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May 18, 2006

Kong and Class

Friedrich von Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards—

A few months ago I posted on how watching a movie at an upscale movie theater led me to think about the issue of class in art. The notions I was noodling around with were reinforced recently when my four-year-old son demanded that we purchase a DVD of the Peter Jackson version of “King Kong.”

Having watched the new version, I wanted my son to see the Merian Cooper’s and Ernest Schoedsack’s 1933 version. I remembered the black and white original as a much more powerful, poetic—and certainly more concise—film. I also wanted to see the old “Kong” again myself and see if I thought it held up to my childhood memories of watching it on T.V. So I rented “King Kong” via Netflix and popped it into the DVD.

To my pleasant surprise, the original version of King Kong was just as punchy and pungent as I remembered it. What I hadn’t realized as a child, however, was that its punch comes from its wonderfully pulpy mix of class, race and sex. My disappointment with the Peter Jackson version stems from the way he remakes the material for a, well, middle-class audience.

Kong in the original is a larger-than-life merger of “natural man” with “proletarian.” Kong in the Cooper version is so obviously negroid that there’s no question that the filmmakers intended that Kong should to be read in terms of the movie as an unusually powerful black man, not as an animal. (The film’s insistence on Kong’s blackness is underlined by the fact that the human inhabitants of Kong’s island home, ostensibly located in the south Pacific, are not Polynesian but African.)

Kong is shown in the first part of the film as the heavyweight champion, the toughest man in the house. He dominates brutish lower nature by out-wrestling, out-boxing and, of course, out-thinking the hulking dinosaurs and other mindless reptiles that surround him.

Although he’s not anatomically correct, Kong’s sex is by implication on a par with his fists. He is so rampant that the human inhabitants of Skull Island can only keep him at a safe distance by shoving a maiden out beyond their enormous perimeter fence every so often to slake his uber-masculine drives. (The white adventurers arrive to find that the locals have tied up a fetching local girl and are making preparations for just such a sacrifice; they decide on reflection that exotic Fay Wray would do even better.) Kong’s drives are of course so “undomesticated” and “natural” that none of these poor girls will ever survive the big ape’s sexual attentions.

After Kong is subdued by modern technology, he becomes symbolic of the enslaved proletariat, his very body being commoditized when the film’s capitalist entrepreneur, Carl Denham, puts him on display in a New York theater.

Of course, Kong goes on strike—smashing his way out of the theater and naively climbing to the highest peak of Manhattan to assert his unconquerable virility…at least until his revolution is put down by military force in the form of biplanes.

In the new version, Jackson makes Kong a “realistic” gorilla, and thus a representative of the natural rather than of the human world. This, of course, removes at least half the juice—the threat/allure of interracial sex—from the story. Not only that, but Jackson also alters the relationship between heroine Ann Darrow—played by Fay Wray in the original and by Naomi Watts in the remake—and the Big Guy.

While Fay Wray is basically the terrified target of Kong’s lust (he touches her body and then rather roguishly sniffs his fingers), Naomi Watts actually strikes up an Oprah-style woman-to-gorilla ‘relationship.’ After getting over her understandable shock at being kidnapped by a 25-foot gorilla, Watts uses her vaudeville skills to entertain the depressed, childlike monster, and gives him a few much-needed laughs after centuries (millennia?) of the isolation Kong has endured on his ferocious island prison. Since she has been set up by Jackson to be “the saddest girl” anybody ever met, it almost makes sense that she would bond with her equally abandoned soul-mate, Kong.

The character who serves as the motor of both plots is the filmmaker Carl Denham, the cigar-smoking villain of the piece, unabashed in his willingness to take risks (especially with other people’s lives) to make pots of money. In the original, Denham chooses to include a pretty girl in an adventure movie as the result of his businessman’s recognition that sex sells. He intends to give the paying audiences what they want. At the last minute, he cynically recruits a pretty, starving working-class girl, Ann Darrow—who he finds trying to shoplift an apple from a street vendor—to be the leading lady of his film. Her qualifications as an actress are limited to having made a few nickels as an extra at the local Astoria studios. Completely indifferent to “artistic concerns,” Denham chooses the girl on the basis of Fay Wray’s obvious assets.

The Depression background is deliberately on display in the movie’s opening scenes; capitalist Denham, who’s got money to throw around, knows that he can exploit unsophisticated lower-class Ann’s poverty and lack of prospects to persuade her to come along on his extremely dangerous business venture. Denham quickly reassures her that, unlike every other moviemaker in history, he’s not interested in any “funny business.” And he’s being honest: his endless greed seems to have extinguished anything as ordinarily human as lust in Denham. The closest thing to sex that Denham engages in during the original film is repeatedly dressing Ann, choosing outfits for her, turning her into a fetishized, deluxe blonde sex object that he can use to sell his movies to the working masses back in America. This blonde love-goddess also snares the horny proletarian Kong, a fact that the calculating Denham is quick to recognize and exploit. In short, the original Denham is a wily capitalist exploiter—clearly One of Them.

