Thursday 11 March 2010

King Kong (1933)

Directors: Merion C Cooper and Ernest B Schoedsack
Stars: Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong and Bruce Cabot

I'm climbing the stairway to Cinematic Heaven in 2010 to post five reviews a week of films from the IMDb Top 250 List, supposedly the greatest motion pictures of all time. Are they really? Find out here.

The most amazing thing about King Kong is that it is still an awe-inspiring sight today, almost eighty years after it first reached the big screen and after we've all learned what happens. One of the most watched films of all time, it's also become such a staple of our culture that even those who haven't seen it know at least something of what it's about, even without the benefit of Peter Jackson's heartfelt 2005 remake to assist. I've seen it many times so know all about how the adventurous showman discovers the giant ape on Skull Island and fetches him back to New York, only for him to break loose and run amok before finally being toppled from the Empire State Building, but it's became obvious to me that every time I rewatch it I find myself stunned all over again as I get caught up in the majestic adventure of the thing. This time through I tried to watch with a more critical eye and a number of things leapt quickly to mind.

Most obviously the film works to a huge scale, and I'm not just talking about Kong himself and the giant adversaries he has to face in the interior of Skull Island. These were miniatures, the Kong on Skull Island being 18" models and the Kong in New York being a 24" model to make him look even bigger in civilisation. Everything is done on a grand prehistoric scale, large even to eyes that have got used to modern day blockbuster effects. The caves and trees and cliffs and ravines and walls and whatever else aren't just big, they're gargantuan. The Empire State Building was the most fitting location for Kong's final scenes, given that it was only two years old in 1933 and the tallest building anywhere in the world, a record it would hold for another 21 years.

This concept of scale has been mostly lost in cinema today because it tends to be reserved for the gimmick, even in films with substance like Gojira, Jaws or The Wicker Man. Nowadays that idea has been taken to an extreme, because there's simply no point watching anything else but the gimmick in films like Aliens vs Predator, Michael Bay's Transformers or even the blue Na'vi in Avatar. Back in Kong's day, the scale was in the sets: huge castles, endless staircases, high vaulted ceilings, massive doors. This is especially apparent in the Universal horror movies being made at the same time as King Kong and in many silent movies and early sound films before it, even lesser films with lower budgets and smaller expectations.

Even today there's a sense of awe merely looking at these sets, which is highly appropriate given the material. Here we're watching the epic size of prehistory on sets that were often recycled from earlier epic Biblical films. The Great Wall on Skull Island was part of the Temple of Jerusalem in The King of Kings, Cecil B DeMille's 1927 version of the story of Jesus. It reappeared in films like The Garden of Allah, which shifted epic to exotic, and was eventually destroyed as part of the burning of Atlanta in Gone with the Wind, perhaps the pivotal moment when scale ceased to be the grandeur of the sets to become instead the budget, the stars and the publicity. Perhaps the truest comparison is between the 'spectacle' of that era and the 'blockbuster' of our day.

There's much more than scale here, of course, this being one of the most primal adventure stories of them all, conjuring up more exotic savagery than Tarzan ever managed. While many people worked on the story and the ideas behind it, not least English thriller writer Edgar Wallace, the credit mostly falls to Merian C Cooper and Ernest B Schoedsack, the uncredited directors of the piece. They were true adventurers in the old pulp sense of the word, who had met in the Polish Air Force fighting the Russians and who wandered the world in search of new and exotic experiences. They had already made two silent ethnographic documentaries for Paramount, in the style of Nanook of the North, that brought them to prominence in Hollywood, the second even being nominated at the first Academy Awards in the category of Best Picture, Unique and Artistic Production.

Both these films saw them walk the walk. In 1925's Grass: A Nation's Battle for Life, they accompanied 50,000 members of the Bakhtiari tribe from Turkey to Iran on their arduous seasonal migration to fresh pastures. Then they spent a dangerous year in the jungles of Thailand making Chang: A Drama of the Wilderness, a melodramatic piece about a Thai farmer fighting for survival in the jungle against natural enemies, released in 1927. The spark for King Kong apparently came from a dream of Cooper's, but in keeping with technology at the time and his own exotic experiences, he envisaged making it by taking live gorillas from Africa to the Komodo islands to fight the large lizards there and then turning it all into a film with special photographic effects.

