music from other films. Cooper thought the film deserved an original score and paid Steiner $50,000 to compose it. Steiner completed the score in six weeks and recorded it with a 46-piece orchestra. The studio later reimbursed Cooper.[34] The score was unlike any that came before and marked a significant change in the history of film music. King Kong's score was the first feature-length musical score written for an American "talkie" film, the first major Hollywood film to have a thematic score rather than background music, the use of a 46-piece orchestra, and recording on three separate tracks (sound effects, dialogue, and music). Steiner used a number of new film scoring techniques, such as drawing upon opera conventions for his use of leitmotifs.[35]


King Kong held its world premiere at Grauman's Chinese Theater.

King Kong opened at the 6,200-seat Radio City Music Hall in New York City and the 3,700-seat RKO Roxy across the street on Thursday, March 2, 1933. The film was preceded by a stage show called Jungle Rhythms. Crowds lined up around the block on opening day, tickets were priced at $.35 to $.75, and, in its first four days, every one of its ten-shows-a-day were sold out – setting an all-time attendance record for an indoor event. Over the four-day period, the film grossed $89,931.[36]

The film had its official world premiere on March 23, 1933 at Grauman's Chinese Theater in Hollywood. The 'big head bust' was placed in the theater's forecourt and a seventeen-act show preceded the film with The Dance of the Sacred Ape performed by a troupe of African American dancers the highpoint. Kong cast and crew attended and Wray thought her on-screen screams distracting and excessive. The film opened nationwide on April 10, 1933, and worldwide on Easter Day in London, England.[36]


Variety thought the film was a powerful adventure.[37] The New York Times gave readers an enthusiastic account of the plot and thought the film a fascinating adventure.[38] John Mosher of The New Yorker called it "ridiculous", but wrote that there were "many scenes in this picture that are certainly diverting".[39] The New York World-Telegram said it was "one of the very best of all the screen thrillers, done with all the cinema's slickest camera tricks".[40] The Chicago Tribune called it "one of the most original, thrilling and mammoth novelties to emerge from a movie studio."[41]

In 2002, Roger Ebert wrote that the effects are not up to modern standards, but the film remains one "that still somehow works."[42] King Kong holds an average score of 98% based on 54 reviews on Rotten Tomatoes.[43]

Box office[edit]

The film was a box office success making about $2 million in rentals on its initial release, with an opening weekend estimated at $90,000. During the film's first run it made a profit of $650,000.[1] It was re-released in 1938, 1942, 1946,1952, and 1956. After the 1952 re-release, Variety estimated the film had made $4 million in cumulative domestic rentals for that year.[44]

Awards and honors[edit]

Kong did not receive any Academy Awards nominations. Selznick wanted to nominate O'Brien and his crew for a special award in visual effects but the Academy declined. Such a category did not exist at the time and would not exist until 1938. Sidney Saunders and Fred Jackman received a special achievement award for the development of the translucent acetate/cellulose rear screen – the only Kong-related award.[45]

The film has since received some significant honors. In 1975, Kong was named one of the 50 best American films by the American Film Institute, and, in 1991, the film was deemed "culturally, historically and aesthetically significant" by the Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry. In 1998, the AFI ranked the film #43 on its list of the 100 greatest movies of all time.[46]

American Film Institute Lists

Re-releases, censorship and restorations[edit]

King Kong was re-released in 1938, 1942, 1946, 1952 and 1956 to great box office success. Stricter decency rules had been put into effect in Hollywood since its 1933 premiere and each time it was censored further, with several scenes being either trimmed or excised altogether.

These scenes were:[47]

  • A Brontosaurus mauling crewmen in the water, chasing one up a tree and killing him;
  • Kong undressing Ann Darrow and sniffing her fingers;
  • Kong biting and stepping on natives when he attacks the village;
  • Kong biting a reporter in New York;
  • Kong mistaking a sleeping woman for Ann and dropping her to her death after realizing his mistake.

After the 1956 re-release, the film was sold to television (first being broadcast March 5, 1956).[48]

In 1969, a 16mm print, including the censored footage, was found in Philadelphia. The cut scenes were added to the film, restoring it to its original theatrical running time of 100 minutes. This version was re-released to art houses by Janus Films in 1970.[47]

Over the next two decades, Universal Studios carried out further photochemical restoration on King Kong. This was based on a 1942 release print, with missing censor cuts taken from a 1937 print, which "contained heavy vertical scratches from projection."[49]

After a 6-year worldwide search for the best surviving materials, a further, fully digital, restoration utilizing 4K resolution scanning was completed by Warner Bros. in 2005.[50] This restoration also had a 4-minute overture added, bringing the overall running time to 104 minutes.

King Kong was also, somewhat controversially, colorized in the late 1980s for television.[51]

Home media[edit]

In 1984, King Kong was one of the first films to be released on LaserDisc by the Criterion Collection, and was the very first movie to have an audio commentary track included. Criterion's audio commentary was by film historian Ron Haver; in 1985 Image Entertainment released another LaserDisc, this time with a commentary by film historian and soundtrack producer Paul Mandell. Neither of these commentaries has since resurfaced on any other format.

