by Gerald Perry
Cut, no. 4, 1974, pp. 11-12
“It was Beauty that killed the Beast,” proclaims Carl Denham as he addresses the stunned and silent crowd surrounding King Kong, now sprawled dead on a New York City sidewalk. But typical of eulogies, Denham speaks only half he truth. Certainly it was Kong’s insatiable quest to possess Ann which rendered him vulnerable, leading him out into the open where man’s weapons, gas bombs to machine guns, would cut him down.
Yet even more surely, it was one conniving, clever promoter who was solely responsible for uprooting Kong from his jungle sanctuary, for importing the unfortunate prisoner to the hostile New York environment, for displaying Kong under such strained, impossible circumstances that an aborted escape which ended in death was the terrible inevitability. More accurately, “It was Denham who killed the Beast.”
Whatever damage this realization might bring to romantic views of KING KONG, there is absolutely no doubt that making Denham the central figure of responsibility is the key to an historical interpretation of the film. Denham’s actions must be watched closely in order to ascertain the “political meaning” of KING KONG. But they can only be appreciated by transporting this theorizing back to the exact moment in U.S. history when KING KONG first played the theatres, March 1, 1933, With this date solidly in mind:
Carl Denham must be regarded as a “surrogate” representation of the newly elected President, Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose campaign had saturated the national consciousness in the late mouths of 1932, while KING KONG was filming, and whose inauguration in 1933 was to occur three days after the picture was released. While KING KONG clearly was conceived by Merian C. Cooper long before Roosevelt achieved national prominence, there seems little doubt that the flow of current events found their way to the KING KONG set and invaded and altered Denham’s person. But to retreat!
Denham was not the only filmic victim to the charismatic FDR presence. Democratic Warner Brothers led the way with an assemblage of Roosevelt surrogate figures appearing in their films, sometimes as deus ex machina, as with the reformist finish to WILD BOYS OF THE ROAD; sometimes as the prime heroic force, as James Cagney’s theatre director in FOOTLIGHT PARADE (more later about this character). At non-Democratic RKO, the Roosevelt personage emerges in much more complex, ambivalent form: one part potential hero, at least two parts fearsome, not to be trusted.
While Warners wildly cheerleaded for the new President in its film products, RKO and other studios were only pro-Roosevelt, pro-reform to a minute point. (1) Even vehemently reactionary business operations, typified well by the movie industry, realized that some change in the country was needed, that Depression America in 1933 was in abysmal shape. But these same groups were wary and frightened of FDR and his grandiose oratory of reform.
KING KONG gives dramatic expression to these contradictions. It evolves as a provocative, subtle political fantasy, offered up for consideration on the eve of FDR’s inauguration its most potentially effective, hopefully volatile moment, Because the New Deal had not yet occurred, had taken no real shape, the film divines, through Denham’s actions, a series of imagined, symbolic projections of what might happen to the United States during Roosevelt’s term of office.
The primary social concern of KING KONG is how to end the Depression, a phenomenon represented here quickly and effectively in the bitter nighttime world of urban soup lines at the film’s beginning. The first key judgment of the film, generously siding with the new President, is that Roosevelt possesses the personal acumen to reverse the unfortunate tide of events. KING KONG’s “crystal ball” peek into the political future thus reveals Carl Denham, comfortably fitted with the mask of FDR Knight Errant, on a walking tour through Depression land. This jaunt ends in spiritual rejuvenation and also job opportunity for the forsaken and downtrodden, represented in the form of down-and-out Ann Darrow,
Denham, in his Roosevelt identity, seems sublimely undisturbed by the miseries surrounding him, In fact, he revels in the challenges offered up by the Depression. His own spirited, optimistic facade is a startling contrast to the figures of doom haggling in the soup line before a women’s mission, some of the “dozens of girls in danger tonight” who, Denham claims, inhabit New York City.
