The Bigger and Badder Halloween Top 13 #2: King Kong (1933)/King Kong (1976)

For the penultimate entry on The Bigger and Badder Halloween Top 13, I am including two films in the same slot. Not only because they share a single title, but also because they both share distinct, though differing, views of a classic tale. The two films, as I'm sure you have already noticed are the original King Kong from 1933 and the remake from 1976. What you won't find is any further mention of Peter Jackson’s indulgent, bloated remake from 2005 because it’s a lot of old bleh, and the less said about it the better. On the other hand, the original King Kong is a triumph of screen trickery, acting, filmmaking, and story, and the ’76 remake updates the formula, the drive, and the symbolism of the tale for a modern age. Both films are still entirely as relevant today as when they were made, and I'm sure these two occasions will not be the only times this classic tragedy will be brought to the cinema. So come with me as I roll the screen on two classic monster movies, and discuss the creature known as the Eighth Wonder of the World.

The original King Kong is in many ways a film about the ambition of the cinema and the inherent exploitation involved in the process. Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) is a film producer known for his elaborate films filled with strange peoples in native lands. Now he’s looking for something better than ever. The themes of exploitation start nearly from the beginning of the film as Carl goes out to find a starlet for his new picture. He’s out checking ladies shelters and wandering the streets when he helps out petty crook Ann (Faye Wray) and convinces her she'll have a shot at stardom if she takes an ocean voyage with him. Before he even sets sail, the audience knows Denham is sleazy and likely to do anything and endanger anyone to get his film. Of course, that is exactly what happens as Ann becomes the target for Kong, the giant ape next on Denham’s list of the exploited. It is hard not to talk about the racial undertones of Kong, but I am going to let those who already have (and have much better than I) pursue that path.

Relatively little of the action in King Kong (1933) happens off of Skull Island despite the New York sequence being the most memorable moments in the zeitgeist. Kong is taken to New York to be shown on Broadway, with Ann, though obviously both have their own misgivings about being a performer in such context. He is displayed in a fashion that brings to mind the expositions of freaks and oddities that P.T. Barnum had been hawking in the Big Apple less than a half a century beforehand. Kong represents and unknowable mystery, and when faced with such a thing, often the impetuous is not understanding, but rather, profit. While certainly Merian C. Cooper and Edgar Wallace might not have intentionally placed such a rich tapestry of social, political, and economic symbolism into Kong, it certainly is a film which has become a classic due to the richness of interpretation. The film spoke to fears of race, immigration, corporate greed, public safety, and more while still maintaining its main facet as an adventure tale with a monstrous ending.

While 1976’s King Kong simplifies or outright ignores issues brought to mind with the 1933 version, it takes a page out of the King playbook and adapts its mission to the times. This time out, the film producer is replaced with an oil executive, right in the midst of the great oil shortage of the late ’70s. Fred Wilson, played with despicable arrogance by the king of despicable arrogance Charles Grodin, had his eye on Skull Island due to vast deposits of crude he believes he will find there. Stowaway paleontologist Jack Prescott (Jeff Bridges) replaces the nay saying sailor from the original film as he is the unheard voice of reason, and  Fay Wray’s homeless girl Ann who was just looking for her big break becomes Jessica Lang’s shipwrecked ingĂ©nue Dwan found floating in the ocean after an unexplained explosion on a yacht.  With an over two hour running time, the remake does dispense with the dinosaurs also living on Skull Island (weakly replacing them with a snake fight), but it takes more time building a love triangle between Dwan, Jack and Kong as well as delivering a screed against corporate greed which is the main thrust of King Kong ‘76. When Fred can't bring home the big strike, he brings home the big ape to be a mascot for the brand. This portrayal, that corporations will destroy nature, despite its usefulness to them, is a major theme that comes up in this version, and it is a theme that was on many minds in the 1970s.

Clearly, 1933’s King Kong is the better picture. Not only did it practically invent the wheel as giant monsters go, including the incredible special effects work of Willis O’Brien, and set the bar for all creature features to come (really only to be matched by my number one pick), it is also a seamless masterpiece from the classic era of Hollywood. 1976’s King Kong comes close. By updating the story to the modern era and some (and I do mean some) deft work by special effects master Carlo Rimbaldi (and Rick Baker in a monkey suit), the remake brings the story into the world of late 70s America across the board. Both features benefited from having directors who were already steeped in genre film. Ernest B. Schoedsack, like his co-director and partial creator of Kong Merian C. Cooper, went uncredited on the screen, but there is no doubt in my mind he pushed a visual style for the film. His previous films, The Most Dangerous Game and The Four Feathers, were both adventure epics, wide in scope and dynamic. He was the perfect pick to capture the feeling of Skull Island and its inhabitants. The remake of King Kong benefited from director John Guillermin’s steady, experienced hand. Guillermin’s resume included a pair of Tarzan films, dog fighting classic The Blue Max, Blaxploitation sequel Shaft in Africa, and the big budget disaster flick The Towering Inferno. He clearly knew how to shoot action, pathos, and make a movie with a subtle, but interesting, message. The experience of these genre film directors with material meant simply to entertain gives both films a chance to breathe in what could be a heavy handed narrative.

