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King Kong

Directed by Merion C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, with Fay Wray, Bruce Cabot and Robert Armstrong, 1933, black and white, 100 minutes

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King Kong

Directed by John Guillermin with Jessica Lange, Jeff Bridges and Charles Grodin, 1976, color, 134 minutes

By Carter B. Horsley

While not the first monster/horror/adventure/thriller/fantasy flick, the original "King Kong" was certainly the most spectacular special effects movie yet made when it opened in 1933 and while its acting and direction left much to be desired its plot and action defined the genre for generations.

The notion of a giant gorilla, apparently the last of its kind, falling in love with a beautiful female human being and being made into a tourist attraction in New York is quaint, but redolent with symbolism with the film’s imagery.

When he is shot down by fighter planes atop the Empire State Building, he makes sure that the female survives and the sympathy of the audience is with him, the persecuted, even though he has trampled many and damaged the city’s subway system among other things.

Some critics have raised a lot of embarrassing questions about the film’s incongruities such as how is he dragged off the island, but details miss the point. Kong is bigger than life. He died for our sins, or at least was sacrificed for our thrills, and the thrills indeed were, and are, quite impressive, especially the fight with prehistoric beasts who shared his native island habitat. The stop-action animation sequences and special effects by Willis O’Brien are quite remarkable.

Essentially a classic story of beauty and the beast, "King Kong," it is also a movie about a movie. Carl Denham, played quite stiffly by Robert Armstrong, is a producer/director of adventure films and he has loaded a ship with lots of ammunition for a secret project set to sail from Hoboken as soon as a leading lady can be found for the film. As the film starts, he is complaining that "all the agents have shut down" on him. "Holy mackerel! Do you think I want to haul a woman around?" he asks rhetorically, answering himself that "The Public, bless ‘em, must have a pretty face to look at." He sets off to find the woman himself "even if I have to marry one." He soon sees a woman reaching for some fruit at a street vendor who catches him and threatens to summon the police. Denham rescues him and decides she will be perfect as his star. She identifies himself as an orphan, Ann Darrow, who is played with dainty charm by Fay Wray, and succumbs to his promise that "It’s money and adventure and fame; it’s the thrill of a lifetime and a long sea voyage that starts at six o’clock tomorrow morning." He assures her that he’s "on the level, no funny business."

They set sail on the S. S. Venture the next day and she is the only woman aboard for the six-week trip to the South Pacific. At one point, Denham sees Ann playing with the ship’s pet monkey and remarks, "Beauty and the Beast, eh?" He also notices that the first mate, Jack, played with a nice ruggedness by Bruce Cabot, has gone a bit "soft" on Ann.

Jack and the crew are impatient to know where the ship is going other than "way west of Sumatra." Denham finally explains to the captain and Jack that he has a secret map of an uncharted island in the East Indies that was made by a Norwegian skipper after he picked up a canoe full of natives, all but one dead, who had fled from the island on which Denham maintains there is something no white man has seen, a great wall erected to keep out something the natives fear. "Did you ever hear of Kong?" Denham asks. The captain replies that he has: "Some native superstition, isn’t it? A god or spirit or something?" Denham states that it is neither beast nor man, but "something monstrous, all powerful, still living, still holding that island in a grip of deadly fear." When asked if "it doesn’t like having its picture taken," Denham explains that that is why he brought along lots of gas bombs.

The ship finally reaches Skull Island, so named because of a mountain that resembles a skull. Someone says he hears breakers, but Jack says they are not breakers, but drums. The landing party confronts the imposing wall and the captain says, "Colossal." At first, there seems to be no one in the village, but following the drumming they discover a ceremony with natives dressed as gorillas chanting "Kong, Kong" surrounding a young girl crouched on an altar, leading Denham to proclaim "Holy mackerel, what a show!" and to set up his camera. The witch-doctors, however, see them and halt the ceremony and approach Denham’s band. The native chief sees Ann and offers to trade Denham six native women for her, but Denham declines and his party retreats to their ship where Jack tells Ann that Denham should not have taken her on shore and before long they kiss.

The natives sneak aboard the Venture and abduct Ann as a "marital sacrifice" for Kong, tying her to an altar outside the walled compound and sounding a gong to summon Kong.