Cooper and Schoedsack even feature in their own movie, both in fictional form and in cameo roles. Carl Denham, the film director who takes his cast and crew to the mysterious Skull Island to make a movie, is not a long way removed from Cooper himself. 'If it's there, you bet I'll photograph it!' Denham says at one point and you can imagine Cooper saying the same thing. Jack Driscoll, the second mate on the SS Venture, who falls in love with leading lady Ann Darrow during the voyage, is similarly pretty close to Schoedsack. Given that the final version of the script was written by Schoedsack's wife, Ruth Rose, it's easy to see her as the young actress too. As former wrestlers, Cooper and Schoedsack acted out some of the monster scenes themselves, before handing over to the animators and they appear at the end of the film, as the pilot and machine gunner who topple Kong from the Empire State Building. The reason for the cameo? Cooper said, 'We should kill the sonofabitch ourselves.'

Kong himself, the eighth wonder of the world and the real leading man of the piece, is certainly the main reason to watch the movie. He and all the other stop motion monsters in this film were created by the first great Hollywood special effects master, Willis O'Brien, here credited as chief technician. By sheer coincidence I rewatched King Kong in 2004 just after watching the original 1925 silent version of Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World. While Wallace Beery was a memorable Professor Challenger, it was O'Brien's stop motion work that stole the show, being nothing short of revolutionary. Cinema audiences of the 1920s must have fainted in the aisles at the sight of living dinosaurs just as they did to the very first stop motion effects invented by the French genius Georges Méliès around the turn of the century.

O'Brien had worked his prehistoric marvels before, in films as early as The Dinosaur and the Missing Link: A Prehistoric Tragedy for Thomas Edison in 1915, and an intriguing 1918 short film called The Ghost of Slumber Mountain, which he also wrote, directed and appeared in. It's creaky today but fascinating nonetheless. That led to The Lost World, which led in turn to RKO's proposed prehistoric fantasy called Creation, which was never completed, partly to make way for King Kong. It was when Cooper saw O'Brien's work on this aborted project that he realised that his film had to be done with stop motion animation instead of photomanipulation. Many of the dinosaur models, articulated metal armatures encased in rubber skin, built for Creation are what we see today in King Kong. Much of the rest comes from The Lost World, not least the finale in which a captured brontosaurus escapes from its bonds and proceeds to stomp parts of London, inspiring not just Kong in New York but Godzilla in Tokyo and most monster movies ever made.

Another great reason to watch is leading lady Fay Wray, who was told she'd be working opposite the tallest, darkest leading man in Hollywood, though she assumed that meant Cary Grant rather than Kong. When she took quite literally the words, 'Scream, Ann, scream for your life!' she became cinema's original scream queen. Already experienced in Hollywood since her early days in the twenties in slapstick shorts (the earliest I've seen her was in a Charley Chase short from 1925 called What Price Goofy?), this came at a point where she was becoming the leading lady of choice for horror movies. Her first was Doctor X in 1932, an excellent early example of two strip Technicolor, and that led her to The Vampire Bat and Mystery of the Wax Museum. With this pedigree it's hardly difficult not to see her scream queen act here as the template for the enhanced antics of Linnea Quigley and Brinke Stevens and all the other scream queens that dominated the straight-to-video horror genre in the 1980s.

She'd already worked for Cooper in 1929's The Four Feathers and as the leading lady in The Most Dangerous Game, albeit without the striking blonde wig that was added for this film. In fact all the jungle scenes here were shot back to back with that film to defray costs, Cooper filming scenes for King Kong during the night and Schoedsack shooting The Most Dangerous Game during the day. This was the original 'man hunting man' film, released to screens in 1932, and it's a particular favourite of mine even though it pales in direct comparison with King Kong. While I recognise both leading actors and many of the jungle sets used, I didn't notice other cost cutting recycling such as the repetition of some of the sound effects. Apparently the screams of the sailors as the ship sinks at the beginning of The Most Dangerous Game are the same as those of the sailors in King Kong as the giant ape shakes them off a huge log.

