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LIANE HANSEN, host:

In 1932, when director Merian Cooper was shooting a film called "The Most Dangerous Game," he approached his leading lady about a role in a new movie he was planning.

Ms. FAY WRAY (Actress): He said, you're going to have the tallest, darkest leading man in Hollywood.

HANSEN: Fay Wray hoped he was referring to Cary Grant. He wasn't. His leading man actually wasn't very tall at all, about 18 inches high, but on screen, he was colossal.

(Soundbite of "King Kong")

Unidentified Actor #1: Did you ever hear of Kong?

(Soundbite of foreboding music)

HANSEN: Now, 75 years after its premiere, there's hardly anyone who hasn't heard of "King Kong." For our series In Character, about famous American fictional icons, Robert Malesky profiles one of film's most enduring creations.

Mr. MERIAN COOPER (Film Director; Creator, "King Kong"): I was a little, timid boy. Put that on your tape if you want. I made myself be a champion boxer and wrestler. I fought three consecutive wars. I'm King Kong.

ROBERT MALESKY: That was Merian Cooper, the man who created "King Kong." He might have said he was King Kong, but most people who knew Cooper's life and the groundbreaking film he made think he was much more like another character in that movie, Carl Denham, the man who leads the expedition to Skull Island in search of the legendary beast.

Like Denham, Cooper and his partner, Ernest Schoedsack, were adventurers who traveled the world filming documentaries in remote corners of the globe. And like Denham, when Cooper set his mind to something, he let nothing get in his way. In 1931, he got in his head to make a gorilla picture. No one was interested except David O. Selznick at RKO.

Mr. COOPER: This picture took a year to make and RKO was short of money, very short. Now David played one vital part. He was the only human being that backed me up 100 percent. And he never looked at the rushes, he didn't know what the hell I was doing. Everybody thought it was nuts and everybody wanted me to put a man in the gorilla suit, and it would have been just horrible.

MALESKY: "King Kong" was a huge hit in 1933 and saved RKO from bankruptcy. The reasons for its popularity were numerous: groundbreaking animation by special effects master Willis O'Brien. A majestic, historic score by composer Max Steiner. A solid cast, featuring iconic screamer Fay Wray, and a great storyline of high adventure whose main theme was specifically outlined in the film.

(Soundbite of "King Kong")

Mr. ROBERT ARMSTRONG: (As Carl Denham) Miss Darrow's the story. If it hadn't been for her we couldn't have gotten near Kong. He followed her back to the village. Beauty and the beast, huh? That's it. Play up that angle. Beauty and the beast. Kong could have stayed safe where he was, but he couldn't stay away from beauty. That's your story, boys.

Unidentified Actors: That's the story, all right.

MALESKY: The beauty and beast theme is repeated over and over throughout the film. But it's easy to read other, sometimes darker themes into "King Kong." The racial aspect of the original movie is unavoidable.

Dr. CYNTHIA ERB (Director of Film Studies, Wayne State University): I think most people who know the film would say to one degree or another that it is a racist film.

MALESKY: Cynthia Erb is the director of film studies at Wayne State University and the author of "Tracking King Kong: A Hollywood Icon in World Culture."

Dr. ERB: At that time, in the early '30s, the jungle genre like "Tarzan" was very popular. So there were a lot of movies set in kind of exotic locations. And the depiction of natives was often, you know, patronizing, stereotypical, racist. I think it does happen with the Skull Islanders.

(Soundbite of "King Kong")

Unidentified Actor #1: (Unintelligible)

Unidentified Actor #2: What's that? Look at the golden woman.

Unidentified Actor #3: Yeah. Blondes are scarce around here.

Dr. ERB: There is certainly an interpretation of King Kong himself as an extension of the Skull Islanders, as a black character that is also racist. In my opinion, it always has this other dimension that focuses so much on King Kong as a victim and on the Carl Denham character as a real intruder, as a certain type who really is very clueless about the space that he is conquering. So for me, that always kind of complicates the argument. But there are certainly different ways of reading the film.

MALESKY: And it wasn't just race. Women come in for their share of disrespect, as well.

(Soundbite of "King King")

Mr. ARMSTRONG: (As Carl Denham) Holy mackerel! Do you think I want to haul a woman around?

Unidentified Actor #4: Then why?

Mr. ARMSTRONG: (As Carl Denham) Because the public, bless 'em, must have a pretty face to look at.

