Filmmaker Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) is known for his exotic wildlife films and has a new project in mind. He charters a ship called the Venture, under Captain Englehorn, and has an entire film crew, but he is looking for a special actress for the lead role. In the streets of New York, during the depression, he finds Ann Darrow (Fay Wray), who is down and out and desperate for a job. He promises her fame and adventure.

The ship sails and the first mate, Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot) is superstitiously reluctant to have a female on board, but he quickly falls in love with her. Denham reveals that they are sailing to Skull Island, in uncharted territory of the Pacific Ocean, in search of a mysterious personage named Kong. They anchor offshore and discover a native village clustered about a huge door in an ancient stone wall. A young woman is about to be sacrificed to their god as the Bride of Kong, but when the Chief (Noble Johnson) sees the blonde and exotic Ann, he offers to trade six women for her. They refuse his offer and return to the ship.

That night, the natives kidnap Ann, take her through the gate and tie her to an altar. Denham, Jack, and volunteers rush in to save her as she is taken away by a huge gorilla. They pursue the beast through the jungle, encountering a stegosaurus and a Brontosaurus and Kong himself. Only Jack and Denham survive. Kong battles a T-Rex who is after Ann, in what is still one of the great fight scenes in movies, and the T-Rex is killed. Denham returns to the ship for men and weapons, and Jack goes on alone deeper into the jungle after Ann.

 At Kong’s clifftop lair, Ann is threatened by an Elasmosaurus and a Pteranodon. As Kong is busy with them. Jack grabs Ann and they descend the cliff on a line. They run, pursued by Kong, to the village. Kong smashes open the gate and decimates the village, but Denham drops him with a gas bomb. The creature is taken away in chains.

He is presented to a Broadway audience in a grand theater, chained like the beast they believe him to be. When he mistakes the photographers’ flashbulbs for an attack on Ann, he breaks the chains and Ann is hustled away to a hotel room, but he rampages through the city in search of her, wrecking an elevated train, smashing cars, grabbing a woman he thinks might be Ann and tossing her to her death when she is not. Finally, he grabs her from the hotel room and climbs the new Empire State Building. He is attacked by four fighter planes and destroys one but is gravely wounded. He takes a last look at Ann and falls to his death. It wasn’t the airplanes that got him, Denham says, it was Beauty killed the Beast.

The film was directed and produced by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, from a script by James Ashmore Creel and Ruth Rose, based on an idea by Cooper and Edgar Wallace. It is filled with the brilliant stop-motion animation of Willis O’Brien and a great, evocative musical score by Max Steiner. It was met by rave reviews and  became the beginning of a King Kong franchise that stretched into the next millennium. It is one of the most beloved movies of all time, and was re-released in 1938, 1942, 1946, 1952, and 1956. The last release was the one I saw in a drive-in with my father at the age of eleven, which changed my life. The film was greenlit after the runaway success of Ingagi (1970), which was about African women being used for sex by apes. It was not only a bogus story, it was incredibly racist. There are said to be copies in the Library of Congress, but hopefully they will never be seen.

Fay Wray was a Canadian actress relegated to bit parts in Hollywood, who beat out Dorothy Jordan, Jean Harlow, and Ginger Rogers for the part. She had been told she would be acting opposite the tallest, darkest leading man in Hollywood, and she thought they meant Clark Gable. When she died in 2004, at the age of 97, the lights of the Empire State Building were dimmed. Jack Driscoll was Bruce Cabot’s first starring role. He famously stated that he just stood in the right place, did what he was told, and picked up a paycheck. The director, producer, and many of the actors cut their teeth on The Most Dangerous Game. Cooper’s film about travellers shipwrecked on an island of dinosaurs, called Creation and using the stop-motion artistry of O’Brien was financially out of control and scrapped, but reincarnated as King Kong.

Scriptwriter Ruth Rose (Schoedsack’s wife) did re-writes and was responsible for many of the best ideas in the script. She had never written a screenplay before. For example, she eliminated a long voyage taking Kong to New York with a simple jump-cut from Kong’s capture to his appearance on Broadway. Two of the armatures for Kong’s model survived. One sold for $200,000 and the other is owned by Peter Jackson. The fight between Kong and the T-Rex took seven weeks to film. Merian C. Cooper and Ernst Schoedsack had wrestled and boxed in their youth, and they acted out the Kong/T-Rex fight-scene for the effects crew. They also played the pilots who shot down Kong from the Empire State Building. Basically, most of the animation techniques were invented on the fly. Matte-paintings, rear-screen projection, miniatures—everything but a man in a gorilla suit. Ray Harryhausen, who was assisting, said that Willis O’Brien’s wife recognized much of her husband in Kong.

The wall came from Cecil B. DeMille’s The King of Kings and was later destroyed for Gone with the Wind. The jungle sets came from The Most Dangerous Game. RKO did not want an original film-score, so Cooper paid Max Steiner out of his own pocket and was later reimbursed. The score was a significant change in movie music. Some scenes were cut by the production code, mostly deaths at the hands of Kong or dinosaurs, and famously, Kong removing Fay Wray’s dress. Of course, somebody kept all these scenes and they were later restored. But the scene in which the crew are devoured alive by creepy-crawlies was lost forever, and Peter Jackson, in his remake, had to imagine his own. The film was banned in Nazi Germany, but was a favorite of Hitler. It inspired both The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and Godzilla, as creator Tomoyuki Tanaka admitted.

Kong on the Empire State Building surrounded by airplanes was the first scene in the movie that Meriam C. Cooper visualized, as a child, and the rest developed from there. Cooper grew up next to an elevated railway and wanted to put in a scene about it. His excuse was that there were thirteen reels and that was unlucky, so he added another. The technique used for Kong’s removal of Fay Wray’s dress was invented by Cooper and Willis O’Brien, but they forgot to patent it. Willis O’Brien had worked for Thomas Edison. O’Brien added six hours of work so the T-Rex could scratch his head. The story is that the audience was so shocked by the deaths in the bug-pit that they stopped to talk about it, and Cooper cut it out himself. Another story says that the audience laughed at a bug-eyed monster. A third says that the scene was never actually made because it would surely have been cut.