Today In Pop Culture: King Kong Freaks America Out

Published on March 2nd, 2016 in: Movies, Science Fiction, Today In Pop Culture |

By Jeffery X Martin


It’s fascinating to find out what people are afraid of, specifically what movies frighten them. For example, one person may be scared by Jaws but not scared of Orca, the Killer Whale. You might be frightened by Paranormal Activity, but not by Poltergeist. These objects of fright change from decade to decade, as the zeitgeist shifts and people become more jaded. But who would have thought that, in the 1930s, so many people would have been afraid of a giant ape?

On this day in 1933, King Kong opened in New York City. Africa was big in pop culture back then. There weren’t many zoos, especially ones with gorilla exhibits. The public ate up documentaries about The Darkest Continent, even pushing a little movie called Ingagi into the spotlight. Ingagi was a fake documentary, which purported to show gorillas having sexual intercourse with African women. The women also had babies that looked like ape/human hybrids. That’s some crazy racist action for the 1930s, but this was before the enactment of the Hays Code, which took a lot of the raunch and fun out of the movies.

It was the success of Ingagi which convinced producer Merian C. Cooper to fund King Kong, a far more serious film. Cooper wanted to direct the film, and did receive a co-director credit, although he ended up overseeing the special effects while Ernest Schoedsack wound up directing the actors in their parts. Kong has two daddies.

Special effects technology played a huge role in making King Kong a success. Stop-motion animation, rear projection, and matte paintings were all employed in the film. It was labor intensive, but the end result was fantastic. Being an actor in the film, however, was not so great.

King Kong had an eight-month shooting schedule, but a majority of that was for the special effects. Fay Wray was only working on the set for ten weeks, completing two other films while Kong was still in production. One of those days was spent sitting in a tree. In order for the special effects team to complete a shot where Wray watched the enormous ape fight a Tyrannosaurus Rex, she had to sit in a fake tree for 22 straight hours. That will leave a mark, as you can imagine, and Wray was in pain for days.

One of the great mysteries of King Kong is what happened to the scene with the giant spiders. The story goes that there was a scene on Skull Island where most of the sailors fall into a ravine, where there are promptly gobbled up by gigantic arachnids. In a test screening, audience members reported that it was their favorite scene. They spent the rest of the movie whispering and talking about it. Cooper thought of it as a “show-stopper” in the most literal sense, and cut the five-minute-long sequence from the final version. Why make a movie about a monster monkey if he was only going to be upstaged by a creepy giant spider?

Being a pre-Code film, King Kong isn’t the cute little old movie most people think it is. Check out the scenes of Kong squashing natives into the ground while they scream helplessly. There’s also the scene while Kong is storming through the New York streets where he grabs a woman out of her apartment through the window. She’s blonde. She looks like Fay Wray. Kong runs his finger under her nightgown, then sniffs it. His face wrinkles up; that’s not who he thought it was. He throws her down onto the street, like he accidentally picked up the wrong magazine at the library.

It was a spectacle all right, and people lined up to see it. In its first four days of release, King Kong had raked in almost $90,000 on only two screens. The inevitable sequels and ripoffs followed, movies like Son of Kong and Mighty Joe Young. These followed the same gorilla-meets-girl formula, and met similar success at the box office.

King Kong was remade in 1977, starring Jessica Lange in her first role. It also featured a hairier-than-Lebowski Jeff Bridges and Charles Grodin with a moustache that looks like a pre-schooler attacked him with a brown marker. In this version, Kong climbs the World Trade Center instead of the Empire State Building. It’s an impressive effect, but audiences were underwhelmed by the silly script.

Peter Jackson’s version, released in 2005, had a running time of infinity hours and 20 minutes, which is a long time to deal with Jack Black running through the jungle with one eyebrow cocked. Jackson inserted his own version of the giant spider scene, which was a highlight of the film, but ultimately, the long running time proved to be a bit much for squirmy audiences. It was a moderate financial success.

The big ape isn’t done, yet. We’ll get a reboot called Kong: Skull Island in 2017, and rumors are flying about a crossover that will see King Kong fighting Godzilla. This has already happened, in the Japanese series of King Kong movies. In that movie, Kong was addicted to giant red berries that got him stoned. That’s a plot point the new movie should keep. Call it King Kong Gets Rekt.

Whether any of these new additions to the Kong universe gains any traction with modern movie audiences remains to be seen. After all, we’ve been living with Kong for over 80 years now. It may not be beauty that kills this beast, but over-familiarity.


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