As all too many of us have discovered, to be unlucky in love is unlovely, but it’s only the saddest of suitors who ends up in a heap at the bottom of a skyscraper, riddled with bullets and circled by gawpers. Poor, mighty, helpless Kong. When he fell for Ann Darrow all those years ago, he fell hard: “It wasn’t the airplanes. It was Beauty killed the Beast.”
So it was, but who can blame an ape for trying? Life on Skull Island was dull, dull, dangerous and dull. Sure, there was a constant supply of comely native girls to snack upon, tear apart, or do whatever it was he did with those sacrificial brides of his, but for the most part his existence was foraging for food and fighting off dinosaurs and nasty spider-like things. The arrival of a blonde deco goddess must have been a welcome distraction.
Ann Darrow (Fay Wray)
But who, exactly, was she? We’ll see how Naomi Watts fares in Peter Jackson’s new film, but screaming Fay Wray was never quite up to the Darrow of her creators’ dreams. For that, look to the 1932 novelization of the first Kong’s screenplay. In this eccentric epic, as in the movie, Carl Denham rescues Darrow from the shop where she had been caught stealing an apple. Miracle! She was the girl he needed for his new film: “Large eyes of incredible blueness looked out at him from shadowing lashes; the ripe mouth had passion and humor…Her skin was transparently white. That marvelous kind of skin belongs with the kind of hair which foamed up beneath her shabby hat. This was of pure gold. If Denham had been poetical, which he was not, he might have pictured it spun out of sunlight.”
But if it is clear how audiences were expected to react to Ann Darrow what exactly was Kong meant to think about her “bright hair, her perfect face, [and] graceful well proportioned figure”? In a sequence so naughty it vanished for nearly 40 years, Kong gently peels off Ann’s clothes, piece by flimsy piece, pausing only to smell one delectable scrap, before returning to ogle, sniff, and toy with the prize lying prostrate and nearly naked in his hand. In his enthralling, entertaining, and essential history of the Kong movies, Ray Morton notes that director Meriam Cooper always claimed that the scene was purely playful, while Willis O’Brien, the special effects maestro who was, with Cooper, the creative genius behind the film, argued Kong saw Darrow “as a beautiful object”. The “removal of her clothes was akin to plucking the petals off a flower.”
Perhaps, in a more straitlaced time they just had to say that, but to be fair, the Kong novelization does back them up. Sort of. “Ann screamed again, Kong snatched at her. His hand caught in her dress and the dress tore in his huge fingers. More whiteness was revealed. Kong touched the smooth revelation. He pulled again at the torn dress. Then holding Ann tightly, he began to pluck her clothes away as a chimpanzee might undress a doll. As each garment came free into his hand, he felt it excitedly, plainly trying to find some connection between the frail tissue and the whiteness he had exposed.”
As I said, sort of. As I said, phew.
But a world able to accept the marriage of Julia Roberts and Lyle Lovett ought to be sophisticated enough to recognize Kong’s feelings for what they really were. Understanding his besotted gaze, we can see how he protects the object of his impractical adoration and, ultimately, we warm to the sacrifice he makes. We may not have asked, but he has told. And those cynics who claim that Kong’s infatuation was no more than pre-Neanderthal lust need to remember the moment that Kong hurled a woman to her death when he discovered she wasn’t Ann. This was a one-girl gorilla.
Fumiko Sakura (Mie Hama)
Or at least he was before he got to Tokyo. Undaunted by his death, the King turned up three decades later in two Japanese movies for which no appropriate adjective has yet been devised. In the first, King Kong versus Godzilla (1962), he’s found on the Pacific island of Faro, where a tribe of Japanese in dark make-up had found a suitably Sixties way to keep him happy: narcotic red berries. Narcotic red berries are the only possible explanation for the confusing narrative that follows, but there is a poignant hint of Kong’s more majestic past when he takes foxy Fumiko Sakurai to the top of Tokyo’s capitol building. She escapes, but only after a narcotic berry spray knocks Kong into the merciful unconsciousness to which the movie’s audience has long, long since succumbed.
Lieutenant Susan Watson (Linda Miller)
For all the turmoil on that tower, however, there was something a touch desultory about the fling with Fumiko. Apes prefer blondes. The makers of Kong’s next Japanese excursion, King Kong Escapes (1967) threw Susan Watson, a blonde lieutenant in the U.N.’s submarine fleet (who knew?), into the mix. It worked. As soon as Casanova Kong, by now living on yet another remote Pacific Island, saw the minx from Turtle Bay, it was love. He demonstrated this in ways sometimes reminiscent of the original King Kong, but sometimes, notably when rescuing Susan from a robot Kong, not. Mie Hama, the former Fumiko (who had in the meantime also been pawed by cinema’s other rampaging id, James Bond, in You Only Live Twice) also returned to the fray in this movie, this time as the villainous Madame Piranha, an agent for Red China whose presence was, I like to think, a reproach to Kong for the way in which he had now taken to playing the field.
Dwan (Jessica Lange)
If there was a touch of Teddy Roosevelt about the attitudes underpinning the first King Kong, so the movie that marked the franchise’s return to America in 1976 mirrored a suspicion of big business that was, along with an environmentalist subtext, hints of corruption in the White House, and refreshing honesty about the real nature of Kong’s interest in his latest blonde, very characteristic of its time. In the same way, the blonde, played by a Jessica Lange hot enough to bring Godzilla to his knees, was, in contrast to the passive Ann Darrow, an emancipated woman of the ERA era perfectly capable of telling her simian seducer what for. Hear her roar, monkey boy. More than that, the erotic attraction went both ways. Kong’s earlier sweethearts may have felt sorry for the big lunk, but that was it; with Dwan, there was, in the end, something…else. And if you think I’m wrong, just check out the look on her face when Kong, ahem, dries her off.
But Dwan may have been too forward for Kong, something of a reactionary when it came to the fair sex. In King Kong Lives (1986), he retreated to the safety of his own species, even fathering a little Kong with Lady Kong (who had, conveniently, been discovered living in Borneo) before dying his now traditional death at the hands of the US military. The potential human love interest, although blonde only to her highlights, was pretty Amy Franklin (Linda Hamilton), the doctor who gave Kong his artificial heart (don’t ask), but as the ungrateful ape seemed not to notice, the lovely Linda fled to CBS to play Beauty to a lugubrious lion-man, a Beast who actually paid her some attention.
Kong shunned Amy, audiences shunned Kong. Without the girl, the monkey was just a monster. And without much of a screenplay the monster was just an oaf. King Kong Lives died, but its classic predecessor remains unscathed, intoxicating, and immortal. With its groundbreaking effects, beguiling score, glorious cinematography and haunting clash of primitive and modern, the original King Kong will always endure, but it was the doomed, hopeless love for Ann Darrow that turned movie into myth and Kong into you, somehow, and me. That myth was so strong it could survive and even sustain the ludicrous liaisons and absurd exploits of the Japanese years, and it flourishes still: Any King Kong that ignores its lessons, its passion, and its tragedy will be in deep, deep trouble.
Over to you, Naomi.