Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Kong's Pulp Sensibility

Kong-blogging, essay 5 of 15 blog entries on
Skull Island in King Kong (1933)

Part One, Man vs. Dinosaur

Amazing Stories magazine reprinted The Land
That Time Forgot
 by Edgar Rice Burroughs
in February 1927.

The Land That Time Forgot by
Edgar Rice Burroughs, 1924 hardcover edition,
with illustrations by J. Allen St. John.

At the Earth's Core by Edgar Rice Burroughs,
1923 hardcover edition, with illustrations by
J. Allen St. John.

Interior illustration by J. Allen St. John
from At the Earth's Core, 1923 hardcover

Weird Tales, November 1930.

Part Two, Kong’s Pulp Sensibility

Kong pulls the vine that Jack Driscoll and Ann Darrow
are attempting to escape down in King Kong (1933).
The first forty minutes of King Kong (1933) are relatively sedate, but then a wild pulp sensibility kicks into overdrive.  Suddenly, there’s human sacrifice, giant monsters, savage fights, chases through the jungle, a flight down a rope, and a plunge into rapids. This is the world of pulp magazines.

With his 1912 novel The Lost World, respected author (and Sherlock Holmes creator) Sir Arthur Conan Doyle brought living dinosaurs into the contemporary world where they could awe and terrify modern man.  Conan Doyle acknowledged the pulp boys’-adventure aspect of his tale in a verse that prefaces the story:  “I have wrought my simple plan/If I give one hour of joy/To the boy who’s half a man/Or the man who’s half a boy.”  It’s a brief statement but could practically serve as a pulp manifesto.

The literary trappings of Conan Doyle were swiftly left behind as pulp authors seized upon the new conflict of man vs. dinosaur.  Edgar Rice Burroughs was the master.  After gaining fame as the creator of Tarzan, Burroughs conceived of other pulp series with more fantastical elements.  He found romance and adventure on other planets, with his heroes battling weird alien creatures on Mars and Venus, and he found thrills on mysterious islands and in Pellucidar, a land located within our hollow earth.  Naturally, his mysterious islands and earth’s core landscape turned out to be teeming with dinosaurs.

The Lost World can lay claim to creating one more trope of the new dinosaur fiction.  In the novel, expedition leader Professor Challenger returns to civilization with a pterodactyl which subsequently escapes and flaps away over London.  The screenwriters who adapted the novel for the screen in 1925 realized both the quality of the idea and the missed opportunity:  From this point on, prehistoric monsters in cities would wreak urban destruction.  The screenwriters changed the pterodactyl to a brontosaurus and set the dinosaur loose on London’s streets, where he rambunctiously smashes the side of at least one building.  Pulp magazines quickly picked up on this fun new idea, and then King Kong (1933) pumped it up a notch further.

The key pulp dinosaur novels are Burroughs’ The Land That Time Forgot (which was followed by a People That Time Forgot sequel) and At the Earth’s Core (followed by a whole slew of Pellucidar sequels).  The Land That Time Forgot pitches the shipwrecked hero and heroine against villainous German soldiers, an Allosaurus, a Plesiosaurus, and a pterodactyl, as well as formidable giant mammals.  At the Earth’s Core conjectures that the pterodactyls evolved into malicious and intelligent rulers of the inner world, with the traditional dinosaurs providing the exotic background.

What pulps like these really indulged in were the breathless chases, last minute rescues, and fates-worse-than-death that moved seamlessly into the Skull Island section of King Kong.  When Jack Driscoll and Ann Darrow escape from Kong’s lair by climbing down a vine—and then Kong starts pulling the vine back up…  well, that’s classic cliffhanger material and it’s 100% pure pulp adventure.

Clinging to a vine, Jack Driscoll and Ann Darrow escape from Kong
in King Kong (1933).
Reference Sources
The Making of King Kong by Orville Goldner and George E. Turner
Living Dangerously: The Adventures of Merian C. Cooper by Mark Cotta Vaz
Willis O'Brien: Special Effects Genius by Steve Archer
Dinosaurs Past and Present, Volume 1, Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County
Dinosaurs Past and Present, Volume 2, Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County
Charles R. Knight: The Artist Who Saw Through Time by Richard Milner
All in the Bones: A Biography of Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins by Valerie Bramwell and Robert M. Peck
Special features on the two-disc special edition, King Kong (1933) by Warner Home Video Inc.
... and an occasional sneak glance at Wikipedia entries (but always double-checking everything!)

Watch King Kong...
Purchase a King Kong DVD or Blu-Ray set at Amazon or Barnes & Noble.
Rent King Kong at Netflix or other rental service.

© 2012 Lee Price

1 comment:

  1. Kong is pulp fiction brought to life. In fact, that's something I like from 1930s cinema, it was so prone to enter the realm of weird fiction. From "King Kong" to "Doctor X" to "Murder by Television" and "The Mask of Fu Manchu".