The scene’s setting, a voluntary service organization, is chosen cleverly for 1933, though its exact relevance has become obscured in meaning over the years. The mission is an iconographic referent to the lame-duck Hoover Administration and its central policy of championing self-help programs (such as this one) in lieu of any direct government intervention to combat the Depression. The utter bankruptcy of this social philosophy (incidentally, quite an admittance for the presumably conservative makers of KING KONG) is given vivid form here in the bickering and general unhappiness of all those in the charity line. It is further reinforced by the fact that Ann Darrow, soon to be the heroine of KONG, must steal apples despite the soup lines in order to fill her stomach.
It is into this crippled environment that Denham walks with a purpose, completely merging for the moment with the contemporary image of Roosevelt. He takes this young unemployed woman, an innocent on the verge of forced criminality, out from the arms of the police. He buys her a wonderful meal in a brightly lit restaurant, canceling out her thoughts of the dark, out-of-doors charity line. Finally, he promises her an amazing job of great expectations and romance beyond the wildest prediction.
“It’s money, adventure, and fame on a long sea voyage which starts &t six in the morning,” he serenades her, although she should get no wrong ideas. Denham’s concern for her, as FDR for his people, parades as selfless paternalism.
What better advice for the U.S. populace at the beginning of 1933?
Ann places her faith in Denham, a decision of dizzying consequences. She is lifted out of the slum haunts of the city to fame on the New York stage as the Beauty who tamed the Beast, and to adventure, albeit, quite harrowing, riding in the fist of King Kong. And though money apparently eludes her grasp, Ann more than compensates by catching hold of a fine lover in the bulwark figure of Jack Driscoll.
The potential power of Roosevelt is revealed gloriously via Denham’s central role in the propitious rise of Ann Darrow from soup line anonymity to newspaper headlines. But why then the pessimistic ending? Why not a soaring, inspirational finish in which Denham succeeds totally with his boldest venture, making King Kong the biggest theatrical hit in town?
The answer is simple, RKO’s enthusiasm for Roosevelt and his intended programs was limited, questioning, and extremely qualified. But such an affirmative ending as that suggested above is virtually synonymous with a blind endorsement of Roosevelt’s future policies, an expression also of absolute faith that these mysterious programs would work, and magnificently.
The spectacular stage show built around Kong as its structural center, and this produced and directed by Carl Denham, is RKO’s metaphoric projection of Roosevelt’s reshaped and reformed United States in the next years to come. And that it comes tumbling down is RKO’s skeptical, conservative, and paranoid prediction of what could happen with this zealous progressive occupying the White House.
The obvious comparison at this point is an analogous film at another studio, Warner Brothers 1933 musical, FOOTLIGHT PARADE, released afterward, six months into FDR’s first term in office. The Warners’ espousal of the Roosevelt cause in its film products is a well-documented fact. Nowhere is its allegiance to the new President given more interesting dramatic shape than in this Busby Berkeley extravaganza. Briefly, the chaotic, quarrelsome backstage world of theatrical rehearsal becomes a metaphor for pre-FDR United States. Enter the new Chief Executive in the snappy guise of multitalented theatrical producer-director, Kent (James Cagney), who whips the show into place, shaping the loose, erratic practice pieces into a tight, brilliant, and highly polished theatrical production of the most splendorous conception. This “hit” production has a name never mentioned in the movie: the New Deal.
RKO relates its story of an equally impossible theatrical endeavor, but its version of the Roosevelt saga in the latter half of KING KONG is inspired malevolence, the rare occasion when the grotesque parody, KONG, precedes the straightforward telling of the tale, FOOTLIGHT PARADE. Carl Denham’s grace period is over, as the latent conservatism of the KING KONG filmmakers surfaces to take full control of the movie. Denham’s worthy rescue of Ann is buried effectively, and almost negated, by the brutal treatment of Kong. RKO’s surrogate FDR does not bother to rehearse his animal star; he gasses the ape, then binds and gags the animal into slavery and submission.
It would be hard for RKO studio to make a more pointed anti-Roosevelt case than this almost seditious dramatization of Roosevelt in action indicated above. Yet even further strength is added to this formidable indictment in KING KONG’s unforgettable climactic moments. The grand finale is fanciful guesswork of the highest order of prophetic imagination, a savage and ingenious, summation of all RKO’s misgivings about Roosevelt’s assuming the Presidential office.
