English 20-1: King Kong Movie Unit

Mr. Steel

 

Overview

All students in grade 11 English are required by Alberta Learning to engage in a unit of movie analysis and interpretation. This term, our class will be studying the first-ever blockbuster movie King Kong (1933). Students will examine the movie on its own merits; however, we will also study the movie in light of the socio-economic realities of the Great Depression, racial stereotyping, and growing societal tensions between mythic-religious understandings and scientific-technological mastery of the world. The movie will also be investigated for its impact upon the future of movie animation, horror and adventure films.

 

Work and Assessment

 

A. Students will write a multiple-choice Movie Terminology Test. This test will evaluate their understanding of terms relevant to film studies; there will also be some comprehension questions on the movie itself, and how some of these terms may help us to understand King Kong.

 

Movie Terminology Test

30%

 

B. Every student will research and develop a Movie Project on King Kong. Student projects may be done individually, or in groups of up to three. Movie Projects will respond to ONE of the prescribed thematic questions listed below. All projects ought to be thoroughly researched, accurately proofread, and carefully assembled. Projects ought to include textual analysis as well as visual aids where appropriate.

 

Movie Project

30%

 

C. Students will present their movie project to the class. Projects presentations will be assessed for their thoroughness in the analysis of themes, as well as for their effectiveness in oral communication. The use of visuals, audio and/or multi-media is encouraged.

 

Movie Presentation

30%

 

D. Students will respond to a movie review of the 2005 version of King Kong that compares it with the 1976 and 1933 versions. In short analytic prose (500 words or 2 double spaced typed/handwritten pages), students will answer the questions: "To what is King Kong a timeless figure? To what extent are the three King Kong movies products of their time?"

 

Media analysis assignment

10%

 

 


Topics for the Thematic Study of King Kong

 

1. Beauty and the Beast: The film begins with the title card from an Old Arabian Proverb: "And the Prophet said, 'And lo, the beast looked upon the face of beauty. And it stayed its hand from killing. And from that day, it was as one dead.'" What is the significance of this proverb? Research the Jungian archetype of "Beauty and the Beast." What is the meaning and significance of this archetype in literature and cinema? Find specific examples from literature, cinema, and/or music. Compare and contrast these examples with King Kong. Why does the relation between beauty and beastliness have a timeless appeal to human beings?

 

2. King Kong through Cinematic History: Watch all three King Kong movies -- King Kong (Merian Cooper 1933), King Kong (John Guillermin 1976), and King Kong (Peter Jackson 2005). Discuss each of the three movies in depth: What did you like? What did you dislike? What was changed and what remained the same throughout each of the movies? Why do you think these changes were made? Which of the three is the best movie, in your opinion, and why?

 

3. King Kong (1933) and the "Scopes Monkey Trial" (1925): Ann Darrow (played by Fay Wray) is meant by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack to evoke the name of Clarence Darrow, head of the defence team in the "Scopes Monkey Trial." Just as this trial (concerning the teaching of evolution rather than creationism in schools in the United States) was the most publicized trial of all times, so too was King Kong the first great blockbuster movie of all times. Research the "Scopes Monkey Trial" and Clarence Darrow's part in it. Why would Cooper and Schoedsack wish to hearken moviegoers back to this trial? Why would the leading female character be named after the leading member of the defence, who fought (and failed) to protect the rights of teachers to teach and students to be taught about evolution? What does King Kong suggest is the relationship between human beings, "monkeys," and the mythical or fantastic?

 

4. Kong as Monster: The word "monster" is derived from the Latin root, monstrare, meaning "to warn." Monsters are therefore literally "warnings" to human beings. Monsters appear when we over-step natural/supernatural boundaries, when we cross a sacred, moral line between good and evil, or when we act in a way that demonstrates overweening pride, or hubris. Examine the monster Kong in the original 1933 classic. How is Kong typical as such a monster? What does Kong warn the characters about in the movie? What natural boundaries have human beings violated in the movie? How have human beings behaved pridefully in the movie? How might Kong the monster be a "warning" to the audience and society in general, and therefore act symbolically as a "real" monster (i.e., not simply a warning to the characters in the movie about their own missteps and overweening pride)?

 

5. The Conquest of Nature: By 1933, most of the earth's surface had been "discovered" and conquered by European civilization. Indeed, director Merian C. Cooper was himself a world adventurer who sought to leave his own stamp or imprint upon the world, and to fashion the world in his own image. The mastery of the planet by European civilization was no accident; it was brought about by science and technology. Examine the manner in which the conquest of nature through technology appears as a major theme in King Kong. What does the desire of Carl Denham to conquer the last untamed wonder of the world suggest about the folly of human pride and the mastery of nature? What message does King Kong ultimately offer viewers concerning those elements of human and non-human nature that lie beyond civilization?