In Jackson’s version, on the other hand Denham is pushed to introduce sex in his animal adventure documentaries not by his own sense of greed but by the crude moneymen who are bankrolling his latest venture—a notion that at first outrages his sense of the importance of his work. Having refused to be fired by the philistine financiers, however, he somewhat illogically recruits Watts, an out-of-work vaudevillian (but with aspirations to work in serious drama) apparently only in order to not waste the already purchased wardrobe of his previous leading lady. In Jackson’s version, Denham—who shanghais not only an actress, but also a playwright to write his screenplay—seems to be a sort of artist manqué, a potentially worthwhile human being whose moral slipperiness and endless ambition lead him into depravity. In Jackson’s version, Denham serves as a symbol of, well, capitalist modernity, willing to look the other way while exploiting the natural world to make a buck. In short, he is supposed to be…One of Us, or All of Us.

I could go on and on about the ways in which the Jackson version “digitally” blurs the clear (if crude) pen and ink lines of the original, but I’ll limit myself to the most egregious case: the climactic scene in which Kong is shot off the Empire State Building. In Jackson’s version, Kong suffers his air assault in a gorgeous pinkish dawn, in which the attacking airplanes look like pretty toys put in place to provide accent colors to the pastel backgrounds.

Kong, noble symbol of the natural world, expires in the midst of endless beauty. The pathos of the scene, with Kong slipping away from Naomi Watts in slow motion, suggests that if only enough members of the audience appreciate this beauty—that is, if the paying customers can rise to the level of artists—then Kong’s death may be redeemed.

In the black and white original on the other hand, Kong’s aerial foes are presented as dealers in grim, efficient, industrial death—anonymous and merciless. The traditional tension between working class rebels and working-class soldiers is brutally clear in Cooper’s version: Kong’s primitive rebellion is being repressed by the forces of industrial capitalism. And a further message is underlined at the end by Denham, who looks down on Kong’s twisted body: “’Twas beauty killed the beast.” In other words, it was a close one this time: if a Kong arises who won’t fall for the enticements of consumer capitalism (Fay Wray), then the Revolution may well succeed.

All this led to a further reflection. How much of the problem with contemporary movies might be a failure to let a historically working-class medium be, well, working-class? A lot of people are nostalgic about the era during and immediately after the Vietnam War in which Hollywood was temporarily open to art films. (Michael Blowhard writes about the virtues of this era, here.) But in the larger historical arc of the movies, that period was also the fulcrum point of a larger transition, in which Hollywood turned its back on its pulpy, working-class roots and decided to focus on servicing the fantasies of middle-class teenagers instead. If the results of this transition over the past three decades seem pretty bloodless, well, that might be because middle-class fantasies are simply less humanly compelling than the working-class ones that sustained Hollywood for the first five decades of its existence.


Friedrich von Blowhard

P.S. I can’t suppress a historical oddity that I came across while trying to research the career of Miriam Cooper. To wit, the producer of Kong and many other films, including most of the John Ford westerns, in his youth helped to create and lead the Polish air force that helped defeat the invading Soviets during the Battle of Warsaw in 1920. (Apparently his ancestors during the Civil War had incurred a debt of honor to a Polish soldier!) I guess he had a pretty good first-hand notion of how deadly machine gun bullets shooting through synchronized propellers could really be. Check out this link here and scroll down the page to the entry on "Faunt-le-Roy".

posted by Friedrich at May 18, 2006


When "King Kong" came to Portland, Oregon, in the late Forties (a revival), my father (who didn't believe in shielding children) took the three of us. My youngest brother was about four. He LOVED the movie! "Can we watch it again?" he begged. A lady behind me said to her husband, "The children these days are monsters! Listen to that bloodthirsty child!"

We went to see "The Thing," too, but the experience was a bit blunted because my father -- who'd been on the road all week -- went to sleep during the movie and snored.

I think your points about class are absolutely sound and I think the same problem afflicts writing, particularly fiction. It's the PUBLISHERS who seem to be convinced that only educated Easterners read books. They don't even try to publish working class books. My theory is that they ought to be published in Spanish -- Mexican labor readers. Why not?

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on May 18, 2006 6:51 PM

Merian Cooper had some kind of spunk. Not only did he show the Soviets a littl something ... From IMDB: "Entered the U.S. Naval Academy with the Class of 1915. He left in his senior year. In 1916, he joined the Georgia National Guard to help chase Pancho Villa in Mexico." There can't be many people who battled the Soviets and chased Pancho Villa. Let alone "and made the original 'King Kong'."

