Camp and Circumstance: The Problematic Wonder of The Lost World and King Kong

This essay first appeared on Fourth & Sycamore.


Adventure is the name of the game for the first matinee double feature hosted by the Third Floor Film Series. On Saturday, June 13, at 11:00 a.m. we’ll be screening the 1925 silent classic The Lost World and the 1933 classicKing Kong. We’d love to see you there.

Both of these films were groundbreaking in their use of stop-motion special effects, which we’ll look at more in a moment. Rather than being dated by these primitive effects, the films hold up remarkably well. Both are wonderful adventure films, as entertaining today as they’ve ever been.

The Lost World was adapted from the eponymous novel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. While the story is changed somewhat in the adaptation, the basic format is the same. Professor Challenger reports having seen prehistoric beasts on an isolated plateau in South America and becomes the laughingstock of the London scientific community. He stands by his claims and organizes an expedition to return to the jungle to verify his reports. His party consists of a famous big game hunter, a young reporter, and the daughter of Challenger’s former partner, a man who went missing on the first trip. They discover Challenger’s lost world, and return to England with aBrontosaurus (what we would now call an Apatosaurus) in the belly of their ship. The beast gets loose and terrorizes London. The movie ends with Challenger sitting on a bridge, distraught but vindicated.

Lost World Challenger
Above: a completely reliable scientist.

In King Kong, a sensational movie director named Carl Denham convinces a hardy crew to travel by ship to a remote island off the coast of Africa in search of a mythical monster. Denham hopes to make a movie from the adventure, and he brings a beautiful but heretofore undiscovered blonde actress named Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) along in hopes of getting some good shots of her in harm’s way. After much of the party is killed by Kong, the giant gorilla who inhabits the island, they are able at last to capture the beast and return him to New York City. He escapes. Carnage, death, etcetera. Finally, he is gunned down on top of the Empire State Building in one of the most iconic sequences in all of cinema.

The stories are familiar and have been updated or ripped off in countless adventure films of varying quality ever since. The excellent 2009 Pixar animated film Up even lovingly winks at The Lost World by replicating the landscape features of the older film’s plateau and rock spire. What makes the original films stand out is the special effects mastery of Willis O’Brien.

Lost World Pterosaur
The plateau in The Lost World.

As a young man O’Brien had a natural talent for art and sculpting, though he exercised his skills only as a hobby until being given a job as a draftsman at an architectural firm, and then graduating to a newspaper cartoonist’s position. He continued to make sculptures, and was particularly interested in prehistoric animals. He made a 90 second stop-motion film that impressed Thomas Edison enough to earn him a job making more such films for Edison’s motion picture company. O’Brien began working with Ralph Hammeras, an accomplished practitioner of the “glass shot,” (a technique in which backgrounds could be painted onto a glass panel that part of a shot would then be photographed through) and Marcel Delgado, a nineteen-year-old art student from Mexico who was a gifted sculptor. Eventually, O’Brien was tapped for the special effects work in Harry O. Hoyt’s feature filmThe Lost World, and he brought Hammeras and Delgado along with him. Delgado made more than fifty dinosaur models for the film.

The Lost World might be the only film in history in which the special effects artist is the true auteur of the film, much more so than the movie’s director. Hoyt’s scenes with the human actors almost feel like the work of a second unit. They aren’t much more than supporting shots that fill in the gaps between the important stuff. The dinosaur sequences are the most visually compelling, technically accomplished, and narratively important in the film.

The miniature sets were specially built to allow O’Brien easy access to manipulate the dinosaur models from behind. He worked basically as a puppeteer, reaching through hidden holes in the small, elevated sets to move the models. The models themselves, about a foot and a half long, were built on steel skeletons with sponge flesh and skin made of rubber dental dam. Some were equipped with football bladders so breathing could more easily be simulated. O’Brien alone manipulated the models to ensure no break in continuity would disrupt the stop-motion action. This laborious work took about fourteen months, at a rate of about thirty seconds of usable footage per ten hour day.