 

6. Civilization and the Majesty of Savagery: Kong is, indeed, King of his domain on Skull Island. However, when Kong is captured and brought to New York City, Kong is no longer king. All the forces of civilization conspire to regicide: to the murder of a great king. Explore the juxtaposition of civilization and savagery in the 1933 classic, where we see Kong, the King of all that is untamed and wild in the world, fall to his death from the symbol of modern civilization at the time -- the tallest building in the world; namely, the Empire States Building. What is the meaning of this juxtaposition? What is the film suggesting about civilization, on the one hand, and the untamed, uncivilized world, on the other?

 

7. King Kong as Tragedy? The death of Kong is perhaps one of the most heart-rending sequences in movie history. Tragedy is neither information about particular events, nor is it merely amusing or heart-wrenching fiction. Modern day "tragedies" such as highway accidents or genocidal wars are not tragedies per se. Their ugliness and suffering are tremendous, even earth-shattering, and our minds stretch out with questions about why such evils are permitted to exist in the world. Any adolescent, any parent or teacher, can experience these intimately human feelings dramatically at the movie theatre, through story, music, art, or literature. However, these experiences of suffering fall short of the tragic experience insofar as they do not pin the individual in an impossible bind, where acting for justice involves tremendous suffering for justice. As an art form, tragedy may be properly defined as the study of the human soul in the process of making decisions. Tragic thought is "deep" thought or "deep" knowing insofar as it is fundamentally concerned with justice -- not the lawyer's justice according to the law, but a search for that ground of justice, that justice beyond law into which the soul, suffering its tensions, must descend. Tragedy only arises when law is no longer viewed as an adequate guide for decisions in a concrete situation. Examine King Kong as an example of tragedy in both the modern and the original sense of the word. How might the downfall of Kong be viewed as tragic in the modern sense? Is it possible to find a deeper meaning to the events surrounding Kong's death that corresponds to the truly tragic vision of the world described above? Explain why or why not.

 

8. King Kong as the First Blockbuster: Research the impact of King Kong as a box-office smash. Find statistics on King Kong and translate these into present-day box-office figures. Why is the financial success of the movie so astonishing? Search the historical record concerning why King Kong was so successful. Why did so many people want to see it? What did the movie-going public think of it? What did movie reviewers of the day say about it? What do current movie historians say about King Kong? How many times afterwards was the movie concept of King Kong adapted? Name and discuss some. Why did these copies fail so miserably?

 

9. King Kong and the Birth of Animation: Research the technology and film techniques used to create the original movie. Who was Willis O'Brien, and what was so innovative about his work in King Kong? Discuss in detail how O'Brien went about transforming his 18-inch tall gorilla doll into the "eighth wonder of the world"? Research how O'Brien's work in King Kong has affected movie animation and special effects ever since.

 

10. The Great Depression: Do some research on the Great Depression. What was life like? How hard was it for people to just "get by" let alone go to the movies? How much more significant is it that the box office smash King Kong debuted in 1933, at the height of the Great Depression? Finally, if a movie is in some respects a product of its times, how might King Kong be a product of the Great Depression? How might the ethos of the movie (its struggles, its storyline, its depiction of greatness) reflect the understanding of society in the 1930's?

 


Thematic Introductions to King Kong (1933)

Technical Innovations in Film

This remarkable film received no Academy Awards nominations, but it would have won in the Special Effects category if there had been such a category. The film contained many revolutionary technical innovations for its time (rear projection, miniature models about 18 inches in height, and trick photography, etc.), and some of the most phenomenal stop-motion animation sequences and special effects ever filmed by chief technician, Willis O'Brien. O'Brien's Kong was, in reality, an 18" rubber model covered with rabbit fur. The process of "stop motion animation" was painstakingly slow; it took 24 individual still frames in order to create just one second of movement. One minute of filming could take 100 hours to produce! But O'Brien was meticulous in his concern to make Kong's movements realistic; through great effort and revolutionary film editing, Kong was transformed from a miniature rabbit-skinned doll into a larger-than-life personality.

While the stop-motion technique had been around for over a decade, O'Brien was able to combine it with other techniques, such as rear projection and miniature projection, to place the actors in the shots with Kong in a way not seen before. In rear projection, previously shot footage is projected onto a translucent screen from the rear while additional action is photographed in front of the screen. This allows a model Tyrannosaurus Rex to menace Fay Wray as she sits in a full, sized tree in front of the screen.

