(This is the 40th of 50 pieces that originally appeared in a Facebook group devoted to three of us choosing our 50 favorite movies. I’ll present them un-edited except for typos or egregious errors. I’ll also add a post-script to each.)
Each generation, it seems, gets their own Kong. There is something elemental about the story that grabs our attention. People of my generation, who grew up watching the original on TV when we were kids, hated the 70s remake because it was not King Kong as it lived in our nostalgic remembrances. But later generations, sitting around watching TV, saw that remake much as we saw the original, as something that was on seemingly every couple of months. When Peter Jackson’s version came along, the audience compared it, not to 1933 and Fay Wray, but to the 1970s and Jessica Lange. We all got our own Kong, influenced by what had come before.
Kong may have lacked a penis (although he did have the Empire State Building), but it was always clear that even if he did have an appendage, it wasn’t going to do him a whole lot of good with Fay Wray. What wasn’t a joke was the effect the pre-Code Wray had on many young boys who saw the film on television in the 1960s (even though the version shown in those days was missing the scene where Kong peels off Wray’s clothes). Wray was indeed sexier than pretty much anything else on television at the time, but it was already a nostalgic sexiness, something that had taken place long ago, before most of those boys were born.
Race is complicated in King Kong. On the one hand, you have stereotypical representations of primitive natives. On the other hand, Kong is the baddest black man on the planet; his ultimate demise is a metaphor for the oppression of people of color. (The 1970s version makes this more explicit, including a sequence of the trip from the island to New York, which did not appear in the original. In that version, seeing Kong jailed at the bottom of the ship makes clear the connection between the story of Kong and the story of slavery.) In fact, the 1933 King Kong has it both ways: it reinforces both the white audience’s assumptions about race and sexuality, and the black audience’s assumptions about representations of race and sexuality in mainstream (i.e. “white”) culture. What gives this King Kong its potentially subversive subtext is that by the end of the film, the white audience has come to sympathize with Kong. He begins as whites’ worst nightmare, but with that sympathizing, the door is cracked open to give that audience a sense of what their assumptions mean to those who are stereotyped. The film gives no sign of “white guilt,” but the ending, and the identification of the white audience with Kong, introduces white guilt nonetheless.
When I place King Kong this high on my list, I am succumbing to my pre-teen self, the one who couldn’t imagine anything more sexy than pre-Code Fay Wray. I certainly never thought about any of the above in those days. But watching it today, I can barely think of anything else. Well, Fay Wray is still pretty damn sexy.
The comments section consisted of a bunch of us reminiscing about our favorite horror and monster movies from our youths.