The film begins during the Great Depression where Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong), a film director famous for shooting animal pictures in remote and exotic locations, is unable to hire an actress to star in his newest project and so wanders the streets of 1930s New York City searching for a suitable girl. He chances upon unemployed Ann Darrow (Fay Wray), as she is caught trying to steal an apple. Denham pays off the grocer then offers her the lead role in his latest film. Although Ann is apprehensive, she has nothing to lose and agrees.
They set sail aboard the Venture, a tramp steamer, and travel for weeks in the direction of Indonesia. Despite his ongoing declarations that women have no place on board ships, the ship's first mate Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot) is obviously becoming attracted to Ann. Denham informs Driscoll he has enough trouble without the complications of a seagoing love affair. Driscoll sneers at the suggestion, reminding Denham of his toughness in past adventures. Denham's reply outlines the theme of both the movie he is making and the one in which he is a character: "The Beast was a tough guy too. He could lick the world, but when he saw Beauty, she got him. He went soft. He forgot his wisdom and the little fellas licked him." After maintaining secrecy throughout the trip, Denham finally tells Driscoll and Captain Englehorn (Frank Reicher) that they're searching for an uncharted island. Denham has the only map that shows its location, originally drawn a native of the island who had been swept out to sea. Denham then describes something monstrous connected to the island, a legendary entity known only as "Kong".
As the Venture creeps through the fog surrounding the island, the crew hear drums in the distance. Finally arriving at the island's shore, they see a native village perched on a peninsula, cut off from the bulk of the island by an enormous wall. A landing party, including the filmmaker and his leading lady, goes ashore and encounters the natives, who are about to hand over a girl to Kong as a ritual sacrifice. The native chief (Noble Johnson) spots them and approaches the troop. Captain Englehorn is able to understand the native speech, and at Denham's urging makes friendly overtures to the chief. However, when the chief gets a clear look at Ann, he begins speaking with great energy. Englehorn translates this as "look at the golden woman!" The chief proposes to swap six native women for Ann, an offer Denham delicately declines as he and his party edge away from the scene, assuring the chief that they will return tomorrow. Back on the Venture, Jack and Ann openly express their love for each another. When Jack is called away to the captain's quarters, a stealthy contingent of natives captures Ann, takes her back to the wall, where she is presented to Kong in an elaborate ceremony. Kong emerges from the jungle and is revealed to be a giant gorilla. The Venture crew returns to the village and takes control of the wall; half of the crew then go after Kong, encountering an enraged Stegosaurus and a territorial Brontosaurus.
Up ahead in a jungle clearing, Kong places Ann in a high cleft of a tree, then goes back and confronts his pursuers as they are crossing a ravine on an enormous log. Kong shakes them off into the ravine, with only Driscoll and Denham surviving. Driscoll, continues the chase while Denham returns to the village. Meanwhile, a Tyrannosaurus rex approaches a terrified Ann, whose screams alert Kong, who rushes back and confronts the T-rex. The violent fight between the two titans ends when Kong pries open the dinosaur's jaw until it breaks. Kong takes Ann up to his mountain lair, where a cave serpent emerges from a bubbling swamp and tries to strangle Kong, who kills it as well. Kong then inspects his blonde prize and begins to caress her, tearing off pieces of her clothing and tickling her. Jack interrupts the proceedings by knocking over a boulder. When the gorilla leaves Ann to investigate the noise, a Pteranodon swoops from the sky and clutches Ann in its talons. A final fight ensues and the pterodactyl is dispatched. While Kong is distracted, Jack rescues Ann and takes her back to the native village. Kong chases them, breaks through the large door in the wall and rampages through the village, killing many of the natives. Denham hurls a gas bomb, knocking Kong out, whereupon he exults in the opportunity presented: "He's always been King of his world. But we'll teach him fear! We're millionaires, boys! I'll share it with all of you! Why, in a few months, his name will be up in lights on Broadway! Kong! The Eighth Wonder of the World!"
The next scene begins with those very words in lights on a theater marquee. Along with hundreds of curious New Yorkers, Denham, Driscoll and Ann are in evening wear for the gala event. The curtain lifts, and Denham presents a subdued and manacled Kong to the stunned audience. All goes well until photographers, using the blinding flashbulbs of the era, begin snapping shots of Ann and Jack, who is now her fiancé. Under the impression that the flashbulbs are attacking Ann, Kong breaks free of his bonds and escapes from the theater. He rampages through the city streets, destroying an elevated train and killing several citizens.
