The movie starts out fairly sedately, as Ann Darrow (Fay Wray), an unemployed actress, tries to steal an apple, because she's starving. She's saved by film director Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong), who hires her to star in his new picture. He takes her to the Venture, where she meets ship's mate Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot). Soon, the ship sails for the mysterious Skull Island, where Denham has learned exists a strange creature viewed by the natives as a god. We know nothing of what Kong is during the voyage, but we do see Ann in some test shots Denham takes, in which he encourages her to act as though she's seen something terrifying. During the voyage, Driscoll, who initially did not like the idea of a woman on board a ship, falls for Ann, who's been pretty much flirting with him from the get-go.
When they arrive at Skull Island and meet the natives, they notice the gigantic wall separating the village from the rest of the island, and the natives are immediately interested in the blonde Ann, and offer to trade for her. Naturally, Denham isn't looking to sell Ann, but that night, as the crew sleeps, the natives kidnap her as a queen for their god, Kong. Her disappearance is noted, and the crew goes ashore again as the Skull Island natives are chanting and dancing to bring their god to them to accept his queen. “Kani kalani, kani kalani, kani kalani... KONG!” Ann is tied between two large posts, and Denham, Driscoll and the others are too late to free her before Kong arrives in all his glory, and he takes her away.
Kong is an impressive beast, a gorilla at least 40 feet tall, and he demonstrates real emotion through his face as well as his body language. What's really impressive about Kong is that for most scenes (with a few exceptions, as I'll note), he was portrayed by an 18-inch-tall stop-motion animation puppet, with foam rubber muscles and fur over an aluminum jointed skeleton, which had to be painstakingly moved fractions of an inch at a time, a few frames shot, and then slightly moved again, a few frames, etc. The special effects were done by the master of stop-motion, Willis O'Brien, who had previously done effects work for the original, silent version of The Lost World, which featured a brontosaurus (well, it should've been called an apatosaurus, as the brontosaurus didn't actually exist, but still people use the name even now) running amok in London. Kong and the other creatures of the film were built by Marcel Delgado, who must share the credit with O'Brien for the success of the film's creatures on screen.
Kong is pursued by Denham, Driscoll and the crew through the jungle, and they very quickly learn that the jungle has other dangers than Kong... dinosaurs, somehow surviving from the prehistoric past, are present, as well as gigantic spiders and scorpions, among other horrors. Kong takes Ann over a chasm bridged by a gigantic tree log, and when the men follow, Kong shakes most of them loose, plummeting them to a grisly death below. Denham, trapped on the other side, goes for the gas grenades brought along, while Driscoll, who saved himself by grabbing a vine, continues to follow Kong and Ann.
After setting Ann down in a tree, Kong soon has to battle a tyrannosaurus rex to protect her from its appetite, and then he continues to bring her to his cave atop the highest mountain on Skull Island. Even there, Ann is not safe, as a pterodactyl (or was it a pteranodon? I can never remember the difference these days) tries for her, and Kong attacks it. But while Kong is attacking the flying dinosaur, Driscoll gets Ann, and they start climbing down a cliff to the shore below, using vines to cling to. When Kong spots them, and starts to draw them up, they let go and plunge into the water.
This makes Kong mad, and when Kong gets mad, bad things happen. It's not long before Kong attacks the native villagers who'd worshipped him, and he starts tearing the village apart, and killing the natives, some by stepping on them, others by biting them, then casting them aside. For these scenes and others, a full-size Kong head was constructed, as well as a foot. An arm and hand was also constructed for scenes where Kong is holding Ann, and there are shots where the hand holding Fay Wray is positioned in front of the stop-motion Kong.
As Kong gets to the beach, Denham and his crew lob gas grenades at the beast, finally knocking him unconscious. Somehow, they get Kong aboard the Venture, and bring him to New York. Instead of using Kong in a movie, Denham now plans to display him in a theater on Broadway! Kong is chained and hidden behind a curtain as theatre-goers in their finest wear fill the seats. Kong is revealed, and Ann is introduced by Denham. Reporters are invited onstage to take photos, but their flashes enrage Kong, who thinks that they're threatening Ann. He breaks free and escapes. Driscoll takes Ann to her hotel room while Kong rampages through New York, destroying an elevated train, and even killing a blonde woman whom he initially thinks is Ann. Kong somehow manages to find Ann's hotel room, and knocks Driscoll out before taking Ann away. He climbs with Ann to the top of the Empire State Building, and Driscoll comes up with the idea to use planes to shoot Kong down. The air assault is ordered as Driscoll and Denham race to the Empire State Building.
The biplanes attack Kong, and although he is able to take out a few of the planes, the combined firepower is too much for him. He gently sets Ann down in a safe place before the mortal shots take him out, causing him to fall to his death on the street below. Driscoll finds Ann and takes him into his arms, while below, Denham gets to the fallen Kong, where this movie's most quoted lines are spoken.
Police Lieutenant: “Well, Denham, the airplanes got him.”
Denham: “Oh, no, it wasn't the airplanes... t'was Beauty killed the Beast.”
One of the great things about this movie is that, while Kong is seen as a monster on Skull Island, we see quickly that he's a sympathetic creature. He truly cares for Ann, and by the time of his death, we find ourselves rooting for the monster, and feeling sad when he's killed.
