King Kong Deconstructed

, Malcolm A. Kline, Leave a comment

Leave it to a pedigreed Ivy League liberal to construct an analogy so racist that even segregationists in the 1960s would have considered it uncouth.

“There is an interracial relationship between King Kong and Fay Wray,” Dr. T Mera Moore Lafferty said at the Modern Language Association’s annual convention late last year. “It is allegorical of the black migration north and miscegenation.”

“King Kong and other films are just ordinary things that people go to see to eat popcorn but they are infused with racism.”

Dr. Lafferty, currently with the English Department at the University of Pennsylvania, previously taught at Temple. The object of Kong’s affection had a different take on their relationship.

“‘You will have the tallest, darkest leading man in Hollywood.’ These were the first words I heard about King Kong,” Fay Wray remembered. “Although I knew the producer, Merian C. Cooper, was something of a practical joker, my thoughts rushed hopefully to Clark Gable.”

“Some of the inevitable critical commentary dissected Kong like a laboratory frog, and Cooper personally bristled at any intellectualizing over purported hidden messages and meanings,” the producer’s biographer wrote. “In a 1966 letter he wrote to an admirer, he took particular issue with the licentious characterization given the scene of Kong plucking off Ann Darrow’s clothes.” [Darrow was the character played by Fay Wray.]

“‘I played this scene as a great gorilla playing as with a toy—and played it for comedy—and so the 1933 audiences took it,’ Cooper wrote. ‘It had no decadent ‘rape’ concept or execution!!!’”

Cooper’s colleagues had similar memories. “We focus our lenses, not on silly close-ups of love-sick females, but on elemental clashes between nations and their fundamental problems, between man and nature,” Cooper’s co-director, Ernest Shoedsack said. Cooper had shared directing chores on Kong with his long-time friend and partner Shoedsack in addition to his production responsibilities.

“This revulsion at the thought of cinematic celebrations of romance would become one of many in-jokes layered into King Kong, the epic fantasy in their near future,” Cooper’s biographer, Mark Cotta Vaz, wrote. It is a joke that Dr. Lafferty apparently did not get.

Vaz had access to Cooper’s personal papers and interviewed many of his associates, including Miss Wray herself. Dr. Lafferty never once alluded to a primary source in her presentation at the MLA panel on “Post Modernity, Post Coloniality and Cross-Culturalism of East, West and Africa.”

So where did she get the brainwave that she shared at the MLA’s Washington, D. C. conference? “At Penn, she teaches courses in Critical Writing focused on theatre, television and film, as well as humanities seminars including Literature of Muslim America, East Meets West on Stage and Screen, and King Kong: Monsters and Their Brides,” according to her current employer’s web site. “In spring 2006, she will direct at Penn a multimedia production of Chinese-American Ping Chong’s play Kind Ness in conjunction with screenings of Indonesian-American Fatimah Tobing Rony’s short film On Cannibalism.”

On Cannibalism appears to have been the inspiration for Dr. Lafferty’s talk at the MLA gathering at the Marriott. “King Kong meets the family photograph in this provocative experimental video exploring the West’s insatiable appetite for native bodies in museums, world’s fairs, and early cinema,” according to the Women Make Movies website. “Intertwining personal narrative about race and identity in the U. S. with layered footage, artifacts and video effects, On Cannibalism looks back at anthropological truisms with outrage and irony.”

The side-by-side comparison of Dr. Lafferty’s academic musings with Vaz’s Living Dangerously: The Adventures of Merian C. Cooper, Creator of King Kong, raises some interesting questions. Unlike Dr. Lafferty in her talk, Vaz documents himself thoroughly in his book.

Also, where Dr. Lafferty hypothesizes, Vaz keeps speculation to a minimum. Indeed, while Dr. Lafferty’s factual data base consisted entirely of the Xeroxed movie stills that she handed out before her lecture, Vaz gives the reader fully-footnoted information in every sentence.

As noted before, while Vaz quotes from Cooper’s correspondence and personal files, Dr. Lafferty offers no sources whatsoever. Her approach is all too typical of the run of academic writing nowadays.

All of which begs the question, why can’t academics go to primary sources in their research? With their seven-hour weeks and rarely-denied sabbaticals, they have all the time in the world to find them, particularly since most of the papers of public officials are bequeathed to colleges and universities. For example, Vaz found the Cooper papers at BYU.

Such an in-depth approach to research might lead to greater accuracy in academia, no matter how seemingly trivial the subject matter of the class may appear to be. For instance, if Dr. Lafferty is going to give lectures on classic films, she should at least know how they were made.

Author and activist David Horowitz has taken a lot of heat for asserting that professors should confine their classroom commentary to the subject taught. As the case of Dr. Lafferty shows, pedagogues have a hard enough time not going astray even within their alleged areas of expertise.

Malcolm A. Kline is the executive director of Accuracy in Academia.