Monday, 31 March 2014

King Kong (1933)

Country: USA
Director: Merian C. Cooper, Ernest B. Schoedsack
Producer: David O. Selznick
Screenplay: James Ashmore Creelman, Ruth Rose
Starring: Fay Wray, Bruce Cabot, Edgar Wallace
Length: 100 minutes

A director and his film crew travel to a mysterious island and return to New York with a really big ape who just can't get enough of Fay Wray.

King Kong hit audiences at a time when nature documentaries (popularized by the Lumière brothers) and jungle adventure films were very much in vogue, including 1913’s Beasts in the Jungle, 1918’s Tarzan of the Apes, and 1925’s The Lost World. Inspired by the fantastical trick photography of director Georges Méliès in films like 1902’s Voyage dans la lune, Selznick and Cooper enlisted special effects guru Willis O’Brien and team to marry stunning matte-painted backgrounds with cutting edge stop-motion animation, finely-detailed miniatures (including animals, people, and entire sets), and robotics. Meanwhile, composer Max Steiner was paid $50,000 to write the original score.

Made in eight months on a budget of $672,000, King Kong earned $2.8 million at the box office. Canadian actress Fay Raye had the looks, charm, and scream to win her the part of Ann Darrow. Peter Jackson offered her a role in his 2005 remake but she passed away shortly before filming began. Two days after Wray’s death (Aug 8, 2004), the Empire State Building’s lights were dimmed in her memory. Kong was remade in 1976 with Jeff Bridges and Jessica Lange, and again in 2005 with Naomi Watts and Adrien Brody.

As a movie about people making a movie and getting w-a-a-a-y more than they bargain for, King Kong is more than just the first great monster film; it’s also the first great meta-narrative monster film. (Say thank you, Blair Witch, Cloverfield, Paranormal Activity, et al!) As an example of early cinema’s radical visual evolution, few films equal Kong with its unprecedented special effects, groundbreaking shots of Kong in motion from inside plane cockpits, and seamless composite editing.

Story-wise, however, Kong is a mixed bag. Part of me loves the film and part of me is left scratching my head. Great pacing, wicked suspense, and wow, does this plot move! But, in the end, what is Kong about? What are the deeper meanings, the broader themes? The big ape’s journey is so firmly entrenched in pop culture, so revered and legendarily awesome(!), it’s a bit harrowing to critique, never mind imagining how audiences must have first reacted to the film's basic, central idea.

As our next few reviews will demonstrate, the “important” films of the 30s were awash in epic, eyeball-rolling sexism, Damsels-in-Distress (i.e. every woman) constantly requiring Savior-Rogues (i.e. any man), and such. With this in mind, lacking any definitive message aside from the weak and incomprehensible addendum, “it wasn’t the planes, it was beauty killed the beast”, King Kong may serve most significantly as an ironic if unintentional metaphor for the age: that men spent most too much of their time thumping their chests and protecting “their” women like mindless, macho animals, when they could have been behaving like human beings and enjoying something akin to functional, fulfilling relationships.

I get that the film is also trying to say something about the evils of western colonialism, capitalism gone wild, the exploitation of nature, and the disenfranchisement of those whom society deems unacceptable. But in the end, the film is a triumph of style – albeit wonderful, revolutionary style - over substance. Sure I was a little sad when (spoiler alert!) Kong fell to his death, but unlike Peter Jackson in 2005, director Merian Cooper hadn’t given me much of a reason to care about Mr. Big, so I didn’t. 

Having said that, I don’t doubt there would have been a rosebud or two in my pajamas when Kong first appeared had I been in the audience in 1933!  
First, the good news. Cool special effects!
Now for the fun part. I'm supposed to believe that, in the 30s at least, a man could easily find and lure a woman from a homeless shelter to his boat, destination unknown, simply by offering her a cup of coffee and a starring role in his "next big film"? And that this same woman would be subsequently treated like a princess by a boatload of sailors? How about no?

And then there are those wicked stereotypes about minorities (look, a "China Man" in "authentic" Chinatown regalia) and indigenous peoples (feast your eyes on these bloodthirsty island savages). That and the skipper's bizarre ability to suddenly speak the native language of an island he didn't even know existed ten minutes prior.

And the end of the story? In a word, totally unsatisfying. (Okay, two words.) I mean, what was this movie about? Big mechanical gorillias with bad hair and bristol board teeth? I get that it was supposed to be about a classic beast protecting a classic beauty, but I got no real sense of this until 45 seconds before the closing credits began to roll. Until then it just seemed that Kong saw her as a toy to play with, and one that he wasn't particularly interested in until the schoolyard bully came along, in this case, a T-Rex with those freakish carny arms.

In short, I felt King Kong lacked a meaningful theme, point, or redeeming lesson - except, of course, that if one lives on the twentieth floor of a luxury apartment, he or she should probably keep their bedroom window closed, lest they be plucked from their slumber by a giant, hairy hand and meet with an undesirable demise. 

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