David O. Selznick, who produced such successful, but overladen hits like “Gone With the Wind” (1939) and “Since You Went Away” (1944) also produced a much leaner “King Kong” (1933), which has the distinction of being remarkably fast paced, imaginative, and as evocative of a place that never existed as any film of a place that did.
Reckless, driven movie director Carl Denham, played by Robert Armstrong, is the film’s catalyst. He is Ahab to Kong’s Moby Dick, but Carl Denham is less righteous and haunted than Captain Ahab. He is really more like Daffy Duck, pursuing a mound of jewels with dollar signs in his eyes. Mr. Armstrong gets to deliver the famous last lines of the film, “It wasn’t the airplanes. It was beauty killed the beast.” But he also gets other lines just as telling of his character and of the Depression era of this film. Warned that he must be careful with a movie actress in the wilds of his location shoot, Denham responds,
“I suppose there’s no danger in New York? Listen, there are dozens of girls in this town that are in more danger than they’ll ever see with me.”
Denham laments that his true-life adventure films are dismissed by the Hollywood critics. “Isn’t there any romance or adventure in the world without having a flapper in it?”
Interesting use of the word “flapper” carried over from the 1920s. Denham goes first to one jungle to find the girl for his film, New York City, and we see Times Square lit up at night. We meet the lovely Fay Wray whose haunting dark eyes explore the camera’s gaze from under the brim of a battered cloche hat.
“I’m on the level. No funny business,” Armstrong as Denham tells Miss Wray, and she, and we, immediately accept that he is being truthful. The amazing thing is, he is being truthful. He is a man obsessively wedded to his work. If he were not, he could never bring back the Eighth Wonder of the World.
For a love interest, Miss Wray is given instead the wooden Bruce Cabot, who is at first brusque and falls in love reluctantly. It’s nothing personal he tells her, it’s just that she’s a woman. We get the standard “Terry and the Pirates” stock images of a stereotyped Chinese galley cook, and Denham on board ship in a yachting cap and a white suit, to be replaced by a tropical kit, and a slouch hat that make him look a cross between Indiana Jones, Curious George’s Man in the Yellow Hat and Christiane Amanpour reporting from the field. But this is quite wonderful in a way, because this is Depression-era South Seas adventure, and if Denham didn’t look like The Great White Hunter, we’d be wondering exactly what he was doing there.
I get a kick where after their first wary encounter with the natives of the lost island, Denham flippantly whistles a chorus of “The St. Louis Blues.” And he remarks at their torches lighting up the black night in their ceremonial dance to pay homage to Kong, “Looks like the night before election.”
He has some terrific sets to get lost in, mostly left over from the previous year’s “The Most Dangerous Game” and Miss Wray, truly the best screamer in Hollywood as his bait for Kong. When she practices screaming in terror for Denham’s screen test of her on deck, we get an ominous sense of dread when Bruce Cabot’s character wonders, “What’s he think she’s really gonna see?”
See Part 2 of King Kong here.