The black-and-white version of King Kong, made in 1933, is a typical Hollywood film. All aspects of the film have trademark Hollywood elements in them. The following passages will see an explication of this assertion.
In many ways this is a ground-breaking film. It set a precedent for all the subsequent thriller/horror/animation films that have been made in Hollywood. It would not be an exaggeration to state that in all subsequent movies of these genres, traces of King Kong could be found. Not many people today would be excited at the prospect of viewing this 1933 edition. The reason being, they have already seen aspects of King Kong in many movies that the novelty completely escapes the mind. Is this a judgement on the true merit of the film? The answer is in the negative. The only...
proper way in evaluating the technical and artistic merits of the film is by taking into consideration the prevailing technologies available at the time of production. In this case, King Kong should be placed in the context of the available technologies of 1930s. For example, Willis O’Brien’s stop-motion animation was a remarkable achievement at the time. So is the skilful performance of the leading lady Fay Wray (Stringer, p.409).
The animation work of Willis O’Brien received special appreciation. Eight years earlier, O’Brien had worked as Special Effects Animator in the film adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Lost World”. Given that the Hollywood in 1925 was in a stage of technological nascence, adds merit to O’Brien’s work. Although King Kong is rightfully regarde
as a ground-breaking film, it did follow a trend of films that involved monstrous beasts. Some such movies leading up to King Kong would be “Jazz Monkey”, “Chang”, Monkey Stuff”, “Prohibition Monkey”, and of course “The last world”. All these movies except the last one expanded on the “Apes in Jungles” theme. The Last World depicted prehistoric life of dinosaurs. Some critics point out that King Kong has semblances to the classic fable “Beauty and the Beast” (McGowan-Hartmann, 2006).
The realistic portrayal of an ape-like monster can be attributed to the film-makers’ backgrounds. Both Merian Cooper’s and Ernest Schoedsack’s previous work experiences included documenting apes in their natural habitat. The transition from factual documentary making to adventure-horror-fantasy must have been challenging for both these men. In hindsight, their success in overcoming these inundated challenges had contributed immensely to the film industry world-wide. The screenplay by James Creelman and Ruth Rose was full of brilliance as well (Vaz, p.73).
The RKO Studio, which produced the film in 1933, was in a tight corner financially. So the budget for King Kong was kept to the bare minimum. Due to some foresight, planning and efficient use of available resources, the film-makers were able to produce this masterpiece. For example, the shooting was scheduled in such a way that the benign climatic conditions of spring and summer seasons could be used for maximum advantage. When constrained by the low budget, Merian Cooper and Edgar Wallace decided to re-use the set built for the making of “The Most Dangerous Game” the previous year. By the way, “The Most
Dangerous Game” was itself a big success. But King Kong managed to out-score this movie in financial returns (Vaz, p.73).
The one aspect of King Kong that saw much innovation was its cinematography. For example, rear projection, dummy miniature models of characters, and other cameral tricks that were adopted during the making of this film were to become standard procedures in the film industry. In spite of such revolutionary innovations, King Kong did not receive even a single Academy Award nomination. The category where it would have swept all prizes was “Special Effects”. Since there was no separate “Special Effects” department during the 1930s, this coveted recognition evaded King Kong. Also, the constant depiction of violence in the film and the popular acclaim that it received might have swayed the decision of members of the Academy (Stringer, p.409).
In the movie, the character named Denham (who plays a notorious film-maker) fails to find a star actress to accept the role of the leading lady. His offers were declined because of the unconventional nature of the script – it seemed no one wanted to risk their careers. This situation was testing Denham’s patience and balance. At this juncture, his eyes catch the sight of a poor and miserable young woman in one of the New York streets. Unkempt she might have been, but her underlying beauty was unmistakable. He decides then and there that she (played by Fay Wray) would be the leading lady in his film. He convinces the young woman that this is a rare and lucrative opportunity to achieve popular recognition
and fame. The young woman complies. There are many a classic Hollywood thematic elements in this section of the narrative – “a chance encounter”, “journey from obscurity to fame”, “rags to riches”, “the American Dream”, etc. (Grover, 2005).
Exploring further, more classic thematic pieces could be uncovered. For example, when First Mate Driscoll meets Ann (Fay Wray) in the deck, he develops empathy for her. This could be deciphered as a variation on “Damsel in Distress” scenario. First Mate Driscoll, a hard and tough shipman, mellows in the presence of a vulnerable and insecure woman (McGowan-Hartmann, 2006). This scenario too is played out in numerous other Hollywood productions. Damon Young sees the romance in the film from a different perspective:
“The theme of domesticating femininity as that which tames and undoes the male subject through the force of its visual desirability is central to the film’s narrative economy….Insofar as Kong functions as a surrogate for the masculine ego unconstrained by civilization, the film stages the feminine power of desirability as a threat: Kong is destroyed by his love for Ann.” (Young, Damon)
The director maintains an element of suspense and mystery during the adventurous voyage to an island, whose inhabitants are not known to the outside world. First of all, Denham, on whose orders the ship is run, does not disclose any information regarding their destination when the ship leaves shore. He finally decides to brief his crew members of their impending exotic experience. Even at that point there were more questions than answers. The crew only had a vague conception of their enterprise. The
director is not just keeping his crew members in a state of uncertainty and anxiety, but also the audience (Grover, 2005). Movies in the horror genre exploit this aspect of human psychology very well. This is a time-tested technique used in narrative arts of all types – novels, plays, movies, etc., to keep the audience hooked to the narrative. Again, this is classic Hollywood. The narrative technique, which was very effective in arousing audience interest found varied expression in Alfred Hitchcock movies decades later (McGowan-Hartmann, 2006).
The second half of the film is a showcase of visual innovations. The scene where King Kong would mount the Empire State building with his lady love in hand was masterfully crafted. Here, the giant beast takes on an array of fighter planes. The use of miniature models in arriving at a real-life visual effect was so perfect that it would escape our notice (Stringer, p.409)
The movie has come to define Hollywood productions because it leaves room for various interpretations. This quality is manifest in all classic works of art and King Kong is no exception. The film can be classified under numerous genres. It is a romantic, adventure, horror, science-fiction, political film. The last adjective is quite interesting, because this particular description is not striking or obvious. It is political to the extent that it depicts American imperialist tendencies through the treatment meted out to the native tribes of the island. It is also political in that the movie making attitude displayed by Denham is purely capitalist – ruthlessly commercial and thereby inhumane.
This inhumane subjugation is imposed on his own crew members and the native tribes. In many ways Denham’s character was so typical of the Studio bosses of the 1930s and 1940s. Since Capitalism and Imperialism are both inherent qualities of all Hollywood productions, we can conclude that King Kong typifies the Classic Hollywood production. (Stringer, p.410)
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