"Throw your arms across your eyes and scream, Ann. Scream for your life!"
”It’s money and adventure and fame. It’s the thrill of a lifetime and a long sea voyage that starts at six o’clock tomorrow morning.”
The original King Kong movie: to anyone who has ever seen this movie it’s hysterical. I laughed so hard the first time I watched it. In this century we are so used to CGI and computer animation that we tend to take for granted how special affects got started. The acting is so silly it is almost painful. The script/dialogue is not too bad, I have seen movies where the acting is fine but the script is terrible.
I recently watched the 1933 version of King Kong and looked at it differently from a historic point of view. Yes, not all of you may do this with classic movies if you watch them but try it sometime especially with this movie and it may not seem so bad.
What truly makes this movie so classic is the music written and composed by Max Steiner. This is where dramatic film music started. The score expresses the feelings of the characters and the mood of film so well.
There are three musical the themes heard throughout the film: Kong’s theme, Ann’s theme, and an Adventure theme.
The very first notes we hear in the main title are the three notes of Kong’s theme. We also hear the notes again before we even see Kong when the natives have Ann tied up ready to sacrifice to her to him. We know something is coming; the anticipation is building as we wait to get our first glimpse of this massive ape. Throughout the movie when Kong has Ann both his theme and her theme can be heard going back and forth as each shot changes between the characters.
Ann’s theme is interesting, the beginning of the theme the first three notes heard is the Kong notes and then it goes into something different. Ann’s theme is very prominent in the scene where she is being taken up the stairs of the altar to be sacrificed to Kong. As she ascends the music in her theme ascends. As Kong is coming and the natives get excited her theme plays back and forth with the theme of the natives: when the camera pans on her it’s her theme and when the camera pans on the natives it is their theme.
The Adventure Theme first comes in after the crew is sent away by the natives when they arrive on the island. For this scene, the theme is played by a French horn. After Ann is taken by Kong the crew walks through the jungle, the Adventure theme is used as a march.
Besides the themes of Ann, Kong, and the crew the music in the movie Steiner created was genius:
For the first twenty minutes of the movie after the main title there is no music. There are plenty of cuts and fade outs where Steiner could have added music but he didn’t, he most likely figured there is so much music to come when the action arrives that he did not add anything before the island. The first time we hear music after the main title is when the ship first comes upon Skull Island. The music opens up the shot, it makes the island and the shot feel expansive. Drums from the natives playing music can be heard can be heard as the ship moves near the island, this is called source music and Steiner took this source music and fit his score around the source music.
When the crew arrives on the island and are noticed by the natives their music stops. This stopping of the music draws our attention to the scene and the situation before us. It creates a nervous tension we can see the crew is nervous to be on the island and nervous because they do not know what the natives are capable of. The music of the natives movies faster and gets more exciting as the Medicine Man gets more excited.
The music in the scene where Ann is kidnapped by the natives is structured: it starts off nice and calm then when she gets taken there is a spike in the music and then it ends like it began. It fits right with the storyline of the scene.
There is no music when there is screaming and fighting. Both actions are dramatic enough that no music is needed.
The music really kicks up when the crew get closer to Kong’s lair and to Ann. As the men cross the water, Steiner took all the themes and created what is called a dissonance making the sound of the notes all mashed together to create tension. There is up music and down music throughout the scene.
One of the most important aspects of the music in this movie is what is called “Mickey Mousing.” Mickey mousing is when the music is used as sound effects. When the Medicine Man walks over to the crew the music mimics his actions. The Adventure theme is played along to the walking movement of the crew. After the crew wound the dinosaur, Steiner used the tympanum (a type of drum that when can create different ranges with a peddle) as the sound of the animals tail moving up and down.
As I said at the beginning the acting is silly. A lot of the acting techniques were brought over from the silent era like when Jack kisses Ann on the boat, he walks away and she puts her hand on her mouth. Fay Wray (Ann) had some very over dramatic facial expressions and actions going on throughout the whole film just like in silent films. The character Carl Denham has got to be one of the most annoying movie characters ever, his voice and his fast talking got on my nerves the first few minutes of the film.
One of my favorite aspects in old films is how sexist they are. Even before Ann gets on the ship Jack is complaining how he doesn’t think women should be on a ship because according to him they bring too much trouble…. If that isn’t some big foreshadowing I don’t know what is. The whole time she’s on the ship up to the point before she gets kidnapped where they fall in love Jack does nothing but complain (As my film teacher said people fall in love pretty quickly in movies). Old movies were basically written by men with a few exceptions so of course they always put women “in their places”. But hey it’s not her fault if you really look at it: Denham took advantage of Ann needing money and HE INSISTED that there be a woman in his film.
There are quite a few things that got into the film that were quite risqué for the time: Kong pulling off Ann’s clothing and her thighs being seen and Fay Wray obviously not wearing a bra at one point on the boat. These were later added as a “Thou Shall Not” in the Hayes Code… Gotta love pre code Hollywood.
The end of the movie where Kong is brought to New York has some of my favorite music in it. It is typical 1930s fanfare music. The whole ending is just exciting. Seeing Kong in another “jungle” of steel and concrete is exciting and thrilling. The two pilots who get the close ups are the writers Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack.
If you have seen King Kong before and laughed like an idiot watch it again with all seriousness. You will see this movie is very important to film history. The score was the beginning of the scores we hear in movies today. It was the beginning of the progress of special effects. So many things are so important about this movie.
So watch King Kong with new eyes and ears…. And also have a good laugh along the way