King Kong had numerous VHS and LaserDisc releases of varying quality prior to receiving an official studio release on DVD. Those included a Turner 60th anniversary edition in 1993 featuring a front cover which had the sound effect of Kong roaring when his chest was pressed. It also included the colorized version of the film and a 25-minute documentary, It Was Beauty Killed the Beast (1992). The documentary is also available on two different UK King Kong DVDs, while the colorized version is available on DVD in the UK and Italy.[52] Warner Home Video re-released the black and white version on VHS with the 25-minute documentary included under the Warner Bros. Classics label in 1999.

In 2005 Warner Bros. released their digital restoration of King Kong in a US 2-disc Special Edition DVD, coinciding with the theatrical release of Peter Jackson's remake. It had numerous extra features, including a new, third audio commentary by visual effects artists Ray Harryhausen and Ken Ralston, with archival excerpts from actress Fay Wray and producer/director Merian C. Cooper. Warners issued identical DVDs in 2006 in Australia and New Zealand, followed by a US digibook-packaged Blu-ray in 2010.[53] In 2014 the Blu-ray was repackaged with three unrelated films in a 4 Film Favorites: Colossal Monster Collection.

At present, Universal hold worldwide rights to Kong's home video releases outside of the US, Australia and New Zealand. All Universal's releases only contain their earlier, 100 minute, pre-2005 restoration.[50]


The 1933 King Kong film and character went on to inspire countless imitations and installments. Son of Kong, a direct sequel to the 1933 film was released nine months after the first film's release. In the early 1960s, RKO had licensed the King Kong character to Japanese studio Toho and produced two King Kong films, King Kong vs. Godzilla and King Kong Escapes, both directed by Ishirō Honda.

In 1976, producer Dino De Laurentiis released his version of King Kong, a modern remake of the 1933 film, which was followed by a sequel in 1986 titled King Kong Lives. In 2005, Universal Pictures released another remake of King Kong, directed by Peter Jackson. Legendary Pictures and Warner Bros. plan to release a Kong prequel/reboot film titled Kong: Skull Island, set to be released in 2017 and directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Richard Jewel, 'RKO Film Grosses: 1931–1951', Historical Journal of Film Radio and Television, Vol 14 No 1, 1994 p39
  2. ^ Miller, Frank (January 5, 2015). "King Kong (1933) Awards and Honors". Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved November 26, 2015. 
  3. ^ a b c Peary
  4. ^ Morton 21
  5. ^ Gerald Peary, 'Missing Links: The Jungle Origins of King Kong' (1976), repr. Gerald Peary: Film Reviews, Interviews, Essays and Sundry Miscellany, 2004.
  6. ^ Erish, Andrew (January 8, 2006). "Illegitimate Dad of King Kong". Los Angeles Times. 
  7. ^ Morton 17–8
  8. ^ Morton 18–20
  9. ^ Morton 22–5
  10. ^ a b Morton 25–7
  11. ^ a b Goldner (page unknown)
  12. ^ a b Morton 28
  13. ^ Morton 28–9
  14. ^ Morton 29
  15. ^ a b c Morton 31–3
  16. ^ Erb 31
  17. ^ Author unknown (2)
  18. ^ Erb 54–5
  19. ^ Morton 31–2
  20. ^ Morton 32
  21. ^ Morton 49
  22. ^ Morton 33
  23. ^ Morton 33–5
  24. ^ Morton 35–6
  25. ^ Morton 36
  26. ^ Orville Goldner, George E Turner (1975). Making of King Kong: The Story Behind a Film Classic. ISBN 0-498-01510-6. See also Spawn of Skull Island (2002). ISBN 1-887664-45-9
  27. ^ Morton 36–8
  28. ^ Goldner 173
  29. ^ Goldner 165
  30. ^ Goldner 159
  31. ^ Goldner 185
  32. ^ "The Missing Spider Pit Scene" Retrieved: March 2, 2012.
  33. ^ Morton 75–6
  34. ^ Morton 76–7
  35. ^ Helvering, David Allen; The University of Iowa (2007). Functions of dialogue underscoring in American feature film. ProQuest. pp. 21–22. ISBN 978-0-549-23504-0. Retrieved March 28, 2011. 
  36. ^ a b Morton 78
  37. ^ Bigelow
  38. ^ Hall
  39. ^ Mosher, John (March 11, 1933). "The Current Cinema". The New Yorker (New York: F-R Publishing Corporation): 56. 
  40. ^ "New York Reviews". The Hollywood Reporter (Los Angeles: The Wilkerson Daily Corporation): 2. March 7, 1933. 
  41. ^ "Monster Ape Packs Thrills in New Talkie". Chicago Tribune (Chicago: Tribune Publishing): Part 7, p. 8. April 23, 1933. 
  42. ^ Ebert
  43. ^ Author unknown
  44. ^ Morton 81,84
  45. ^ Morton 81
  46. ^ Morton 85
  47. ^ a b Morton 83–4
  48. ^ Rainho, Manny (March 2015). "This Month in Movie History". Classic Images (477): 26. 
  49. ^ Millimeter Magazine article, 1 January 2006 Retrieved: March 15, 2012
  50. ^ a b "Robert A. Harris On King Kong" Retrieved: March 15, 2012
  51. ^ "King Kong: Miscellaneous Notes" at TCM Retrieved: March 15, 2012
  52. ^ King Kong (1933) Retrieved: April 8, 2012
  53. ^ King Kong comparison Retrieved: June 14, 2015

External links[edit]