by David N. Rosen
Cut, no. 6, 1975, pp. 7-10
It’s clear that a central aspect in the critical analysis of a film (or any work of art) must be an appreciation of its historicity. This principle is based on the assumption that the film and its meaning reflect the cultural environment of its time and place. To be aware of the historicity of a given film, then, requires some awareness of the specific complex of factors—social, political, economic, psychological, etc.—informing the sensibilities of artists and audiences at the time of the film’s creation and initial presentation.
An interesting effort along these lines is Gerald Peary’s “A Speculation: The Historicity of KING KONG” (JUMP CUT, 4), which interprets the giant ape Kong as a conservative RKO’s very skeptical symbolic assessment of the New Deal, with the adventurer-promoter character Denham representing FDR. I believe, however, that a historical appreciation of the film should be expanded to include some other themes, those of race, sex, and rebellion. I say “expand” because I don't believe it necessary to “refute” Peary’s interpretation in order to present this one. Symbols can be overdetermined, that is, represent more than one idea.
It doesn't require too great an exercise of the imagination to perceive the element of race in KING KONG. Racist conceptions of blacks often depict them as subhuman, ape or monkey-like. And consider the plot of the film: Kong is forcibly taken from his jungle home, brought in chains to the United States, where he is put on stage as a freak entertainment attraction. He breaks his chains and goes on a rampage in the metropolis, until finally he is felled by the forces of law and order.
The causative factor in his capture and his demise is his fatal attraction to blonde Ann Darrow (Fay Wray). As Denham says in the last words of the film, “Oh, no, it wasn't the airplanes. It was Beauty killed the Beast.” If we look at KING KONG in terms of a racial metaphor, “Beauty” turns out to be “the white woman.” This kind of theme is foreshadowed in the behavior of the “natives” on the island where Kong is captured. When he first sees her, the “Native Chief” offers six of his wives for Ann, and when this is refused, he kidnaps her. Thus the sequence of events leading to Kong’s capture is set in motion: the romantic lead,/hero of the film, Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot) and Denham organize a rescue party.
This type of plot device is a recurrent element in films of the jungle adventure genre. The white woman comes along on the safari not only to provide romantic interest. She is usually a focus of tension between the white males and the “natives,” furnishing an opportunity for some of the former to display their virile heroism against the savages. An alternate scenario involves the search for a legendary white woman reportedly living among an obscure, remote tribe, for example, TRADER HORN (MGM 1931). In both cases the “natives” view the white woman as a special kind of fetish with magical powers. In those instances where the white woman isn't fetishized by the “natives,” the very opposite treatment of her provides an index of their barbarity—they lack a special standard of mercy for women characteristic of civilized peoples.
Aside from the sexual aspect implicit in the question of race, there’s the more direct, and somewhat delirious, sexual imagery in the film. The ape often functions as a most appropriate anthropoid symbol of “lower,” “animal” instincts. In this case we have a giant ape (literally a huge, hairy monster) and his unrestrained, headlong pursuit of a “blonde,” that archetypical Hollywood sex-object, ending on top of the world’s foremost phallic symbol.(1) The sexual theme touches on the standard racist myth of the black male’s exaggerated sexual potency, and the complementary notion of his insatiable desire for white women.
As stated above, to locate these interpretations in a historical context requires that we ask questions about the specific events and trends influencing the attitudes of the film’s creators and audience. A survey of the post World War I period in the United States or, for our purposes, the fifteen years between the end of the war and the release of KING KONG in 1933, reveals a period of increasing racial and social tension.