O’Brien, Hammeras, and Delgado continued to develop their craft until unleashing the wonder of Kong upon audiences in 1933 under the direction of Merian C. Cooper. The special effects used here are nothing short of stunning. Stop-motion animation, split screens, and double exposure combine to create a visual effects accomplishment that, in context of its time, wouldn’t be rivaled until Jurassic Park sixty years later (we are still waiting for an heir to that estimable effects accomplishment). The sequence in Kong in which the titular gorilla battles a Tyrannosaurus is amazing given the work that was required to complete this three minute battle. The entirely computer-rendered version of this scene in Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake is impressive in its own right and looks better than most CGI action sequences in today’s movies, but this digital action can’t rival the visceral fun and technical wonder of O’Brien’s primitive work with sculpted models. The fact that there is no possibility of believing the scene is real allows us to behind the curtain to admire the mastery of the artists and craftsmen creating what we see. The seams show, yes, but they are impressively sewn.

King Kong Kong 1
Our first view of Kong as he emerges from the jungle to grab Ann Darrow (Fay Wray).

Unfortunately, one of the things we have to talk about when we look at these films, especially Kong, is the racism that pervades them. In The Lost World this is restricted to one main offense: there is a minor character in a few scenes played by a white actor in blackface. In King Kong, the problem is much more expansive. Plenty has been written about the issue of racism in King Kong, but it never becomes less troubling.

On initial viewing, the most obvious racism of the film is contained in the depiction and treatment of the tribe native to Kong’s island. Played by black actors, they crudely mimic forms of familiar African tribal dance, music, and dress, and are treated as barely-sentient savages by the exclusively white film crew. Depicted as ignorant and cruel, they are nothing more than an obstacle for the film’s Caucasian protagonists. This, however, is the lesser of the two major racist issues in the film.

The biggest is Kong himself.

Much has been written over the years about the racist symbolism of the Kong character. In a film in which white men must act as saviors to rescue a white woman in a white dress from the clutches of a large, black antagonist who plucks her from her bedroom in a big city and carries her away to unknown danger and horror, it isn’t too difficult to suss out the problematic undercurrents of the story. Kong lives on an African island, is brought by ship to the United States in chains, is put on display for an entirely white audience. He then finds himself freed and begins rampaging through an American urban center, carrying away white women from their white male protectors. His anger and presumed sexual aggression are cartoonish in their exaggeration. It takes a lot of bullets from men in uniforms to subdue him. You don’t need me to spell out the problems here.

America in the early 1930s when King Kong was made was still in the throes of the Depression, and work was hard to come by. Black men were the last ones hired for jobs and the first ones fired from them, but their mere presence and need for work led them to be seen as an economic threat to white men in the cities. Of course, in Jim Crow America, black men were seen as a sexual threat to white women by default. Both concerns are exorcised in Kong, as Kong destroys the professional ambitions of white men, works violence throughout an otherwise gentrified area of New York City, and threatens the safety and (presumably) the sexual sanctity of a white-robed white woman. Even the occasional effort in the film given to showing sympathy toward Kong, seeing him as a beast who thinks he’s protecting something pretty and doesn’t know the harm he’s doing, are deeply condescending and dehumanizing at best. An awareness of the racist imagery intrinsic to the Kong story makes viewing the film a fraught experience, one that can never be divorced from the racist legacy of white America.

King Kong Fay 8
Fay Wray as Ann Darrow in the clutches of Kong.

We could also dive in head first to the problem of sexism in these movies, exemplified in the intentional positioning of virginal young women in harm’s way for the sake of having them threatened and then rescued (in the case of Kong this is even stated explicitly within the film), and we can certainly explore that during the discussion after the screening. For now though it’s more enjoyable to dwell on the talent and appeal of the two actresses in question (indeed, the only two with significant roles in the two films): Bessie Love as Paula White in The Lost World and Fay Wray as Ann Darrow in King Kong. These women were made for black and white; blonde tresses and willowy figures etched onto the screen like silver visions. Love had a successful career bridging the silent and sound eras, though she has largely been forgotten today. Wray of course passed into immortality with the Kong role, and though she never again rivaled her success in that film, she became one of cinema’s first scream queens with her roles in a series of other monster and horror films. Here they are bearers of grace of in otherwise violent pictures.

Lost World Paula 1
Bessie Love as Paula White in The Lost World.

Be sure to join us for these classic adventure films on Saturday, June 13, at 11:00 am. You won’t want to miss the opportunity to see these stunning accomplishments in special effects on the library’s 80″ flat screen. See you there!

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