Kong finds Ann and carries her to the top of the Empire State Building. The military dispatches four Curtiss Helldiver biplanes to kill Kong. The ape gently sets Ann down on the building's observation deck and climbs atop the dirigible mooring mast, trying to fend off the attackers. He manages to swat one plane down, but he is mortally wounded by machine-gun fire and plummets to his death in the street below. Denham picks his way to the front of the crowd, where a cop remarks "Well Denham, the airplanes got him." Denham replies, "It wasn't the airplanes. It was beauty killed the beast."
Staff role on the left, staff member's name on the right.
- Directed by Merian C. Cooper, Ernest Schoedsack
- Written by Ruth Rose, James Ashmore Creelman, Merian C. Cooper
- Produced by Merian C. Cooper, Ernest Schoedsack, David Selznick
- Music by Max Steiner
- Cinematography by Edward Linden, J.O. Taylor, Vernon Walker, Kenneth Peach
- Edited by Ted Cheesman
- Production design by Carroll Clark
- Assistant directing by Doran Cox, Walter Daniels, Ivan Thomas
- Special effects by Willis O'Brien, Harry Redmond Jr., Harry Redmond Sr.
- Fay Wray as Ann Darrow
- Robert Armstrong as Carl Denham
- Bruce Cabot as Jack Driscoll
- Frank Reicher as Captain Englehorn
- Sam Hardy as Charles Weston
- Noble Johnson as Skull Island Native Chief
- Steve Clemente as Witch King
- James Flavin as Second Mate
In the original story written by Edgar Wallace, which was simply entitled The Beast, the giant gorilla was named "Kong." The first script of the film was written by James Creelman under the working title The Eighth Wonder, and press booklets were sent off to thousands of movie theaters in 1932 to excite the theater owners into placing The Eighth Wonder onto their advertisements. The "King" was added to the title creature by studio publicists. The final script of the story, written by Ruth Rose (wife of director Ernest B. Shoedsack), finalized the title of the film as King Kong. Apart from the opening titles, the only time the name "King Kong" appears in the picture is on the marquee above the theater where Kong is being exhibited, and the marquee was in fact added to the scene as an optical composite after the live footage of the theater entrance had been shot. However, Denham does refer to Kong in his speech as "a king and a god in the world he knew."
Before any script or real story outline could even be considered, however, producer Merian C. Cooper needed a way to realize the story's title creature. He originally planed to shoot the scenes using what would later be known as "suitmation", meaning Kong would be portrayed by an actor in an ape suit. Fortunately, Cooper was introduced to Willis O'Brien, the inventor of stop-motion animation. In the early 1900's, O'Brien began to experiment with clay figures, eventually devising the process of stop-motion. His short film, The Dinosaur and the Missing Link, was bought by Thomas Edison in 1915, who comissioned him to create a series of stop-motion dinosaur shorts. In 1925, O'Brien worked on the special effects for The Lost World, which became a hit and astonished audiences with its amazing special effects. After The Lost World was released, O'Brien began to work on a new project called Creation. For the next seven years, O'Brien worked on the story and special effects for Creation, eventually finalizing a story outline and shooting a short test reel. When Merian Cooper saw the footage shot for Creation, he realized that he had found a way to create his giant ape. Unfortunately, RKO Pictures canceled Creation, and Willis O'Brien, in danger of losing nearly seven years of work, tried to convince Cooper that stop-motion could help him realize his monster, not knowing that Cooper already planed to use O'Brien to do just that. Many of the elements planed for Creation were incorporated into King Kong, including many sequences and plot ideas. Several examples of similar concepts and scenes include: a log bridge scene, a Pteranodon attacking the female lead, and the attacks of many of the dinosaurs. Many of the stop-motion model creatures in King Kong (with the exeption of Kong himself) were originally built by O'Brien for Creation, including the Tyrannosaurus rex, the Pteranodon, the Stegosaurus, the Brontosaurus, and the Styracosaurus (which was deleted from the final cut). Many other elements of the film were recycled from other films, and others were used again after King Kong was produced. The giant gate used in the movie was burned along with other old studio sets for the burning of Atlanta scene in Gone with the Wind (1939). The gate was originally constructed for the 1927 Biblical epic The King of Kings. It can also be seen in the Bela Lugosi serial The Return of Chandu. The native huts were previously used in RKO's Bird of Paradise (1932).
Some jungle scenes were filmed on the same sound stage set as those in The Most Dangerous Game, which was filmed during the day as King Kong was being shot at night, and also featured Fay Wray and Robert Armstrong in prominent roles. Other jungle sequences were filmed on Catalina Island. One of the several original metal armatures used to bring Kong to life, as well as other original props from the 1933 film, can be seen in the book It Came From Bob's Basement, a reference to long-time prop collector Bob Burns. One armature was on display in London until a few years ago in the now-closed Museum of the Moving Image. Peter Jackson bought all the original Kong dinosaur armatures from Forrest J Ackerman.