Rear projection had been done before, but this was the first time a cellulose-aceate screen was used. Earlier efforts had used sand-blasted glass to achieve the effect, but this limited the size of the surface of the screen. The glass screen also had a noticeable "hot spot" in the center of the projection and was a danger should it break during production. The cellulose screen was flexible and stretched over a frame like canvas. It also reduced the "hot spot" by 50 percent while giving better white highlights and intense blacks. Sidney Saunders, who invented the new screen, earned a special award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for the scenes shot in Kong with this process.

Miniature projection reversed the rear projection technique allowing full-sized actors to appear on the miniature set. In one memorable sequence Bruce Cabot, the male lead, hides in a cave just below the top of a cliff. The Kong model reaches over the edge of the cliff to grope for him in the cave. Cabot was actually filmed earlier in a full sized cave, then projected from the rear onto a small screen just beyond the mouth of the cave on the miniature set. As the modellers photographed each frame of Kong's actions, they moved the film of Cabot ahead one frame also, giving the illusion of a small man hiding from an enormous ape.

In addition to rear and miniature projection, an improved form of optical processing, using a blue screen behind actors to allow them to be matted into other footage was used with Kong. Variations on these techniques were used in almost every monster film until the advent of computerized image processing in the 1990's.

A number of full-sized props were also used, including an articulated eight foot long ape hand in which Fay Wray was photographed and a gigantic head and chest which was used to show actors being crunched in Kong's jaws. The latter footage was so graphic that it was removed from the picture before release in 1933 and was only restored recently to video copies.

 


The Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925

The "Scopes Trial" of 1925 pitted against each other lawyers William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow (the latter representing teacher John T. Scopes) in an American court case that tested a law passed on March 13, 1925, which forbade the teaching, in any state-funded educational establishment in Tennessee, of "any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals". This is often interpreted as meaning that the law forbade the teaching of any aspect of the theory of evolution. It has often been called the "Scopes Monkey Trial".

 

Butler Act

At issue was the Butler Act, which had been passed a few months earlier by the Tennessee General Assembly. The Butler Act provided:

"... that it shall be unlawful for any teacher in any of the Universities, Normals and all other public schools of the State which are supported in whole or in part by the public school funds of the State, to teach any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals".

At the time, the theory of evolution was still a somewhat controversial idea even within scientific circles, and many of its detractors often linked it with atheism.

 

Testing the Butler Act

The ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) had offered to defend anyone accused of teaching the theory of evolution in defiance of the Butler Act. George Rappelyea, who managed a number of local mines, convinced a group of businessmen in Dayton, Tennessee, then a town of 1,800, that the controversy of such a trial would put Dayton on the map. With their agreement, he called in his friend, 24-year-old John T. Scopes, who was the Rhea County High School's football coach who had substituted for the principal in a science class.

Rappelyea pointed out that while the Butler Act prohibited the teaching of the theory of evolution, the state required teachers to use a textbook - Hunter's Civic Biology - which explicitly described and endorsed the theory of evolution, and that teachers were therefore effectively required to break the law. Scopes could not actually remember having covered the section on evolution in Hunter's textbook, but he told the group "If you can prove that I've taught evolution and that I can qualify as a defendant, then I'll be willing to stand trial."

 

Textbook in question

Although Hunter's Civic Biology was primarily a biology textbook, it reflected a marked bias towards eugenics - hence the use of the word "Civic" in the title. Indeed, part of the text was in fact authored by Charles Davenport, director of the Eugenics Record Office, a privately funded research organization. This was one of the main issues which fueled Bryan's opposition to evolutionary thought.

The text supported the notion of the inherent superiority of the white race, and promoted a eugenics-oriented policy as a means of eliminating the "genetically inferior" members of society:

"We do have the remedy of separating the sexes in asylums or other places and in various ways of preventing intermarriage and the possibilities of perpetuating such a low and degenerate race. Remedies of this sort have been tried successfully in Europe and are now meeting with success in this country."

Scopes was charged with having taught from the chapter on evolution to a class at the high school on April 24, 1925 in violation of the Butler Act.

