Sunday, 11 October 2015

Space Oddities: King Kong (1933)

Fig. 1, King Kong (1933), Poster 

Whilst Merian Cooper & Ernest Schoedsack’s King Kong [1933] could be defined simply as an action-adventure picture dominated by special effects, it should be viewed within the context of the suggestive golden age of “Gothic Horror” that thrived in pre-Code 1930s Hollywood, alongside other horror films containing significant amounts of violence and sexual content such as Universal’s monster films – James Whale’s Frankenstein (Newman, 2011:92-93), Tod Browning’s Dracula, etc. (Hunter, 2011:88-91) Lecturer Russ Hunter explains that “before the Hays Office’s strict implementation of self-censorship halted experiments in suggestiveness and explicit gore, the early sound era saw gothic horror movies flourish. (Hunter, 2011:89)” This could explain the explosion in use of set design, costume design and special effects even after the end of the silent era, as audiences flocked to the cinemas in the need of fantasy and escapism during the Great Depression of the 1930s. “Audiences were able to check in Berlin’s Grand Hotel [Edmund Goulding], fly down to Rio [Thornton Freeland], and vanish to Lost Horizon’s [Frank Capra] Shangri-La without ever leaving their seats” (Whitlock, 2010:63).

Fig. 2, King Kong (1933)
Because of the film’s dominance in special effects, King Kong, “the undisputed champ of all monster movies (Klein, 2011:109)”, could also be hailed as the precursor to the blockbuster age starting in the 1970s, where films such as John Guillermin’s The Towering Inferno [1974], Steven Spielberg’s Jaws [1975] and George Lucas’ Star Wars [1977] (Kemp, 2011:362-67) were known to use “a narrow set of generic parameters – science fiction, horror, comedy, fantasy, disaster or action – to attract the largest possible audience. (Huddleston, 2011:361)” Indeed, King Kong was remade in 1976 by Guillermin (Wikipedia, 2015), in an age when special effects began to rise up to a level at least as high as the story.
Fig. 3, King Kong (1933)
The film can be seen as another interesting fish-out-of-water concept alongside Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, as King Kong is transported from the pre-industrial Skull Island to the 1930s Art Deco of New York, as can be praised for its achievement in layering set design and especially the stop-motion animation of the main character led by special effects artist Willis O’Brien. Looking deeper, however, it also could be argued that the use of stop-motion animation in the film was a crucial step in the development of sophisticated, energetic and detailed movement, when observing 1930s Western animation, often seen as “the period when animation came of age (Beck, 2004:54)” Director Barry Purves argues that “many of the techniques used in purely animated [features] were developed over the years in which the technique was used as a special effect within live-action films, when certain ideas simply couldn’t be achieved any other way (Purves, 2014:36)”.
Fig. 4, King Kong (1933) 

As well as the striking dynamic movement of King Kong by O’Brien, the set design of Skull Island should also be pointed out, consisting of wall paintings, miniatures and other components to help create an illusion of perspective: the jungle scene’s multiple layers in particular are able to give a true sense of depth to the viewer, whilst its main function is to blur the divide between the animation shots and the live-action studio set shots – e.g. King Kong fighting the reptile creature as the woman lies in the foreground.

The concept of multiple layer set design could also help showcase the increasing technology being used in Western animation, rather than just live-action, to help increase the sense of depth and realism, no example clearer of this perhaps than Walt Disney’s The Old Mill [1937], made to experiment with the new multi-plane camera [e.g. rising upwards inside the old windmill] and released shortly before the studio’s first feature Snow White & the Seven Dwarfs [1937]. Disney believed that “in order to sustain an audience’s interest for over an hour, he would need to create a realistic, believable world and characters (Cavalier, 2011:118) in which the short is able to achieve, focusing on realistic-looking animals and the natural world, which could have been seen as a huge departure from the slapstick comedy shorts the studio had been known for years earlier – Steamboat Willie [1928], The Three Little Pigs [1933], etc. Cavalier explains that “The Old Mill marks the defining moment when animation moved into realism, and is possibly one of Disney’s most technically-advanced shorts (Cavalier, 2011:118).

Figs. 5 & 6, The Old Mill (1937) 
In summary, King Kong could be seen as a stepping stone in increasing the sophistication and realism not just in big-budget fantasy-adventure films, through its advancing special-effects technology, but for both live-action and especially animation, as the public would become “dazzled by evolving new techniques, more sophisticated storytelling and advanced visuals (Beck: 2004:54)”. Cathy Whitlock points out that “the modern concept of film genre also came into being in the [1930s]. Standard categories helped define and differentiate between particular film styles – from musicals to horror films to screwball comedies (Whitlock, 2010:63)”, which could help explain the explosion in recognisable big-budget fantasy-adventure films during this time.

  • BECK, J. (editor) (1994) The 50 Greatest Cartoons: As Chosen by 1000 Animation Professionals. Atlanta: Turner
  • BECK, J. (editor) (2004) Animation Art: From Pencil to Pixel, the History of Cartoon, Anime & CGI. London: Flame Tree
  • CAVALIER, S. (2011) The World History of Animation. London: Arum
  • KEMP, P. (editor) (2011) Cinema: The Whole Story. London: Thames & Hudson
  • PURVES, B. (2014) Stop-Motion Animation Frame by Frame Filmmaking with Puppets & Models. London: Bloomsbury
  • SCHNEIDER, S. (editor) (2011) 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die. London: Octopus
  • WHITLOCK, C. (2010) Designs on Film: A Century of Hollywood Art Direction. New York: Harper-Collins
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  1. Hugely enjoyable review, Robin - content rich, wide-ranging and very thoroughly contextualised! A delight! :)