In Black & White: The Girl in the Hairy Paw

[Originally published in Movietone News 51, August 1976]

THE GIRL IN THE HAIRY PAW: King Kong as Myth, Movie, and Monster. Edited by Ronald Gottesman and Harry Geduld. Foreword: Rudy Behlmer. Layout and Design: Anthony Basile. An Avon Books “Flare” Edition. Paperbound, coffeetable size. 286 pages, illustrated. $5.95.

A browser’s delight, this paperbound first printing has much to recommend it, but not without qualification. The Girl in the Hairy Paw, whose cover blurb calls it “a documentary study of King Kong,” combines the multicritical anthology approach of the “Focus” series with interesting archaeology into the origins of the film, and with the visual appeal of the better coffeetable editions—a sort of Citizen Kong Book. Virtually every aspect of the film is covered: an examination of the origin in myth and literature of the ape’s representation of the bestial side of man, humankind’s physical aggressiveness and sexual lust; studies of the literary precursors of the film (Jonathan Swift, Madame Leprince de Beaumont, H. Rider Haggard, Conan Doyle, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Edgar Wallace are all proposed as direct influences); the question of authorship of the actual screenplay (Edgar Wallace’s role is generally minimized in favor of Merian Cooper, Ernest Schoedsack, and Willis O’Brien, but Mark Bezanson presents an article in which he describes and quotes from a Wallace draft of the original screenplay, of which none of the others seems to have been aware, but which includes scenes found in the finished film); the process of model animation; sound dubbing; Robert Fiedel’s excellent reassessment of Max Steiner’s “corny” soundtrack score; and an anthology of the film’s influence on popular myth, including a number of parodies and cartoon recreations of the giant ape. Included are items as diverse as the magnificent storyboard drawings of Willis O’Brien (which alone are worth the price of the volume), several critical articles (most previously anthologized), Fay Wray’s reminiscences, Arnold Auerbach’s interview with Kong in retirement, Bob Newhart’s monologue of the rookie night watchman in the Empire State Building on that night of nights, Mad magazine’s famous lampoon of the film, and reproductions of posters, stills, cartoons, comic book pages, advertisements, and magazine covers using the Kong motif. The one additional thing the book’s concept seems to have called for is a printing of the film’s shooting script. Unfortunately, it hasn’t been included, nor does it seem to have occurred to the editors to do so, since they never even mention the possibility.

The Girl in the Hairy Paw is a fun book, and a modest one with only small pretensions. All is not well with it, alas. For one thing, the editors’ efforts toward completeness have led to unavoidable repetition of certain basic material. There are too many typographical errors, the most inexcusable of which are the matching of stills from Mighty Joe Young with cutlines for Son of Kong and vice versa, and the leaving of one cartoon entirely without its obviously necessary caption. In addition, the writing in several of the early articles prepared specifically for this volume is of a breathless, high-schoolish, fanzine quality, and is too frequently interrupted with unnecessary protestations of liberal conscience—statements opposing the hunting of gorillas, the so-called “racist” interpretations of Kong, and so forth. An error-ridden first-night review by Mordaunt Hall of The New York Times is nonetheless interesting for its naïveté, which alone could call forth for the first time those eternal questions about King Kong: How did they get him onto the boat, back to New York, and into the theater more or less unseen? Not one of the anthologized authors ventures a reply—though an amusing and haunting little story by Philip Jose Farmer (“After King Kong Fell”) does detail a solution to the problem raised in Harry Hurwitz’s The Projectionist (“I don’t care what killed him; who’s gonna clean up this mess??”).

In ordering the critical articles, the editors are sensitive to the continuing dialogue about this most interesting of films: from Jean Boullet’s Midi-Minuit Fantastique discussion of King Kong as the concretization of a collective archetypal dream; to Claude Ollier’s Cahiers du Cinéma critique of the film as the product of a period of economic turmoil, Kong as Nature’s response to marauding civilization; to R C Dale’s analysis of the film’s interplay of dream image and sexual motivation. Also included is X.J. Kennedy’s indispensable “Who Killed King Kong,” which sees the film’s continuing popularity as a kind of ritual/catharsis of antisocial feelings in the American audience, and which mournfully applauds King Kong as a tragic version of the fisher-king (“The tragedy of King Kong, then, is to be the beast who at the end of the fable fails to turn into the handsome prince”). Unhappily, the bottom drops out of this distinguished array with the inclusion of Kenneth Bernard’s puerile, obvious “King Kong: A Meditation,” a classic study in overinterpretation and labored attempts at comedy. For me, Bernard invalidates his critical credentials by referring throughout his article to all the film’s characters by their character names except Ann Darrow, whom he persists in calling “Fay Wray,” and to whom he ascribes the kinkiest desires and responses vis-à-vis Kong. Fay should only sue him.

One question which remains unanswered, though virtually every writer in the book takes one view or the other on it, is the eternal dilemma of whether the Beast’s destruction by Beauty is an optimistic event or a cynical truth. The editors, in their introduction, would have it both ways, remarking first that “sympathy for this ‘creature of intelligible rage’ emerges from a recognition that it is not Kong but Carl Denham and the rest who are bestial”; and then later: “This celluloid tale of Beauty toppling the Beast affirms finally that our bestiality can be mastered (though perhaps, alas, only in fantasy) by the power of Love.” That “Old Arabian Proverb” which opens the film (written by Old Arabian Merian C. Cooper) might be a misogynistic statement of the fatal dangers of woman’s beauty (as Dale would have it); but it might just as well be a celebration of the taming and civilizing power of love—depending ultimately, of course, on whether one views the film from Kong’s point of view or from Ann’s.

Judgment is not implied; no conclusion is offered; and that is as it should be. For King Kong is not a simplistic moral allegory but a masterpiece of fantastic symbolism which de-limits rather than limits its range of possible meaning and significance. Editors and authors are agreed on that. In the face of impending disaster—the release later this year of one and possibly two remakes of King Kong—The Girl in the Hairy Paw stands, warts and all, as a refreshing and heartening reaffirmation of the greatness, uniqueness, and inimitability of this classic motion picture.

© 1976 Robert C. Cumbow

A pdf of the original issue can be found here