There's a Whole Movie (Within a Movie) Before Kong's Big Moment

The FilmStruck Chronicles is an essay series rooted in cinema's past, but with a strong glance toward our present.

It was probably two decades in between my first viewing of the original 1933 version of King Kong and my second. And the thing I forgot in between the first viewing and the second - with a Peter Jackson and a Jordan Vogt-Roberts remake swirling around my head - is just how little time he spends atop the Empire State Building and just how precipitous and sudden his death is.

Outsized moments take on disproportionately large slivers of our memory. It’s possible there is no better cinematic example of this than King Kong, which clocks in at an eternal-for-its-era 100 minutes, and yet spends probably fewer than 10 minutes on the sequence so indelibly embedded in my memory.

Viewing the film a second time, I was positively expectant - waiting for the moment the monster was unveiled on stage in Manhattan, towering above onlookers, and then for the moment that planes circled him on one of New York City’s skyscrapers. There’s something about these scenes - quaint - even lo-fi - by modern-day standards - that still feels important, as if they are setting a direction for decades to come. (Well, they are!)

Those moments race by in the context of the rest of the film, so much so that the entire lead-up left me impatient. When it’s not in New York City, King Kong is, um, not very good in its best moments, and cringe-inducingly racist in some of its worst. Much of the plot centers on a movie within a movie - a trope that probably wasn’t quite so stale in 1933, but certainly felt so to me, the modern viewer.

And yet those last few moments - the ones where none of the middling actors in the film are playing their trade, and the ones where the imagination of a filmmaker is let loose completely are enough to make the film what it is all these years later.