During the war period the movement of blacks from rural to urban areas intensified, and migration continued through the l920s, resulting in increased racial friction in the cities. In 1919 numerous race riots broke out, the most well-known being that which began in Chicago in July 27. What was most significant about these riots was their widespread occurrence (six major riots, twenty other racial disturbances in the summer and fall of l9l9) and the fact that blacks were fighting back, as indicated by the Chicago statistics on number of whites killed and injured, which is cited as a major factor in accounting for the particularly violent character of the riots.(2)
The Ku Klux Klan greatly expanded its membership in the twenties, with its biggest gains in the growing southwestern and midwestern cities; in 1922 Chicago had the most Klan members of any city.(3) Miscegenation, of course, was and continued to be an idée fixe with the Klan and white racism in general, the protection of white women viewed as a major part of the task of saving “white civilization.” Although the wave of rabid racism may be considered to have abated somewhat in the late twenties. it is incontestable that the nation was still affected by the same racial preoccupations. In March of 1931 the infamous Scottsboro Boys case began, in which nine black youths were accused of raping two white girls.
The Depression hit blacks, traditionally last hired, first fired, especially hard. Blacks played a prominent and highly visible role in the hunger marches to Washington which took place in December, 1931 and 32, and in the Bonus March to Washington of July 1932. In the election of that year black voters decisively broke away from the Republican party of emancipation’ to vote for Roosevelt.
It should be noted that the popular cultural representations of the twenties and thirties continued to present the Sambo character and the minstrel tradition, exemplified by Stepin Fetchit on the one hand, and Al Jolson end Eddie Cantor on the other. In other words, blacks were presented as the stereotypical good natured, fearful, stupid, lazy characters who loved to dance and sing, and who provided laughs and entertainment for white audiences.
The image of King Kong on a Broadway stage may correspond very closely to white America’s attitudes toward the black men in the 1930s: an object of entertainment, but also of fear. The ape is apparently securely chained, but with the ever present potential for bursting his chains and wreaking violence and destruction with all the power of his supposed “savage” primitive nature.
KING KONG was released a few days before Roosevelt’s inauguration in March of 1933. the high point of the Depression in terns of number of unemployed. If this period of intense capitalist crisis clearly raised the possibility of revolution, in a general sense it can be argued that Kong symbolizes this possibility, the threat of the masses “losing their chains” in a revolutionary upheaval—which conservatives always picture as a strictly chaotic, wantonly destructive dissolution of society. It should be remembered that this threat was not new; it had been haunting the capitalist world with particular Intensity since the end of the war.
A revolutionary wave had swept through Europe beginning with the Russian Revolution of 1917, with soviet republics briefly established in Germany end Hungary in 1919, and all of Eastern and Central Europe in the throes of revolutionary ferment. The reaction in the United States to these events and increased working-class militancy at home was the postwar “Red Scare,” which coincided with the outburst of racism.
The Palmer raids of 1920 were unambiguously directed against “alien elements,” especially southern and eastern European immigrants who were thought to be the carriers of the “Bolshevik” virus. (4) If these immigrants were the carriers of the disease, other racial and ethnic minorities such as blacks. Mexicans, and Orientals were thought to be highly susceptible. In a popular racist tract published in 1920, The Rising Tide of Color Against White Supremacy, Theodore Lothrop Stoddard warned”
Attorney-General Palmer’s antiradical division, headed by J. Edgar Hoover, saw fit to publish a pamphlet in the fall of 1919 on “Radicalism and Sedition among the Negroes as Reflected in Their Publications.”
The Communist Party, was later very much involved with black causes, such as the American Negro Labor Congress established in 1925. The International Labor Defense formed by the CP devoted a great deal of attention to black cases, most notably the Scottsboro Boys case.
What’s important here in terms of this analysis is not so much the actual amount of Communist activity among U.S. blacks as the degree to which the government and media of communication fostered this conception and reinforced it In popular opinion, the Scottsboro Boys case in particular was one of the biggest stories of its day. No doubt it played on and contributed to the linking of a series of ideas about race, miscegenation, communism, etc. in sectors of the American consciousness. In other words, it touched on those very thoughts end fears which, as this article has argued, form the latent content of KING KONG.
The movement for “100 per cent Americanism” was directed against all those “alien elements” which were seen to threaten “American civilization.” Seen in this light, the choice of location for the finale of KING KONG is especially appropriate. What better monument to this “civilization” was there in 1933 than the then only recently completed Empire State Building? According to one source, an alternate location considered for this scene of Kong’s destruction was Yankee Stadium!(6)
As mentioned previously—a whole genre of Hollywood films (and TV serials) have been devoted to the jungle adventure theme. An examination of the relationship of these films to the question of race in the United States would probably make an interesting and illuminating study. What may be of significance for the analysis presented here is that the directors of KING KONG, Merien C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, were important figures in the development of this genre.
