As of 2010, King Kong is 77 years old, and its central story, of a large ape taken from its natural habitat and exploited to cruel lengths by media-mad megalomaniac Carl Denham, still stirs up raw emotions of pity, fear, and anger in viewers by the time the film reaches its tragic finale.
Technically, King Kong doesn’t exist – he’s a stop-motion puppet – but everything in the film is nearly perfect because the instincts of every creative technician crafted the world’s first sympathetic character out of special effects, and the repercussions of this milestone continue to influence filmmakers today.
The semi-comedic ingredients in the 1976 remake misguidedly satirized the archetypes of the original – great white explorer/oil magnate Fred Wilson (comedian Charles Grodin), determined to conquer & profitably exploit the mighty beast; blonde bimbo/wannabe actress "Dwan" (Jessica Lang); and hero/environmental activist Jack Prescott (Jeff Bridges) – and ruined the few efforts to dramatize the unlikely love affair between a woman and a big ape (played by Rick Baker in an otherwise remarkably expressive monkey suit).
Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake was an earnest effort in nostalgia, but Jackson’s decision to play up the romanticism of Denham’s great white hunter persona, interpolate thirties-styled characters (like gratingly clichéd ship lad Jimmy), expand the drama’s scope with backstories on Darrow and Denham, and add longer bonding scenes between beauty and beast in New York City yielded a 3.5 hour film steeped in a pungent blend of reverence and directorial excess.
The ’33 version is perfect, and its structure and characters are straightforward, the plotting is lean and tightly paced, and the buildup towards Kong’s first onscreen appearance is still a thrilling combination of skilled filmmaking and showmanship. And yet the making-of details in the disc’s commentary and featurettes reveal King Kong is also the result of perfect timing.
Invigorated by the creative success of The Lost World (1925), animator Willis O’Brien was struggling with his next venture, an epic tale called Creation (1931), which had elaborately conceived creature sequences for a world where humans become trapped during a terrible seas storm.
The film was over-budget and production was creeping slowly after its first year when co-producer/co-director/co-writer Merian C. Cooper thought O’Brien’s skills would be better used to realize the producer's own creature project, a big ape movie every studio exec turned down, except for RKO’s David O. Selznick.
Cooper’s idea was initially hashed out by prolific novelist Edgar Wallace, but the script needed a major overhaul from Ruth Rose, a novice screenwriter who re-orchestrated events to create the film’s perfect progression from an adventure film to mystical journey, action movie, and grand romantic tragedy.
The film’s leading characters were also drawn from real figures: Denham (Robert Armstrong), patterned after Cooper, often spouts dialogue attributed to the adventurous producer/director; love interest/hero Driscoll (Bruce Cabot) was inspired by the less flamboyant co-producer/co-director Ernest B. Schoedsack; and Darrow (Fay Wray) was a riff on the prima donna Marguerite Harrison, the journalist who appeared in the Cooper-Schoedsack documentary Grass: A Nation’s Battle for Life.
Some of the more thrilling sequences – the men falling from a log shaken by Kong, and the stegosaurus attack – were appropriated from O’Brien’s Creation scenario, as well as the animator’s use of multiple planes that incorporated live, animated, and painted components to create realistic shots where live action and stop-motion effects characters interact.
Cooper’s own exploits of jungle exploration, his interaction with unique cultures, and his sense of adventurism were worked into the scenes where Denham and his film crew arrive at the island, and are determined to film Darrow among the natives for a docu-drama spectacular, Also rolled into ther mix was Coooper’s keen interests in wild things (and particularly primates), which ensured Kong would be realized as a mighty beast, wild and totally at odds with the civilized world of man.
Interestingly, Cooper’s giant ape movie stemmed from his fascination in reading a case where giant komodo dragons always died when they were snatched and brought back for breeding in captivity. The idea of a wild thing struggling to survive in an alien world made up the film’s finale & lone moral comment, and it further enhanced the romance between Kong and Darrow, even though she remains fearful of the beast and the romance is always from Kong’s perspective: he’s fascinated and taken by a pretty living thing, calmed by her neatness, and devastated when Darrow disappears – a dramatized behavior that echoes the documented joy / sadness when Koko the linguistically learned gorilla lost her beloved cat in the mid-1980s.
The Big Monkey is Real
Ultimately, though, the reason Kong is a compelling character stems from O’Brien’s amazing focus on movements, reactions and behaviour adapted from real animals. The most-oft cited example is the T-Rex fight where Kong plays with the dead lizard’s jaw before he’s confident the dangerous threat has been neutralized. It’s an extraordinary behavioral detail among many which distinguish the film from subsequent imitations (if not menacing apes consisting of men in monkey suits).
