Willis O'Brien is the man primarily credited with bringing King Kong to the screen, but in truth, Kong was the brainchild of Merian Cooper, a truly larger-than-life film producer, on whom the character of Carl Denham was modeled. Cooper had been a fighter pilot in World War I, a POW after he was shot down behind enemy lines, and- with his partner Ernest Schoedsack- had traveled to the wilds of Asia and Africa to film documentaries. Cooper imagined King Kong as the logical extension of his true life exploits; exaggerated but a recognizable caricature of his experiences. Originally he had wanted a real gorilla to portray Kong, and even wanted to have it fight a Komodo dragon! (Call the Humane Society!) We can all be grateful he encountered Willis O'Brien (who was working on his own dinosaur film- Creation) and decided to produce Kong and the monsters of Skull Island using stop-motion. I doubt anyone in 1933 could have tolerated the spectacle of a live gorilla in real combat with a Komodo dragon. I suspect the film would have either been banned outright or been little more than a grisly footnote in motion picture history. The idea was Cooper's, but the majesty and spectacle of the film belong to O'Brien. The miniature jungle settings created by O'Brien's crew with multiple glass paintings created an otherworldly quality to Skull Island that could not be duplicated by shooting on location- as Cooper had originally envisioned.
To be sure, the film is very much a product of a simpler time. However, if the acting in Kong is compared to its early 1930's contemporaries in the horror/fantasy genre, it holds up quite well. Cooper and Schoedsack understood the necessity of establishing the characters before Kong's entrance, but kept dialog to a minimum. The story is told visually, with camera-work furthering plot points that may have seemed didactic otherwise. The film is carried by not only its visual imagery, but by one of the first feature length music scores. This was an innovation that put King Kong ahead its sound contemporaries, which relied quite heavily on the spoken word and direction alone. There is a ten minute sequence in the center of the film- after the death of the tyrannosaurus until the escape of Ann and Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot) from Kong's lair- that is told entirely with visuals, music, and sound effects. It is in large part due to the score that much of Kong's emotional impact is conveyed, particularly in its finale atop the Empire State Building. Steiner was able to suggest Kong's emotional state, assisting O'Brien in providing empathy to a creature who in reality was only an 18 inch high puppet.
It is a mistake to compare Kong technically or artistically with films from later decades. Consider the cultural context in which King Kong was produced. America was in the darkest days of the Depression. World War II was seven years away, and nobody outside of a few physicists knew what 'atomic bomb' meant. Kong truly was the 'Eighth Wonder of the World' just as the Empire State Building was at the time considered the greatest technological marvel. As Cooper envisioned it, Kong was an adventure escapist film, offering Depression-Era audiences something that at the time would be considered the 'ultimate in adventure.' Whether or not Peter Jackson's proposed remake of Kong can maintain these qualities of showmanship and adventure is a matter of wait and see: to today's audiences Kong no longer represents something 'all powerful' or able to 'lick the world' as Carl Denham described him back in 1933. Even setting the remake in 1933 will have its difficulties, since the film will then be a period piece rather than a contemporary story, as both the original film and the 1976 remake were, and audience involvement may be more limited.
Like Star Wars, King Kong was a made for the movies myth, not based directly on any previous source other than Cooper and O'Brien's imagination. It spawned one of the first monster movie sequels, one remake, (so far) and countless imitations, parodies, and merchandise. Among fantasy films, only the Wizard of Oz can rival King Kong for the sheer longevity of popularity, but while Oz provided escapist entertainment, it did so in a lighter fashion. Kong provided escapism but of a more disturbing and haunting kind.
Here's to ya, Obie, and Coop!
Oh no, it wasn't the airplanes. It was Beauty killed the Beast.