Tuesday, September 28, 2010

"King Kong" (1933)

Starring Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong and Bruce Cabot
Written by Ruth Rose and James Ashmore Creelman
Directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack

Everyone's heard of King Kong.  The giant ape that climbs up a skyscraper in New York is pretty much a household name.  Since his first appearance in 1933, Kong has had a steady career in movies, cartoons and videogames, facing off against humans and other monsters alike.

But it all started as a take on the 'jungle picture' genre, going a little meta by shaping a story around the idea of a film crew going to make a jungle picture.  Film director Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) has hired a ship to take him to a mysterious island only described on a map he acquired in the orient where he believes he'll find the mysterious "Kong."  He doesn't know who or what Kong is, but he's determined to film it.  And because he believes more people will go see his film if it stars a beautiful woman, he manages to find Ann Darrow (Fay Wray).  Ann is poor, and Denham catches her stealing food to survive, but he recognizes her beauty and offers her the chance of a lifetime.

The two board the SS Venture where Ann meets and begins to fall for First Mate Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot).  Jack is stern, and not particularly fond of women, but even he begins to warm to Ann after a short time on the ship.  Soon, however, the Venture reaches Skull Island and encounters a society of natives that live there who worship Kong.  Unfortunately, the natives notice Ann and kidnap her under cover of night to sacrifice her to Kong.  Jack and Denham gather up the crew to go rescue her, and the adventure is on.

"King Kong" is separated into three basic segments: New York and the voyage aboard the SS Venture, the violent adventures on Skull Island as Jack chases Ann and Kong through the jungle, and the arrival of Kong in New York City.  The initial segment aboard the Venture sets up the characters, revealing who everyone is and their particular behaviors and attitudes.  Denham is restless, a bit arrogant, and eager for the fame that will come with completing this ultimate picture.  Jack is stern, and resents Ann's presence aboard the boat. Ann herself is beautiful, naive and inexperienced, but eager.

The middle section moves at a breakneck pace as Jack and the others chase after Kong and Ann.  They encounter dinosaurs and river creatures and have a disastrous run-in with Kong himself.  Kong meanwhile, contends with other creatures himself, fighting a T-Rex and a pterodactyl.  This part of the movie moves quickly from one encounter to another, with almost no time to breathe in between.  For a film made in 1933, I found it to be almost shockingly violent.  I get used to the idea that movies today are so much darker and more depraved, or that we're so much more used to our R-rated violence, but in this film, bodies slam down hard when falling, Kong picks up and bites down on people running for their lives, and vindictively squashes them underfoot.  I forget that back in the day, when movies were new, we didn't have all these kinds of crazed parental groups and industry watchdogs to complain about everything.  I forget that the old Disney flicks had scary-as-hell villains and plenty of dark imagery.

Anyway, the third section of the film brings Kong to New York and puts him on display on Broadway.  During the show, when the press begins to take pictures, the camera flashes enrage the creature, and he breaks loose of his chains, grabs Darrow, and begins to climb the tallest building around.  Kong is king of his island, and even in the Western world, so alien to him, he'll treat it the same.  Airplanes are called in to combat the creature, and ultimately they succeed.  This section of the movie is just as fast-paced and violent as the adventure on Skull Island.  Kong's rampage through New York is pretty intense.  He eats more people, and smashes train cars seemingly for the hell of it.  The aerial battle at the Empire State Building is iconic film-making.  The sort of sequence that has ingrained itself in the public consciousness 80 years later.

While Peter Jackson's 2005 remake aimed to make a slower-paced, more poetic film (with its painterly visual effects and lengthy "love" scenes between Ann and Kong), the 1933 original is an adventure film through and through.  The remake clocks in at over twice the length of the original and while it has its strong points and its place, this original is a classic.  It rockets from one exciting encounter to the next; I can totally see how and why it wowed audiences back in the day, and continues to be a concept that interests people today.

The creature effects, as one would expect watching a 1933 movie in 2010, are as outdated and quaint as you can get.  And yet, there's a cleverness to their construction that makes them quite charming.  Sure, if I want to see a really rollicking fight between Kong and dinosaurs, Peter Jackson gave me just that (his sequence features multiple Tyrannosaurs, and is thrilling from start to finish)... but there's just something very fascinating about watching these ancient effects and seeing the various methods and cheats the filmmakers use when they didn't have computers to create all kinds of slam-bang wizardry.

"King Kong" is a fun look back at a very different era in film.