Kong thunderously appears shortly, sees Ann, beats his chest, plucks her from the altar, and returns to the jungle. Denham and Jack and part of the crew arrive too late to have seen Kong, but looking at his footprints Denham exclaims that he must be the size of a house. As they follow Kong’s track, they encounter a Stegosaurus who charges them and is only felled by a gas bomb and a bullet into its brain. They then make a raft to navigate a swamp only to be upended by a Brontosaurus, who proceeds to attack the party.

Kong hears his pursuers and puts Ann up in a tree and turns to fight them as they cross a huge log that lies across a ravine. He lifts the log and twirls all the men but Jack, who had just made it across, off. Jack is clinging to one side of the ravine and fights off the searching arm of Kong with a knife. Kong is determined to get rid of Jack until he hears screams from Ann, who has just seen a Tyrannosaurus Rex approach. Kong and the dinosaur have a nasty fight with Kong finally winning by pulling about the dinosaurs jaws.

Kong takes Ann in his huge paw to his mountain lair but has to battle yet another dinosaur to the death. Ann faints and Kong examines her dress and strokes her with apparent affection.

Jack has followed Kong to his lair but dislodges some rocks and Kong gets up to investigate. As he leaves, a pterodactyl swoops down to grab Ann, but Kong grabs him just in time and she falls to the ground. As Kong grapples with the giant bird dinosaur, Jack rushes to save Ann and take her down the cliff on a vine. Kong, however, tries to raise them back up and they fall off the vine into the water and are swept away.

Jack and Ann make it back to the wall where Denham decides to try to capture Kong alive. Jack calls Denham crazy and that no one could get Kong in his lair. Denham replies, "Yeah, if he stays there, but we’ve got something he wants." And sure enough, just then Kong appears and everyone rushes behind the wall and closes the huge doors. Kong breaks it down eventually and searches for Ann. According to Tim Dirks’s superb essay on the film, a scene in which Kong chews on a native was one of several "horrific" scenes removed by the censors in the 1930s. (See hypertext link to his essay at the end of this article.)

Kong chases Denham and his crew to the beach where Denham tosses a gas bomb at him that staggers and eventually knocks him out. Denham orders his crew to build a raft to float Kong to their ship and tells them that "the whole world will pay to see this." Denham programs that "We’re millionaires, boys. I’ll share it with all of you. Why, in a few months, it’ll be up inlights on Broadway: ‘Kong – The Eighth Wonder of the World.’"

The scene then shifts to a New York theater where daredevil Denham plans to present Kong to the world in a steel cage-like structure. He first introduces Ann, "the bravest girl I know," and Jack, now as "her future husband," and then calls in the press to photograph Kong. Kong, however, reacts badly to the flash bulbs, but Ann tells the audience that they need not fear for the chains are made of "chrome steel." The press continues to snap flash pictures and finally Denham tells them to stop, realizing that Kong probably believes they are shooting at Ann.

Kong is not amused and breaks free to rescue Ann, but Jack grabs her and they flee to a hotel in the ensuing panic. Kong sees Ann and Jack enter the hotel and proceeds to scale its outer walls insearch of her. Leering into one window, he sees a woman and grabs her only to throw her to the ground in disgust that she was not Ann. Kong continues his search and finally comes upon Ann and Jack in a room and he knocks Jack out and abducts Ann, again. With Ann in his paw, he is startled by an elevated train, which he smashes, before proceeding to the Empire State Building, which he climbs.

Atop the skyscraper, which then did not sport a tall television antennae, Kong is attacked by four fighter planes. He puts down Ann gently and roars at the planes, grabbing one and destroying it, while he is riddled with machine-gun fire. At last, he succumbs to the bullets and falls off the tower.

At the end of the movie, Denham approaches the fallen Kong on the sidewalk. A policeman tells him that the airplanes got him, but Denham replies, "Oh, no. It wasn’t the airplanes. It was Beauty killed the Beast."

Why didn’t Denham get more excited about the dinosaurs? Weren’t they a more incredible find than the overgrown ape? Presumably, Kong was an incredible dragonslayer, as he does not seem terribly intimidated by the other great beasts on Skull Island. Without doubt, of course, Kong was king of that jungle.