The explorer-showman-entrepreneur character Denham in KING KONG actually bears a strong resemblance to Merian Cooper. Cooper and Schoedsack had made a name for themselves with the exotic documentary footage of their two previous films, GRASS (1925) and CHANG (1927). GRASS followed the migration of a primitive Persian tribe while CHANG depicted a family’s struggle for survival in the jungles of Laos. These files strongly influenced the production of later African adventure epics such as TRADER HORN, the Tarzan and Frank Buck films, both because of their popularity and in terms of the technical and aesthetic examples they set. Cameramen Schoedsack’s action footage of wildlife, such as the low-angle shots of stampeding elephants taken from a pit, illustrates this. The team later filmed in Africa for THE FOUR FEATHERS (1929) and went to India to do parts of LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER (1935).
Merian Cooper is an intriguing character in still another way. In 1927 he invested heavily in aviation stock end eventually went on to be elected a director of Pam American airlines. He was a supporter of General Billy Mitchell’s drive for increased air power and, as the saying goes, was a “staunch anticommunist.” In 1919 he had volunteered to fight the Bolsheviks as a flyer in Poland’s Kosciusko Squadron, was shot down behind the front limes in July of 1920, and was imprisoned in Russia for ten months before escaping.(7) Later he produced number of films in Hollywood, doing a few with John Ford.
Cooper’s interest in airplanes no doubt had something to do with the very striking finale of KING KONG. In a less obvious way, his political orientation may have figured in this story’s depiction of a monstrous threat to “American civilization” and its final destruction.
In conclusion, it should be understood that an historical appreciation of the problem of symbolism and meaning, i.e., the recognition that meanings and the reaction to images (historically) change with changes in audience sensibilities, implies no fixation on a work of art’s original milieu as the only basis for a “genuine” or “authentic” estimation of it. Such a fixation actually constitutes a one sided distortion of a historical approach, of value only to antiquarians and pedants. Examination of present-day audience reactions to older films is no less necessary or valid. But what’s especially interesting about an interpretation of a film like KING KONG in terms of its historicity is how our more recent experience enables us to retrieve and appreciate its “original” meaning and compare it with our own understanding of it. The racial conflagrations of the 1960s, the resurgence of a radical movement in the United States, and the deepening social—and now economic—crisis stimulate and make possible such an understanding. More recently, of course, we have also been sold some new improved metaphors for social and economic crisis in the form of a capsized ocean liner, an earthquake, and a “Towering Inferno.”
1. The Hays Office censored what it considered the objectionable scenes in KING KONG, which included one sequence on the island where Kong gently tears Ann’s clothes off, strokes her with his finger, and then sniffs it. See “King Kong Was a Dirty Old Man,” Esquire (September 1971). pp. 146-9 for stills of this sequence.
2. Stanley Cohen, “The Failure of the Melting Pot.” The Great Fear: Race in the Mind of America. ed. Gary B. Nash and Richard Weiss. (New York, 1970), p. 146. Cohen comments on the riots in the following terms: .”.. race riots were not a new phenomenon in United States history. But never had riots been even remotely as widespread or as violent on both sides as in 1919.” (p. 148, fn. 7).
3. Ibid., pp. 156. 159.
4. The word bolshevik is in quotes here because during the Red Scare it was often used rather loosely, in a pejorative way, rather than in a precise ideological sense.
5. Theodore Lothrop Stoddard, The Rising Tide of Color Against White World Supremacy (New York, 1920), p. 220, as quoted by Cohen, p. 155.
6. Chris Steinbrunner and Burt Goldblatt, Cinema of the Fantastic (New York, 1972). p.52.
7. Rudy Behlmet, “Merian C. Cooper.” Films in Review. 17:1 (January 1966), p. 18.