Great posting. God knows that the original "Kong" had a ton of dream-like sexiness, as well as a lot of pulpy poetry. And sexiness and pulp poetry are two elements American movies have been short on for decades now. You're certainly right historically that part of what "the '70s" represent in movie history is the moment when respectable people started to move into and take over the movie business. Prior to circa 1970, respectable familes wanted their kids to have no part of something as seamy as films. Then the Boomers decided that they liked popular culture, and couldn't understand why they shouldn't help themselves to glamorous careers in it. After an initial burst, films have gotten more and more yuppie, self-involved, corporate, over-designed, and de-natured, haven't they? More and more like many an upper-middle-class household, come to think of it.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 18, 2006 7:10 PM

Interesting point-on-the-curve about two 4-year-olds liking the original Kong. 45+ years ago it was on local TV and a couple of our neighbor's boys happened to be at our house and watched it. As best I remember, they were maybe 8-11 years old. And at least one of them got visibly upset. These were typical outdoorsey boys back in the days when Seattle was hardly the effete place it now seems to be.

So ... why is it the 4-year olds (generations apart) took it in stride while a guy twice their age didn't. I ask this 'cause I know zilch about developmental psych.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on May 18, 2006 8:45 PM

Don, it's because 8 year olds can understand more than 4 year olds can.

Some years past the writer Philip Jose Farmer did an essay on Kong and Wray. In it he pointed out that the male lowland gorilla has the smallest dingus, both in absolute size and in relation to the body, of all the great apes; according to his calculations King Kong's package was about the size of a normal human's. And, yes, Fay Wray did get pregnant. However, I don't recall which famous pulp hero she gave birth to.

Posted by: Alan Kellogg on May 18, 2006 10:59 PM

MB's observations about changes in the class makeup of the movie business could also apply to the print and broadcast news businesses.

Posted by: Jonathan on May 19, 2006 8:48 AM

MB's comments about the changing class-makeup of the movie business can also be applied to the print and broadcast news businesses.

Posted by: Jonathan on May 19, 2006 8:52 AM

What an interesting article. I remember never seeing the original "Kong" until I was at least 10 or 11. I remember being very, very scared of this whole "human sacrifice" idea---making this girl go off into this unknown jungle to this monster---there were lots of fiery torches and wierd seeming natives, as I recall---it was like a Satanic ritual. I couldn't imagine how scared I'd be to have it happen for real. But then I of course felt sorry for Kong when he was all shackled up. There was just too much sadness all the way around for me. To my 10-year-old eyes, Kong had started to seem like a kind of nice guy and then everybody was being so mean to him. It was like "well, gee, I'm so glad I watched that." Anything fun and lighthearted on?

Posted by: annette on May 19, 2006 9:27 AM

Interesting article. I was about 10 or 11 when I first saw the 1933 "King Kong" and was just so scared by the whole "human sacrifice" thing of Faye Wray on the island---the dark and the creepy torches and being shipped off to this big monster. How frightening it would be was very real to me. But then I felt sorry for Kong when he was all shackled up on display. The whole movie was just too sad. It was like, "well,gee, I'm so glad I watched that." Anything fun and lightheared on?

Posted by: annette on May 19, 2006 9:31 AM

Oy. The Marxism of King Kong.

Most humble apologies, but I disagree with your interpretation.

Sometimes a giant ape is just a giant ape.

And sometimes the moral is as simple as the tragic result of trying to tame something wild.

Posted by: Yahmdallah on May 19, 2006 10:04 AM

So, Mr. FB,
What was your son's opinion of the original vis-a-vis the Jackson version?

Posted by: DarkoV on May 19, 2006 10:29 AM

Whoops, apologies to all for making you re-type your comments. I'm still learning how to manage comments in our new back-end software...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 19, 2006 10:42 AM

Um, it's probably a result of the turbulence MvB mentioned, but a paragraph of Friedrich's post is obscured by a YouTube window of Townes Van Zandt that I can't seem to get out of the way (anybody else seeing this?). The thing is, the paragraph that's getting obscured begins, "Although he's not anatomically correct, Kong's sex is by...".

And that's the kind of paragraph I just have to read.

Posted by: PatrickH on May 19, 2006 5:37 PM

Thanks to all for their comments.

Mary: I can only remember enjoying the film, myself, although as a young child I think I saw it as embodying some of the (invariably unhappy) mysteries of adulthood.

MB: Yeah, when I read about Mr. Cooper I thought of your posting on William Wellman--that is, both of them were guys who made movies, but their experience in life wasn't entirely limited to movies. I don't know if that made them great artists, but it almost certainly richened the mix when they were involved in art. And maybe I'll post something that tries to generalize the points I made about the changes in class consciousness during our lifetimes, 'cause they sure haven't been limited to the movies.