Every moment Kong is onscreen is treated as real: the snake attack in the caves, fiddling with Darrow’s clothes, anger when Driscoll attempts to whisk her away from a dangerous cliff, and Kong's earnest but misguided desire to spend a few moments with Darrow on the Empire State Building, away from the masses of humans who just want him dead.
The anguish the giant ape feels as he realizes he’s been lethally shot by biplanes and can’t hold or look at Darrow any longer is the film’s singularly devastating emotional hit, and his tumble from the building is almost unwatchable – a remarkable achievement considering the film’s effects have been eclipsed by sophisticated CGI.
O’Brien’s skill went beyond the technical, and Kong remains a superb creation because in addition to cradting natrural movements, the animator also kept in mind where his creation had to be emotionally throughout the film. When Denham gasses the ape and Kong tumbles out cold onto the beach, ready to be hauled off to civilization, O’Brien didn’t just position the puppet to lie there unconscious: its entire body is laid out to evoke sympathy because it’s a wounded creature, and a now powerless majestic ape, with its jaw open, eyelids locked in a fixed, pained position, and limp arms no longer expressing the creature’s physical might and pride.
That image – filmed only from the shoulders up – is also replicated in the end scene when Kong lies dead on the city street, surrounded by press, curious onlookers, and Denham, although Kong’s placed much closer to the foreground, further emphasizing the tragedy.
What’s intriguing about this final scene is how the famous line Denham quips to the media –"It was beauty killed the beast” – is deflated by O’Brien’s still creature. Kong’s pain and sense of humiliation is blatantly frozen on the ape puppet’s sad visage, and while the writers may have doodled the quasi-poetic quip as the final statement for the benefit of audiences, O’Brien’s final work turns the oft-quoted line into an offence: most audiences probably walked out feeling thrilled by the movie’s adventure and effects, but those taken by Kong the character felt outrage. To Kong’s fans, Denham was an asshole, and he deserved to be clocked in the head – an intense reaction Cooper probably hadn’t intended beyond the moral message of 'respect nature, and leave well enough alone.'
Jackson’s 2005 version of Denham (via camera-mugging Jack Black) is tough to digest because the character was redrawn as an egomaniacal arse responsible for the deaths of many men during their attempts to rescue Darrow; Jackson augmented Denham’s most loathsome characteristics, whereas in the 1976 version, screenwriter Lorenzo Semple, Jr. and actor Charles Grodin played their Denham variation as a buffoon.
Robert Armstrong’s portrayal of Denham is the least offensive because unlike the later variations, he’s still the most believable as an adventurer capable of tackling sudden bursts of violence (dinosaurs) or aggressive villages who could at any moment launch a stream of spears at the island’s arrogant invaders. He’s a team leader who can bluff his way out of a village with natives ready to follow a kill order from a chief pissed off that the pompous white man refused to trade the blonde Darrow for the ultimate Kong offering; Grodin’s variation’s a goofball, and Black’s Denham’s a loudmouth worthy of a knuckle sandwich.
Extras & Extras
Warner Home Video’s Blu-ray replicates the contents of the 2005 2-disc DVD, and like the label’s The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Gone with the Wind (1939), and The Wizard of Oz (1939), this special edition isn’t just loaded – it’s packed with extras that are equally educational for film buffs and historians alike.
The 7-part documentary runs over 2 hours and covers every major component of the production, including the development and abandonment of O’Brien’s Creation, the simultaneous filming of Cooper and Schoedsack’s The Most Dangerous Game (which made use of several Kong sets as well as actors), Max Steiner’s ground-breaking score, and the amazing sound work by pioneering sound designer Murray Spivak, whose later sound work included Spartacus (1960), Cleopatra (1963), and Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970).
Surviving sections of Creation appear outside of the doc (in HD, with Ray Harryhausen's wry commentary), and there’s a also recreation of Creation using surviving drawings and narration, but B-movie fans may notice a weird similarity between O'Brien’s aborted project and Jerry Warren’s grade-Z idiocy, The Incredible Petrified World (1957).
Creation has a group of rich snots rescued from their sinking yacht by a Chilean submarine. The craft gets lost, but the group eventually escape to an underground world inhabited by dinosaurs. Realizing there’s no way back, remaining supplies are taken from the sub, and the group set up a permanent home in their new world. Not unlike Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth, they’re forced to flee when a volcano threatens to destroy the hidden world, and sends them running. In Warren’s riff, the crew from diving bell get lost, and discover an underground cave system with prehistoric creatures (well, one: a lizard). After making trips to re-supply themselves from the stranded diving bell, they set up a permanent home, only to be threatened by an ersatz caveman, and an exploding volcano that sends them running.
