King Kong (1933) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

According to The Numbers, King Kong was at the top of the box office in 1933 and grossed $10 million in the USA. Tickets used to cost 25 cents in those days, so 40 million people paid to see it, equivalent to about $250 million in ticket sales at today's average price. However, it must be noted that the population of the United States was only 125 million at that time, so Kong was seen by about one person out of every three. Extrapolating the percentage to the current population of 295 million would result in 94 million tickets, or about $600 million at today's ticket prices, competitive with Titanic! At the time of its theatrical run, per The Numbers, Kong was among the top four grossers of all time, exceeded only by Frankenstein ($12M), The Big Parade ($11M), and Tom Sawyer ($11M). All of those films were very strong performers. Frankenstein's $12 million would continue to hold the record for a non-animated film until 1941, when Sergeant York took the crown. Kong's 1933 total was as high as the 1948 champion! Because its costs were not exceptionally high, Kong was highly profitable for its studio. The Konger's budget was a modest $600,000 - equivalent to about nine million dollars today, per the U.S. Government database.

It also receives 100% positive reviews at IMDb, and the online comments about this film look approximately like the comments about Jesus at an agape.

So is it truly a great movie, to provoke such enthusiasm? No, not at all.

It was a major cultural event and a great technical achievement in 1933 (maybe - see the Variety review below), but there's nothing worthwhile watching today unless you are studying the history of filmmaking. Historically, it is extremely important, as important as Citizen Kane or Birth of a Nation. The film includes iconography that has become integral to the history of film as a medium, and everyone who loves movies can picture Kong atop the Empire State Building, or holding Fay Wray in his hands.

But ...

Although King Kong is historically important, it is very tedious work to watch the film today, a task roughly equivalent to reading Moby Dick in order to study the history of the American novel  - necessary, but not pleasurable.

The problems?

  • The creatures and the special effects, which were undoubtedly impressive in 1933, are laughable today. Variety's contemporary review pointed out that some of it was even laughable in 1933:

There are times when the plot takes advantage of its imaginative status and goes too far. On these occasions the customers are liable to laugh in the wrong way. A most tolerant audience at the Music Hall broke down now and then, but on the whole was exceedingly kind. It seemed that while a few details were too strong to swallow the picture, as a whole, got them.

  • The creature battles not only look fake, but they go on much too long and are repetitive.

  • The damned ape keeps changing size!

  • The acting is as bad as you'll see in any movie among the Top 250. I can say without exaggeration that it is not up to the standards of the Three Stooges shorts. (In fact, if you look closely, you'll see many of the same extras working with Kong and the Stooges.)

  • The portrayal of dark-skinned people is approximately as subtle as the portrayal of Japanese soldiers in a wartime Bugs Bunny cartoon.

  • Although the film receives a perfect 100% at Rotten Tomatoes, the contemporary reviews were not gushing. Variety declared:

It takes a couple of reels for ‘Kong’ to be believed, and until then it doesn’t grip. But after the audience becomes used to the machine-like movements and other mechanical flaws in the gigantic animals on view, and become accustomed to the phony atmosphere, they may commence to feel the power. As the story background is constantly implausible, the mechanical end must fight its own battle for audience confidence.

Fay Wray is the blonde who’s chased by Kong, grabbed twice, but finally saved. It’s a 96-minute screaming session for her, too much for any actress and any audience. With the blonde still screaming while in Kong’s palm atop the Empire state, after having screamed all the way from the first reel, another of the unbelievable facts is that Kong shouldn’t drop her and look for a non-screamer — even if he has to settle for a brunet. The light hair is a change for Miss Wray. Robert Armstrong, as the explorer, and Bruce Cabot, as the blonde’s other boy friend who doesn’t make her scream, are the remaining principal characters and are snowed under by the technical end.

As for the plot and editing - they often make no sense at all. I used to find this movie confusing and lacking in credibility when I was ten. First of all, when the ship arrives at an isolated, legendary island - it turns out that the captain can speak their isolated, legendary language. I suppose he took a legendary language minor at the Merchant Marine Academy, and I suppose he can speak every language in the world, since nobody knew in advance which language the natives would speak, or even if the island really existed at all. Then, the film simply skips over the problems of how the men got Kong on the ship, how they shackled him, and how they fed him on the trip back. One minute the giant Kong is prostrate on an island, then the next minute he has a one-ape show on Broadway in the next theater down from Jolson. Oh, yeah, then when he gets loose in New York, one of the world's most populous cities, he manages to find Fay Wray within minutes.

You know what is truly amazing to me about the critical comments about this movie? On a scale of 1 to 100, it's approximately a 10. Taken out of its historical context, it is not just a bad movie, but an abomination, one of the worst films you will ever see, maybe the worst unless you specifically make an effort to see bad movies. It is difficult to find even one good thing to say about the film - and yet the reviews are 100% positive! Talk about the ultimate Naked Emperor! To be brutally honest, you could get together with your friends, write a better script, and do better F/X on your PC. Moreover, you and your friends would probably be better actors than the people in this film, unless you hang around with Tom Green.

The new two-disk DVD, however, is tremendous. The original version of the film is now available, with all the censored scenes worked back into the film. Well, to be completely honest, it's almost the original version. The deleted/censored material is now fully restored except for the lost "spider sequence," which is covered in detail in a separate documentary. That gruesome sequence was shown only on opening night, and was subsequently deleted by the director himself.

The DVD even includes a commentary track by dead people - like the director and Fay Wray! Clever how they did that, although the director sounds like he's on an old-time 78 recording of a man shouting into a canyon! In addition to the two hours of film with the optional commentary track, there is another two and a half hours of documentary material about the movie, and yet another documentary on director Merian C. Cooper, who was as colorful a character as the Carl Denham character in the movie. Cooper not only wrote and directed, but even flew the plane that shot Kong off the Empire State Building!



  • Disc 1: The Movie
  • Original 1933 Film classic in Glorious Black and White, Newly Restored and Digitally Mastered
  • Commentary by Ray Harryhausen and Ken Ralston, with Merian C. Cooper and Fay Wray
  • I'm Kong: The Exploits of Merian C. Cooper -- 2005 documentary
  • Merian C. Cooper Movies Trailer Gallery
  • Disc 2: King-Sized Special Features
  • RKO Production 601: The Making of Kong, Eighth Wonder of the World - 7 Part Documentary including...
  • The Origins of "King Kong"
  • Willis OBrien and "Creation"
  • Cameras Roll on Kong, The Eighth Wonder
  • A Milestone in Visual Effects
  • Passion, Sound and Fury
  • The Mystery of the Lost Spider Pit Sequence
  • King Kong's Legacy
  • Creation Test Footage with Commentary by Ray Harryhausen


None, but Fay Wray's breasts came very close to falling out of her dress in the swimming sequence.

The Critics Vote ...

  • Super-panel consensus out of four stars: three and a half   stars. James Berardinelli 3.5/4, BBC 5/5. Roger Ebert wrote an interesting essay but assigned no score.

The People Vote ...

  • IMDB summary. IMDb voters score it 7.9/10. It is in IMDb's Top 250 of all time.

Miscellaneous ...


The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-.

Based on this description, it's a C+, a classic must-see for students of film history, and an important achievement in its time, but not an especially good movie by any objective standards. It's nearly unwatchable today. The DVD, however, is a comprehensive must-own package!

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