Donald, Alan, Annette and DarkoV: My 4-year-old son was quite upset by both the new and the original versions the first time he saw them, but now he is fairly enthusiastic about both of them. I think this is a pretty straightforward reaction to the subject matter, which is one of the closest approaches of 20th century art to Greek Tragedy.

Yamdallah: Hah, you're wrong, and I have an affadavit from the screenwriter proving that my interpretation is correct. Na, na, nah!
My only defense is that this is really the way the original movie struck me when I saw it. If you're willing to do it, I'd ask you to rent it from Netflix and see it again. Also, think about how a movie audience would have read this film in 1933...!

Patrick H: Hope the paragraph when you finally read it wasn't too disappointing after such an intriguing beginning!

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on May 20, 2006 7:33 PM

You totally have to read the book Living Dangerously: The Adventures of Merian C. Cooper, Creator of ing Kong. It's one of my favorite books of last year!

Posted by: KaneCitizen on May 20, 2006 11:43 PM

It was in the Revolutionary War, not the Civil War, that Cooper's ancestor, Colonel John C. Cooper, incurred "a debt of honor to a Polish soldier."

That was Casimir Pulaski, who Colonel Cooper helped carry off the field of Savannah, in 1779.

Posted by: James Fulford on May 21, 2006 12:15 PM

Friedrich – Interesting take on the Kong films. Art, even popular art reflects its current culture. You are right that movies originally reflected the working class origins and life of its audience – and its creators. You can even see this in comic strips. “Blondie” was originally about the son of a wealthy industrialist who was disinherited when he married a lower class flapper. It was only in the late 40s that Dagwood and Blondie were transformed into a nice middle class office worker and his homebound wife, reflecting changes in American culture. The Katzenjammer Kids, in which several of the characters spoke in stereotypical German-accented English easily appealed to working class immigrants of foreign origin. Of course, movies also appealed to many American immigrants who either spoke no English or only limited English. The early movies also translated well for those who were comfortable with vaudeville and music halls as opposed to the upscale legitimate theater (and Chaplin and other comedians had their start in vaudeville).

Today, in movies and television, to be working class is to be a loser. I recall how the Westside Los Angeles audience with whom I saw the overrated “American Beauty” reacted with derisive superiority to the Annette Bening character, who has a job as a realtor, but felt sympathy for fired advertising executive Kevin Spacey. William Bendix could work in an aircraft assembly plant in “Life of Riley,” Gleason’s Ralph Kramden could be a bus driver on “The Honeymooners,” and Dobie Gillis’ father could be a grocer. Today, on television, a main character can own an upscale restaurant, but not work in one. And if a character is an office worker, it had better be in the White House. In movies, characters sometimes appear not to have any occupation at all, and a depressing number of “indie” films disgorge protagonists who are either self-referential filmmakers or professional criminals.

Posted by: Alec on May 22, 2006 9:48 AM

Y'know Friedrich, I'll take your word for it. =)

And, btw, I was concerned my response was too snarky, since it's hard to spin the proper tone in text.

I think my objection is more of a Marxist interp of ANYTHING. I think the terms and concepts used in Marxism don't even come close to describing the world at large.

Posted by: Yahmdallah on May 22, 2006 10:00 AM

Thanks again to everyone for their comments. I'd have noted them before now but I've been out of town.

Mr. Fulford, sorry I screwed up. But you've got to admit, it's a great story, whatever the specifics.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on May 24, 2006 7:33 AM

Interesting idea about Kong as proletarian, but I think it's at most a side plot. The race angle obviously plays some role, but isn't the dominant feature of Kong's character: audiences identify with Kong, so he isn't primarily an outsider, except in the romantic view that every guy has of himself as the noble outsider.

I think a big part of the original King Kong's appeal is that Kong is so primal. He's a big, bad ********* and he goes down swinging. He's a man's vision of himself unleashed on the world. Fay Wray will probably wake up tomorrow thinking about him, but today she's screaming all the way up the side of the building. (I think a major failure of the new movie is that Naomi Watts actually likes Kong.)

I think Neal Stephenson put it best:

"Until a man is twenty-five, he still thinks, every so often, that under the right circumstances he could be the baddest motherfucker in the world. If I moved to a martial-arts monastery in China and studied real hard for ten years. If my family was wiped out by Colombian drug dealers and I swore myself to revenge. If I got a fatal disease, had one year to live, and devoted it to wiping out street crime. If I just dropped out and devoted my life to being bad."

Posted by: Zach on May 29, 2006 11:14 PM

One aspect that butresses your class idea: in the first movie, Ann Darrow's love interest is the first mate of the tramp steamer. In the remake, he's a playwright.

Posted by: Zach on May 29, 2006 11:19 PM

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