Eighty years ago this week, the talk of the town in New York was King Kong, the giant ape who was packing them in at two huge movie houses – Radio City Music Hall and the RKO Roxy – in Manhattan. Demand for the movie (with tickets running a steep Depression-era charge of 35 to 75 cents) was so high that both theatres were showing the RKO production up to 10 times a day, and still they couldn't meet the demand. Within weeks Merian C. Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack's tale of a giant gorilla in love with a blond actress (Fay Wray) would roll out across the country and around the world, and everywhere the reaction would be the same: Folks went ape for the big guy.
But nowhere could the sensation of seeing the movie have been quite as intoxicating as in New York, where one could walk out onto the street, look up, and see the very same Empire State Building – then just a couple of years old – that Kong had scaled and been toppled from just minutes before. To quote Carl Denham, the movie-director character in the movie who was responsible for the retrieval of the creature from its home habitat of Skull Island and its tragic unleashing in Gotham: "Holy Mackerel! What a show!"
Within months, King Kong was a bona fide pop-cultural sensation in movie theatres around the globe, generating an inevitable (and inevitably inferior) sequel, Son of Kong, and boosting the moviegoing public's expectations of adventure and fantasy. The giant ape had changed the game, and movie history now had to be rewritten to make room. As successful as those government-issue biplanes had been in dislodging the lovelorn supersized simian from the world's tallest building, prying him from our imagination would be another matter entirely. In our heads and hearts, King Kong's grip would hold.
Like all phenomena that seem to spring so suddenly from the collective cultural subconscious, Kong was in fact the spawn of a number of converging forces, influences and accidents. Cooper, Kong's primary visioner, was an aviation pioneer, combat pilot, POW and fearless ethnographic spectacle seeker. With a reputation for sheer gung-ho chutzpah, Cooper had been hired by the RKO studio's David Selznick as production chief, but with the stipulation that Cooper could develop a movie about gorillas and dinosaurs he'd been dreaming of ever since he heard of the discovery of the Komodo lizard.
Teaming up with Schoedsack, his aviation-minded adventure buddy and cameraman, Cooper began work on an in-progress feature called Creation – the brainchild of the groundbreaking stop-motion visual-effects genius Willis O'Brien. When economics compelled a more streamlined production, he scrapped Creation and scaled it down to a simple and semi-autobiographical tale of what happens when a movie crew stumbles upon Kong's uncharted island domicile. Strange as it may seem, King Kong, the "eighth wonder of the world," was actually born of this frugality.
King Kong was in production for 10 months, a stretch almost unheard of for movie productions of the day, and virtually unprecedented for a mid-level, cost-conscious studio like RKO. The model work was especially complicated, with O'Brien's various model dinosaurs, apes and miniature humans literally melting beneath studio lights. Then there was the painstaking rear-projection shooting, including a 10-hour stint Fay Wray spent in tree pretending to be horrified by her hairy captor's spat with a T-Rex. To honour his arrangement with Selznick, Cooper was required to maintain his other productions while Kong was before the cameras, but this also made for some conveniently cost-efficient manoeuvring: From the almost simultaneous RKO production of The Most Dangerous Game, Cooper lifted Armstrong, Fay Wray and most of the studio jungle sets for the giant gorilla movie.
And when it was released – March, 1933 – holy mackerel. The Depression-era public loved it, the movie industry was cowed by it, and almost instantly Kong found himself the ultimate in free-floating, all-purpose cultural symbols, a metaphor in giant gorilla drag who was as interpretively versatile as he was in love with the blond girl. Freudians jumped on the sexual symbolism of the unleashed libido ripping its way out of the jungle and scaling the world's most visible phallic symbol. The Surrealists swooned over the subversively absurdist dreaminess of a rampaging giant monkey wreaking havoc in midtown Manhattan and gingerly plucking the clothes off Fay Wray with its big, hairy fingers. In Germany, the Nazis banned the film, evidently alarmed by the spectacle of Aryan womanhood so flagrantly assaulted by something so tall, so dark and so dangerous.
In his eight decades with us, Kong has been revisited, reinterpreted, remade, rereleased and revised, but nothing has managed to dislodge the power or influence of the original gorilla. Even with – and perhaps because of – the movie's evident simplicity and primitive technique, King Kong retains a power to mesmerize that remains relatively untouched. If it, intentionally or otherwise, attained a standard of emotive immediacy few if any monster movies before had managed, few if any since have repeated the miracle.
In 1976, producer Dino De Laurentiis plopped Kong astride the two World Trade Centres, Jessica Lange gripped firmly in his fist, but by the time he fell most people had already gone home. Grandiosity proved similarly grave to Peter Jackson's CGI-soaked 2005 remake, which took almost as long to get to Kong's island as the original movie had taken to get to the top of the Empire State. In both cases, the person audiences felt most sorry for was themselves, and the original just kept looking better.
And that may be the single most helpful hint when it comes to understanding why the big gorilla's grip holds so fast. In Kong, in his innocence and purity, in his need to love and be loved at any cost, and in his struggle to be understood in a world he can't comprehend and that doesn't understand him, the monkey is us.