Monday, April 07, 2008


Made it, Ann. Top of the world!

NOTE: Ranked No. 90 on my all-time top 100 of 2012

By Edward Copeland
Seventy five years ago today, King Kong stomped onto movie screens for the first time. He's been back many times since in sequels and in two remakes, but the Merian C. Cooper/Ernest B. Schoedsack original remains the best.

It's a well-worn cliché that the journey trumps the destination in importance and that certainly proved to be the case with King Kong. If you went into the film blind, you might have no idea as to the story's direction. There's the one and only filmmaker Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) with his "reputation for recklessness" setting out to film some sort of adventure on the fly on a mysterious, unchartered island. The only problem: He needs a female lead. Denham would be happy to ditch the romantic element, but you know those damn critics and audiences: You have to have a woman. The film drops hints here and there that the island may offer something bigger than just an exotic location. Denham acknowledges that he knows that something is "holding that island in the grip of fear. Something no white man has ever seen." Of course, because of Denham's reputation, no reputable agent will sacrifice a client to him, but thankfully (for Denham anyway) he stumbles upon the struggling Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) and talks her into enlisting in his voyage. He even gives her screen tests for gowns and shrieks while they sail and we get a preview of that scream, that delicious scream.

Of course, the all-male crew on the ship resent having a dame aboard as only men in a 1930s film could, but that doesn't stop Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot) from falling for Ann in a way only Hollywood's Golden Age would allow: Basically, give them one scene together of friction, then have them declare their love for each other. When Jack pours out his feelings for Ann, she says, "But Jack, you hate women!" "But you ain't women," he replies. When you really get deep into it, in many ways the later relationship that blooms between Kong and Ann might be more realistic and better developed. One thing I noticed this time (thanks to a DVD commentary by special effects legend Ray Harryhausen and visual effects wizard Ken Rolston) that never caught my attention before: Aside from the opening credits, Max Steiner's memorable score doesn't even begin until the ship arrives in the fog outside Skull Island.

Harryhausen makes a couple of other cogent points that should have occurred to me before: 1) If the natives built a wall big enough to keep Kong out, why did they add a gate big enough for him to come through? and 2) What happened to all the native women that had been sacrificed to Kong prior to Ann? Did he eat them? When Kong makes his first appearance, the stop-action movements bear a bit of a resemblance to the first shots of the Abominable Snowman coming over the mountain in the TV classic Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Sure, sometimes the scale misses the mark a bit in the effects (such as when the Loch Ness-type dinosaur flings bodies around), but I'd trade these primitive effects over bloated CGI anyday. In their running commentary (which really ranks as one of the best DVD commentaries I've heard and includes bits of archival interviews with Cooper and Wray), Harryhausen and Rolston express wonder at the magic conjured with the limited abilities of 1933 Hollywood. Rolston goes so far as to call King Kong the Jurassic Park of that generation (though I'd come up with a better movie example than that). "Everything today is reinventing the wheel," Harryhausen says. "And they are making it worse," Rolston replies. He's right.

As Harryhausen points out, the more they strive for realism, the more mundane movies become. They should strive to take us to another world such as the strange universe of Skull Island with its giant apes and still-living dinosaurs. The horrible 1976 remake and Peter Jackson's bloated 2005 do-over both missed the magic of the 1933 version. The other night, the 1976 version aired on AMC and I caught parts of it, reminding me of how truly bad it was. It only had two things I thought improved on the other versions: It bothered to show how they actually transferred Kong on a ship back to New York and its equivalent of the Denham character (Charles Grodin) got what he deserved). Actually, one other plus to the 1976 version (I write this solely as a present for Josh R): The 1976 animatronic Kong had more realistic facial expressions than Jessica Lange. Of course, if Kong had put his foot down with Armstrong, it would have deprived us of one of the classic closing lines in movie history. That's something else that the original doesn't get enough credit for: Its screenplay by James Creelman and Ruth Rose holds up much better than you'd expect in an action fantasy of this type. Just listen to the throwaway lines as jaded New York theatergoers crowd in to see Denham's show paying the then-outrageous ticket price of $20. I also love the little touches, such as when Kong breaks free of his arm restraints and then slowly and methodically undoes his other chains instead of just tearing them out in a fury. "A film is like an ink blot," Harryhausen says at another point in his DVD commentary. "It tells you more about the person watching it than the film itself." This proves most especially true about the 1933 King Kong, which deserves the title of the eighth wonder of the world, if only for finding pathos in a foot-and-a-half tall rubber puppet.

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Thanks for the Lange crack; it made me smile. So did your piece, which told me some things about this great classic that I didn't know before. What a marvelous resource DVD commentaries have become; they really do help to preserve our film heritage, in that they enhance the experience of revisting classic works of cinema. Sounds like the Harryhausen/Rolston commentary makes a great companion to what is still one of the greatest action/sci-fi flicks Hollywood ever produced.
When Kong is "playing" with Ann on the mountain, there's never one moment where you stop to think that you're looking at a toy ape. It's one of my favorite scenes of all time and just feels so innocent.

The latest DVD is truly wonderful, particularly the long documentary about the stop-motion animation and other special effects.
"but I'd trade these primitive effects over bloated CGI anyday"


(BTW... thanks for the heads-up to that DVD version, harryhausen commenting Kong must be a wonder like, say, Mozart commenting Bach
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