Fay Wray and Jessica Lang both make for striking paramours for King Kong, but their characters could not be more different. Wray’s Ann is the picture of revulsion, and, while Kong receives the audience’s sympathy in his final frames, Ann never comes around to seeing the monkey’s charm. Lane’s Dwan, on the other hand, wants to protect the ape by the time the climax rolls around. The same dichotomy could be seen though Daniels’ hippieish professor in the remake as opposed to Bruce Cabot’s hard as nails sailor as the protector of the damsels in distress. The only character that really stays the same is Carl Denham and Fred Wilson as played by Robert Armstrong and Charles Grodin. Denham and Wilson are both vile opportunists, despite the fact that their path and drive are completely different. They are both exploiters, and that is the linchpin upon which the King Kong movies turn. Kong must be exploited, and it takes men like Denham and Wilson to do it. Armstrong does come off with his character seeming clueless, disgusting, but not completely without merit. Charles Grodin plays Fred Wilson the way he plays everything, like the worst person you have ever met. It may just be me, but I hate Charles Grodin because I always loathe his characters. Maybe I can’t separate actor from the role, but damn, he seems like such an asshole.

I could go on and compare the scores (both excellent), the cinematography (better in the original), and hash out details of minor characters, but at the end of the day, the two King Kongs (Three if you must count that one) are films that could be endlessly debated and compared. Let’s just suffice it to say that I adore both of these pictures. However, I will admit that King Kong ‘76 holds the pair out of the number one slot because of the monkey suit. While it added extra layers of character for Kong and the original Ape was a hair off of being a racist caricature, it just looks so much worse than Willis’ original animation at some points. It’s also a little weird when Kong ascends the World Trade Center in the remake instead of the Empire State which is what I always expect. For these minor reasons, King Kong ‘76 rates a full step under its original brethren, but I felt like I had to have both on the list. That leaves us with only one movie left on the countdown, and I can’t believe this month is done. The 31 posts in 31 days was more work than I even remembered it being, but capping it all off with the Bigger and Better and all the great support and comments from you folks has made it all worth it. Make sure you scroll on down to find the list I traditionally place at the number 2 position, my number one best pal, Ms. Fran Goria.

Bugg Rating
King Kong 1933

King Kong 1976

What can I say about Fran Goria? She’s my best pal, my partner in crime, my horror movie maven, the biggest Vincent Price fan I know, and incredible cook, a man’s girl, and a girl’s gal. Apart from my wife, there’s no one I like to spend time with more, and there is no one (including my wife) I would rather spend an afternoon watching something craptastic with. So, in a nutshell, she’s the best, and here’s her list. Take it away, Fran. 

 1- GODZILLA- I've never met one I didn't love!
2- ATTACK OF THE 50 FOOT WOMAN- Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned...especially if she's 50 foot tall!
3- THE HOST- One giant mutant monster, one Korean family, one hell of a good film!
4- TREMORS- Kevin Bacon and Reba McEntire in a small desert town terrorized by giant people-eating worms...a good time to be had by all!
5- EIGHT LEGGED FREAKES- David Arquette, giant spiders, ands campy goodness!

Short and sweet, and there’s only one flick I see on there that could have come in at number 1. Yes, folks, come by tomorrow to check my review of Eight Legged Freaks. Ooops, I let the cat out of the bag. Spoiler Alert. Just kidding, it’s really Attack of the Killer Tomatoes.  Don’t believe me? You’ll see tomorrow as Halloween 


  1. I was never a big fan of the 1976 Kong...I remember it being too jokey by half. The 1933 version is, as you say, almost perfect. I got to see it on the big screen a few years ago, and would recommend anyone who has the chance do the same. It's meant to be larger than live.

    And I hate to be "that guy" (though I probably won't be the only one), but Dwan was not played by Diane Lane, but Jessica Lange--in her film debut, if memory serves. :)

  2. Vicar, I'm sure it says Jessica Lange. I feel positive. (Hah thanks for being "that guy" that's what happens when you do 31 posts in 31 days. The synapses stop firing right.)

    I say give King Kong 76 another shot. The effects are problematic as I mentioned, but the undertones and themes of the film are very strong.

  3. The best king kong move is the 1976 the best ever


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