Consider just what an accomplishment this was, for any era. Given the limited special effects capabilities, Willis O'Brien imbued Kong with personality and emotion, so that we didn't look at him as being some kind of special effects trickery, but as valid a character on-screen as Ann, Driscoll, or Denham.
Of course, the movie was a smash hit in theaters, and many people consider King Kong to be the first movie to be re-released, as it was periodically in theaters for some time. Prior to the 1970s remake being released, the original movie was re-released to theaters. Many fans, who'd been used to seeing Kong on television, were finally able to see it on the big screen in all its cinematic glory. It loses something on TV, although it's still a great movie even in that format.
There are legends surrounding the movie, as there are around many of the most popular movies... it may never be truly known if the scene of the crew, after being shaken down the chasm by Kong, are attacked by the giant spiders and the like was ever shown in its complete form in the theaters, or if it was edited out shortly in its initial release. There was even a man who claimed that he played Kong in a gorilla suit, and I don't know how it was possible that anyone could've believed him. Even Rick Baker's Kong suit for the 1970s movie couldn't convey the emotion that the original Kong did, and that was a pretty impressive suit (probably the best thing about that otherwise unwatchable movie).
With success comes imitations, and RKO Studios, who made the original movie, was the first, very quickly rushing out Son of Kong, with the white-furred progeny of the original (we never saw or heard what happened to Mrs. Kong, or if she had divorced the original, leaving him free to chase blonde actresses). I think the best of the Kong imitators has to be Mighty Joe Young, and that's because it didn't try to copy Kong as blatantly as some later films (such as the ridiculous, but still fun to watch Konga). Joe is sympathetic from the start, and isn't really presented as a monster.
And as we all know, Toho Studios in Japan made their own pair of movies with their version of Kong, beginning with King Kong Vs. Godzilla, and then the later King Kong Escapes. I prefer to think that they didn't really want us to believe it was the original Kong in those movies, but rather some other giant mutated gorilla who the name was given to, despite the fact that it was several times larger than the original! King Kong Escapes does deserve one note of interest... it appears to be tied in with the Rankin-Bass The King Kong Show cartoon, which I have on DVD, but haven't yet watched since I was a child.
But King Kong didn't just inspire giant gorilla movies... it inspired pretty much every giant monster movie that followed, in one way or another. Godzilla, King of the Monsters was originally planned to be shot in stop-motion, until it was decided that it would be too costly to do that way, so a rubber suit was created (as well as a hand-puppet version). Some later Godzilla films would use brief bits of stop-motion. Gorgo was another movie that surely was inspired in many ways by Kong, featuring a sympathetic giant creature. Some believe that Jurassic Park also was inspired by this film, too.
Kong is one of the true iconic monsters of the movies, and one way or another, he's never been out of our sight for very long, whether it's in remakes, homages, toys, comics, or whatever other form we might encounter.
My first time seeing King Kong in its entirety was during the 1970s re-release, and I saw it at the same small community theater that also hosted the revivals of the 3-D versions of Creature From the Black Lagoon and It Came From Outer Space. I'd certainly seen scenes from Kong before, and as noted, I had watched the cartoon as a child, but I can't say for certain that I'd seen Kong on TV before that revival. Oh, I knew of Kong... believe me, I knew of him! The Swasey Library in Tacoma, Washington, just down the street and two blocks over from the house I spent most of my childhood in had an amazing selection of books about monster movies, and I checked them all out multiple times, and read them cover to cover. I know I'd seen issues of Famous Monsters and probably other monster magazines that featured Kong, as well as issues of The Monster Times (initially copies from a cousin's collection – that cousin's collection of cool stuff was the only thing tolerable to me about visiting relatives in North Dakota every summer). And one day, I walked into Book King, a book store that used to exist at the Fred Meyer on 19th Street in Tacoma (but sadly went the way of the dodo sometime in the early to mid-80s) they had an issue of the Rocket's Blast/Comicollector that cover-featured Kong. Now, I don't know if I bought it at the same time as I bought the RBCC issue that cover-featured the Blue Beetle, but I know those were the first two real fanzines I ever bought (I'd been getting The Comic Reader at that same store, but I don't know if I'd really call it a fanzine... it was more of a comics news magazine in my mind). I read that issue of RBCC until the cover was falling off, and I even started an abortive attempt at a fanzine that would've featured an article about Kong, even though I probably hadn't seen the original yet!
Thanks to that issue, I knew of the Gold Key one-shot (which I believe was reprinted not too long after that), which was more based on the novelization of the original Kong story than the movie (and yes, I did buy and read Don Simpson's comic mini-series that more closely followed the film). I never got the Gold Key comic or the novelization (still haven't, come to think of it). I'm not even sure I ever really had any real Kong toys until I was an adult, when my first wife gave me the McFarlane Toys Kong figure (which I no longer have... but I do have two dollar store Kong figures, one a small PVC figurine, the other a finger puppet). Oh, I had gorilla toys that were basically intended to be Kong, to be sure! But no Kong toys as a child.
Still, from the first time I saw King Kong, it has been, and remains to this day, one of my favorite movies of all time.
I welcome your comments and Kong memories in the comments.