King Kong (1933) – Film & DVD Review
Although containing elements from the 1925 silent film version of THE LOST WORLD, KING KONG truly is the prototype of the giant-monster-attacks-city genre. It is also one of the greatest monster movies ever made, thanks to a winning combination of an exciting adventure story, marvelous technical effects, a rousing score, and some iconic performances. Most of all, the film survives the decades because it embodies an archetypal myth rendered so powerfully that it eclipses any dated dialogue and tecnical flaws. The title character is a fearsome, apparently unbeatable brute – until he falls in love with the blond and beautiful Ann Darrow (Fay Wray), which turns out to be his undoing.
The story begins with filmmaker Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) looking for a leading lady for his new adventure epic, which he plans to film on location (apparently improvised without a script). He finds Darrow, who is down on her luck because of the Depression, and convinces her to sign on. Denham has acquired a map to a mysterious location known as Skull Island – according to legend, the home of a fearsome god or monster known as Kong. During the trip, Darrow falls in love with one of the ship’s crew, Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot). The expedition reaches Skull Island, where they find the natives (led by Noble Johnson) about to sacrifice a young girl to Kong, who lives on the other side of a massive wall. The natives decide that the blond Darrow would make a better sacrifice, so they kidnap and tie her to an altar on the other side of the wall. Summoned by gongs, Kong appears – a giant gorilla – and makes off with Darrow.
Noticing her absence, Denham and Driscoll mount a rescue party, but their numbers are quickly decimated by encounters with the island’s other ferocious inhabitants: dinosaurs. After Kong swings the remaining men off a log into a ravine, Denham heads back for reinforcements while Driscoll continues the pursuit. Kong defeats an allosaurus that tries to eat Darrow, then also kills a plesiosaur and a pteranodon. Driscoll rescues Darrow while Kong is distracted by the later. Kong follows them back to the wall, crashing through the gate and killing several villagers before Denham downs him with a gas bomb. Instead of a film, Denham returns to New York with Kong in chains, billing him as the “Eighth Wonder of the World” and charging admission to see him. On opening night, however, the enraged gorilla escapes when he mistakes photographers’s flashbulbs for an attack on Darrow. He pursues her through the streets of New York, capturing her and destroying an elevated subway train along the way. Eventually, he climbs the Empire State Building, where he seems to be out of reach until Denham hits on the idea of downing him with airplanes. The planes riddle Kong with bullets, and after setting Darrow aside, he plummets to his death hundreds of feet below. Standing over the colossal ape’s dead body, Denham remarks that it was not the planes that proved fatal. “It was beauty killed the beast.”
The film is filled with exciting action. The battle between Kong and the allosaurus is a particular stand-out – a great technical achievement that remains one of the best monster battles ever filmed. Of course, it helps enormously that we know Kong is fighting to defend Ann Darrow. Cabot and Armstrong perfectly embody their roles, particularly Armstrong as the adventurous Denham, willing to do anything to bring back or great film. Wray is perhaps the original Scream Queen, a stunning embodiment of beauty – so much so that we can easily understand why Kong risks and loses everything for her. But of course, Kong himself – a stop-motion model brought to life by the special effects team of Willis O’Brien – is the real star. In the great tradition of movie monsters, we identify with him as much as with the human; to some extent we even root for him – not only when he is fighting carniverous reptiles on Skull Island but also when he is fighting modern machinery in New York. Kong is undoubtedly a monster – he’s seen stomping natives mercilessly into the mud, when he’s not popping them into his mouth! – yet he manages to win our sympathey, too. This combination of horror and pathos has kept him alivein the public imagination ever since his debut, and will no doubt continue to do so for decades to come.
It is commonly assumed that Kong fights a T-Rex in the 1933 film (as he does in the 2005 remake). However, the carnivorous bipedal dinosaur clearly has three toes on his front claws; T-Rex had only two. Therefore, the dinosaur must be an allosaurus.
The Two-Disc Collector’s Edition DVD offers up a fine presentation worthy of this classic film, including audio commentary, trailers, and two extensive behind-the-scenes documentaries.
Disc One presents an excellent print of the film, complete with all the footage that was censored when KING KONG was re-released in 1938. Not only that, but the video and audia quality is superb, even in the restored scenes (in previous prints, this footage was taken from old 16mm prints, causing a visible degradation in quality). One should also note that not only was the film edited for the 1938 re-release; it was also darkened to lessen its impact. Thus, many of the darker scenes, at night or in the jungle, were murky and lacking in detail; for example, the giant wall that protects the Skull Island villagers from Kong was a dark, shadowy mass. Fortunately, the DVD print of the film is clearly and sharp; if you only ever saw the movie years ago in revival houses or late-night television, this version is a visual revelation.
Disc One also includes a selection of trailers from other films produced by Merian C. Cooper, plus an audio commentary on the film by special effects experts Ray Harryhausen and Ken Ralston. Included among the trailers are KING KONG, SON OF KONG, and MIGHT JOE YOUNG, of course; plus, several non-genre titles, such as THE SEARCHERS, which Cooper produced for director John Ford.