Also noted in the 7-part documentary are the edits made by the studio for the film’s 1938 re-release to appease censors. Removed were the film’s still-shocking violence, and little bits of naughty monkey behaviour, including the infamous ‘sniffing dress’ scene, and Kong’s dropping an innocent woman to her death.
The violence was created during a pre-Code era, so it’s unsurprising prudish censors wanted shots of humans getting stomped on, chomped to death, or flailed to death removed for the benefit of kiddies and conservative audiences. The footage was eventually found in a beautiful print in Britain, and the restored scenes provide needed contrast, reinforcing Kong as a wild animal - hence his curiosity for half-naked Darrow, his primal rage, and capability to kill without hesitation – as in the brutal village attack.
More intriguing is a chapter in the doc devoted to the lost spider pit sequence where the men who fell from the log are killed by various creatures. Deleted because it stopped the film dead in its tracks, all that remains are a few stills and the original script, but that proved more than enough for Peter Jackson and his effects crew at WETA, because they recreated the sequence using vintage stop-motion techniques on their off days during the production of the 2005 Kong remake.
This amazing effort (seen in the doc as well as a standalone extra in HD) is part film archeology and fan-edit, but the results perfectly capture the essence of the lost sequence, with its strong violence. What’s ironic is how Jackson created his own version of the bug attack in his remake, and while technically brilliant, the gross bug assault goes on for an eternity, and as happened in the '33 version, it stops the film cold.
Also addressed in the doc are the creature models, and the visual design of the film, with exquisitely composed glass paintings, models, and sequences designed to be immersive for the audience. Perhaps the most clever trick has Kong grabbing a hunt early into his village rampage on the island, and throwing the model into the air, after which a real hut comes crashing down in the foreground with live actors. O’Brien repeats this effect several times in the new York City rampage, breaking the barrier between models and practical effects.
The last area of importance is Merian Cooper himself, a man with multiple lives who was a combat pilot in WW1, documentary filmmaker, studio exec, writer-producer-director, and visionary for supporting 3-strip Technicolor (such as the format’s first feature-length film, Becky Sharp) as well as co-supporting Cinerama, which inaugurated the second (and enduring) widescreen film revolution.
Cooper’s given a separate showcase in the TCM doc I’m King Kong! The Exploits of Merian C. Cooper (2005), which functions as a natural appendix to the main doc because of the shared interview subjects, and film footage. Directed by Kevin Brownlow and Christopher Bird, the doc is graced with many rare stills and film clips, and features a rich orchestral score by Carl Davis. (Note to blimp fans: the doc also includes rare footage of a Goodyear blimp / dirigible coming for an approach to moor at the peak of the Empire State Building.)
Lastly, there’s the Kong reissue trailer, and a feature-length commentary track with visual effects whizzes Ray Harryhausen (who worked with O’Brien on The Son of Kong and Mighty Joe Young) and Ken Ralston (Star Wars, Dragonslayer, Who Framed Roger Rabbit). The two maintain a candid conversation that adds slightly different information on the film’s effects and O’Brien's legacy and impact. Archival audio excerpts from interviews with Wray and Cooper appear once in a while, but they don’t really add much, and the Cooper extracts have the same low volume audio as the related clips used in the I’m King Kong! doc.
When King Kong was originally released by WHV in 2005, it was available in a boxed set with the aforementioned O’Brien films, available separately in a standard DVD alpha case, and in a tin with a 20-page reproduction of the 1933 souvenir program, postcards, and a mail-in offer for a King Kong poster.
The BR edition replicates the DVD contents, and the Digibook packaging includes a 33-page booklet with art, stills, and narrative of the film’s production by Rudy Behlmer. Pity the tin extras weren’t included as PDF files (or for that matter, a new isolated score track of Steiner’s music with music historian commentary), but this BR is a must-have for the film’s fans, sporting a crisp transfer with clean mono sound. Spivak’s effects are beautifully detailed, and Steiner’s music remains largely absent until the ship gets lost in the fog, signaling the film’s shift to fantastical thriller.
Far Wray’s other action and thriller films include Dirigible (1931), the 2-strip Technicolor shockers Doctor X (1932) and Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933), The Most Dangerous Game (1932), and The Vampire Bat (1933). Robert Armstrong also appeared in Cooper and Schoedsack’s The Most Dangerous Game with Wray, and The Son of Kong (1933).
Cooper and Schoedsack’s pre-King Kong documentaries are very much worth tracking down for their energy, snappy pacing, exotica, and elements that would be folded into King Kong. The pair’s key films are Grass: A Nation’s Battle for Life (1925), Chang: A Drama of the Wilderness (1927) with its early widescreen Magnascope process in the finale, Gow the Head Hunter (1928) The Four Feathers and Ra-Mu (both 1929), and Rango (1931).
© 2010 Mark R. Hasan