 

Trial

Three-time Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan and fundamentalist Christian acted as that the prosecution's counsel. In response, Clarence Darrow, a staunch agnostic, volunteered his services to the defense. The trial was covered by journalists from around the world. The "Scopes Monkey Trial" was the first U.S. trial to be broadcast on national radio. The prosecution and defense attacked each other fiercely. Bryan, correctly gauging the effect the session was having, snapped that its purpose was "to cast ridicule on everybody who believes in the Bible." Darrow, with equal vehemence, retorted, "We have the purpose of preventing bigots and ignoramuses from controlling the education of the United States." After eight days of trial, it took the jury only nine minutes to deliberate. Scopes was found guilty on July 21 and ordered to pay a US$100 fine. Bryan offered to pay it. It continued to be legal to ban teachings concerning evolution in schools. Not until 1968 did the US Supreme Court rule in Epperson vs. Arkansas 393 U.S. 97 (1968) that such bans contravene the Establishment Clause because their primary purpose is religious.

 

Publicity and drama

The press coverage of the "Monkey" Trial was overwhelming. The front pages of newspapers like the New York Times were dominated by the case for days. More than a hundred newspaper reporters from all parts of the country and two from London were in Dayton. Twenty two telegraphers sent out 165,000 words a day on the trial. Chicago's WGN radio station broadcast the trial with announcer Quin Ryan via clear channel broadcasts for the first on-the-scene coverage of a criminal trial. Two movie cameramen had their film flown out daily in a small plane from a specially prepared airstrip. H. L. Mencken's trial reports were heavily slanted against the prosecution and the jury which was "unanimously hot for Genesis." He mocked the town's inhabitants as "yokels" and "morons". He called Bryan a "buffoon" and his speeches "theologic bilge". In contrast, he called the defense "eloquent" and "magnificent". Some evolutionists have claimed that Mencken's trial reports turned public opinion against creationism, though few people seem to have actually noticed this at the time.

 

Humor and the Scopes Trial

Anticipating that Scopes would be found guilty, the press fitted the defendant for martyrdom and created an onslaught of ridicule. Time's initial coverage of the trial focused on Dayton as "the fantastic cross between a circus and a holy war." Life adorned its masthead with monkeys reading books and proclaimed "the whole matter is something to laugh about." Hosts of cartoonists added their own portrayals to the attack. Overwhelmingly, the butt of these jokes was the prosecution and those aligned with it: Bryan, the city of Dayton, the state of Tennessee, and the entire South, as well as Fundamentalist Christians and anti-evolutionists.

 

 

Censorship in King Kong

The following scenes for the 1938 re-release, that were excised by censors after the Production Code took effect in 1934, were restored in recent editions of the film:

      the Brontosaurus' killing of three victims (instead of five in the original)

      the giant spider scene

      Kong's stripping/peeling of Fay Wray's clothing while holding her unconscious in his palm

      Kong's chewing of a New York victim and his drop of a woman from the Empire State Building

 

King Kong as the First Blockbuster

King Kong opened on March 2, 1933, at the height of the Great Depression. When it was released, the movie broke all previous box-office records. Its massive, money-making success helped to save RKO Studios from bankruptcy. King Kong had the most successful opening weekend of the time. This was in an age when there weren't 2000 theatres ready to show the film all at once.  In fact, when Kong premiered at two of New York's biggest movie houses (Radio City Music Hall and the Roxy, with 10 000 seats between them), it was considered extravagant.   At ten shows a day, the film grossed $90,000.  The amount seems a pittance, but when you consider the average ticket price was a mere 15 cents at the time, that would translate to a $5.4 Million opening in with today's $9 average cost.  And again, this was the gross from TWO THEATRES, during the Great Depression, a time when nobody had any money to spare!

 

King Kong Trivia

In the 1933 version of King Kong, Cooper and co-director Ernest B. Schoedsack appear at the end piloting the plane that finally finishes off Kong. Cooper reportedly said ""we should kill the sonofabitch ourselves." Who better to assign the task of killing King Kong than the two men who'd created him? Producer Merian C. Cooper is at the stick and director Ernest B. Schoedsack mans the Lewis gun.


A Brief Look at Merian C. Cooper's Life as the Creator of King Kong

 

American volunteers, Merian C. Cooper and Cedric Fauntleroy, fighting in the Kosciuszko Squadron of the Polish Air Force.

American volunteers, Merian C. Cooper and Cedric Fauntleroy, fighting in the Kosciuszko Squadron of the Polish Air Force.

