I first saw King Kong on television about sixty years ago. It opened on board a tramp steamer, already in the vicinity of Skull Island. Apparently, this was the only version that had been available for a long time because even the Mad Magazine spoof published in the 1950s started at that point. It was not until a little over ten years later that I saw the entire, uncut movie at a revival house. It was then that I saw the introductory scene in New York, where Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong), movie director, finds Ann Darrow (Fay Wray), down on her luck on account of the Great Depression, and promises her a chance to be the leading lady in an adventure film he plans on making.
I also saw for the first time a lot of the mayhem that King Kong, a giant gorilla, wreaked on the village once he got outside the wall that kept him and all those dinosaurs that populated Skull Island confined. And even more shocking, I saw Kong removing Ann’s clothes once he got her back to his lair, making it clear that he was sexually aroused by her and wanted to see her naked.
I first became aware that I was not alone in regarding King Kong as a really great movie when I read Danny Peary’s Cult Movies: The Classics, the Sleepers, the Weird, and the Wonderful, which included an essay on King Kong. In 1993, Peary published his Alternate Oscars, in which he says King Kong should have won the Award for Best Picture, but the Academy thought it undignified to give such an award to a monster movie. Instead, the Award for Best Picture of 1933 went to Cavalcade. Need I say more?
The Girl in the Hairy Paw is a 1976 anthology of reviews and essays on King Kong, which I suppose is further evidence that not only was I not alone in thinking this movie was special, but also that there were movie critics that have an even higher regard for it than I did. There are essays on technology, especially stop-motion. There is one on the score by Max Steiner. There are essays on previous works that have influenced King Kong, such as Gulliver’s Travels, in which a giant monkey in the land of Brobdingnag pulls Gulliver out of his room and climbs to the top of a roof with him. There are also discussions of The Lost World (1925), a film adaptation of the novel of the same name by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. That movie definitely has elements in it that later made their way into King Kong. There is the painting by Arnold Böcklin, The Isle of the Dead, which was the basis for Skull Island. And, of course, there is the fairy tale, Beauty and the Beast, which is explicitly emphasized in the movie, from start to finish.
Even more unexpected than the fact that this movie is held in such esteem by film critics is the fact that there are so many interpretations of this movie. Usually, a movie is just what it seems to be on the surface. And that’s how I regarded King Kong, as a scary monster movie. Had it turned out that a single film critic was able to see a deeper, hidden meaning in this movie, that would have been surprising enough. But I have lost count of all the different ways this movie can be interpreted.
In his forward to The Girl in the Hairy Paw, Rudy Behlmer says that Merian Cooper did not want his movie to be interpreted:
Cooper became irate when we discussed those who attached “symbolic” overtones—phallic and otherwise—to various aspects of Kong. As far as he was concerned there were no hidden meaning, psychological or cultural implications, profound parallels or anything remotely resembling intellectual “significance” in the film.
[According to Cooper]“King Kong was escapist entertainment pure and simple. A more illogical picture could never have been made.” [page 13]
That is an understandable reaction from someone that intended his movie to be nothing but entertainment, but such protests are of no avail. This movie was made in the early twentieth century, at a time when psychoanalysis was all the rage. And a fundamental principle of this branch of psychology is that a man is not necessarily an authority on the meaning of what he says or does. Psychoanalysis is no longer the dominant force it was once, but left in its wake is the theory that authorial intent is irrelevant, that a text may be interpreted on its own merits, without regard for, or even in disregard of, the purpose the author says he had in writing it. So too is it with movies.
One thing that encourages interpretation is the fact that what happens on Skull Island is recapitulated by what happens in Manhattan. In this regard, Peary gives some examples:
For instance, a giant snake is replaced by a snakelike elevated subway; the pterodactyl by airplanes; the mountain lair by the Empire State Building, and so on. Only, on the island it is Ann who is in chains, while in New York it is Kong. [Alternate Oscars, page 24]
After Kong escapes, Ann says, “It’s like a horrible dream. It’s like being back on the island again.” As a result, we can’t help but wonder if this means that events in the jungle are telling us something about what happens in the city. And if it is a horrible dream, as Ann says, that really is the gateway to interpretation. Jean Boullet is emphatic on this score: “King Kong is—and this is probably unique in the history of cinema—a dream filmed in its entirety [Hairy Paw, page 108].”
