King Kong (1933) had been a tremendous sensation when it was first released. Its success and legacy have insured its place as one of the seminal feats in the American Cinema. Hoping to equal King Kong, producer Merian C. Cooper optioned the H. Rider Haggard novel She to be adapted into another epic event film. Cooper had assumed that the unrivaled success of his last production King Kong would ensure the financing he required to make manifest the aspirations he had for his next film She (1935). However, production delays and financial troubles prevented Cooper from producing She as he had originally intended. Initially, She was to be photographed in color, one upping the visual wizardry of King Kong. But the color process proved beyond his financial means, so Cooper opted instead to pour what money he had into the special effects and the art deco sets of She. Sadly, upon completion and release She was unable to find the audience that had been so devoted to King Kong, making She an absolute failure in Cooper’s eyes.
Since She was released in 1935, the film has managed to build a cult following with audiences and a considerable amount of positive reconsideration from film critics and academics. A lot of this is due to DVD and home video releases that have enabled otherwise forgotten films such as She to gain a foothold in the public consciousness.
Looking back at She today its close correlation to King Kong’s narrative structure is somewhat obvious, as is its indebtedness to Arnold Fanck’s S.O.S. Eisberg (1933). She follows three principal lead characters, Holly (Nigel Bruce), Tanya (Helen Mach) and Leo Vincey (Randolph Scott), in search for the eternal flame of immortality. Like King Kong, She follows a clear three act structure, the first being a romantic adventure following the characters, primarily Tanya and Vincey’s blossoming romance, as they journey to their destination. This first act has been transposed from the jungle of King Kong into the arctic tundra of Northern Russia. The perils and action of this act are barrowed from S.O.S. Eisberg and include an avalanche and restless native guides. The incorporation of Fanck’s style is not all that surprising considering how successful his mountain dramas with Leni Riefenstahl had been. S.O.S. Eisberg is particularly of note since it was shot in two versions, a German and American version, and marked the first coproduction between these two countries.
Act two begins as it does with King Kong in which the characters cross the threshold of a gigantic gate into a forbidden land. What lay on the other side of the gate in King Kong has been substituted with a woman leader of the native peoples, the immortal “She who must be obeyed” (played by Helen Gahagan). Act two is primarily concerned with Vincey and She, who is attempting to seduce Vincey and make him her King. Simultaneously, Holly and Tanya take part in a series of covert exercises in search of the hidden flame. When She refuses to share the flame with anyone but Vincey, Tanya confronts the Queen and argues that despite her outward youthful beauty, inwardly she is old and weak, able to rule only through fear and superstition. This argument prompts She to select Tanya as the human sacrifice to the flame, thus removing her as an obstruction in her path towards seducing Vincey.
The theme of female sacrifice reemerges here, another device that is repeated from King Kong. She is decidedly more complicated than Kong, dealing with the themes of immortality and the legitimacy of a life lived. During the film’s epilogue, Tanya observes that the flame of life “can be found in the fireplace of any home anywhere, anywhere where two people are in love”. The two people Tanya refers to are of course herself and Leo Vincey. The message of She, to live a full mortal life over a lonely immortal one is an optimistic message of reassurance to a country in the throws of a Great Depression.
Act three finds the characters on the films greatest set, the temple of the flame, where Tanya is to be sacrificed. Of course, Vincey saves Tanya at the last minute and escapes with Holly to confront the Queen one on one. She dies however, when she bathes too long in the flame. The ritual of sacrifice is the standout sequence in this portion of the film. Using rear projection, super imposition, and miniatures plus the giant set an incredible atmosphere and sense of place is achieved on the scale of Griffith’s second masterwork Intolerance (1916). The dance of the priests is carefully choreographed and adds a kinetic urgency to the scene as well. The art-deco design of She reaches its highpoint here. The seamless incorporation of art deco sets and Aztec inspired costumes recall Edgar G. Ulmer’s Bauhaus thriller The Black Cat (1934). Both films take their heavy stylization seriously enough, and are able to photograph the sets with a lighting scheme that makes even the most outlandish sequences appear coherent within the films’ visual structure. The wide shots of the temple statues in She are also a clear testament to the influence of the film, since statues that are remarkably similar to these surfaces in Tim Burton’s Batman films for Warner Bros.
The primary legacy of She does not come from the contemporary blockbuster film, but from a more obscure region of the American Cinema, the Underground. Film directors like Jack Smith, Ron Rice and Kenneth Anger reference not just the film’s themes of immortality in their own work, but also the coordination of styles, the seriousness of its otherwise corny visuals (what would become known in the sixties as “high camp”). Jack Smith in particular references She in the costume design and the choreography in his films Flaming Creatures (1963) and Normal Love (1963). Anger’s The Inauguration of The Pleasure Dome (1954) likewise references She in a similar manner, but also incorporates the effect of the immortal flame. By the sixties, the idea of immortality had evolved with the advent of celebrity and pop culture, where figures such as Randolph Scott had achieved a kind of immortality in the vast consciousness of the American moviegoer. The motto of these Underground filmmakers is not dissimilar to that which defines Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950), that in celluloid, one finds immortality. The incorporation of celebrity as immortality as a motive for the filmmaker, which it surely was for Jack Smith, puts She in a context that makes the film not just self-referential, but reflexive.
One could argue that the cinema’s relationship to She is far more pivotal than its relationship to the more popular and widely known King Kong. As a film, King Kong’s legacy is isolated primarily into two parts; it’s structure as a blueprint for the monster movie and its durability to be remade every thirty odd years. The contrast between King Kong’s inferior remakes and the incorporation of its title character in the Godzilla franchise with the potency of She as a sort of filmic text to be adopted by younger generations of filmmakers is telling enough. However, She will never inspire the awe and wonderment of King Kong, and will therefore never exceed its status as a “cult film”.