The audio commentary is a big fragmented: It is introduced by an anonymous female voice who first tells us what to expect and then later re-appears to identify additional voices. Most of the commentary is from Harryhausen and Ralston, who offer their thoughts as they watch KING KONG. There are also selections from a taped interview with the late producer Cooper; these snippets are generally spliced in to supplement topics raised by Harryhausen and Ralston, though not always. Eventually, forty-one minutes into the movie, actress Fay Wray shows up just long enough to voice a single sentence (“…we’re still friends), then disappears until the very end of the film, when she delivers another sentence or two. Apparently, the important thing was getting her in there somewhere, so that her name could be used on the box cover. Even with contributions from four different people, there still seems to be not quite enough to say to fill the whole film, and the commentary drops out from time to time.
Harryhausen and Ralston reminisce about their personal reactions to KING KONG, offering lots of second-hand speculation but little real information. At times, they are bit too “in the know,” throwing around terms like “the Dunning Process” without bothering to explain them for the benefit of layment. The contributions from Cooper help out in this regard, as he proudly discusses many of the film’s achievements and innovations. He also clarifies some of the contributions to Kong, crediting Ruth Rose with writing almost all of the dialogue and claiming he co-directed with Ernest B. Shoedsack.
Harryhausen praises the dream-like quality of the stop-motion technique used to bring Kong and the dinosaurs to life and relates that the film’s special effects supervisor, Willis O’Brien, based his dino-designs on the drawings of Charles Knight. Harryhausen also recounts a trip he made to the Nias Islands (the island chain mentioned in the film), where he tried reciting the native language heard in the film, much to the inhabitants confusion.
Disc Two offers two feature length documentaries, plus a couple of extra goodies.
The first documentary is I AM KING KONG: THE EXPLOITS OF MERIAN C. COOPER. This covers most of the producer’s life and career, both before and after KING KONG, including his friendship and working relationship with Ernest B. Shoedsack, who co-directed KONG. The documentary is full of interesting information. In particular, it does a good job of tracing Cooper and Shoedsack’s early work on documentaries, showing how those experiences provided inspiration for much of KING KONG: Cooper and Shoedsack liked to shoot actual footage on location, then fashion it into some kind of dramatic story – just as the Carl Denham character is trying to do in KONG. The documentary will also prove revealing for KONG fans who do not realize that Cooper worked on a great many non-fantasy films, including several with famous Western director John Ford.
The second documentary is RKO PRODUCTION 601: THE MAKING OF KONG, EIGHTH WONDER OF THE WORLD. Although all the principals involved in making the film are dead, this film manages to provide an interesting behind-the-scenes look, relying on research and interviews with surviving friends, film historians, experts (like Ray Harryhausen, who worked with KONG special effects technician years later on MIGHTY JOE YOUNG), and fans (like Peter Jackson, who directed the 2005 remake).
Despite its overall quality, the film does run into trouble from time to time. The early portions overlap a bit with the I AM KING KONG documentary. There is an interesting chapter on how Willis O’Brien’s abandoned project CREATION served as a major inspiration for KING KONG (providing the dinosaurs that Kong fights), but the chapter bogs down by trying to offer a presentation of what the film would have been, using storyboard drawings and a voice-over narrator to convey the plot. The result is rather boring, and leaves one feeling that it was perhaps not such a bad thing that the film never got made.
The documentary takes an amusing but somewhat dubious approach to discussing KING KONG’s special effects. The basic conceit is that there is no real information about how they were achieved, so Peter Jackson’s team from the KONG remake try to recreate them and tell us how they did it. This approach reaches its nadir in “The Mystery of the Lost Spider Pit” chapter. For decades, fans have been hearing about this sequence, which was supposedly shot and then cut from the film after a preview screening. Unlike the other missing footage, this has never been found, so Jackson’s team opts to remake the scene. The result is so bad that it should – hopefully – be enough to kill the mythic status this missing sequence has achieved over the decades. The scene is an intrusive set piece that stops the story dead, and it’s ridiculous to boot: in the actual film, it is clear that the sailors Kong knocks off the log bridge fall to their deaths, but this scene wants us to believe they survived the fall into the abyss, where they were instead devoured by spiders and scorpions. (This sequence is also accessible separately from the documentary if you’re curious to see it without all the explanations about its history.)
Finally, Disc Two offers up the surviving few minutes of test footage from Willis O’Brien’s abandoned CREATION project, with an audio commentary by Harryhausen. As test footage, the scenes do little to convey the story; they were created mostly to convince the studio front office that the dinosaurs could be believably rendered. Unfortunately, the reptiles are a bit disappointing, not nearly as exciting and dynamic as the dinos eventually seen in KING KONG. However, there is a heart-rending moment when a human hunter shoots a baby triceratops in the eye, only to be pursued by the dead animal’s enraged mother. For fans of stop-motion special effects in general, and Willis O’Brien in particular, it is a real treat to see this footage, even if some of it is disappointing.
KING KONG (RKO, 1933). Produced by Merian C. Cooper. Directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Shoedsack. Written by James Creelman and Ruth Rose, from a story by Merian C. Cooper and Edgar Wallace. Cast: Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong, Bruce Cabot, Frank Reicher, Same Hardy, Noble Johnson, Steve Clemente, James Flavin, Victor Long.