 

Merian Caldwell Cooper (1893-1973), the creator of King Kong, was also an American aviator and adventurer. Cooper entered the U.S. Naval Academy in 1915, but left in his senior year. In 1916, he joined the Georgia National Guard to help chase Pancho Villa in Mexico. Pancho Villa was one of the foremost leaders of the Mexican Revolution, and in 1916, he led 1,500 Mexican raiders in a cross-border attack against the United States. American President Woodrow Wilson responded by sending 6,000 troops to Mexico to pursue Villa in what became known as the Pancho Villa Expedition. During the search, the United States launched its first air combat mission with eight airplanes. The U.S. expedition was eventually called off as a failure, and Villa successfully escaped. Even today, Villa is remembered as a folk hero in Mexico. Besides his involvement in the Mexican expedition, Cooper was also a bomber pilot during World War I. He was shot down and captured by the Germans, and served out the remainder of the war in a POW camp.

Soon after WWI ended, Cooper became a member of a volunteer American flight squadron, the Kosciuszko Squadron, which supported the Polish Army in the Polish-Soviet War. In 1920, his plane was shot down yet again. This time, he spent nearly 9 months in a Soviet prisoner of war camp. He escaped just before the war was over and made it to Latvia. He received the highest Polish military decoration, the Virtuti Militari.

By the time WWII began, Cooper was already old enough to be exempt from military service. However, he enlisted anyway. He became a colonel in the US Army Air Force in Asia and China, and he served as chief of staff for General Claire Chennault of the Flying Tigers. Leading many missions and carefully planning them to minimize loss of life, he was known for his hard work and relentless planning. At the end of the war, he was promoted to Brigadier General. Cooper's extensive flying experience also made him a pioneer in aviation. He was a member of the board of TWA for decades and a pioneer founder in using airplanes.

Cooper started his film career with documentaries, which combined real footage with staged sequences. In Chang (1927), he used this technique to create a memorable finale featuring an elephant stampede. He led movie production for RKO Pictures before and after WWII. Throughout his career, Cooper was a proponent of technical innovation. The film King Kong, which he co-wrote, co-directed and appeared in, was a breakthrough in this regard. Additionally, Cooper helped pave the way for such ground-breaking technologies as Technicolor and wide screen Cinerama. Cooper was the first major Hollywood producer to embrace the revolutionary new 3-color Technicolor system.

 


The Fay Wray Memorial Fountain in Cardston, Alberta

Willis O'Brien animating Kong model

 

Fay Wray, the Actress who Plays Anne Darrow in King Kong

Fay Wray (1907-2004) was born on a ranch near Cardston, Alberta, Canada. Her family moved to the United States when she was three. Although Wray's autobiography discusses her Mormon parentage and makes it clear that she was culturally Mormon, she was never baptized as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Wray is best remembered for her role as Ann Darrow, the blonde seductress of King Kong, the gigantic, prehistoric gorilla. She dyed her dark hair blonde for the role. Fay Wray's screams in the movie King Kong are some of the most famous screams in all of movie history. In fact, her screams are said to have been dubbed into many other subsequent movies because they were so effective at portraying horror and fear. On the day that Fay Wray died in 2004, the lights on the Empire States Building -- the building Kong climbs in her most famous movie -- were dimmed in her honour. A monument to Fay Wray has been erected in her hometown of Cardston, AB.

 

Willis O'Brien, the Animator of King Kong

King Kong would not have been possible if not for the contribution of the special effects genius Willis O'Brien who turned an eighteen-inch high model into the "eighth wonder of the world." O'Brien utilized a cinematic process known as stop-motion animation where miniature models were photographed one frame at a time and repositioned between exposures. When the processed film was projected in sequence, the inanimate models moved with the illusion of life. O'Brien is known as the father of this process which he debuted in his 1917 short film The Dinosaur and the Missing Link. He would further develop the process and create whole herds of dinosaurs in the 1925 classic, The Lost World, based on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's novel.

King Kong was the greatest challenge yet for O'Brien. He brought the giant gorilla to life on film using eighteen-inch high models constructed on metal skeletons with ball-and-socket joints, padded with foam rubber and cotton, and covered with rabbit skins to simulate the beast's fur. His team constructed lavish and intricate miniature sets to provide the appropriate backdrop for the animated models. O'Brien used these models to film all but a few short scenes which utilized a life-sized bust of Kong as well as a life-sized hand to hold Fay Wray and a life-sized foot to trample Skull Island natives.

O'Brien studied the movements of gorillas in zoos and other large animals to develop his characterization of Kong and the dinosaurs of Skull Island as well as attending professional wrestling matches searching for ideas of how to make his creation battle the other prehistoric denizens of Skull Island. It is this attention to the performance of his models that sets O'Brien's work apart as a pinnacle of the art. Although O'Brien went on to make other films, none of them ever attained the heights of King Kong. In 1950, he received a special Oscar for his work on Mighy Joe Young which was the first such award ever given for special effects.