detail from the poster for the rko movie king kong featuring the ape picture

'King Kong' Turns 85

Wonder what that would be in primate years...

On March 2, 1933, New York City was rocked by a beast of epic proportions. Its name? "King Kong." The monster movie — starring Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong, Bruce Cabot, and one very big ape — opened at New York City's Radio City Music Hall and across the street at the now-defunct RKO Roxy. Fitting locales, given that the film's climax — in which the eponymous primate scales the Empire State Building (with Wray's Ann Darrow in hand) — takes place just a stone's throw away.

american actress fay wray in the clutches of king kong in a scene picture Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Despite its darker themes, the film was gleefully embraced by audiences, according to a dispatch from The New York Daily News:

"Yesterday's crowded houses at Radio City — the talkie is on view at both cinema palaces — were held thoroughly engrossed for an hour and a half. No hysterical screams were heard by this movie reporter, however, not even as the eeriest episodes were unfolded. The folks took 'King Kong' good-naturedly and without fright. They were obviously awfully interested, and often guffawed with sheer delight at the exciting, preposterous situations."

And though the effects were considered ground-breaking for the time, some critics still quibbled over their quirks.

one of john cerisolis models of the giant ape poised above the new picture Ernest Bachrach/Getty Images

From Variety: "It takes a couple of reels for 'Kong' to be believed, and until then it doesn't grip. But after the audience becomes used to the machine-like movements and other mechanical flaws in the gigantic animals on view, and become accustomed to the phoney atmosphere, they may commence to feel the power."

That feeling of something "other" also struck a chord with the Daily News reporter: "You don't for one minute have the feeling that there's anything real about 'King Kong,' but you're being constantly entertained while the picture's on view."

And while The New York Times called the film "fantastic" in its headline, the prose was less effusive. "Through multiple exposures, processed 'shots' and a variety of angles of camera wizardry the producers set forth an adequate story and furnish enough thrills for any devotee of such tales," wrote Mordaunt Hall.

poster for merian c coopers 1933 adventure filmking kong starring fay picture Movie Poster Image Art/Getty Images

Any negative press aside, the film was a bona fide box-office success, and a sequel, "Son of Kong," was quickly greenlit and opened later that year. The big-screen behemoth has appeared in more than a dozen films since, perhaps most notably in 1976's "King Kong," starring Jessica Lange and Jeff Bridges (seen below).

american actress jessica lange on the set of king kong directed by picture Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images

If "King Kong"'s legacy weren't already solidified in the hearts of cinephiles the world over, it's also been officially recognized by the history books: In 1991 the movie was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry.

Long live Kong.