King Kong

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King Kong is in the public domain and a cherished icon. When the film first appeared in 1933, Willis O’Brien’s stop-motion effects were revolutionary. Is it possible for audiences today to feel the magic of the film experienced by a society that watched mesmerized, a society that paid a quarter to escape the Great Depression for a while?  Plots where beasts or beastly men attack the young and virtuous were popular then as of today. Men conquering foes and possessing their women have been retold throughout the ages. For 80 years, who could resist watching a giant gorilla swinging around the tip of the Empire State Building batting away planes trying to save himself and protect/reclaim Ann Darrow? There’s a charm to the beauty and the beast story. In the 1933 film version, Ann needs saving. Military planes and Driscoll save her from the beast. In the 1976 and 2005 versions, anthropomorphic changes emphasize human characteristics within the animal. Kong falls in love with Ann, and she learns to care for Kong; he evolves to cave man. Our empathy extends to the anti-hero who wins the heart of the girl and dies because of beauty. Either version, women aren’t portrayed in a favorable way. They are fragile toys, or they cause the death of the anti-hero. Anyway, filmmaker Merian Cooper conceived the character in 1933 after an Edgar Wallace draft; I’ve often wondered how inspired Cooper was by the 1917 World War I propaganda poster demonizing Germany?

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Through two world wars, the image of an enemy as a beast demolishing culture and society was an effective way to inspire patriotism for both Allies and Axis powers. King Kong became an extended metaphor used by many countries to rationalize visually the need to take up arms to save society. This factor adds a dimension to King Kong’s history.

Is Kong a ferocious beast or manipulated anti-hero? Fear and empathy are two powerful  ingredients in a concoction that have movie goers under the spell of the King of the Jungle for over 80 years.

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Did you know that President Kennedy’s father, Joseph, co-founded RKO in 1928? One of the “Big Five” studios from the classic age, RKO studios had a twenty-year golden history establishing the early careers of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Katharine Hepburn, Robert Mitchum, and Cary Grant among others. RKO featured low-budget horror films and birthed the genre of film noir. The studio produced two famous films in motion picture history: King Kong and Citizen Kane as well as Frank Capra’s, It’s a Wonderful Life and Hitchcock’s, Notorious. Remember Scorsese’s, The Aviator? Howard Hughes funded his first two films and bought RKO in 1948 but it dwindled in stature in the late 1950s until it regained its bearings and survives today. Want to explore RKO’s history? I recommend the RKO site HERE .

Back to King Kong. I learned a lot about the film from Turner Classic Movie’s site. Check out TCM HERE

David O. Selznick 1931  hired director George Cukor and left after a year to work with father-in-law, Louis B. Mayer. Enter Merian Cooper as production head and his pet project King Kong. Cooper transformed the script to reality with the special effects work of Willis O’Brien. Selznick advocated for the creative expression of the director and not the factory system of production and is credited for the early success of the studio. Here’s a classic trailer to watch. I think every movie buff ought to see this classic.

The only good thing about the 1976 version was it had Jeff Bridges with great hair. Jessica Lange as a drugged sex-slave did little to sustain my interest as a character. It wasn’t completely her fault. There was little in the script for her work with. The emphasis placed on the screen was for demonstrating her sex-appeal rather than her acting. I found the stereotypical natives prancing around ridiculous and Lange as a sex toy gratuitous. This version won a special Oscar for Best Visual Effects (Carlo Rambaldi, Glen Robinson, Frank Van der Veer) and sound and cinematography were nominated. Be my guest and explain to me why the 1976 version is better than I give it credit.

What a great German movie poster.

