On March 7, 1933, King Kong arrived in New York, and with one swipe of his mighty paw the miseries of the Great Depression were dispelled. The special effects sensation of its era has been unpacked as a religious and sociopolitical allegory. But audiences responded to its unlikely romance of sorts—the relationship between a giant prehistoric ape, captured by a risk-taking filmmaker not unlike the pair that made the movie, and the comely modern woman who pacifies him.
It couldn’t last: “It was beauty killed the beast” provides the epitaph as King Kong dies in a fall from the Empire State Building. This Friday, Brie Larson gives the mighty ape “paws” for reflection in Kong: Skull Island, the latest attempt to recapture some of the magic of the original. Out of the frying pan of imprisonment in Room (2015) to the fire of faraway Skull Island, the 27-year-old Oscar winner plays Vietnam War photojournalist Mason Weaver, whose peace activism (the film is set in 1973) gives her “a closer, more loving, and intimate relationship with Kong.” Will she burn as brightly as his old flames?
Fay Wray, King Kong (1933)
“Fay Wray, King Kong”—the poetry was there in the names. Canadian-born Vina Fay Wray shortened her name and at age 16 began a career in silent movies in 1923. Working steadily through the transition to the “talkies,” she made 10 other movies in 1933, one of them with the lanky Gary Cooper. But none loomed larger than Kong, the king of a menagerie of ancient beasts brought vividly to life by stop-motion animator Willis O’Brien. Wray had worked with maverick co-directors Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack on two prior films and, wearing a blonde wig to contrast with what the filmmakers told her would be the “tallest, darkest leading man in Hollywood,” won the part of actress Ann Darrow. She was thinking Clark Gable, and probably wished it was, as the filming consumed 10 months, much of it spent in a balky 8’-long armature of Kong’s arm and hand. The overwhelming success of the movie crimped her career, but she got over her resentment, and talked contentedly about her unusual filmic legacy until her death, at age 96, in 2004. Opened in 1931, the Empire State Building, which itself had entered legend thanks to the movie, went dark for 15 minutes as a tribute after her passing.
Helen Mack, The Son of Kong (1933)
There wasn’t all that much time for monkey business in this quickie sequel, which runs just under 70 minutes. Released at the tail end of the year, it focuses more on filmmaker Carl Denham’s (Robert G. Armstrong) attempts to make amends to Kong’s progeny, an albino gorilla, who ultimately sacrifices himself to save Armstrong and Mack, his Skull Island stowaway. Mack, introduced singing a song called “Runaway Blues” to performing monkeys, is winsome, but her career got more of a boost from a role in the classic screwball comedy His Girl Friday (1940) and from producing radio and TV shows afterwards.
Mie Hama, King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962) and King Kong Escapes (1967)
How Kong found himself in Japan, under contract to Toho Studios, is, as they say, complicated, and was rooted in O’Brien’s thwarted aim to make his own sequel. But King Kong vs. Godzilla, pitting Hollywood’s finest against the local favorite, was a monster smash, there and abroad, despite a rather ragged man-in-suit Kong. Busy with the radioactive reptile, Kong does find a little time to pitch woo at 19-year-old Mie Hama, playing the cute sister of one of the human heroes. The only actress to repeat in a Kong film, Hama plays the sinister “Madame Piranha,” part of a consortium that abducts Kong when their robotic “Mechani-Kong” fails in its assigned duties, in King Kong Escapes. It was a more fun part than the conventional blonde love interest assigned to Linda Miller (an American model who lived in Japan), though not as noteworthy as Hama’s Bond girl, Kissy Suzuki, in that same year’s You Only Live Twice. Long devoted to other pursuits, the 73-year-old Hama told The New York Times last week that she had caught 007 director Lewis Gilbert’s eye in King Kong vs. Godzilla.
Jessica Lange, King Kong (1976)
Meryl Streep recently said that Dino De Laurentiis, producer of the first, much publicized Kong remake, called her “too ugly” for the part when she auditioned. Jessica Lange, the unknown from the Wilhelmina Modeling Agency who got the role, had to contend with questionable contemporary dialogue (“You goddamned chauvinist ape!”), faulty mechanical effects, and a man-in-suit co-star that critics felt retrograde as “Dwan,” an aspiring actress rescued by oil explorers en route to what turns out to be Kong’s Indian Ocean island home. But the newcomer, a former mime student, sold this more eco-friendly, sentimental take. “He listens to my voice, and maybe he understands something. I feel a rapport with him, a certain empathy . . . he tries in his own way to be amorous and playful,” Lange told Roger Ebert as the film opened. Director Bob Fosse, a detractor of the remake, later cast her as Angelique, an angel of death, in All That Jazz (1979), which propelled her to two Oscars and numerous other awards.
Brian Kerwin, King Kong Lives (1986)
As Jessica Lange (and Meryl Streep’s) fortunes rose, De Laurentiis’ plummeted. It was time to revive his one-time sensation, though Kong’s demise in a plunge from the World Trade Center was a stumbling block. Make that apparent demise—in a preposterous scenario, Kong clings to life a decade later, aided by a heart surgeon (Terminator star Linda Hamilton). Requiring a blood transplant for a jumbo-sized artificial heart, an explorer (Brian Kerwin) retrieves a lady Kong, but before she and her intended meet, and mate (producing a baby Kong in record time) she briefly makes goo-goo eyes at a sheepish Kerwin. (That gimmick had been used in a British sex farce, Queen Kong.) “Boring,” Ebert raved.
Naomi Watts, King Kong (2005)
Fresh from the Lord of the Rings cycle, Peter Jackson, realizing a lifelong dream to film his own version of the story, brought Kong into the digital era—and returned Ann Darrow and company to their Depression setting. Rather than grapple with armatures, models, and men in suits, Naomi Watts (who had a profile, thanks to films like David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr.) was able to interact directly with actor Andy Serkis in motion-capture gear. The result was lifelike, and fluid, allowing her to tap dance before Kong on Skull Island, and even “ice skate” with him in Central Park. Watts found this interpretation “more pure and caring and paternal” than the '70s one, and Jackson lovingly, obsessively recreated 1933 on a massive scale. Only one thing was missing—Fay Wray, who died before her planned cameo could be filmed, intoning “It was beauty killed the beast” before the final fade out.