It has often been observed that much of this movie is not realistic. Cooper himself said it was illogical, as noted above. No gorilla could be that big without collapsing under his own weight. A brontosaurus gobbles up someone even though it is not a meat eater. And I still find it hard to believe that they could have gotten Kong back to New York on a raft. Defenders of the dreamlike quality of this movie turn these inconsistencies, absurdities, and fictions into just so much support for their thesis, saying these unrealistic features of the movie are part of what makes us experience it as a dream.
The examples just given are conceptual absurdities, which would exist no matter how the movie was filmed. Claude Ollier, on the other hand, emphasizes the visual discrepancies:
We may note, then, how even the minor flaws in the continuity of perspective or movement, far from destroying or enfeebling the credulity of the spectacle, are in accord rather with the presentation of a totally dreamlike state, a dream created by means of spatial illusion, optical displacements, and disruptions between individual shots and overall continuity. [Hairy Paw, page 115]
And there is also the fact that we mostly dream in black-and-white. Sometimes I experience color in my dreams. Most of the time, however, if there are colors, they are so muted that the dream still has more of a black-and-white quality. Had King Kong been filmed in color, that would have worked against the experience of the movie as a dream.
Of the interpretations, I suppose we can start with the economic allegories. In Great Hollywood Movies, Ted Sennet says, “It has been interpreted in Marxist terms: the enslavement of the powerful but ignorant masses, straining to break their bonds [page 172].” Ollier, who refers to Denham as a “capitalist,” also sees this movie as symbolic of the financial crisis that America was in at that time:
Thematically, the film stresses the conjunction between the stupefying power of theatrical spectacle and the stock market activity bound up with it, and the way this in turn inexorably leads to a catastrophic depletion and disorder—disasters of a kind which seem nonetheless to have been unconsciously wished for by the populace. [Hairy Paw, page 111]
And in Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality, and Insurrection in American Cinema 1930-1934, Thomas Doherty makes yet a third economic interpretation: “Kong tumbles from the heights and crashes to the street below, like the stock market, the nation, flat on its back [page 292].”
I don’t know. Maybe this category of interpretation had more resonance when the movie was released, in the middle of the Great Depression. Seeing it as I did for the first time in the 1960s, without the scenes in New York before the ship sets sail, where Ann is on the verge of starving to death before Denham buys her a meal and promises to make her a star, that made an economic interpretation by me unlikely. Perhaps this first impression on me makes me resistant to such an interpretation even now.
Peary makes references to an interpretation in which the movie is “an indictment of ‘bring ’em back alive’ big game hunters [Cult Movies, page 180].” In a similar vein, Sennett says, “It has been called a diatribe against the brutality of civilized man [Great Hollywood Movies, page 172].”
Moving on now to psychoanalytic interpretations, one suspects R.C. Dale is under Jungian influence when he makes the following remarks:
The film manages to bypass the critical, censorious level of the viewer’s consciousness and to secure his suspension of disbelief with what appears to be great ease. A number of French critics have attributed this phenomenon to what they call the film’s oneiric qualities, its pervasive dreamlike control of some subconscious, uncritical part of the mind…. But probably the most important reasons for the film’s success at capturing us as spectators are that it carefully establishes a reality of its own; it employs extensive use of archetypal myth imagery that appeals directly to our subconscious, and it uses an extremely effective narrative approach to its subject. [Hairy Paw, page 117]
You are probably familiar with the question raised by one critic, “If the natives wanted to keep King Kong on the other side of the wall, why did they build a door big enough for him to get through?” I’m no Freudian, but someone of that school of thought might argue that there is an unconscious desire to let the id escape from its suppression. Skull Island represents the mind of man. The peninsula where the natives live corresponds to the conscious ego; the wall is the superego; behind the wall is the id. Deep down inside, the natives want to let loose these “monsters from the id,” perhaps owing to what Freud called a death drive, an urge toward self-destruction.
