King Kong (1933) Directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack
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"And now, ladies and gentlemen, before I tell you any more, I'm going to show you the greatest thing your eyes have ever beheld. He was a king and a god in the world he knew, but now he comes to civilization merely a captive - a show to gratify your curiosity. Ladies and gentlemen, look at Kong, the Eighth Wonder of the World." -Carl Denham.
Act One: Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) is a producer in the mold we don't see any more; larger than life; hands on, with a clear vision, and the testicular fortitude to go for the movie he wants, a damn the opposition. The only one like that today that springs to mind is M. Night Shyamalan. Carl has a project in mind; he has every thing he needs; film, cameras, a ship, a huge crew, and enough ammunition and gas bombs to become dictator of a banana republic. All he is lacking is a leading lady, and his reckless reputation is working against him. But it is the great depression, and one thing New York has no shortage of is pretty girls in need of an honest paycheck. Denham spots Anne Darrow (Fay Wray) in trouble for shoplifting an apple, and he has a leading lady, and she has a job.
On board ship, she meets Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot) a hard boiled fellow whose tough egg exterior cracks under her limpid gaze. They are all curious what Denham is up too. They soon find out. They arrive at their destination, an uncharted island aptly named Fog Island, and prepare to land. Most of the Island is impenetrable cliffs, except for the peninsula where the natives live. The natives maintain a huge wall that keeps the rest of the island out of this, their small refuge.
They interrupt a ceremony where they offer one of their own, a young girl, to the fearsome king of the Island; Kong. Upon seeing the lovely golden Anne, they want to trade with the white men for this most suitable sacrifice. Of course, the civilized men say no, but the natives are undeterred, stealing her away in the night. Amid great ceremony, Anne is tied to the pillars and left for...what?
Act Two: Soon, they see what, something never seen before; a colossus, a giant ape, Kong! And Kong takes what is offered him and retreats back into his domain, necessitating a rescue effort; spear headed by the love struck Jack Driscoll. Fog Island is a forgotten world, still inhabited by dinosaurs. But the undisputed ruler of this lost world is Kong, and his muscle is only an instrument to his brain. Soon, the rescue party is reduced to two; Denham, going back for help, and Driscoll, keeping Kong in sight. Through extraordinary luck and bravery, he steals her away, leading Kong, unwittingly, back to his doom at the gates. Notice also that the musical score does not start until Act Two.
Act Three. Civilization and the exploitation of Kong. We know how this goes. Even people who have never seen this movie knows how it goes. The images of King Kong climbing the Empire State Building are Iconic.
Why is this movie so powerful, even after all these years? Well, it was very well made. Each of the three acts has its own theme, its own drama. Mystery, wonder, tragedy. There is very little extraneous to this movie. Every scene, every word of dialog moves the story forward. People get bogged down in the special effects, so ground breaking at the time, now, so very dated. But the special effects really deflect attention away from the very strong story, and the excellent realization of it; the terseness of the work, the control.
Citizen Kane is often pointed at as the seminal movie of American Cinema. And for Cinema as a method to examine the inner workings of the human condition, yes, I agree. But King Kong is just as seminal; it is the great granddaddy of all special effects movies, and all the movies of "what MIGHT be". It is the seminal film of all Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror. It showed film makers that there really weren't any limits anymore. If you could imagine the story, there was a way to bring it to life on celluloid.
And of course, it is about the actors. Armstrong and Cabot were both so bold and masculine. But the real performance is not so much about the performance, as the casting. Fay Wray, as the ethereal, innocent Ann Darrow. I really get the lines from the Rocky Horror Picture Show now:
"What ever happened to Fay Wray?
That delicate satin-draped frame.
As it clung to her thigh,
How I started to cry,
‘Cause I wanted to be dressed just the same!"
You can see why she was the envy of Dr. Frank-N-Furter; she was the epitome of the feminine, shy, delicate, but resilient. She also gives great scream.
But the star of the show was King Kong. Kong was 18 inches tall. When he got to America, he grew to a whopping 24 inches. Yet they managed to create the illusion of a gorilla 25 feet tall. Kong is frightening, Kong is dangerous, but we sense no malice in Kong. He was happy on his little island, and had he been left there, all would have been well, and we would have a very short movie. I think it is interesting that our sympathy is for the monster; we recognize he, for all his strength, can't survive the poison of our curiosity and civilization.
King Kong. King of the Monster movies, Grand father of Sci Fi. Eighth Wonder of the World, and still just as watchable today. Check it out.
This is entered in my "Let There Be Lips!" Rocky Horror Write Off.