It is Opening Night of Denham’s theatrical venture. In symbolic terms, the much anticipated moment of Franklin Roosevelt’s ascendancy to the Presidency has arrived at last. Denham, in playing his producer-director role to the hilt, finally is an overt manifestation of the new Chief Executive, surrounding himself with the press and even throwing out memorable quotes to them. He caps his night of triumph in a majestic stage appearance and oration before the presentation begins.
What is heard is akin to Roosevelt’s inaugural address. The audience (the nation’s populace) waits out the rhetoric for the moment of true consequence, the official unveiling of the best kept secret in the United States: “What is Kong?” A wave of such questions passes through the itchy, anxious crowds. For surely the anomaly hidden behind the great curtain can only be Roosevelt’s program for the nation, KING KONG’s version of the New Deal.
The new era of FDR reformism is introduced. The curtain rises to a roaring beast, an alien monster held shakily in its place by chains—huge, glossy, and foreboding. The audience shrinks back instinctively in fear, unable to comprehend the existence of this irrational, unnatural creation. So much for the New Deal. But the producer-director seems to be well in control. And the sight of his imperious figure of confidence temporarily returns calmness to the area. The people applaud the mammoth aberration, placing faith before sense that the man in charge wisely knows what is best for them.
They prove wrong, of course. It is only seconds before King Kong comes crashing out, pulling down with him the whole Denham theatrical show and bursting forever the idealistic pipe dream that Roosevelt reformism might work for the United States. Kong rushes madly and murderously through the city streets. Seemingly the New Deal runs wildly out of the control of its grand designer, damaging the already vulnerable country in even more serious, grievous ways than before. Note the difference between the hunger and low spirits of the beginning scenes of KONG (the Hoover years) and the calamitous death and destruction at its end (the darkest possible projection of a failed Roosevelt era).
Denham had captured Kong, imprisoned him, imported him, and unleashed him against the U.S. public. Now, at a time of national disaster, it was the unfortunate moment for Denham to allow for the killing of the Beast. He stands by stoically as KING KONG crescendos in a dynamic move for its finish from arch-conservatism to near-fascism. The grave internal problems of the United States, caused by liberalism run amuck, are erased expediently and with maximal efficiency by a call for the waiting military to intervene. It is a sad decision (listen to the music) but there is no other way.
RKO’s fantasy victory is completed smoothly with King Kong’s being machine-gunned off the Empire State Building to land at Denham’s feet. The Beast becomes an object lesson in death like a now powerless Frankenstein monster before its misguided creator. Both Franklin Roosevelt and his progressive vision for the United States are destroyed beyond rebuilding, and FDR hadn't even taken office yet!
But Roosevelt, as he phrased it so well, had nothing to fear, certainly not a saucy yet too subtle movie diatribe, of which the most obvious appeals were removed completely from the political realm. If Roosevelt ever heard of this picture at all, it was as that scary horror movie with the giant gorilla. And in spring, 1933, he had other things to think about.
1. This article is built around two suppositions. First, that all huge business corporations (such as RKO) are conservative Republican unless demonstrated otherwise, and that their products (like KING KONG) will reinforce their interests instead of betraying them.
Second, that the “auteur” theory in its standard application is not a germane approach when dealing with a political film, especially under the tight studio control of the 1930s. A political film would only be allowed release if its philosophy were in line with that of the studio which made it. Therefore, the RKO studio will be regarded as the true “auteur” of KING KONG, despite the innumerable personal touches of its artistic crew.
(But for those still unsatisfied, Merian C. Cooper, later Brigadier General Cooper, was an avowed militarist and anti-Bolshevik who sided strongly with Billy Mitchell in his insistence that the U.S. Air Force must be bolstered, that in the days long before Pearl Harbor. Therefore, it seems unlikely that Cooper’s own political philosophy is far from that assigned to RKO in this article. KING KONG was obviously that rare project of total compatibility among all its creators, missing that famous tension” between artist and material which critic Andrew Sarris has detected in most “auteurist” versions of studio assignments).