Unidentified Actor #4: Sure, everybody likes romance.

Mr. ARMSTRONG: (As Carl Denham) Well, isn't there any romance or adventure in the world without having a flapper in it?

MALESKY: But as Carl Denham just said, they needed the woman for the film, especially for what comes later. Once the scene shifts from New York to Skull Island, "King Kong" hums with an undercurrent of eroticism. There is bondage imagery and a very famous disrobing scene, where Kong slowly peels away Ann Darrow's dress, then holds it up to his nose and sniffs.

(Soundbite of "King Kong")

Ms. FAY WRAY: (As Ann Darrow) (Screaming)

Dr. ERB: I've read fans who quote Cooper as saying that moment is supposed to be about peeling petals from a rose.

MALESKY: Cynthia Erb.

Ms. ERB: I think Cooper did not want people to look at the film that way. But "King Kong" is famously a pre-code film. And despite what Cooper and Schoedsack said, I feel that that use of Skull Island has a very kind of erotic landscape and Fay Wray was a very sexy actress. So that I feel that there is a definite eroticism there. I kind of think that he stands for a strange kind of animal love.

MALESKY: The unasked question in the movie is about, well, sex. What exactly does Kong intend to do with his captive girl? It's a question Cooper biographer Mark Cotta Vaz thinks the filmmaker never even contemplated. He spoke to WHYY's Fresh Air in 2005.

Mr. MARK COTTA VAZ (Merian Cooper biographer): It's something that people will debate. I mean, there is this one book that came out that talked about the whole rape thing, you know. And Merian Cooper and Dorothy Jordan, they were a great couple and they were worldly people but they were pretty conservative and you know, he was a good Southern gentleman. And just the idea of people talking like that, I always have this image of Cooper just cringing, you know, because I honestly don't think that was his intent. I think it was more the idea of beauty being totally vulnerable. It was maybe less a bondage thing as it was just exposing her. He wanted to do a sacrificial ritual thing. She's put out there to be sacrificed.

MALESKY: To many, the eroticism and racism of the original film are just side themes and part of the fabric of 1930s America. "King Kong" deals with larger themes, as well. Washington Post critic Tom Shales.

Mr. TOM SHALES (Critic, Washington Post): I think it's a great 20th century story in which we confront our own primal origins, try to imagine civilizing them, which is, in effect, a kind of corruption of them, and then the tragedy is the result. I don't think beauty killed the beast. I don't think that's at all the moral of the tale, even though that was stated and restated throughout the whole movie. I think it's more of an allegory about modern man facing his own nature.

(Soundbite of "King Kong")

Unidentified Actor #5: No chain will ever hold that.

Unidentified Actor #6: We'll give him more than chains. He's always been king of his world, but we'll teach him fear. We're millionaires, boys. I'll share it with all of you. Why, in a few months it will be up and light on Broadway. Kong, the Eighth Wonder of the World!

MALESKY: The film historian and critic Richard Schickel said that one of the reasons a work of popular art endures is because it has unanswered questions and people can read things into it. That's certainly true of "King Kong." But at its heart, it's a timeless adventure story. Yet the question remains, what was it about the character of Kong himself that drew audiences to him? Cynthia Erb believes it's the work done by animator Willis O'Brien, who made Kong real, human and larger than life, despite the restrictions of stop-motion animation.

Dr. ERB: In reality, this is an 18-inch puppet. And I think that Willis O'Brien was amazingly able to animate this creature so that he in fact seems to stand several stories high. It's very believable. He was just a genius at animation, and a lot of the things that spell King Kong - his hugeness, his rebellions, his love, his animal qualities - have to do with O'Brien's obsessive, very careful way of bringing him to life.

MALESKY: O'Brien, Cooper and Schoedsack tried to capitalize on their success by releasing a sequel, "Son of Kong," the same year as the original. But they couldn't recreate the magic. Others, most recently Peter Jackson in 2005, have also tried with varying degrees of success. The remakes and a raft of other minor Kong movies over the decades only serve to highlight the power of the 1933 original.

For film fans everywhere, Merian Cooper's Kong will always remain the king, the Eighth Wonder of the World. For NPR News, I am Robert Malesky.

(Soundbite of "King Kong" film score)

HANSEN: For more about "King Kong" or for other stories in the In Character series, go to our web site at npr.org. This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

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