Cover Story: King Hit

10 December 2012 Sophie Quick

Cover Story: King Hit

Sophie Quick, Ed#420, November 2012

80 years after the original film, King Kong will once again set audiences shrieking. But this time the world’s most famous gorilla will be the star of a high-tech stage musical, which opens in Australia in June. But why is this story timeless? And why do people keep coming back for more monkey business?

When director Merian C Cooper first approached actress Fay Wray about the possibility of starring in his upcoming movie, he was vague about the details. He wouldn’t name any names, but promised Wray one thing: her co-star would be the “tallest, darkest leading man in Hollywood”. It was the early 1930s and Wray was hoping for Clark Gable. What she got, of course, was a gorilla.

It’s a famous story partly because, if absurdity is at the heart of King Kong, it’s nice to know his creator was in on the joke. And partly perhaps because there aren’t enough stories of Hollywood directors taking chances on unknown monkeys. In any case, Cooper’s gamble paid off. Kong might not have had Gable’s impeccable grooming, but whose career is in better shape today? Gable has been resting in peace at Hollywood’s Forest Lawn Memorial Park since 1960; Kong will star in a musical-theatre extravaganza premiering on a Melbourne stage next June.

Hype levels were extreme at the show’s launch last month (eight months before opening night). “By the time it opens it will have been a five-year epic adventure to bring King Kong to the stage,” host Myf Warhurst told the crowd. “This show is big,” she went on. “And not just because of King Kong. It is going to be big on many, many levels.”

The gorilla himself wasn’t present, but details of his next coming were revealed. He will stand six metres tall and weigh one tonne; he will take the form of a giant marionette complete with internal hydraulics system and animatronic facial muscles; he will be operated by 11 elite aerialists/puppeteers known as ‘the king’s men’; he will be joined on stage by 49 cast members (all Australian) who will perform original musical numbers, burlesque dances and circus tricks; his exploits will be accompanied by music from big-name international collaborators including French electro-pop outfit Justice and Robert del Naja of Massive Attack.

Daniel Kramer, the 35-year-old American director of the show, described the tale of girl and gorilla in epic and rapturous terms: “It’s the story of a young, heroic woman who crosses the dark waters and confronts the face of evil itself, only to find beauty in his shadow… And her challenge  to come back and convince the world to see his beauty through her eyes before he and his culture are annihilated forever.”

“It is a tale of two islands,” he continued. “One where man’s creations scrape the heels of God himself; another where man lives in terror of God’s wrath.”

Whatever the story means, it has made the figure of Kong a 21st-century multimedia star. The original movie sparked two remakes (1976 and 2005) as well as sequels, spin-offs –
including the cult Japanese film, King Kong vs Godzilla (1962) – comics, video games and theme-park rides before anyone had the idea of putting him on the stage.

And, while Kramer might see beauty in the monkey, others can see dollar signs. He may be 80 years old next year, but Kong is still considered bankable. The Victorian Government is helping to fund the musical and Global Creatures, the production company behind it (known also for puppetry-animatronic stadium spectaculars Walking with Dinosaurs and How To Train Your Dragon) will also chip in (perhaps as much as $30 million, The Age suggested). After the show’s planned five-month run in Melbourne, producers hope to take it to Broadway.

Kramer spoke of King Kong in terms of a myth. Like all myths, there are variations each time the story is told, but certain key components must remain. John Guillermin (director of the 1976 remake), Peter Jackson (director of the 2005 version) and, it seems, Kramer all agree that in the telling of this myth, certain things have to happen. A man with dubious motives must travel to a remote island on a ship. A blonde must be on that ship. A giant ape must capture the blonde when they get to the island. The blonde must escape from the ape, aided by a heroic man from the crew. The ape must be captured and taken to Manhattan to be presented as a freak show. He must escape from his chains, embark on a devastating rampage through Manhattan to reclaim the blonde. When he finds her, he must climb the tallest building, holding her in his fist. On the top of the building, he must be shot down by airplanes.

