King Kong,  RKO Pictures, 1933,
Beauty and the beast

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 55, Summer 2018

Page 14

Young actress is seduced by primitive brute – the story is old, but King Kong gave it a terrifying new twist. Dick Alston tells how the monkey movie scaled the box-office heights

When director Merian C Cooper hinted to budding starlet Fay Wray that she "was going to have the tallest, darkest leading man in Hollywood", Wray assumed – naturally – that he was talking about Cary Grant.

King Kong opened in 1933, at the height of the Great Depression, and the film, despite its tangle of problematic subtexts – colonialism, racism, modernity – was hailed as a classic from the start.

Everyone knows the storyline, but it bears repeating: a rogue filmmaker (Robert Armstrong as a sort of anti-David Attenborough) engages a beautiful but inexperienced actress (Wray) and charters a ship for a mysterious destination, Skull Island. On arrival, it is revealed that the barbarous natives of the foetid isle are engaged in the sinister worship of an enormous gorilla-like creature.

The actress is taken prisoner by the locals and offered up as a mouth-watering sacrifice for Kong, the ape-god of the island. Inexplicably, instead of eating her, this hulking gorilla pin-up – 60,000lbs and 24ft of pure simian sinew – develops an infatuation with the frail blonde scream-siren. He retreats with her into the wild interior of his island stronghold but is eventually subdued and captured by the filmmaker. Shackled in chains, the ape Adonis is taken from the Jungian undergrowth of Skull Island and transported to the ultimate urban jungle: New York.

There, our hero is presented to gawping audiences as the 'Eighth Wonder of the World'. But, driven into a fury by the flashbulbs of photographers, Kong breaks loose. Yet again, he seeks out his reluctant lover, and clasping her in his hairy mitt, Kong scales the Empire State Building. Ever the gentleman, he ensures the safety of his Lilliputian love before tumbling to his death.

The film was dynamite at the box office. Kong took a whopping $89,931 over its opening weekend in Gotham alone – some feat at 25¢ a ticket – and an eventual $4m, making it the highest-grossing film of the 1930s. Indeed, it was so successful that it single-handedly saved RKO from bankruptcy.

Clearly the real star, Kong looms out of the poster, a copy of which will be sold at Bonhams Knightsbridge in July. One of only two known to exist, this poster is based on the production sketches of Mario Larrinaga and Byron Crabbe, and was designed by poster artists S. Barret McCormick and Bob Sisk who created a design that perfectly captured the terror of Wray and the fleeing citizens of New York.

Why does the film remain compelling when its remakes have so often fallen flat? It is partly the sheer brilliance of the effects, partly Wray's ephemeral beauty. But the real magic of the original is the glimpse it gives of America, like Kong, caught mid-ascent on its way to the top – all the tension and expectation of the country writ large, projected onto the flickering big screen.

In the gathering around Kong's crumpled body, Armstrong delivers the immortal line, "It wasn't the aeroplanes. It was Beauty that killed the Beast." One could argue, however, that it was the Beast that killed Wray's burgeoning career – like her character, she would never be able to escape that smothering giant paw.

Dick Alston is a freelance writer and journalist.

Sale: Entertainment Memorabilia
Knightsbridge, London
Wednesday 18 July at 12pm
Enquiries: Claire Tole-Moir +44 (0) 20 7393 3984

  1. Claire Tole-Moir
    Montpelier Street
    London, United Kingdom SW7 1HH
    Work +44 020 7393 3984

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