King Kong’s ‘Beauty and the Beast’

In the Forrest J. Ackerman collection, one can find a variety of well-known artifacts of the film era, including work from before World War II (the oldest artifact in the collection is from 1890, a literary review that has an interesting article on Idaho if you ever get the chance to read it). I enjoy looking at these materials whenever possible to get away from my work a bit, as the focus of said work has usually been on post-war movies that reflect the gendered anxieties of containment. This week I would like to discuss King Kong, first released in 1933, re-released in 1938 and 1952, and then remade in both 1977 and 2005. My own experience with the various representations of the film has been limited–I watched the original when I was very young (the only thing I remember is that we ate tacos and fell asleep) and the Peter Jackson remake when I was in high school. I have absolutely enjoyed working with the various materials available in the collection as well as watching the various manifestations of the film.

Promotional poster from the French release of the film.  Forrest J. Ackerman papers, Collection # 2358, Box 111.  UW American Heritage Center.

Promotional poster from the French release of the film. Forrest J. Ackerman papers, Collection # 2358, Box 111. UW American Heritage Center.

In the original King Kong the character of Ann Darrow, portrayed by Fay Wray, plays a powerfully innocent feminine character throughout the movie.  Ann Darrow is a character whose femininity moves the plot–Darrow embodies the beauty that unleashes the mystery of the island. Without her it would be a bunch of dudes wandering around killing dinosaurs and scaring natives. Ann Darrow’s masculine counterpart is a character named John Driscoll (Bruce Cabot), who provides an alternative to the stereotype of masculinity that is utilized all too often in mid-20th century film; Driscoll is humble and often uncomfortable in his own skin. He loves Darrow deeply, but rather than take confident action, he awkwardly asks for her permission to be loved. Driscoll is a relief in an era of he-men.

In opposition to the other science-fiction films I have worked with, which tend to portray the masculine protagonist having most of the responsibility of moving the plot and acting as a moral arbiter, the conflict in King Kong is “beauty and the beast,” meaning that the film’s climax comes down to Ann and Kong. (Assuming that you have watched either the original or the Peter Jackson remake, you know who wins.)  It’s an oddly empowering concept of femininity in film. Yet it can also be interpreted to be misogynist as well. If the empowering element of femininity is merely the aesthetic, what does that say about women, who once again are relegated to the aesthetic and seemingly false existence of eye candy? At the same time the obvious employment of the beauty and the beast trope makes it seem like parody to a certain extent, causing a further sense of disjointedness between the aesthetic and the subconscious employment of femininity as a nefarious force. At least for Ann Darrow, her aesthetic power is what moves the plot and saves the day, which is more than can be said about many science-fiction or fantasy movies of the era.  For it wasn’t Ann Darrow who killed Kong directly, but it was society that was so intent upon killing Kong for daring to kidnap Darrow.

The need to capture both beauty and the beast at the same time, or to contain them, seems particularly telling of the power of gendered aesthetics in the American imagination. It is also revealing of how strongly we react to the dual aesthetics of beauty and beastliness in the terms of gender. Darrow and Kong share something in common, the act of being objectified for pleasure. That shared experience provides a special relationship between the two when they are on top of the Empire State Building. So high up in the air, they are on an alienated island of aesthetic objectification, sharing opposite fates of either death or recapture due to the gendered aesthetics they provide for the world. This is portrayed sincerely in both films and illuminates how important our appreciation of beauty and ugliness are in American culture.

Using the Forrest Ackerman collection to elucidate popular culture is a rewarding experience, especially when we get to use it to analyze classics like King Kong.

–Shaun Milligan, AHC Intern

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