The King Kong story is deeply strange and unsettling – and lends itself to all sorts of theories. Perhaps the best place to start in trying to understand it all is with Kong’s father, Merian C Cooper. By the time he pitched his idea for a movie about a giant gorilla to Depression-era executives at the RKO motion-picture studios, Cooper had already served as a World War I bomber pilot, been a prisoner of war, written autobiographical pieces for The New York Times and made two ethnographic documentary feature films – one following a peasant farmer in Thailand. A childhood fascination with gorillas, combined with the success of jungle and horror films in the early 20th century, inspired him to create a story about a havoc-wreaking ape.

Cooper’s focus in King Kong was, it seems, spectacle rather than meaningful subtext. In a letter to a friend describing the genesis of his ideas for the film, Cooper explained that key elements in the story hinged on their capacity for maximum visual impact: “I…thought of having [Kong] destroyed by the most sophisticated thing I could think of in civilisation, and in the most fantastic way. My very original idea was to place him on the top of the Empire State Building and have him killed by airplanes.”

As well as directing the film, Cooper co-wrote the script, oversaw its pioneering technological advances in stop-motion animation and appeared as one of the pilots who shoots down Kong. Later, Cooper had no time for the elaborate theories on the film’s underlying meaning that soon proliferated. “King Kong was escapist entertainment – pure and simple,” he once told American film historian Rudy Behlmer.

Back in 1933, the film was a smash-hit, saving RKO from bankruptcy and enjoying a mostly positive critical reception. In an early review for The Nation, writer William Troy argued that it tapped into a unique, possibly sinister, American addiction to spectacle and superlative: “It is a [national] characteristic hard to define except that it is related to that sometimes magnificent passion for scale that foreigners have remarked in our building of hundred-storey skyscrapers, our fondness for hyperbole in myth and popular speech, and our habit of applying superlatives to all our accomplishments.”

Many theories on King Kong’s subtext have emerged since Troy’s – not all of them enthusiastic. King Kong was made during the nadir of American race relations, an era of lynchings, segregation and expressions of white supremacy. Given established stereotypes of the time – which treated the African-American male as subhuman and predatory – it is easy to see why King Kong has been interpreted by many as a profoundly racist film. After all, Kong is found in ‘uncivilised’ far-off parts, brought to America in chains, exploited for the benefit of white people and then slain to protect the honour of a white woman.

Over the years, interpretations of the film’s depiction of women have not been too enthusiastic either. The obsessive screen time devoted to the gorgeous Wray screaming and squirming in the hairy fist of her captor – and the early advertising campaign that fetishised this image – seem designed to titillate. Commentators argued that any society that sees woman-taken-against-her-will as a wonderfully entertaining premise is a disturbed one.

Other chin-strokers have drawn longer bows. In a 1974 article for Jump Cut, an American cultural studies journal, Gerald Perry proposed that King Kong anticipated the reform agenda of President Franklin D Roosevelt, who was inaugurated in 1933, two days after the original film’s release. “Because the New Deal had not yet occurred, had taken no real shape, the film divines…a series of imagined, symbolic projections of what might happen to the United States during Roosevelt’s term of office,” Perry wrote.

This imaginative reading, in which a gorilla represents a bold series of welfare packages and economic stimulus initiatives, had the film envisaging an outcome to Roosevelt’s reforms even worse than the nightmare of the Great Depression: “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.”

Remakes of the film brought opportunities for writers to revisit the original myth and reflect on its mutations. In a droll review of Guillermin’s kitsch 1976 remake, Pauline Kael of The New Yorker pondered some possible sexual interpretations: “Like the earlier Kong, this one has no visible genitals; he doesn’t need them – Kong is a walking 40-foot genital.”
Reviews for Peter Jackson’s 2005 CGI-fest were mixed, but in one enthusiastic review in the American online right-wing magazine Frontpage, commentator Don Feder came up with this tendentious interpretation of the film’s gender politics: “In a way, all men are King Kong – powerful, brooding, potentially destructive creatures waiting for a woman to touch our hearts and tame us… And all women are Ann Darrow [the lead female character], simultaneously fragile and compelling, possessor of the magic to transform primitive males (monsters-in-waiting) into protectors and the builders of families and civilisations.”