- The Fable of King Kong - An American Film Sensation (Die Fabel von King Kong - Ein amerikanischer Trick- und Sensationsfilm; Germany)
- King Kong, the Eight Wonder of the World (King Kong, la Huitième Merveille du Monde; France)
- United States - March 7, 1933
- Netherlands - April 28, 1933
- Brazil - May 26, 1933
- Mexico - July 27, 1933
- Czechoslovakia - September 1933
- Sweden - September 8, 1933
- Japan - September 14, 1933
- France - September 29, 1933
- Peru - October 3, 1933
- Spain - October 9, 1933
- Ireland - October 13, 1933
- Italy - October 13, 1933
- Denmark - November 1, 1933
- Turkey - December 1933
- Germany - December 1, 1933
- Portugal - January 2, 1934
- Finland - February 4, 1934
- Iceland - April 1934
- Hong Kong - May 25, 1934
King Kong had an estimated budget of $672,000 (roughly adjusted to $12,042,084) and made $6,206,460 from its initial U.S. theatrical release alone.
Although King Kong was not the first important Hollywood film to have a thematic music score (many silent films had multi-theme original scores written for them), it's generally considered to be the most ambitious early film to showcase an all-original score, courtesy of a promising young composer, Max Steiner.
It was also the first hit film to offer a life-like animated central character in any form. Much of what is done today with CGI animation has its conceptual roots in the stop motion animation that was pioneered in King Kong. Willis O'Brien, credited as "Chief Technician" on the film, has been lauded by later generations of film special effects artists as an outstanding genius of founder status.
The film also utilizes unique camera tricks used to integrate live-action shots with special-effects shots. For example, at the end of the scene where Kong shakes the crew members off the log, he then goes after Driscoll, who is hiding in a small cave just under the ledge. The scene was shot using the miniature set, a mockup of Kong's hand and a rear-projected image of Driscoll in the cave. This is not the first known use of miniature rear projection, but it certainly is among the most famous of early attempts. Other techniques used for the film include the combination of both live-action shots and special-effects shots by running them through an optical printer, large rear-screen projections that enabled actors to act in front of a large screen on which the special effects scenes (such as the attack of the Stegosaurus) were played back, and many more.
Many shots in King Kong featured optical effects by Linwood G. Dunn, who was RKO's optical technician for decades. Dunn did optical effects on Citizen Kane and the original Star Trek TV series, as well as hundreds of other films and shows. In the 1990s, Dunn co-invented an electronic 3-D system now used for micro-surgery in hospitals and in the military, as well as co-inventing a video projection system with better resolution than 35mm film that is used in modern cinemas.
During the film's original 1933 theatrical release, the climax was presented in Magnascope. This is where the screen opens up both vertically and horizontally. Cooper had wanted to wow the audience with the Empire State Building battle in a larger-than-life presentation. He had done this earlier for his earlier film Chang, during the climactic elephant stampede.
Spider pit sequence
The first version of the film was test screened to an audience in San Bernardino, California in January 1933, before the official release. At that time the film contained a scene showing what happened to the sailors who were shaken from the log by Kong, that they were attacked and then eaten alive at the bottom of the ravine by several creatures, including a giant spider, a giant crab, a giant lizard, and an octopus-like creature. The "spider-pit scene" reportedly provoked many members of the audience to scream, leave the theater and even faint. After the preview, Cooper cut the scene.
However, a memo written by Cooper, recently revealed on a King Kong documentary, indicates that the scene was cut because it slowed the pace of the film down, not because it was too horrific. According to "King Kong Cometh" by Paul A. Wood, the scene did not get past censors and audiences only claim to have seen the sequence. On the 2005 DVD, nothing is mentioned as to the sequence being in the test screening. Stills from the scene exist, but the footage itself remains lost to this day.
It is mentioned in the 2005 DVD by Doug Turner that Cooper, the director, usually relegated his outtakes and deleted scenes to the incinerator, a regular practice in all movie productions for decades, so many presume that the spider-pit sequence met the same fate. Models used in the sequence, a tarantula and a spider, can be seen hanging on the walls of a workshop in one scene of the 1946 film Genius at Work, and a spider and tentacled creature from the sequence were used in O'Brien's 1957 film The Black Scorpion.
Director Peter Jackson and his crew of special effects technicians at Weta Workshop created an imaginative reconstruction for the 2005 DVD release of the film (the scene was not spliced into the film but is intercut with original footage to show where it would have occurred, and is part of the DVD extras). The scene is also recreated in the 2005 remake, with most men surviving the initial fall but having to fight off giant insects to survive.