King Kong (1933)

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*. There’s more to King Kong than Willis O’Brien’s amazing effects, but what effects they are! I don’t know how many times I’ve seen this movie, but every time I do I’m blown away. And it’s not just the monsters. Yes, some of the human models have rubber arms, but overall they’re quite convincing. Look at Fay Wray on the cliff ledge, Bruce Cabot following Kong into his cave, or the people falling out of the wrecked streetcar. They’re just puppets, but unless you’re looking really closely you’ll think they’re real.
*. It’s only the cutaways to Kong’s giant head or hands that disappoint in the effects department.
*. I can’t imagine the effect such a movie would have had on audiences in 1933. They must have been blown right out of their seats. Think of all those warnings about how terribly upsetting Dracula and Frankenstein were, and then compare them to this epic of screen magic whose effects would not be equaled until our own day. If I had been alive back then I would have paid to see this movie again and again and again.
*. On the commentary it’s said that this was the Jurassic Park of the ’30s. I think it was much more than that.
*. It’s one of a handful (well, maybe a double handful) of movies that I’d love to see in an old-time big-screen theatre. The spectacle deserves it. As Ray Harryhausen remarks on the DVD commentary track, it’s just not the same watching it at home. We’ve lost so much.
*. How good is the rest of it, when Kong isn’t on screen? David Thomson thinks it’s very good, whereas Roger Ebert thinks it’s hammy. I think it’s hammy but quick. At least the leads are all likeable.
*. There’s something innocent about its cheerful self-awareness. It’s a trashy spectacle about the making of a trashy spectacle. Denham has the whole thing scripted right down to the “beauty and the beast” ad line that he lets the media think they came up with. You almost expect him to turn to the camera and start addressing the audience directly, letting us in on the joke.

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*. Few films have been so often and so variously interpreted. I suppose this mainly comes down to the “character” of Kong himself. Is he a monster or a hero? The fact that he is so sympathetic encourages us to see something of ourselves in his condition. We project human qualities upon him. Is he an eruption of Denham’s subconscious (as argued by Danny Peary)? Is he a noble savage? Or perhaps . . .
*. . . . a big bad black man? Is the film racist? Unfortunately it’s hard to miss that interpretation. Kong is the primitive, sub-human slave brought in chains to America who can’t control his sexual urges and abducts a white woman. Interracial sex thus becomes not only a criminal act but a form of bestiality. Now I don’t think you have to view the movie this way, but at the same time I think it’s wrong to turn your eyes from it or deny that it’s there.

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*. Is Kong then a very American monster? I think so, not just for representing or mythologizing an oversize fear of miscegenation, but for embodying the spirit of “more is more.” As William Troy observed right away, “What is to be seen at work in King Kong is the American imagination faithfully adhering to its characteristic process of multiplication. We have had plays and pictures about monsters before, but never one in which the desired effect depended so completely on the increased dimensions of the monster.”
*. An Old Arabian proverb. Really? No. The epigraph was written by Merrian C. Cooper. Or maybe Carl Denham. If there’s a difference.
*. The native stuff looks great, especially when you compare it to a contemporary film like Tarzan. I don’t think they worked very hard on choreographing the dance work though. A lot of the dancers just seem to be throwing their arms in the air like they don’t care, and some of the extras clearly don’t know where they’re supposed to be or what they’re supposed to be doing.

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*. Ray Harryhausen on the effects: “If you make it too realistic it becomes mundane.” Roger Ebert: “in the very artificiality of some of the special effects, there is a creepiness that isn’t there in today’s slick, flawless, computer-aided images.”
*. Why is this? Perhaps just because in-camera effects are tactile, they feel more real. There actually was a Kong model, with real hair (it was covered in rabbit fur). CGI is animation, and the more “realistic” it gets the more its artificiality is brought out. It works well for comic book movies, but you never believe in it.
*. For example, I love how Kong’s hair always seems to be in motion, as though from the wind or the muscles working beneath his skin. But this effect was not intended. In fact, it was something the animators tried to limit as much as possible, but they couldn’t avoid moving the hair on the model between shots. It’s a realistic effect that couldn’t be suppressed because they were using a real model.
*. I wonder if audiences at the time found the killing of the stegosaurus (or, as Denham helpfully describes it, “something from the dinosaur family”) as distasteful as I think most us today do. After all, it’s just minding its own business in the jungle until this gang of yahoos start blasting away at it. A foreshadowing of Kong’s fate? Its death throes do seem meant to elicit some sympathy.

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*. Fay Wray. Whatever happened to her? She worked a lot, mostly in television in her later years. Yet this was the high point of her career.
*. Yes, she screams. But she’s also quite good in the early parts. Her looks are just odd enough for us to buy her as an amateur plucked off the street.
*. Max Steiner’s score is widely praised. Of course it has epic strains, but I like the quiet stuff as the crew are getting ready to go the island. It’s so rich with foreboding.
*. It’s amazing that they even thought they could get away with the scene where Kong takes off Ann’s clothes and smells his fingers. It was cut from early versions and we’re lucky it could be restored. I’m less impressed by Kong’s mouthing some of his victims. I guess it was sensational, but it doesn’t make sense as Kong isn’t actually eating anyone.

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*. I love Kong’s reaction to Denham’s announcement that Ann and Driscoll are getting married. You can just hear him saying: “What? You left me for him?!”
*. Kong’s shackles are made of “chrome steel”? That doesn’t mean anything. Chrome steel isn’t any stronger than other types of steel, it just resists corrosion better.
*. Kong’s agony on the Empire State Building is tragic in every sense of the word. It’s incredible how much feeling O’Brien gives to a model, with its oversize, silent-film gestures composing a sort of ballet of death, all set to Steiner’s wonderful score. It moves me nearly to tears.

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