King Kong, it seems, can mean everything and nothing. There’s enough ambiguity in the story to absorb just about any pet theory at all. Another key to the enduring fascination with Kong is that, unusually, the myth invites us to sympathise not just with human characters, but also a monstrous and violent outsider. In the 1933 original, this occurs through the repeated evocation of the ‘beauty and the beast’ trope. The film opens with a made-up Arabian ‘beauty and the beast’ proverb and concludes with the famous final line: “It wasn’t the airplanes. It was beauty killed the beast.” Without this framing, it might not occur to viewers to see the original Kong in even slightly sympathetic terms. He is, after all, a man-eating, metropolis-wrecking monster whose demise restores order to a ravaged city.

But one era’s rousing tale of adventure and triumph is another’s exercise in colonial hubris and sadism. King Kong had to be converted into a tear-jerker for its own good. In the 1976 movie, Kong has far more cute and cuddly moments, memorably bathing the blonde (renamed ‘Dwan’, and played by a simpering Jessica Lange) in a waterfall and tenderly drying her off with his breath. In the final scenes, Dwan pleads with Kong to hold her in his hand so the planes will stop shooting at him, but Kong – now occupying the role of noble savage – refuses to place his beloved in danger, and seals his fate as monkey-martyr. In Jackson’s version, Kong and Ann (Naomi Watts) enjoy a sunset and a cosy nap together on the island, and spend some carefree moments skidding around the ice in New York’s Central Park.

Just as Kong has become a more sentimental figure, the role of the leading lady has also changed with time. The blonde that Kong will snatch on stage next year is to be a ‘heroic’ young woman. In 1933, Wray’s Ann might have had a powerful set of lungs, but heroic she was not. You never got the feeling she’d really warmed to Kong, and she remained a damsel in distress throughout.

When Lange played the blonde, she was a sexy space-cadet who tried to guess the gorilla’s star sign before shouting, “Put me down, you great big male-chauvinist pig ape!” Dwan was shifty, too, complicit in Kong’s humiliating freak-show appearance, hoping to trade on his notoriety to achieve her own dreams of stardom (later, of course, seeing the error of her ways and attempting to protect him). By 2005, girl and gorilla were so goo-goo you couldn’t help wondering if maybe, just maybe, they were actually going to work this thing out and build a life together in the big city.

For directors Guillermin and Jackson, shifting the heroine’s response to Kong has been a not-so-subtle way of making people sympathise with the ape. Times have changed; the public is not going to swallow a tale of wanton animal cruelty. But as the story has settled on a fixed moral position in its remakes, it has lost much of its mystery. There seems little chance the audience of next year’s stage show will leave without learning some kind of important moral lesson.

Last month’s launch of the King Kong musical concluded with the introduction of some non-simian cast members, three of whom performed songs from the show. The last of these was ‘Full Moon Lullaby’ – written by Marius De Vries (known for his work on Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge) and sung by Esther Hannaford, who will play Ann. In the show, it will be sung as Ann sits with Kong on the top of the building in the final moments of his life.

Spotlit in the centre of the stage, Hannaford stood in a long white dress, requisite blonde locks falling loosely on one shoulder. The violins played, Hannaford opened her mouth and, in a low, soulful voice, sang an exquisitely sad and haunting song. When the song ended, the applause was long and loud.

How is it possible that this bizarre scenario – a woman stuck on a skyscraper with a ginormous gorilla – inspired such superb songwriting and such a stirring performance?
Perhaps it’s because, at one time or another, everyone has felt like a monstrous outsider or felt sympathy for one. And, regardless of whether or not Cooper designed the scene purely for spectacle, there is something devastating about the image of the once-powerful Kong emasculated by machines in the presence of the woman he adores.

Or is it something else altogether? Is King Kong the story of an American addiction, a 40-foot genital, an ambitious economic stimulus package, or is it even – and this is a neglected but credible theory – the straightforward story of a truly awesome ape, so big he can stamp on taxis? Somehow, it’s all of these things. The monkey’s meaning is in the eyes of the beholder.

By Sophie Quick, published in The Big Issue Ed#420