For the movies about movies blogathon, at Goatdog blog. King Kong! (and a bit of Busby Berkeley.)
King Kong is a movie that is explicitly about movies. It's also pretty explicitly autobiographical, both in the characters populating the film (Carl Denham being a dead ringer for Merian C. Cooper and all), and in the development and structure of the film itself. The film planned in the story of the film is the film we're watching, pretty much. In fact, King Kong is about both movies and movie making directly, and metaphorically - it is a figure for movies in general. That's not unusual in films, and especially not in the early 1930s, a period with a good deal of technological and social change. What is unusual about King Kong is how explicit it is, especially its direct comments about spectacle, sex, the market, and so on. It's especially unusual in a film as enthusiastic about films as this one is.
Films that are or contain figures of film tend not to be so direct. Usually, they use another art form - books, the stage, music - to stands for film. (Or, taking a recent example - cooking, in Ratatouille.) Denham's show in NY, displaying Kong, works that way - it's a pretty direct analogue to the film we're watching, no pretending otherwise - but it is not, itself, cinema. What makes King Kong different is how everything else in the film that points to cinema does so without any disguise. The story is about a man who sets out to make a film: adventure! Spectacle! Sex! Drama! Beauty and the Beast! Denham and company come right out and say it - and they aren’t sentimental about it. They say it, they plan for it, they rehearse it, and then life (in the film) comes along and does it, more or less to cue. And with fine eye for spectacle - the natives stake out Ann Darrow just like a master showman would - and indeed Denham repeats the staging almost exactly in his show in NY.
Repeats Kong's defeats, too...
And of course King Kong the movie is, from start to finish, built around cinema - it’s designed to look good as a film; it’s conceived around the technology of film. And revels in it - the stop motion animation, the elaborate mattes and models and process shots. It's set up to look right on screen. They aren't trying to hide these things - they are presenting us with an amazing spectacle, and expect us to marvel in it, all of it. The planning, the formal properties of the film, are made more explicit by being prepared by Denham's talk. His attempts to film on the island, his attempts to stage-manage the villagers or the fights with Kong, etc., set up the formal structure of the rest of the film - the parallel imagery on the island and in NY (the wall on the island serving as stage and curtain, that recurs in the second half; the parallels in how Ann and Kong are staked out for display; the parallel battles on Kong's mountain and the empire state building, complete with dangerous birds. Even details like the several scenes in both parts of the film of Kong fishing around caves/apartments for people.) The depiction of the act of making a film sets you up to wonder at the artistry of the story proper when it gets going.
It's reminiscent of one of the other outstanding figures of cinema of the period - Warner Brothers' musicals, especially Busby Berkeley's parts. Berkeley’s numbers are almost parables for the shift from stage to screen. Their placement in the films (in 42nd Street, at least), and their overall structure, almost always enacts the shift from stage to screen. The numbers usually follow that pattern - starting on something like a real stage, then opening up toward film. First (usually) by shooting them from impossible places (the flies, through the floor), but eventually abandoning all sense of the spatial unity and integrity of the stage. The space in “42nd Street” (the song) or “By a Waterfall” or “Shanghai Lil” is pure cinematic space - much of it designed explicitly for the camera (and for editing), certainly constructing the three dimensional space of film. Interestingly, while this abandons the "real" space of the theater, it moves toward a "real" space of films - itself referring to the "real" space of, um - reality.
This is a bit like what King Kong does. The first section sets up the idea of the film Denham is going to make - they land on the island, he tries to start filming, but things go wrong: and then very wrong, and instead of making an adventure film, he has to live one. Which, of course, is almost exactly the film he planned all along (and certainly the one Cooper and Schoedsack were planning - and Denham "is" Cooper....) - though since his film plans fell through, he puts on his show the old fashioned way, on stage. This, perhaps, ties us back to the Warner's films. Of those films, Footlight Parade comes closest to matching King Kong's explicitness about the role of cinema. It comes closest to acknowledging the historical circumstances that these films reflect, the historical move from stage to screen. Jimmy Cagney stages musical preludes for movies - already, movies have replaced shows: now, they are starting to squeeze him. Largely, of course, because films like this have managed to recreate a good chunk of the spectacle of the stage. And of course - as Cagney holds off history a bit longer, he does it by staging “preludes” that are, of course, dazzling films.
Though one of the things this has in common with King Kong is the way they treat film as a part of a grander world of spectacle. Films, stage musicals, giant apes, are all attractions - all things put on for the amazement of the audience. Cooper and Schoedsack were no stranger to this - they made documentaries to show to lecture groups; they made films to be the Eight Wonder of the World! Cooper's later ventures, Cinerama, notably, work almost exactly like Denham's Kong exhibition - a grand event, demonstrating the wonders of something new. That's not far from what those Warner Brother's musicals were doing (or what Warner's did in the 20s, with sound films) - setting out to show that film was every bit the spectacle that theater could be. It's an approach that runs through King Kong - the way it was marketed, the way it is structured (with its overture and shows in shows and so on) - and the way it was made. Willis O'Brien's animation tests were central to the whole conceit. It's a film about spectacle - about story and everything else as an attraction. Presentationalist through and through, and quite delighted in it.