Along the lines of such a Freudian understanding of this movie, Peary argues in Cult Movies, pages 181-83, that only part of King Kong is a dream, starting when The Venture leaves port, and even then, it is not our dream but that of Carl Denham. Early in the movie, Denham, a bachelor, expresses disdain for women, but the public demands a love interest in a movie, so he needs a woman for his next film. Incapable of having a sexual relationship with women himself, his subconscious conjures up Kong as his alter-ego, who can give free reign to his lust for Ann. In support of this, Peary notes that the only scenes in which Denham and Kong are in the same frame are those in which Kong is incapacitated in some way.
Or the movie can be seen as a woman’s worst nightmare. One thing that women dread is being overpowered by a man, especially one who is too big for her. The greatest impossibility of this movie comes when Kong starts taking Ann’s clothes off her in a desire to mate with her. Their difference in size makes sex between them impossible, and yet we know that is what Kong wants, and, beyond all reason, would have ravished her had Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot) not rescued her at the last moment. But then, as Peary points out, one of the reasons that Kong is sometimes regarded as a hero by women is that “he doesn’t hide his feelings as most men do [Cult Movies, page 183].”
The editors of The Girl in the Hairy Paw, Harry M. Geduld and Ronald Gottesman, tackle the subject that most critics would prefer to avoid, but which must ultimately be acknowledged: the theory that King Kong is a racist nightmare. In the movie The Birth of a Nation (1915), a black man named Gus almost rapes a white woman, but she leaps off a cliff, killing herself, to avoid the fate worse than death. But in The Clansman, by Thomas Dixon, the novel on which the movie was based, Gus does rape white maiden. He is referred to as “apelike” and as having “black claws.” As Geduld and Gottesman point out, this is nothing new:
… for the ape and the Negro have been all too often associated in the minds and literature of racists…. The association of ape and Negro relates to King Kong in so far as the film has sometimes been interpreted as a white man’s sick fantasy of the Negro’s lust to rape white women. [pages 24-25]
Ironically, this interpretation may explain why the movie was not welcomed by the Third Reich, as suggested by Doherty:
King Kong went on to become a global phenomenon—with one notable exception. In Germany, Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels banned the film from import into the Fatherland. RKO distributors were bewildered by the decree, but perhaps the Nazis had rightly gleaned the subtextual threat to Aryan womanhood by the Untermensch turned Übermensch, King Kong. [Pre-Code Hollywood, page 293]
And yet, if we set aside the fact that Kong is a gorilla and simply focus on the fact that he is black, then an identification between Kong and African Americans might be embraced by black people in a positive way. This alternative attitude, arising from an identification of Kong with a black man, is noted by Sennett:
Occasionally the movie has been viewed from both sides of the racist coin. On one side, it is seen as proof positive that unfettered blacks will surely run roughshod over fair-skinned women. On the other, it has been said to show that blacks have a formidable strength that will overwhelm and destroy their oppressors. [Great Hollywood Movies, page 172]
In his Cult Movies, Peary says that one of the many ways some critics see Kong as a hero is precisely this identification: “black people see him as a black character who fights white America [page 183].” And in The Girl in the Hairy Paw, there is a review by X.J. Kennedy, written in 1960, in which he notes something similar:
A Negro friend from Atlanta tells me that in movie houses throughout the South, Kong does a constant business. They show the thing in Atlanta at least every year, presumably to the same audiences…, [leading me to] wonder whether Negro audiences may not find some archetypal appeal in this serio-comic tale of a huge black powerful free spirit whom all the hardworking white policemen are out to kill. [page 123]
But we would not care one whit for any of these interpretations if we did not enjoy the movie as it appears on the surface, as a scary monster movie, and it certainly is that.