When the 2005 version came out, I was surprised many people criticized it. The length was too long at three hours? The pacing was off? stereotypical natives again? I do agree it was a flaw when the natives slobbered black oil and looked like they just crossed the lot from the set of The Lord of the Rings and Two Towers. Obviously, Peter Jackson wanted to create a setting showcasing the possessed, zombie-eyed natives as part of the mystique of Skull Island. It’s a subjective call whether you think the native segment of the film effective. Jungle headhunters? Spear-chucking heathens? As a prehistoric island containing creatures from a number of nightmares, the natives were another addition to the mystic aura of the island, thus Jackson dodged the stereotype issue. I was distracted by any offense by the time the dinosaurs rolled down the mountain. What a breathtaking sequence. CGI in the 2005 version works beautifully. I caught the film on television last week and admired Jackson all the more. His relationship with Andy Serkis, the talented actor who brought authentic Gorilla movements and human emotions via special effects to the screen is extraordinary.

Andy_Serkis_-_King_KongAndy Serkis Web Site

Stay tuned for a post devoted to this intriguing personality.

What about Ann Darrow?

nwattsFay Wray (1933), Jessica Lange (1976), Naomi Watts (2005). Which was your favorite? One reason the film was long was to give more characterization opportunities for developing Ann Darrow. The best parts of the film occurred when she was present. Watts as the vaudeville dancer juggling her way to win Kong over was exquisite and believable. One of the most tender love scenes I’ve seen on the screen happened in Central Park when Ann and Kong slid around the frozen pond. King Kong needed a revamp with technology that would create a scary Skull Island and the monster-on-the-loose scenes in NYC. The story goes that Peter Jackson saw the 1933 version at age eight and cried when Kong fell to his death. It was his favorite film and inspired Jackson to become a filmmaker. His attention to detail and dedication to the original story made the 2005 version the best of the three. He created a new generation of followers and added a positive redux to the fascinating heritage of King Kong.

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Which version do you prefer? What do you think of King Kong?

32 thoughts on “King Kong

Add yours

  1. When my mother saw King Kong on the big screen in 1933, it was that enormous close up of Kong’s face that scared the hell out of her and gave her nightmares for years to come. i dont think a modern audience has the capacity to be scared in that way. All the phony CGI in the world can’t duplicate the horror of primitive images such as the close up of Kong or the unmasking of phantom of the opera. In the 80’s I had the experience of seeing a flock of cer than thhildren run screaming from the theatre when the eyeball was cut in L’Age Dor. the programmers had thought the Bunuel / Dali short would make a fitting accompanimnet to Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast, not realizing that many adults might bring their children to the Saturday matiinee. I mention this as evidence that such imagery still has the power to upset the innocent. Kids today, wise to the tricks of CGI, dont seem to be affected by the horriic imagery in such franchises as lord of the rings and harry potter..
    as for king kong remakes, i found jessica lange’s presence in the 70’s version a return of old school hollywood glamour to a screen. otackson’s her than tht, it was overlong and boring, but less so than jackson’s remake, which anesthetized me.

    1. Bill, I agree with your points about an audience in the 30s seeing the face of Kong and feeling fear. I had to chuckle at the image of screaming children running out of the theater after Cocteau’s film. Yes, CGI has desensitized those who know no other. I’m curious what films will be like in 20 or 50 years. Any predictions? I think you will be inside the film–a step past 3D. Is there a 4D? 😉

        1. I think WP had a hiccup. I posted King Kong on the 6th but have had very little traffic. Then I looked because Ruth said she couldn’t see it. I reposted it and hope I’m back in your reader!

  2. Hi, Cindy:

    Saw the original for the first time on the big screen when I was five or six and it scared me quite a lot. I couldn’t wrap my head around the idea of a giant anything. Let alone an ape. But I was mesmerized by the battles between Kong, the Pterodactyl and dinosaur. The almost natural flow of Kong’s fur in Stop Motion sealed the deal for many later viewings. While Faye Wray proved to be the reigning ruler of “Scream Queens”. 🙂

    When the story moved to New York, I started feeling sorry for the giant ape. And his angry response seemed natural while the City panicked.

    Any of the magic and wonderment of Kong was lost in the 1976 version. Due to early hype that Kong was mechanical. And there was no chemistry between well coiffed Jeff Bridges and Ms. Lange. A so so effort, not well executed.

    While Mr. Jackson’s take had some of the magic, but was too smooth where it need to be rough and grungy. A decent attempt at CGI effects still admirably servicing the film and story. Instead of the other way around.

