Friday, May 18, 2012
The Three Faces of Kong, Pt. 1: 1933
King Kong is an icon of cinema, and indeed a household name. A single film in 1933 was enough to endear him to the world, partly because it's a classic and partly because it was the first motion picture to realize the awesomeness of giant apes. This simian innovation is but one part of the legend, and here at the Club I've decided to look at the three major renditions of this classic story, from its original version all the way to the Kong of the digital age. I'm not touching any of the sequels or tie-ins yet, except of course for the monster's two Japanese outings, chronicled here and here.
Okay, this is partly because of the title. I'm proud of it dammit.
So we start in 1933, with one of the very best films ever made. King Kong is in some ways the ultimate demonstration of what people talk about when they talk about the magic of the movies. It shows us things that can only exist in the imagination and makes them vividly real, even more than real, for the time we watch it. It's a blend of romance, adventure, and tragedy that with time and changing attitudes has become more complex than its makers even intended, but hasn't lots its original emotional power in the process. Superlatives are hard to avoid in talking about this one.
The story, you know. Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) is a nature documentarian planning to shoot a movie off on a lost island whose existence is only verified by a map he got from a Dutch sailor. All well and good, but his backers want his movies to have a love interest, and no legitimate actress is willing to take a long ocean cruise to an unknown land of danger, so Denham hits the streets and finds Ann Darrow (Fay Wray), a desperately poor girl reduced to shoplifting apples, who's more than willing to take such a dubious job. On the way to Skull Island Ann falls in love with ship's mate Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot), but when they arrive the natives decide she'd be a much more suitable mate for Kong, a giant ape they periodically make sacrifices to because why wouldn't you. Kong grabs Ann, Jack and everyone else goes into a dinosaur-infested jungle to rescue her, and Carl starts to think maybe he's got something bigger than a movie he can take back to New York.
This is a lean and smartly told adventure yarn. It holds off on the apes and dinosaurs for the first third, gets all the character development done that it needs to, and then leaps forward into the unknown. Helping the pacing is a pounding, avant-garde score by Max Steiner; in the early sound era many films eschewed incidental music outside of the main titles, but co-producer Merian C. Cooper paid out of pocket to have Steiner create music that closely followed the action in a way normally associated with cartoons. It both complements the film perfectly and is really memorable on its own. There's a lot of energy in the air.
Of course, the major attractions are the monsters of Skull Island, with Kong himself at the top. For stop motion innovator Willis O' Brien the film was a refinement of what he'd managed with 1925's The Lost World, and as the chief animator he was responsible for giving Kong much of his personality (often over the objections of Cooper, who wanted him to be more terrifying.) There's a real sense of life to the movie's star, and though the effects used to paste him together with the live actors are crude, there's never a sense that they don't inhabit the same reality. The pathos of Kong, which lends the film its inescapable sense of tragedy, is really one of the earliest examples of cinema drawing our sympathy towards something wholly unreal.
There's also a really interesting dynamic going on with the human characters as well. "Beauty and the beast" is established as a theme from the opening title card (quoting a made-up Arabic proverb), and Ann Darrow is a beauty among many beasts. Carl Denham may be civilized enough, but he's still a dangerous man, but he won't put her in danger, and she outright tames Driscoll before awakening in Kong a fatal vulnerability. Wray is gracious and believably innocent (though the screaming gets to be a bit much, and she apparently thought so too), and Armstrong's performance is a grand piece of work. Brassy, bold, and charming despite capturing an innocent monster and unleashing him on New York, Denham was largely based on Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack, both nature documentarians wanting to convey the sense of adventure they felt in the remote places of the world.
At that they certainly succeeded. King Kong gives us a lush jungle straight out of Gustav Dore, pointlessly aggressive dinosaurs, some unfortunately stereotyped natives (who are apparently African despite this being the East Indies or something), and an ape whose love for a woman takes him across the world, to a legendary final fight atop the Empire State Building. Reviewing the original seems almost pointless since, really, it's part of the canon, but it's always surprising just how much life and energy and newness it retains. It's an adventure story with interesting undertones, positing its title character as both a monster and a tragic figure, a divide that our modern understanding (i.e. it's a bad idea to capture wild animals and drag them across the world for a quick buck, especially if they are capable of crushing you) makes only more severe. Really, if you haven't seen it yet, you're missing out on so much fun.
From an idea by Merian C. Cooper and Edgar Wallace
Screenplay by James Creelman and Ruth Rose
Directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack