The Making Of 'King Kong': Screams, Score And More There are many things that make the 1933 movie King Kong great — the special effects, the image of the giant ape climbing the Empire State Building, Fay Wray's screams — and the score, composed by Max Steiner. Film historian Rudy Behlmer tells the story of the movie's score and special effects.
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The Making Of 'King Kong': Screams, Score And More

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The Making Of 'King Kong': Screams, Score And More

The Making Of 'King Kong': Screams, Score And More

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(Soundbite of music)

TERRY GROSS, host:

With the new film "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" opening this weekend, we thought you might want to hear about the most famous ape movie of them all, "King Kong," which was released in 1933.

(Soundbite of movie, "King Kong")

Unidentified Man #1: (as character) What are you going to do?

Mr. ROBERT ARMSTRONG: (as Carl Denham) I'll build a raft to float him to the ship. Why, the whole world will pay to see this.

Unidentified Man #1: (as character) No chains will ever hold that.

Mr. ARMSTRONG: (as Carl Denham) 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'll be up in lights on Broadway: Kong, the eighth wonder of the world.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: That was Robert Armstrong as Carl Denham, the producer who journeys to Skull Island in the Indian Ocean to capture the giant ape and bring him to New York to star in a theater spectacle.

There are many things that make "King Kong" great: the special effects, the image of the giant ape climbing the Empire State building, Fay Wray's screams and the score composed by Max Steiner.

In 1999, after the soundtrack of the film dialogue and music was released on CD, I spoke with film historian Rudy Behlmer who wrote the liner notes. We talked about how the film's director, Merian C. Cooper, used what was then state of the art special effects.

Cooper refused to use a man in a gorilla suit for "King Kong," and so they went with, you know, the puppet and stop time animation. Why didn't he want to use a man in a gorilla suit? It certainly would have been a lot easier.

Mr. RUDY BEHLMER (Historian, writer): Well, he felt that this had to be something different. And, of course, there had always been these men running around in gorilla suits in all kinds of movies that were made in the '20s and early '30s and, you know, that was fine but he wanted to do something special.

And when he saw over at RKO Willis O'Brien who was the chief technician working on some stop motion material for a picture called "Creation," which was never made, and he saw these dinosaurs he thought wait a minute, nobody's going to finance me during the Depression to go over to Africa and shoot a gorilla and then bring the gorilla to Komodo and so forth and so forth.

When he saw that process at RKO he thought wait a minute, this is the way to do "King Kong." So he wanted to do it via the stop motion. But to hedge his bet he also had a huge full-sized bust of Kong constructed and a hand and arm of Kong constructed and a foot, so that for some shots, for example when he's holding Fay Wray in his hands, you've got the hand. When you see an occasional close-up of the head it's this big oversized Kong. So he - but we did not want to shoot a man in a gorilla suit. He just drew the line right there.

GROSS: I've always thought that Kong's size and his, you know, relative size to buildings and people keeps changing throughout the movie.

Mr. BEHLMER: Youre absolutely right on that Terry, it does keep changing. And this, once again, was people were saying well, wait a minute, we built on a scale of 18 inches to a foot, meaning that he would be 18 feet high and yet you want to make him - he said I want to make him - for this scene I want to make him bigger.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. BEHLMER: I want to make him 24 - and they all kind of looked at him like -I want to make him 24 feet. And then on occasion he said forget the 18 to 24, I want to make him 45, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BEHLMER: So it does keep changing. But he felt that the concept - when he got to New York he definitely had to be bigger because of the environment. And, of course, Cooper was right. Cooper had to, you know, do a lot of fighting for things that he believed in. But inevitably I found through the years he was right.

GROSS: Now "King Kong" is really filled with a lot of bondage imagery. You know, Fay Wray in flimsy chiffony dresses and lingerie...

Mr. BEHLMER: Yes.

GROSS: ...tied at the stake on the island or pulled out of her bed by Kong's giant arm in New York. Do you think that Cooper was intentionally playing to a kind of low-level bondage S&M kind of thing?

Mr. BEHLMER: I don't think so. I think that he just thought this would be great material. You know, I don't think he ever gave thought to that sort of thing. He obviously wanted to use a woman and he had not used a woman really in his documentaries but he did want to use - and he did like Fay Wray. He had used her in "Four Feathers," the Cooper-Schoedsack production of '29, and he used her in "The Most Dangerous Game," which is a wonderful short story by Richard Connell that he was producing concurrently with "King Kong" at RKO. She was in that and she was running around in the same jungle that - she'd be shooting in the jungle during the day for "The Most Dangerous Game" and at night with Cooper for "King Kong.

And for "King Kong" he wanted her in a blond wig. She was actually a brunette, which she appears to be in "The Most Dangerous Game." But he thought that the beauty and the beast meant that the beauty should be a blond, so she wore a blond wig. And he was great friends with her and admired her and they remained friends over the years.

GROSS: What would you say the importance of Max Steiner's score is for "King Kong?" I mean I love the score, but I find something very amusing about it, which is that although it's set on this island, Skull Island, the music is really very European and nothing like what would have been heard in the region at that time. And I'll play this scene in a moment. But, you know, when they first get to the island, when the American film crew first gets to the island...

Mr. BEHLMER: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...and they're watching this, you know, native ritual...

Mr. BEHLMER: Yes.

GROSS: ...the natives are chanting Kong, Kong, Kong.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And there is a sudden march behind them as a kind of precursor of Kong's footsteps that will be marching toward...

Mr. BEHLMER: Yes.

GROSS: ...toward his prey. And the march is a very European forum and the brass instruments playing are so European and yet this defines a kind of, you know, South Sea island or African kind of Hollywood sound.

Mr. BEHLMER: That's true. Well, of course, Max and everybody else associated with this picture knew we were dealing with a fantasy here, it's a total fantasy. A more - as Cooper said, a more illogical picture could never have been thought up.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BEHLMER: And it is illogical if you stop and examine it from that standpoint. But the music, you know, they weren't saying well, wait a minute, you have to get something that indigenous to this area. We have to be authentic. We have to be like a documentary and, you know, it was full reign of the imagination. And, of course, Max composed in a full Wagnerian manner, you know, with leitmotifs and with all kinds of percussive effects that could be used and he just went all out. And the aspect of credibility, you forget about that because once again, we're dealing in the world of fantasy - the ultimate world of fantasy.

GROSS: Well, let's hear that scene where the film crew is observing this native ritual where the natives are chanting Kong.

(Soundbite of movie, "King Kong")

Unidentified Woman #1: (as character) What do you suppose is happening?

Unidentified Man #2: (as character) Oh, they're up to some of their tricks. But don't go rushing out to see.

Unidentified Woman #1: (as character) All right. But isn't it exciting?

Unidentified Man #2: (as character) Sure. I wish we'd left you on the ship.

Unidentified Woman #1: (as character) Oh, I'm so like you didn't.

Unidentified Man #2: (as character) Well, easy now. Wait until I see what goes on.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #2: (as character) Holy mackerel, what a show. Hey Skipper, come here and get a load of this.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #2: (as character) Ever seen anything like that before in your life?

(Soundbite of music) (Soundbite of chants of Kong)

GROSS: Pure musical delirium.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Got to love that.

Mr. BEHLMER: And frenzy, frenzy and delirium.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. BEHLMER: I think that would be a good team.

GROSS: Well, the other memorable sounds in "King Kong" include, of course, Fay Wray's screams and the roar of Kong himself. Let's start with Fay Wray is screams. You know, in the movie of Carl Denham, the character who wants to like wrangle Kong and bring him back for a nightclub act, he says to the Fay Wray character, he's kind of like teaching her how to screen. He says okay, pretend you're screaming for your life, which of course, she later has to do.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Do you know what kind of advice Fay Wray was given about how she should scream?

Mr. BEHLMER: Well, the interesting thing is that, of course, if she had done as much screaming when they were shooting this film as it appears to be, she would have been hoarse on the fourth day of shooting. Most of her screams were post recorded. After the picture finished shooting they took her into a sound booth and she did wild screams. And they used those screams, so fortunately she had one major screaming session...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BEHLMER: ...which, once again, was after the film finished shooting.

GROSS: Of course, King Kong has a very memorable roar. What do you know about how that was achieved?

Mr. BEHLMER: Well, a remarkable man by the name of Murray Spivak, who was the head of the sound department at RKO Radio Pictures at the time. He was confronted with this film, you know, and thought what can I do? It can't sound like some animal, it has to be a distinctive sound. So he went out and he recorded the roar of a lion and the roar of a tiger, and he was playing things at different speeds and playing them backwards and then combining them. And then even for some of Kong's grunts and things he recorded himself doing...

(Soundbite of grunts)

Mr. BEHLMER: ...in a little megaphone type deal. So the sound is a kind of a combination of many things. It sounds like a roar but it's not a roar that you can identify, which, of course, he wanted to do. But by altering the speeds of the recordings and taking two different animals and overlapping them, of course, you can do all kinds of things.

GROSS: Film historian Rudy Behlmer recorded in 1999.

Coming up, Ken Tucker reviews the new album by Fountains of Wayne.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

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