    1. Hi Kevin. Jackson too smooth where it needed to be rough and grungy. I’d love to know what you mean by that? I was impressed with the effects and I’m not much of a CGI fan. I was enthralled with the dinosaur and spider segment. Was this the part that wasn’t gritty enough for you? Thanks for your comments

  3. Great post, always so insightful Cindy. I had no idea JFK’s dad co-founded RKO, but I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. I’ve only seen bits and pieces of the original King Kong but haven’t seen the Bridges/Lange version. I do agree w/ you that the Peter Jackson’s version is pretty darn good, I’m surprised many people hated it but I thought that the CGI and action set pieces were great and more importantly, I really felt the connection between Ann Darrow and Kong, both Naomi Watts and Andy Serkis did a phenomenal job. I also like the supporting cast, i.e. Jack Black, Kyle Chandler and Adrien Brody. Now you make me want to rewatch the 2005 version, I actually owned the Blu ray!

    1. HI Ruth, thanks for your comments. I love Jeff Bridges but he was a photographer instead of Darrow played by Brody as writer. I liked him in the role and Jack Black character is modeled after Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane. Watch out for the CK references…..let me know what you think after watching your Blue Ray version.

  4. During long periods of economic crisis social trends change: birth rates fall, religion becomes more popular, belief in magic increases, hemlines lengthen, bright colors go out of style, suicide rates go up, social groups polarize and splinter, and films brake new ground in horror with themes that include suicide and torture. Maybe there is a closer connection between King Kong and the Great Depression than most people think?

    1. Interesting perspective, Malcolm. It is certainly rational to think of King Kong as a representation of the Depression in the minds of those experiencing it–that giant scary monster threatening to destroy all that they worked for. Because of the uncertainty of the time, lives must have been affected by this tale.

  5. Great posters and images.
    Immersion. Are we immersed? Do we care?
    I’ve watched Jackson’s film a few times … purely as comic adventure … some fascinating scenes that are very well done. When it’s on TV and I’m surfing I often watch it for a while. Yet not all the way … ?? For me there’s something disquieting about it.

    1. Thanks, JC, for your comments. Disquieting. I hate knowing what’s going to happen. Humans mistreating Kong is disquieting. His fall to death is disquieting. It’s a sad tale, isn’t it? The first one truly scared. The second disengaged me. The third one wowed me. Naomi Watts did a fine acting job considering she was in front of a lot of green screen.

      1. hepburn was refined,yet dull, except when playing comedy, and not good enough for the major dramatic roles she attempted in later life (sudddenly last summer) (long days journey into night.) davis was a mediocre actress who compensated for her lack of technique with a fascinating freakiness that gave her melodramas a surreal touch. ill take shirley maclaine over both of them any day. i think she is the the finest actess in both comedy and drama, to come out of hollywood. if you dont believe me, check out some came running, the apartment, two for the seesaw, desperate characters, what a way to go, the children’s hour, and two mulesfor sister sara,

          1. cant wait to read your maclaine tribute..i wonder how this comment wound up posting to king kong. i posted it once , saw it went to kong, so thinking i made a mistake, i deleted it and reposted in on the hepburn/ davis
            but here i s again with kong.

  6. The B/W version has always been one of my favourite films. I think the plot is based on our primeval fear of the wild woods and Bigfoot type creatures, who in the 1900s and before used to kidnap Native American women on a regular basis. Now we try to portray him as much more human and not an animal. Even as I write this, I think I must be mad, but there are probably quite a few other valid comparisons if I sat here long enough!

    1. You are mad in a good way. Or at least that makes us both mad. You could take this portrayal of things that scare us and apply to aliens. Are they good or bad? While it seems logical they are bug-like scavengers, I like to hope they are like Captain Kirk and the crew of the Enterprise….

    1. Jessica Lange is sultry and charismatic, for sure. My favorite roles include Big Fish, Blue Sky, Grey Gardens, and The Postman Always Rings Twice. Thanks for commenting today!

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