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The Old Story Of King Kong

The 1933 film that defined the American monster movie wouldn't exist without racism, tribalism, and sexism

New Mexico, 1918. A teenager named Bruce Cabot is out on the plains, scavenging dead cows for bone meal. Airplanes have existed for 15 years, affordable cars have been around for 10 years, and the Titanic has been at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean for six years. Bruce is not thinking about any of that. He's thinking about cattle remains and, presumably, how excruciatingly hot it gets in New Mexico. Pretty soon he'll take a grown-up job as a deckhand, and he'll bum around post-war France and Spain, and by 1933 he'll be famous, because zoos don't usually have monkeys in them.

King Kong, the 1933 touchstone that defined the American monster movie, would not exist without all the monkey-based films that came before it, like Jazz Monkey in 1919 or A Prohibition Monkey in 1920. At the time, film was the only convenient way for most people to see a monkey in motion, and Americans were hungry for it. They really, really needed to see some damn monkeys, these strange creatures from faraway lands that move a bit like people and act a bit like people and yet are not people. If you'd read about one but hadn't seen one in motion, the idea would intrigue you too. A Prohibition Monkey would blow your mind.

King Kong also wouldn't exist without the old American iniquities: racism and lying. The year is 1930 and the movie is Ingagi. It was ostensibly a documentary about two explorers, Sir Hubert Winstead of Britain and American sportsman Captain Daniel Swayne, who go on safari to Africa. While there, they discover a primitive African jungle tribe that sacrifices scantily clad women to an ape-god. It's heavily implied that the ape-god then has sexual intercourse with the scantily clad women, who then give birth to ape-children. The promotional materials were shocking for their time, featuring a gorilla groping a topless woman. A potent mix of virulent racism and virulent sexism, Ingagi made more than $4,000,000, roughly a billion-zillion dollars in today's money.

It should surprise no one that instead of being real, Ingagi was a bunch of bullshit. The credible safari footage was stolen from preexisting documentaries. The "pygmies" who were "discovered" by the "explorers" were played by black American children. The jungle was the Los Angeles Zoo. The explorers were made up. The native women were from Central Casting. And the ape-god wasn't even a real ape-god. He was just Charles Gemora, a makeup artist and actor known around town as "the king of the gorilla men."

You can't see Ingagi today. It's just about gone. There are known prints out there somewhere, and probably a few unknown prints lingering in storage units and attics waiting for a harsh beam of light to kill them, but it's basically lost to history. Not just because it's presumably unwatchable even as kitsch, but because three years after its release, nobody needed it anymore. RKO Radio Pictures saw the box-office take of Ingagi and used it as precedent to finance King Kong, the monster movie to end all monster movies.

By 1933, Bruce Cabot, the teenager who’d roamed New Mexico picking at cow skeletons, had found himself in Los Angeles at the right party, and he had a new career as a movie star. That was pretty normal back then. Movies hadn't been around very long. The first talkie was only about five years old. Just knowing how to ride a horse could be enough to get you into the business, which is why cowboys would mill around in full costume on Gower Street by the Columbia Drug Company. Everybody was winging it, hoping to get lucky.

King Kong was lucky, because it entered the collective unconscious immediately. Lucky because it buried moral ugliness on par with Ingagi’s in some of the best operatic melodrama the movies have ever shown us, because it was more than what was wrong with it. A gorilla scales the tallest building in the world for the love of a woman and gets killed because of it. It's part of Hollywood myth — which is to say regular myth, on an extremely accelerated timeline. It's so mythical that people try to make the movie again every few decades, using progressively fancier gadgets to tell the same story.

But 1933 wasn't that long ago. Yes, pretty much everybody involved in King Kong is dead, but they've got living kids and grandkids, and it's not like they didn't have cars or indoor plumbing. It just seems like a long time ago because every movement in society happens fast now. Trends show up, cultural events smash into you, they're everywhere — and then they're nowhere. It all happens in the blink of an eye, and it can make something as recent as a movie, an art form that has been around for about half a heartbeat of history, seem impossibly old when it's in fact quite new. But you can count on the dark constants of human behavior, from the racism and the tribalism and the sexism to the deception and the lies and the unapologetic naked greed. When you look at life that way, no stories are old stories.