The movie plays with our emotions. We root for Kong even though he clearly is not in love with all humans. The magic of the movie is that Kong is such a compelling creation that reason is abandoned and raw, primordial, natural, emotion is substituted. Perhaps Stanley Kubrick understood this when he conceived his incredible introductory section to "2001" in which he shows a group of apes learning to use tools on the evolutionary path towards reason.

The Depression had begun. The Gay Twenties were over. Survival was important. We want Ann and Kong to survive, not together necessarily. The world’s sophistication in the early part of the twentieth century was giving way to baser instincts, especially in Germany. The world of science was advancing rapidly. Radio and talking movies and airplanes were changing individual’s perceptions of their worlds. The public was titillated by the "foreign" adventures of Frank ("Bring 'Em Back Alive") Buck into jungles and Lowell Thomas with Lawrence in Arabia. Frankenstein and Dracula had reared their thrilling heads. The public was primed for flabbergast.

It would appear that King Kong had enormous sex appeal for the public as the personification, or apefication, of the sensitive but strong soul.

The viewer is initially skeptical about Kong. The build-up is too much. Yet, Kong’s exploits are impressive and by the time he’s got Ann in the jungle he’s got our full attention and the cynics are quiet.

What lingers is the magical imagery that is more specific than Kubrick’s steely monoliths in "2001." Kong is a palpable presence. Godzilla would later emerge as a rubbery giant, but never supplant Kong’s emotional fortitude.

In 1976, director John Guillermin did a "remake" of "King Kong" in color with Charles Grodin, Jessica Lange and Jeff Bridges. Grodin plays Fred Wilson, an ambitious executive with Petrox, an oil company, who leds the expedition. Lange plays Dwan, an aspiring starlet who is pick up adrift after a shipwreck. Bridges play Jack Prescott, a bearded paleonotogist from Princeton who is a stowaway and develops a romantic interest in Dwan.

The 1976 film is paced much faster than the original and has a lighter touch. Kong is a bit bigger, say 40 feet versus the original 30 feet or so and the film has a new script by Lorenzo Semple Jr.

In an essay on the film in The New Yorker magazine January 3, 1977, critic Pauline Kael described the Kong of 1976 as "the Teddy Bear Christ of the sixties flower children, Christ as a mistreated pet." "If the original Kong was nightmarish, this one has a monumental comic dreaminess," Kael, who enjoyed the movie, wrote.

Kael’s essay went on to discuss phallic symbolism in the movie and how some whites and some blacks had different reactions to the movie. Both versions really are not deep structures, but the simple premise permits broad interpretations by those with causes to espouse.

The remake ends at the World Trade Center rather than the Empire State Building and the remake is appropriately bigger and more colorful than the original but the very good acting of Bridges and Lange makes up for the lack of the original’s mysteries. Grodin is a smart-aleck, updated version of Robert Armstrong’s Carl Denham, brash and self-centered, and not very bright. He overplays his role, but not enough to impair the film which is quite good as entertainment, even though its imprint on the culture was too discounted for it to considered an "important" film.

The charm of the original "King Kong" is its innocence and its historic status as a "break-through" special effect movie. Interestingly, its stature is similar to that of the Empire State Building. It has been technically surpassed but it was the definitive champion for a very long time.

In 2005, Peter Jackson directed another "King Kong," (see The City Review article by John D. Delmar), that had spectacular special effects, wonderful recreations of Depression-era New York City, and a luminous Naomi Watts, but a hammy performance by Jack Black and a lackluster performance by Adrian Brody as well as being at least a half-hour too long.

This film ranks 19th in Carter B. Horsley's Top 500 Sound Films

The 1933 version is ranked 212th in the Internet Movie Date Base Top 250 Films poll

Click here to go to the very long and fine essay by Tim Dirks on the film at Greatest Films at http://www.filmsite.org/kingk.html

Click here to order a VHS tape of the 1933 version from Amazon.Com for 10 percent off its $19.98 list price

Click here to order the DVD of the 1976 version from Amazon.com for 15 percent off its $29.99 list price

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