King Kong as he first appeared in 1933
As a general rule. I always try my best to stay away from politics when writing this classic horror blog. I do this for very obvious reasons. Its because I believe that true movie entertainment relieves of the viewer from the weight and pain of trivial and daily responsibilities. It takes them to a place where they can escape into alternate thought and the suspension of reality.
I believe that 1920’s and 1930’s were Hollywood’s greatest time period. It was in those early days when Men like Lon Chaney fascinated people with his persona of a thousand faces. And Carl Laemmle Jr founded Universal Studios, A movie giant which gave us so many great films. The early days of of movie making was a time of free thought and free expression and a new path to self creation.
I was raised on TV reruns on basic black and white TV in the 1960’s. I am still a huge fan of classic horror. Universal’s genre of monsters, horror and suspense top the list for me. So it was just serendipity that I began to write a short run of a monster magazine called “Monsters After Midnight”. I was also privileged to write an article for Scary Monsters Magazine which was published. I have written about many horror characters. But up until this time, I had never written an article about King Kong. However, I now feel compelled to do so. I’m almost sad to admit that I am writing this article/ blog post in King Kong’s defense. But first, let me get into Kong’s history.
King Kong was among the very first of the “giant monster” films to appear on the big screen. Kong was by the story line, a God (note the capital G). To the fictional tribal people who resided on the same mysterious Island that King Kong originated from. Kong the God, was a symbol of strength, fertility and fear to those around him. He appeared to be by his scale, to be about fifty feet plus tall. He was modeled after a male silver back Gorilla who held status above all other animals on the island, including man.
People were fascinated by Kong during this time because no one knew anything about Gorillas. In fact gorillas held the same mythical status as the creature big foot does today. That’s because only a small number of people had seen ever one in the wild. It was in 1902 that we first learned of this gorilla. The public fell in love with the gorilla. And it was early film that brought the mountain gorilla its fame.
The mountain gorilla was first discovered by a German officer, named Captain Robert von Beringe in 1902. Prior to this time, only lowland gorillas were known to exist. The mountain gorilla subspecies name is derived from Captain Robert von Beringe’s last name (Gorilla beringei beringei).
KING KONG 1933
Kong Kong first appeared in the 1933 film King Kong, which was produced by RKO Pictures. The film featured a new technique in film making called “stop animation” . This process allowed animators to use three dimensional figures. Giving scenes more depth and reality. The film received universal acclaim upon its initial release and re-releases. Many sequels followed quickly Including The Son of Kong, featuring Little Kong. In the 1960s, Toho produced King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962), pitting a larger Kong against Toho’s own Godzilla, and King Kong Escapes (1967), based on The King Kong Show (1966–1969) from Rankin/Bass Productions. In 1976, Dino De Laurentiis produced a modern remake of the original filmdirected by John Guillermin. A sequel, King Kong Lives, followed a decade later featuring a Lady Kong. Another remake of the original, this time set in 1933, was released in 2005 from filmmaker Peter Jackson.
The most recent film, Kong: Skull Island (2017), set in 1973, is part of Legendary Entertainment‘s MonsterVerse, which began with Legendary’s reboot of Godzilla in 2014. A crossover sequel, Godzilla vs. Kong, once again pitting the characters against one another, is currently planned for 2020.
The character King Kong has become one of the world’s most famous movie icons, having inspired a number of sequels, remakes, spin-offs, imitators, parodies, cartoons, books, comics, video games, theme park rides, and a stage play. His role in the different narratives varies, ranging from a rampaging monster to a tragic antihero. (ref wikipedia) The success of the Kong franchise is a direct response to the love of King Kong by his fans and the people who love the genre.
Enter 21st Century politics
Thanks to social media, I recently ran into a local story about a sportscaster by the name of Gary Dolphin, who calls the play by play for the Iowa Hawkeye’s games. Dolphin is in fact considered the voice of the Iowa Hawkeye’s. However, his reputation and career are now mired in controversy because he used the name of King Kong to describe the actions of a African american basketball player on the court.
Hawkeye Sports Properties, the multimedia rights manager for University of Iowa athletics, announced the suspension of Gary Dolphin just hours before the 21st-ranked Hawkeyes were to host Indiana University.
Fernando had 11 points and 11 rebounds, including a go-ahead putback with 7.8 seconds left, to help No. 24 Maryland beat Iowa 66-65 on Tuesday night in Iowa City. In describing the game’s closing moments, Dolphin said the 6-foot-10-inch, 240-pound African-American who was born in Angola “was King Kong at the end of the game.”(Ref VOA news https://www.voanews.com/a/iowa-sportscaster-suspended-for-king-kong-comment-/4800571.html)
I am shocked a dismayed by the use of King Kong’s good name in this situation. Though I am not surprised that some people quickly rushed to judgement without analyzing the statement fully. I am not surprised that Gary Dolphin invoked his name. But I am very perplexed that other people labeled the words “King Kong” a racist term. Because nothing could be further from the truth. I am therefore here to defend King Kong. And in turn perhaps defend other peoples right to use his name as a symbol of strength, honor and perseverance.
How Do We See King Kong
When I first seen King Kong on the big screen, I am sure that my reactions were the same as many others. The first reaction is awe, the next is fear and by the end, its complete empathy. That because King Kong is a fighter. And the relationship to the heroins in Kong movies are moving and poignant. We see many parallels to our lives and how we love other humans in Kong. And its a foregone conclusion that the scripts for the Kong Movies are written that way. Certainly Kong has met other foes including Godzilla and other giant monsters throughout his run on the big screen. But at no time could King Kong’s actions represent hatred. This is because Kong fits well into the motif of classic monsters. Its because he stands shoulder to shoulder with Dracula, The Wolf man, Frankenstein’s monster, the mummy and his old nemesis Godzilla . This may sound humorous to an outside observer, but to a monster kid, writer and monster collector like myself (and there are many more of us out there), these characters are a total representation of diversity.
Boogie men (and monsters) live in our mind’s eye
The best horror and suspense movies are the ones that show us nothing but darkness and shadows and depend on our own minds to scare the hell out of us. The media of the 21st century are indeed experts at using our own shadows to scare us. They make us scared of words. Words have no real power until they are weaponized or misused. Did Gary Dolphin misuse Kong’s name? I am skeptical that he did. I am however completely convinced that others saw an opportunity to use King Kong’s name a s a social label to attack Gary. The real truth lies within the minds of those who labeled Mr. Dolphin and the dark corners of their own personal bias. To say that a man is like King Kong, is not an insult. To a Monster Kid (and that’s what I am) its an honor.
Gene Stevens is a writer, creator of Monsters After Midnight, President of the Des Moines Iowa Svengoolie Fan club, classic monster movie collector and historian. Born and raised in Illinois and now lives in Iowa.