Wray has a lot of sympathy for Kong, something that shows in the film but even more so if you read up on her. In her autobiography she talks about Kong as if he was a real person, going so far as to write a prologue in the form of an open letter to the giant ape. She had ideas for a sequel film which sees Kong rise from underneath Fifth Avenue, where he has been resting for so long being toppled from the Empire State Building. Attitudes towards him having changed over the years, he is helped back to his home on Skull Island in something of a reversal of the story here. Maybe that's not such a bad idea, even today, and her name is still one to be reckoned with. So lasting was her memory that two days after her death in 2004 at 96 years of age the lights of the Empire State Building were extinguished for fifteen minutes in tribute.

Wray never appeared in a giant ape movie again, but her co-star Robert Armstrong seemed to turn up in all of them. After his starring role here as showman Carl Denham, he returned the same year for the direct sequel The Son of Kong, and again in 1949 for the original Mighty Joe Young, that time dealing with a gorilla only a mere ten feet high. Discounting The Most Dangerous Game, it took me a long while to actually see him anything that didn't feature a giant ape. What I found is that while he is always worth watching, even in something as dire as 1929's The Racketeer, the films he appeared in often aren't. When he found a great film to appear in, like 1935's 'G' Men, he found himself upstaged yet again, that time not by a giant ape but by James Cagney, a fate that befell many actors back in the thirties.

Kong upstages everyone and everything here, as you might expect, but he does so surprisingly well. Like many classic Hollywood films the rear projection work is sometimes rather apparent, but it's also notable that King Kong pulled off that trick far better than Hollywood tended to manage elsewhere. In particular many of the later Hitchcocks, such as The Birds, To Catch a Thief or Marnie have horrendous rear projection work, even though they were made by a master over thirty years later. Most of the technologies used here, with one notable exception, were already known and had been used in films before, but this was the first time they were all really brought together. Rear projection itself was reasonably new but its junior cousin, miniature rear projection, had never been done before. This was the technique that put a tiny Fay Wray into gargantuan backgrounds for Kong to play with, and it's a huge achievement that such innovative technology could be so well implemented on the first attempt.

What's more, there were other innovations too, something that Cooper did often. Max Steiner wrote a very modern soundtrack at Cooper's request, even though RKO had requested standard stock music pilfering instead, and Murray Spivak's sound effects were deliberately tied in to that soundtrack, a unique approach for the time. Spivak also created Kong's roar in a very clever fashion, by combining a tiger's roar played backwards and a lion's roar played forwards. Cooper went on to pioneer colour (Technicolor) and widescreen (Cinerama), as well as stereophonic sound and a whole host of other technologies. Cinerama wasn't just the pioneer for widescreen but also for IMAX and Omnimax and all those documentaries that immerse us in fabulous surroundings.

So King Kong was an innovator as well as being a really great film that went on to entertain generations. However it also holds another solid spot in cinematic history, by singlehandedly saving a fledgling studio. RKO was the smallest of the five major studios, constantly on the brink of bankruptcy with budgets so low that the sound effects engineer worked out of the former stable of Tom Mix's horse. RKO literally owed its continued existence to The Most Dangerous Game and King Kong, which led to it seeing a profit for the very first time after five years of operation. The Most Dangerous Game was a much cheaper production so made more money but King Kong was the bigger success, reaping an amazing $2m in its initial release, an awesome amount in 1933.

And so to the end, one of the truly magic endings to ever come out of Hollywood. There are many touching endings, but this one is especially so as we really care for the monster, something almost unheard of in monster movies. We may cheer for Godzilla or Mothra or other famous monsters of filmland, but we never really care for them and so only show our support or disdain on the level of professional wrestlers. We know they'll never really die because they have to come back for another sequel, just like we know Hulk Hogan will never really retire, however many times he actually does. Contrary to Wray's sentimentality about the beast and the similar affections that pervaded Peter Jackson's remake, Cooper wanted Kong to be brutal and vicious, a primeval creature, because it would make his eventual demise all the more tragic. Sure enough the best line is left for last. 'It wasn't the airplanes,' says Denham. 'It was beauty killed the beast.'

1 comment:

Anthony Crnkovich said...

A very accurate reading on this truly remarkable film classic, I must say. I've loved KING KONG since I was 12 years old ( I'm 51) and it hasn't lost one iota of its cinematic power in the ensuing years. Everything I've come to know and appreciate about movies from all genres stems from the inspiration fueled by KONG. I owe a lot to the big ape.