King Kong is unique in motion picture history. In the 51 years since its original release, its particular combination of unbridled imagination and ingenious craftsmanship have never been equalled. Not only has it stood the test of time, but King Kong has influenced several generations of writers and filmmakers, including Ray Harryhausen, Ray Bradbury, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas.
King Kong is a work of genius—actually three geniuses: Merian C. Cooper whose brainchild it was; Willis O’Brien, who created and supervised the film’s unsurpassed special effects; and Max Steiner, whose scoring of the picture was a landmark, setting new standards for the use of music in motion pictures. Kong is a testament not only to their abilities but also to the virtues of the much-maligned studio system as a catalytic creative unit. In the half-century since Kong first climbed the Empire State Building into the collective subconscious of moviegoers the world over, the film has become the subject of controversy and intense critical analysis.
Bosley Crowther, long the dean of American film critics, wrote that it has “implications more profound than had ever before been generated in a mere monster or science fiction film.” King Kong is far more than “a mere monster or science fiction film.” It is a fantasy adventure romance of spectacular proportions, a twentieth-century version of the Beauty and the Beast legend and an allegory on the destructive powers of both love and civilization.
Serious discussion was given to various theories: that the film was unconsciously racist; that it was an out-sized sexual fantasy with elaborate analogies explaining Kong’s climbing the Empire State Building as a blatant form of phallic symbolism. The French surrealists saw it as a pristine example of “L’amour Fou”: mad, or doomed love. Cooper, its creator, was alternately amused and disgusted by these theories, maintaining to the end of his life that “Kong was never intended to be anything but the best damned adventure film ever made, which it is; and that’s all it is.”
However, there is a common agreement between both its fans and its detractors: King Kong is among the most watchable American movies ever made. It picks the spectator up and—with sheer technical bravura and unmatched narrative excitement—plunges headlong into a world that only the movies could create: mysterious, suspenseful, thrilling and wonder-inducing. Kong is the fastest 101 minutes on celluloid, and while its love story and some of its staging may seem quaint by today’s standards, there is no denying the breathless pacing and the relentless energy with which the story unfolds.
The world premiere of King Kong took place on Thursday, March 2, 1933 at both the new Radio City Music Hall and the new RKO Roxy Theatre. The durability of Kong was proven over the years by numerous reissues. It was one of the first films to be truly “brought back by popular demand,” although for the 1938 revival, the Production Code Administration, which had not been in existence in 1933, forced RKO to eliminate some of Kong’s more violent and provocative actions. Gone were the stomping and chewing of humans; his methodical peeling off of Fay Wray’s clothes; and his callous disposal of the “wrong” woman in New York. These deletions completely changed the tenor and complexity of the characterization of Kong, giving him a softer, safer quality, removing the graphic, nightmarish aspects of his gleeful mutilation and sometimes casual destruction of individuals.
It was also during the period of these theatrical reissues that the film lost some of its visual luster, as the image was darkened considerably through improper negative handling and laboratory printing inaccuracies, resulting in a substantial loss of detail. For this laserdisc edition, we have made use of the best existing material, both negatives and prints of the film. The bulk of what you will see here was derived from a 35mm negative from the Library of Congress. Use of this negative allowed us to obtain an image that is the equivalent of looking through the camera viewfinder, and we have re-timed almost every shot in the film to obtain the sharpest, brightest, crispest image possible.
The sequences deleted in 1938 were restored in 1969, with restored footage all coming from 16mm prints, so there is considerable difference in both image and sound quality between these scenes and the rest of the film. We have utilized every possible form of electronic enhancement techniques to eliminate scratches, spots and other abrasions inherent in the material. Thus we are confident that even the most critical eye will agree that we have, with this Criterion edition, restored King Kong to its rightful place as one of the visual masterpieces of the 1930’s. This makes it possible for all to see, as never before, the imagination and craftsmanship of Cooper and his coworkers, who achieved the truly remarkable feat of turning an 18-inch toy gorilla into one of the mythic figures of twentieth-century civilization.